October 31, 1517 is a special day in church history. It was on this day 499 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 unorthodox 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 ungodly 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.
Since reformation is the subject of our discussion, let me define a couple of terms before I continue:
- Reformation – the recovery (or discovery) of biblical truth
- Revival – the practice of biblical truth after it has been recovered or discovered
When God sends reformation some will embrace it and others will hate it. “At a time when God manifests himself in such a great work for his church, there is no such thing as being neuter.” This statement may be found in an essay written by Jonathan Edwards during the time of reformation and revival at his church in Northampton, Mass. Jesus said, “He who is not with Me is against Me (Luke 11:23).
When God sent the angels to Sodom to warn Lot of the impending judgment, Lot warned the unreformed men, but they ignored Lot. The minds of the wicked men of Sodom simply could not be reformed. Why did those wicked men not experience the kind of reformation and revival that Jonathan Edwards saw at Northampton? There may be different reasons.
One of the primary reasons for the absence of reformation is from ignorance. Reformation and revival will never proceed from those who have never been shown the truth from the Bible. Then there are those who have been shown the truth, but they refuse to embrace the truth. If professing Christians have no concern or interest in truth, then the Spirit of God may not reside in their souls. Obviously reformation cannot take place if people are unconcerned about truth.
Disinterest in truth, reformation, and revival should be a grave concern to the church. The church that is not reforming will devolve its corruption to the next generation. Sooner or later the church will become so corrupt it will be called Ichabod (the glory has departed from Israel). If professing Christians have no concern or interest for truth, then the Spirit of God may be absent from those souls. If the Spirit of God is absent, then there cannot be reformation. If there is no reformation (re-discovery of biblical truth), then there cannot be a revival. True biblical reformation will always precede revival. If revival is the first order of business, the result is a false man-made salvation or people seeking to earn salvation by their moral choices. If Christ is our Savior then our salvation is not man-made, but quite on the contrary our salvation is God-made. If Christ is our Lord then we seek to please Him in all our moral choices, rather than making moral choices to please ourselves.
It is an error to think that biblical reformation is a concept discovered by Martin Luther 499 years ago on October 31st. “What Luther did was to rediscover vital Christianity and to give it afresh to the world” (The Works of B. B. Warfield, Vol. 9, p. 463)
Biblical reformation is just that ‒ it is biblical. Our reformation forefathers simply recovered and practiced the long forgotten concept that “the church reformed is always reforming.” Remember, a church that is not being reformed by the Word of God will devolve its corruption to the next generation.
The 17th century Puritan, Francis Turretin, said the call to reformation is such that “a man is bound to purge his faith and worship of all the errors and superstitions by which it could be corrupted so that he may retain religion pure from every stain (vol. 3, p. 217). Is it possible for a man to purge his faith and worship of all errors and superstitions? Is it possible to remove all the corruption that comes from the sinful heart? Is it possible for our religion to be pure from every stain? The challenge is great and only possible if we are always being reformed by the Word of God. The Bible instructs us how we may remove all the corruption that comes from the sinful heart. Our religion will never be completely pure from every stain, but if there is any purity at all, it will be the result of reformation. Are we willing to work for the recovery of biblical truth
There is an axiom that says “if you don’t use it you lose it.” If we apply that to the concept of reformation, we must say that if we don’t use the Word of God, we will lose the Word of God. In this materialist and consumeristic age one may argue that the Word of God is in abundance. Everyone has one, two, or maybe even five in the house. If you visit the bookstore you will find the youth Bible, the serendipity Bible, the boys Bible, the girls Bible and a whole host of Bibles to accommodate most any need you might have. Even so, I say we are in danger of losing the Bible for several different reasons:
- It is possible to lose the Word of God because of indifference.
- It is possible to lose the Word of God because the Scriptures are not studied.
- If the preaching of the Word of God is despised, then the word of God may be lost.
- It is possible to lose the Word of God because it is considered irrelevant.
I’ve met too many professing Christians who are indifferent toward the Word of God and some of them, strange as it may seem, attach little importance to the Word of God. Then there is an equal number who simply do not study the Word of God. Whether we lose the Word of God through neglect, unbelief, or disobedience, we are brought to the same end. Sin, vice, and misery are the natural results of losing the Word of God. Without the Word of God, men and women will hate true worship. Without the Word of God false worship will replace true worship. So without the Word of God the church has no purpose.
A brief study of church history will reveal that the Bible has been lost to a lesser or greater degree at certain times and places in every period of the history of the church. The question we must ask is: What about today? The church as a whole is in a sad state. Survey after survey reveals that many, and from my experience most professing Christians can’t even name the Ten Commandments. Although they may use popular or even orthodox religious language, many have little understanding of salvation through grace by faith in Christ alone. Practice does not precede knowledge, despite the assertions made by religious professors. You must know something before you can believe something and you must believe something before you can practice something.
When the Holy Spirit has done His work and changes the hearts of His people, then being reformed by the Word of God will continue throughout their lives. Being reformed by the Word of God will touch every part of your soul ‒ the mind, the emotions, the will. Once a child of God discovers the law and the gospel intellectually and emotionally it will have an effect on his or her decisions. There will be an outward manifestation of his or her love for truth. Being reformed by the Word of God is a necessary principle that must not be avoided by the church
Recovering the law and the gospel is ultimately important. We cannot put it off any longer! What will we devolve on the shoulders of the next generation if we do not seriously seek reformation in the church, thus affecting every area of life including our religious, familial, social, economic, and political lives. To defer reformation to another person or another time is dangerous indeed, because such thinking and actions will surely provoke God’s wrath. There is a choice: reformation or judgment!
After Jonah experienced personal reformation he took the reformation to Nineveh. The Word of God says Jonah preached a sermon that went something like this: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Apparently Jonah’s preaching was very powerful, because the whole city repented in sackcloth and ashes. How wonderful to see the universal nature of reformation that was occasioned by their faith in God. How wonderful to see the reformation move from city streets to the palace, from the common man to the heads of state. The undeniable truth from the book of Jonah is that the reformation at Nineveh saved that city from God’s impending judgment, unlike the city of Sodom.
God’s warnings are all around us. In the church, out of the church and throughout the natural world, God sends His warnings. True ministers of the Word of God who preach the full counsel of God are instruments of God to warn all people of God’s coming judgment (please read Ezekiel 33:1-11). Reformation is absolutely necessary for the church and culture!