October 31 is again Reformation Day. I assume you are all familiar with the history of the Great Reformation, an event that set in motion a lot of things. Indeed, it ended up profoundly changing the whole world of those days. But what does the Reformation mean for us today? What do we learn from this return to God’s Word? Let’s sketch some outlines.
First, let’s look at the situation in the Roman Catholic Church in the days of Luther. In the Church of the Middle Ages a number of errors had, through the ages, gradually crept in. These errors led to the Gospel—the rich Gospel of salvation—being taken from the people. We should let that sink in a moment. The Church had robbed the people of the Gospel!
And then came Dr. Martin Luther with his: sola scriptura! Scripture alone! Back to the Bible, back to simply believing what it says, yes, especially because reliance on reason and emotions fail to provide assurance. Reason and feelings are deceptive, but simple faith leads to the promised salvation. Sola fide, by faith alone!
That is one of the main lines of the Reformation: back to simply believing the Word of God. That was the message which, by God’s grace, was given back to the Church.
Sola fide, sola gratia
A major error was how the Church at that time spoke about grace and redemption. To be sure, the Church taught that salvation was in Christ, but—and that “but” became decisive—something was also expected on the part of the believer. Salvation was not unconditional. On the contrary, good works on the part of the believer were considered essential. And that’s where the trouble began.
That was also Luther’s great struggle. And he wasn’t the only one with that struggle. Luther’s great and heartfelt question was: How do I get God to be merciful to me? And the answer was: I can’t achieve that! Not me! No matter what I do, I remain a sinful and lost person. All my best works mean nothing to God. But then what? Am I lost forever?
The doctrine of good works, which was so instilled in the ordinary believers, and it led to great uncertainty of faith. The solidity of God’s promises was linked to man’s own doing and thereby the certainty of salvation had been taken away.
But Luther discovered the deep meaning of Romans 1:17: For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
There is a merciful God who grants salvation through His Son. We embrace that salvation by faith alone. And that faith is God’s supreme gift. That’s the grace of God; His free grace. Sola fide and sola gratia. By faith alone, by grace alone.
Awakened to these ‘solas’, Luther was allowed to begin giving back to the Church the content of the Gospel.
Another important thing that fundamentally affected the Roman Church was what we call “the priesthood”. Through the ages the church had gradually lost the biblical view of the offices. The minister, as we know him today, more and more became a priest. And a priest is fundamentally different from a minister or elder. A priest is a man who stands between the believer and the LORD. A priest is someone who works the atonement on behalf of and for man. Without the service of the priest, there was no access to salvation.
But with the work of Christ, the priestly service had been abolished. The Great Sacrifice had been made through Christ. The Holy Spirit was poured out and made His home in the hearts of the faithful.
Yet in the Roman Catholic Church the Old Testament priestly service was revived. The priest was the man who dispensed the grace, literally. Without him, there was no mercy and no acquittal. The “drink of it, all of you,” of the Lord’s Supper, became “I drink for you all”. At every mass the priest made another offering: the wafer was really the body of Christ, and the wine was really His blood. And after confession, the priest forgave the sins. Moreover, only the priest could say anything meaningful about God’s Word. Yes, personal faith was not so important: the Church, in the person of the priest, believes for you!
In effect, the ministry of all believers had thus been eroded and taken away. Church members were stripped of any responsibility of their own.
Luther taught the importance of the priesthood of all believers. In that priesthood the believers themselves pray and intercede for each other. They read and study the Bible themselves and lead their families in it. They hold God’s Word before each other and encourage and strengthen each other. They all eat and drink Holy Supper themselves. They are personally responsible for their faith and their life by faith. There is no division in the church in this sense. It is not the Roman priestly service that makes people holy but the church members are together themselves a priesthood. Not the priest gives thanks and offers sacrifices but the believers themselves are a living sacrifice of thanksgiving to Christ. Every believer may approach the throne of grace with boldness (Hebrews 4: 16). Consider also what we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 12, about our priesthood.
The Reformation returned the ministry of all believers to the congregation. And the Reformation, likewise, gave back the Bible translated into the language of ordinary people in every country.
The true Gospel
What changed because of the Great Reformation? What did it mean for the life of faith and for Church life?
By God’s grace the Great Reformation gave back to the Church the true Gospel, the message of salvation in the cross, in the work of Christ. By faith alone, by God’s free grace. Sola Scriptura, sola gratia.
The Reformation again taught the Church and believers to simply believe. Sola Fide!
The Reformation gave back to the Church the ministry of all believers, and the special ministry through which Christ wants to govern His Church.
And in the past 506 years nothing has changed in relation to this. It is always about these things, in struggles in the Church and in Reformations. Remembering the Reformation also teaches us, with Luther, to expect everything from our good God. All glory to the Lord!
But we can learn even more. What does 506 years history following the Reformation tell us? Throughout the centuries we see how important it is to uphold sola scriptura above all else.
And to study again and again what the LORD has said. To read what the LORD has done in history. To examine He has to say to us in it. How do we handle God’s Word? How do we deal with His Covenant? How should we live in it? How do we function as a holy priesthood? It is all related to testing our lives as a congregation, as a family, personally.
Yes, it is a matter of going back to the Bible all the time. Back to the simple faith that Luther was allowed to teach and that we all need so much. Every day. All of us. Ongoing reformation.
(This article by T L Bruinius is based on a lecture he had the pleasure of giving a few years ago. Bruinius is a member of De Gereformeerde Kerken in The Netherlands. The article appeared recently on the website Bouwen en Bewaren: Bouwen en Bewaren – Bijbels dagboek en Geloofsartikelen (bouwen-en-bewaren.nl). The article was translated by J Numan.)