500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation
Rev’d Matt Williams
October 31st 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation
So many people make this mistake – they think God only loves and accepts good people. The Reformation is the story of one man discovering the wonderful good news that God does not love people because they have sorted themselves out and rid their lives of sin. Rather, God loves failures and in Jesus he has done everything necessary to make us right with him.
On 31 October 1517, a German monk called Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses (ideas) for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. They concerned issues of love, forgiveness and how people relate to God. He wrote them because if these issues were not dealt with they would ‘make Christians unhappy’.
At the age of 21 years Martin Luther survived a nearby lightning strike during a terrible storm. The experience was so terrifying he cried out, “Saint Anne, help me! I shall become a monk!” He kept his vow and began a monastic life. Luther was terrified of dying and having stand before God to be judged. He saw becoming a monk as the perfect opportunity to make himself good enough for God and to earn his love. He threw himself into the monastic life and tried to be as good as he could. And yet he never felt good enough and this worried him deeply. He came to view God as loveless tyrant who demands perfection and gives nothing but punishment. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience… I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God.” But then Luther made a wonderful discovery. Studying the Bible in his tiny room he read Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Luther wrote, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives: by a gift of God.’ He realised that God does not ask us to earn his love and acceptance. Instead, God’s righteousness is something he shares with us as a gift. God accepts us, forgives us and gives us peace with him when we put our faith (or trust) in Jesus Christ. Luther rediscovered the glorious good news of the gospel – that God is a kind and generous God who loves us, not because of anything we have done, but because of what Jesus did when he died on the cross.
Luther realised that instead of relying on his own efforts to be good, that he could believe God’s promise and rely on Jesus instead. Suddenly his struggles and anxiety were replaced with joy, confidence and peace. Luther rejoiced, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Luther referred to Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as ‘the joyful exchange’. On the cross Jesus, who was 100% innocent and had never sinned, took the punishment we deserve so that we can be forgiven. He wrote, “There was no remedy except for God’s only Son to step into our distress and himself become man, to take upon himself the load of awful and eternal wrath and make his own body and blood a sacrifice for sin. And so he did, out of the immeasurably great mercy and love towards us, giving himself up and bearing the sentence of unending wrath and death.” Theologian and historian Michael Reeves sums it up well when he says, “Jesus loves broken people and through his death on the cross for them, makes them attractive and beautiful in God’s sight.”
Luther wasn’t the only person to make this discovery. In England, a young priest called Thomas Bilney read Erasmus’ forbidden translation of the new Testament. When he read the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” his anxious feelings of guilt were dealt with instantly. He said, ‘Immediately I seemed unto myself inwardly to feel a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy. After this, the Scripture began to be more pleasant unto me than the honey or the honey-comb.’ Michael Reeves comments, “To be so excited about the Bible strikes most today as odd. But the message people were finding there – that God lavishes his love and forgiveness not on the deserving but on all who’ll trust him – was like a burst of Mediterranean sunshine into a grey world of guilt and shame.”
A priest named William Tyndale made the same discovery and consequently made it his life’s work to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into English. He wanted people to be able to discover the good news of God’s grace for themselves – something that was practically impossible at the time because the Bible was written almost exclusively in Latin, an unknown language to 99 percent of society. However, translating the Bible into English was strictly forbidden and punishable by death (so was reading such a translation!). In 1524 Tyndale moved to Germany where it was much safer to work. Some 16,000 copies of his Bible were then smuggled into England before he was caught in 1535. He was strangled and burned the following October near Brussels. His last words were ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!’ Just two years later God answered his prayer. King Henry VIII decreed that an English bible be placed in every church in England and that every person be encouraged to read it. Michael Reeves describes what happened next, “Six English bibles were placed in St Paul’s Cathedral and crowds thronged round to hear the Bible read in their own language. The excitement was so great that priests complained of how, even during the sermon, laypeople were reading the Bible aloud to each other. The message and the excitement were spreading!”
Not only was the Reformation the time the Church rediscovered the gospel of grace. It was also the time the church rediscovered the Bible and reaffirmed its authority and sufficiency in all matters of faith. It was at the time of the Reformation that the reformed Church of England adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as giving a concise and systematic statement of the teachings of Scripture. Article VI affirms that, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” To this day Ministers of the Church of England are still required to affirm their acceptance of the Church’s doctrine as found in the 39 articles, catholic creeds and the book of homilies.
The Reformation was far from a perfect moment in history. Many died and were killed for the message of the Reformation. Sadly people have always divided over ideas, even the best of ideas. Nevertheless there remains much to be thankful for, for the people of the Reformation rediscovered the gospel which “is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:18). They also rediscovered the “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15).
If you would like to learn more about the Reformation please come along to our fortnightly Reformation Course by Dominic Steele, Ideas That Changed the World, which starts on Thursday 5th October at 7.30pm.
You may also like to read the excellent book Freedom Movement: 500 years of Reformation by Michael Reeves. You can read it online at www.10ofthose.com (click ‘download a sample’) or purchase it for £2.49 here: www.icmbooksdirect.co.uk. — Matt