Desiring God Ministries has been releasing a series of articles chronicling the influential reformers during or before the sixteenth-century Reformation. Most of them are not famous to us, especially in Africa, and yet their contribution to our faith is enormous.
Names like John Huss, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Wolfgang Capito, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Meno Simons, Wibrandis Rosenblatt, Philip Melanchthon, and many others do not strike any chord in the hearts of believers although, I think, they should.
Those who would be asking what value such people have for us, and why we should care anyway ask a legitimate and unfortunate question.
Legitimate because by asking that, they desire to learn, and unfortunate because the question reveals how little we know of the workings of God through the church, and through the ages. The mistake we often make is to think that from the events in the book of Acts to date, God has not been at work, or that His workings are so trivial that we don’t even care to know them. It is the sad state, especially within evangelicalism, that we do not remember our very own.
I think that everyone who confesses the Name of Christ owes it to his Master, to himself, and to the body of believers to read church history. For church history is nothing else but the revealing of the supernatural hand of God in times past, manifesting His glorious majesty in the fulfillment of that promise to the Apostles, ‘I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.’ (Mat. 16:18).
Why The Reformation?
The birth pangs of the 16th-century Reformation could be heard over a century before it happened. The rally cries of John Huss, the boldness of John Wycliffe and the works of Tyndale to mention but a few, were indications that something was wrong with the Roman Catholic Church establishment. These sparks though seemingly sporadic helped set the stage for the Reformers like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli to stand on and unearth the doctrinal and moral corruption within Vatican.
And although all these men had different temperaments and approaches in carrying out their ministries, there was one thing that united them: The love for scripture as the sole guide of faith, or Sola Scriptura. And to the faithful teaching of God’s word, they devoted their entire lives.
All of these Reformers gave their lives (Vatican burnt some on a stake), to ensure that the Bible is read and understood, even by the Shamba boy. They believed that without the supremacy of scripture there was no salvation. This teaching was in stark contrast to that of the Roman Catholic Church, which taught that ‘outside the church, there is no salvation.’
Vatican aimed at having the masses ignorant of the scripture. That way, Rome would have control over them, manipulate and extort them, something that Johann Tetzel, the German Roman Catholic Dominican friar, and preacher did expertly, in his sale of indulgences. The authority in the Roman Catholic church lay in the Pope and the Magisterium, the Pope being ‘infallible,’ in whatever he says.
But the reformers believed that authority in matters of salvation lies not with a man in Vatican or even the council, but in God’s written word. They held that the right church is not an organization whose headquarters were in Rome, but that wherever the gospel is preached, the church is found.
Therefore, the Reformation emphasized the preaching of the gospel rather than human structures and sacraments. This teaching was radical in their day, more than it sounds to us now. And this is because we are far removed from their context, thereby often taking this message for granted. I think that is ingratitude.
The Modern Context
Although we no longer live in the 16th century, we still face the same issues the reformers faced. The corruption within the modern church is open to anyone who cares to see. We may not be selling indulgences like Jonnan Tetzel, but we sell ‘seeds.’ We sell prophecies and prayers to the highest bidder. We sell our consciences to the political powers and are silent at the injustices against the poor of the land.
As a result, we are losing our voice as the Church of Christ. Called to be the beacon of hope to the hopeless, and the sound of sanity in an increasingly insane world, we often have failed.
Also, it is not uncommon to find ourselves exalting the Pastor’s opinion more than God’s word. We quickly go looking for ‘the prophet’ or ‘man of God’ or anything we would call them instead of getting acquainted with and meditating on God’s word. Not that their views should not matter, but, like Luther, our consciences must be bound by scripture. That was the message of the Reformation.
As we celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation this month, we do well to ask ourselves whether we know why these men and women stood firm. I am not asking us to just nod in affirmation of their ideas merely but to have an understanding that reorients our priorities, regarding where our revelation comes from, and where the actual authority lies.
Tyndale lost his life trying to get God’s word in your hands. Now that it is in our hands, do we abandon it to cockroaches and moth to consume while we wait for midweek fellowships? Don’t we many times leave our dusty Bibles in the drawer and go to the ‘man of God’ to get ‘a revelation’ for the week or month, instead of hiding God’s word in our hearts that we might not sin against Him?
We must ask ourselves these are questions, all of us. When Luther stood before Emperor Charles V with an ultimatum to recant, he risked his life. Calvin escaped France for the same reason. John Huss was burnt on a stake after Vatican’s trickery, and so was William Tyndale. They perished so that you could read the Bible on your own, rather than wait for Sunday sermon from the clergyman who often would be more interested in your money than he is about the salvation of your soul.
Luther opposed the greed of Pope Leo X who sought to build St. Peter’s Basilica from the sweat of the poor peasants. And if we inevitably understand the calling of the church, then we must as well purify it of every corruption, of doctrine, and conduct. We, like Luther, will call for an internal reformation of the church, and if need be, break with those who trample God’s word underfoot.
It begins with us. We must not be too lazy to read scripture. We must not desire to be spoonfed. We must not let our desire for ‘rhema’ to suppress our devotion to the written word. We must not look on as corruption eats on the church. We must not have a mistaken notion of unity that disregards the truth. We must not, we cannot.
Think of this article as a marketplace. And, like a market, we buy, but we go home and cook, eat, digest. Please do that. If you had not thought much about the significance of the Reformation to your faith, please do. Doctrine matters. Practice matters. Therefore, remember:
First, we must know our history. We must see how the saints before us stood, where they failed, and how that impacts us today. We must celebrate what they did right, and glorify God for the work He has done through the years.
Then, as Protestants (and yes, this includes you my Pentecostal brother, not just Anglicans), we must hold to the sufficiency and supremacy of scripture above every human idea that is not in God’s word. That was what the message of the Reformation.
Also, tell your neighbor about the good news of God. As the reformers exalted the gospel, both in their preaching and living, each one of us must do the same. When we say we are born again, our lives should show that. Our speech and conduct ought to manifest the knowledge of God revealed through His Word.
Finally, we now have scripture even on our mobile phones. The word of God must be in our hearts. We should be moved by the sacrifice of those martyred so that we have the opportunity to read the Bible for ourselves. As we live in line with scripture, we will reject the corruption in the church and the world. We will espouse purity over and above personal pleasure.
And remember, it was God working with, in and through the Reformers, and He must still work in, with and through you. The reformation concerns both you and I. May God work in you, as you grow in your knowledge of Him. And as the Spirit of Christ opens the eyes of your heart to comprehend Him through the pages of Scripture, your love for Him and your hatred for sin shall grow, to the glory of His Name.