The autumn days remind me of change and anticipation of the long winter ahead. Most people think of hunting season, football, or a visit to the mountains to see the beauty of the changing seasons. This change of seasons reminds me of a most significant day to celebrate. The special day is October 31st. It was on this day 498 years ago that Martin Luther challenged the church with his 95 theses.
Luther never intended to start a new church or to divide the Roman Catholic Church. Luther simply wanted to see reform within the church. He saw the condition of the church and wanted to debate some theological issues that seemed un-orthodox for Christianity. Although others paved the way before him, most historians credit October 31, 1517 as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Church was a product of the 16th century Reformation in Europe.
By the end of the 20th century, the Protestant Church had lost its meaning and purpose. The word protestant is derived from the Latin word protestari which has the root meaning “to protest.” James Davidson Hunter, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, correctly assessed the historical perspective. He said that “the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century created one of the most fundamental cultural divisions in the history of Western Civilization.” He goes on to say, “the practical efforts of the Reformation have, at least in the U.S. context, become both politically and culturally defunct.” The Protestant Church is no longer protesting against the world and life views that prevail within the halls of evangelicalism.
Martin Luther protested against the deviation from the fundamental teachings of Christianity. He argued that the church must return to the doctrine of sola fide (faith alone). Sola fide teaches that man is declared righteous in the sight of God by an act of God. The contrary heresy was that man was made righteous, a prevailing doctrine in the modern evangelical church. The authority by which Luther would argue for the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” was sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). Luther realized that Holy Scripture is the ultimate authority for the church. From these “protests” (by faith alone, by Scripture alone, and others) the Protestant Church was born.
Reformation, in biblical categories, refers to a recovery of biblical truth. Reformation as a principle has occurred many times in the Old Testament and in the history of the New Testament church. Reformation is occasional, in an iterative sense, and has no geographical bounds. For example, there was reformation during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, during the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile and during the life and ministry of Jesus, who was the most significant reformer of all times.
There is a difference between reformation and revival. While reformation is the recovery (or in some cases the discovery) of biblical truth, revival is the process of bringing biblical reformation into human experience. Hosea’s famous charge was, “return to the Lord” thus it was reformation and revival simultaneously.
The Latin phrase used to describe true reformation is ecclesia reformata semper est reformanda. “The church being reformed is always reforming” is more than a motto for the church. It ought to be the world and life view of the church. Every generation must recover the truth or discover the truth in order to be reformed by the Word of God. However, something has been amiss for several generations.
Why did God use Martin Luther to introduce the 16th Century Reformation? It was not because Luther had more theological acumen or more charisma than others in the church. Luther was convicted by the Holy Spirit and unafraid of any man. Luther was not worried about his support being cut off by the church. He was not afraid of members leaving the church. He didn’t cherish his denomination or love his tradition. He was ready to be God’s man at any cost, even his life.
While Luther was on trial he was asked to deny his teachings and books. His reply was (in part): “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
When your conscience is held captive to the Word of God, reformation is inevitable! Revival will naturally follow. Please help us find a Martin Luther at the beginning of the 21st century.