Part one, a brief historical overview of the Reformation
The background to the Reformation, the Medieval church had become corrupt and had departed from the gospel in many ways. Greed and immorality were common in the church with Bishops who were meant to be celibate promoting their illegitimate sons to places of authority in the Church. At times there were even rival popes. The days were dark but even in this darkness God raised up men like John Wycliffe (1329-1384) he was a great preacher and scholar and was the first person to attempt to translate the Bible into English. His views were to influence the Bohemian preacher Jan Hus (1373-1415), Hus was burnt at the stake for his views.
God was seen as very distant and therefore prayers to saints were often used. This idea of praying to saints has no biblical justification and detracts from the centrality of the work of Jesus Christ. Also, it was widely believed that one had to partly earn one’s salvation, and if one could not achieve enough merit in this life the believer was sent to a place called purgatory to suffer until their sins were atoned for. The Bible never teaches that we have to earn our salvation, nor does it have any teaching about purgatory. People were concerned about their dead relatives and the Pope authorised the selling of indulgences which released the soul from purgatory. One of the men responsible for the sale of indulgences was a monk called Tetzel. (1465-1519) He was known for his selling of indulgences, one of his sales pitches was “As soon as the gold in the casket rings the rescued soul to heaven springs”. The idea was that souls could be released from purgatory for a price, the money raised was used at least in part to build St. Peter’s Church in Rome.
Martin Luther (1483- 1546) was an Augustinian Monk who soon showed himself to be an able scholar. He taught others, but he felt God was a monster demanding of him a righteousness he could not possibly achieve. He particularly wrestled with the opening chapter of the Book of Romans. Then one day he saw the true meaning of the text and he felt as though he was reborn.
Luther said “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase the ’The justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.
Once he realised that the righteousness we have is received from Christ it affected his whole outlook. He wanted to share the good news with others and did so by preaching, teaching, writing and translating the Bible into German.
“Luther wanted to reach beyond an academic readership and touch the hearts and minds of ordinary people. The decision to publish in German was iconic, making a statement about the inclusive nature of the Reformation that Luther proposed to pursue. To publish in Latin was to exclude the ordinary people. To publish in his native German was to democratize the debate about the future of the church by including those who were traditionally marginalized by the use of the ancient scholarly language. From that moment onward, one of the hallmarks of Protestantism would be its use of the vernacular at every level. Most importantly of all, the Bible would also be translated into the language of the people”. [Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 51.]
Luther was quite a fiery person and made some very extreme statements but nonetheless, he was a great man of God. We must be willing to face up to his faults as well as praise him for his tremendous contribution to the development of the Church.
Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) was a priest in Zurich Switzerland who came to the same conclusions as Luther about the nature of the gospel at about the same time as Luther did. Zwingli does not appear to have gone through the same spiritual crisis as Luther but his conversion although a gentler affair was deep and very real. Zwingli set about reforming the Church in Zurich and helped to spread the Reformation message to other Swiss cities. Zwingli was first of all convinced of the authority of Scripture and he used this to test Church tradition, as a result, he came to the conclusion that salvation is by grace alone.
John Calvin (1509-1564) Calvin was born in Noyon France, he studied in Paris where there was a lot of theological discussions. We know that by 1534 he had become a Protestant. In January 1535 went into exile in Switzerland. He felt that his calling was to spend his time studying and writing and he produced his first version of his Institutes of Christian Religion, this was to become a great success and is still read today. Calvin himself wanted people to read the institutes alongside his Bible commentaries.
When Calvin visited Geneva, he was just planning on paying a passing visit, but he was not prepared for the intervention of William Farel who wanted the younger man to help in the Reformation cause in Geneva, Calvin but strongly objected saying that he needed to live in a peaceful environment to pursue his studies. Farel responded by saying “May God condemn your repose and the calm you seek for study if before such a great need you withdraw and refuse your succour and help.”
Calvin stayed in Geneva and preached regularly and taught many the basics of Protestant theology, many came from other countries to learn from Calvin and his associates, amongst them was John Knox the Scottish Reformer.
The Reformation quickly spread to other countries we certainly don’t have time to look at the whole of that history, but we must briefly mention the Reformation in England and also in Scotland. Although people were becoming open to Reformation ideas Henry viii was strongly opposed to the Reformation until he wanted a divorce, but the beginning of the Reformation in England was one that did not immediately embrace the ideas of Luther and Calvin. However soon many people began to preach and teach the gospel. Amongst was man who was to make a real impact on the Church of England he was Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) He was to pioneer having services in English and was responsible for the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer His actions were somewhat restricted during the reign of Henry viii but during the reign of Edward vi he had great freedom to develop his Reformation agenda. All this was to come to an end when Mary Tudor came to the throne and once again Roman Catholicism was the official religion of the kingdom. During Mary’s reign, Protestants were persecuted and many were burnt at the stake including Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. When Ridley and Latimer were burnt at the stake Latimer said “Be of good comfort Master Ridley and play the man. We shall light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust will never be put out”
Another Englishman who was involved in the Reformation Was William Tyndale he was a great exponent of Reformation doctrine but his most lasting contribution to the English-speaking church was his very high-quality translation of the New Testament into English. He also worked on parts of the Old Testament but was captured and put to death before he could complete his work.
John Knox was a man of strong conviction who wanted to see the protestant reformation spread He embraced protestant principles in the 1540’s and by 1546 he made it clear that he accepted the Swiss Reformer Bucer’s teaching on the Lord’s supper. In 1546 he was captured by the French and became a galley slave and during this period he wrote a short work on Protestant theology where he showed that he accepted the idea that justification was by faith alone.
The Radical Reformation, The Radical Reformers wanted to take the Reformation further and rejected the idea of infant baptism and were the first to introduce believer’s baptism. They also believed that the Church should be separate from the state. There was various grouping around with similar agendas. We can see that much of our Church practice is indebted to the radical Reformers whereas much of our doctrine is indebted to the Magisterial Reformers.
Part Two, Some important teachings from the Reformation
At the time of the great Reformation as the Reformers tried to bring back the Church to biblical teaching, five important principles grounded all their thinking. These principles are often nicknamed the five Solas because each one points to a central truth which indicated the unique place each concept has, sola roughly translated from the Latin is alone, the five Solas are, Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone), sola scriptura (by scripture alone), Solus Christus (through Christ alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone) and sola gratia (by grace alone). I want to look briefly at each of these important concepts because they are vital not only to the health of the church but also to our involvement in the world in which we live.
Glory to God alone: the reformers were reacting against a man-centred theology where the glory of God had been lost, medieval theology looked to see how a man could make his ascent to God. Indeed, a whole system of merits had been invented and the gracious nature of God had largely been lost. Against this backdrop, the reformers rediscovered the graciousness of God in all its glory. They also realised that the God of grace was the sovereign Lord of all history. when you read the writings of Calvin and Luther one sees how these two men were captivated by a gracious yet awesome God. These two men realised that because God is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient that one should bow in worship before him and yet at the same time they realised how gracious this God is. They realised that God is sovereign over both creation and redemption and because of this God should be glorified in creation and redemption.
Calvin expressed it this way “All our controversies concerning doctrine relate either to the legitimate worship of God or to the ground of salvation. As to the former, certainly we exhort men to worship God in neither a frigid nor a careless manner; and while we point out the way, we neither lose sight of the end nor omit anything which is relevant to the matter. We proclaim the glory of God in terms far loftier than it was wont to be proclaimed before; and we earnestly labour to make the perfections in which his glory shines better and better known. His benefits towards ourselves we extol as eloquently as we can. Thus, men are incited to reverence his majesty, render due homage to his greatness, feel due gratitude for his mercies, and unite in showing forth his praise.” (Necessity of Reforming The Church)
The Puritans who framed the Westminster Shorter Catechism understood this when they said that “the chief end of man is to glorify and to enjoy him forever”. the reformation was a period when it was re-emphasized that the whole of life should be lived before the face of God. because of this, the whole of life was to be lived for the glory of God, not just a special sacred realm. For instance, Bach very often put on his musical scores “Soli Deo Gloria” he was conscious that whatever type of music he composed that it should be done for the glory of God. George Herbert the poet expressed this concept this way,
Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.
A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
I know the language is old-fashioned, but we need to heed the teaching today. If we are to follow the reformers in their teaching, we need to realise the importance of giving glory to God for all that he has done.
By Scripture Alone: We are to submit all our thinking and deeds to the guidance of scripture, the Bible is the only book that has authority over our lives because it is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice. All our Church traditions are to be tested against the teaching of scripture and if anything conflicts with the clear teaching of scripture we must reject it. The Scriptures are our guide to our relationship with God, with one another and to the society around us. To see the life-transforming role of scripture read Psalm 119, here we see clearly someone who delights in the word of God but notice that he applies the scriptures to the whole of his life.
The Genevan Confession (1536) Article 1 “First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other thing which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than that which is conveyed to us by the same word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord”
Through Christ Alone: There is only one mediator between man and God and that is the Lord Jesus. It is Jesus who gave his life as a ransom for many, who paid the price for our salvation. Christ has achieved all that is needed by his atoning sacrifice, mankind cannot add anything to his work. He has done everything that is necessary for our salvation, on the cross he was aware that he had completed the work of salvation when he cried out “it is finished”. Our Lord now intercedes for his people before the right hand of the Father.
“We confess then that it is Jesus Christ who is given to us by the Father, in order that in him we should receive all of which in ourselves we are deficient. Now that Jesus Christ has done and suffered for our redemption, we veritably hold without any doubt, as it is contained in the Creed that is recited in Church, that is to say: I believe in God the Father Almighty and so on” Genevan Confession article 6
By faith alone: The only way that we can receive this salvation is to put our faith in Christ, we entrust him with our whole lives, knowing that we can never contribute anything to our own salvation. all we can do is put out the empty hands of faith and receive what Christ has done. the reformers emphasised the doctrine of justification by faith, one only has to look at Luther’s Commentary on the book of the Galatians to realise the central importance of this doctrine. Paul clearly teaches justification by faith in his letters to the Roman and Galatian churches, this doctrine has abiding relevance for us today.
The Genevan Confession Article 11 “We confess that the entrance which we have to the great treasures and riches of the goodness of God that is vouchsafed to us is by faith; inasmuch as, in certain confidence and assurance of heart, we believe in the promises of the Gospel, and receive Jesus Christ as he is offered to us by the Father and described to us by the Word of God”.
By Grace alone: Grace is God’s favour shown to those who don’t deserve it, it flows from the Father heart of God and is shown supremely to us in his gift of the Lord Jesus Christ to be our Saviour. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) it expresses the heart of the gospel this way.
Article IV: Of Justification.
1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favour, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
The whole of the New Testament teaches us that our salvation is by grace alone. the old Sunday School acrostic helps us to remember what grace is,
We need to glory in the wonder of God’s grace, thereby glorifying him for all that has done for us.
Martin Luther said, “The law says, “Do this”, and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this” and everything is already done.” Martin Luther Heidelberg Disputation 1518
Martin Luther also said in his Commentary on the Galatians, “Grace and peace, comprehend in them whatsoever belongeth to Christianity. Grace releaseth sin, and peace maketh the conscience quiet. The two fiends that torment us are sin and conscience. But Christ hath vanquished these two monsters, and trodden them under foot, both in this world and the world to come. This the world doth not know, and therefore it can reach no certainty of the overcoming of sin, conscience and death. Only Christians have this kind of doctrine, and are exercised and armed with it, we get victory against sin, despair and everlasting death and it is a kind of doctrine neither proceeding of free will, nor invented by the reason or wisdom of man but given from above. Moreover, these two words grace, and peace do contain in them the whole of Christianity. Grace containeth the remission of sins, peace a quiet and joyful conscience. But peace of conscience can never be had, unless sin be first forgiven.”