The Reformation stands as the most significant event in the church's 2000 year history (after its birth in Acts). It changed the world and refocused the church in what really matters. But what can we learn NOW from something that happened over 500 years ago?
The Heart of the Reformation
The heart of the Reformation was its refocus on the Bible and its central message: God's plan to save His people through Jesus as their Rescuer. The problem back then (and still now) was the easy dilution of the Bible. This was seen in several ways.
Firstly, back then the Bible was in Latin (not the common language of the day).
Secondly, it was hard to find Bibles (before the printing press was invented).
Thirdly, church rules and traditions had also gained equal status with the Bible. This resulted in the dilution of God's Word.
During the Reformation, the focus shifted back to the Bible as God's supreme method of sharing this Good News about Jesus. The Bible was allowed to speak its powerful message of love and reconciliation. And that message (its key doctrines) was about being saved (justification) through grace (Jesus' free gift of his sacrificial and substitutional death for our sins).
For us today, it means we should use and study our Bibles: in sermons, Bible studies and individual meditations. We may not have the old church traditions (such as purgatory and indulgences) but we have a host of other (often useful) Christian books that can distract us from reading the Bible.
In their place, Christian books should aim to highlight God's key doctrines or experiences pointing to these doctrines. These should draw us back to reading the Bible, not be a substitute for it.
During the Reformation, the way these key doctrines were expressed was through words. The Bible is the supreme example. Words were written down through the Spirit's inspiration, and lives were transformed through the same Spirit's application to hearts. Preaching in the common language was the Reformation principle. Today, this means we still need words spoken (ie preaching) but these must be sensitive to our cultural context.
And the words of the Bible are about God (WE are not the focus of the Bible). One of the hallmarks of the modern church is the obsession with self rather than Christ. The best example is the re-definition of sin. The Bible defines sin as a rebellion against God that results in judgement (Genesis 3, Genesis 6, Romans 3). Christ comes to take this judgement in our place and give us His right standing before God. This is the rediscovery of the Reformation.
Today, in some churches, sin is redefined as a feeling of being separate from God and limiting our power to enjoy life, a series of bad thought patterns that Jesus has liberated us from. It was Luther's grasp of what God had done in Christ and the seriousness of sin that radically changed his understanding on being right before God. It opened up a richness of the immense love of God. The Reformation provides a template for viewing modern thoughts, such as sin, in a Biblical light.
As church historian, Carl Trueman explains, "If it is Christ as the centre, well and good; if it is anything else, we need reformation." And a reforming church and reforming Christians (same thing) are always in need of reforming!
As we look back on this time, we can't make the sloppy application that we just need to do what they did 500 years ago. The trouble is, time and culture change. And our Christian practice is shaped by these. What we need to look for are the key themes and principles of the Reformation applied to us today. Given that God and doctrines don't change but culture does, we must tread this tightrope carefully.
If we overemphasise the Reformers and their culture, we become legalistic and impractical. This is the opposite of what they were really trying to achieve.
We also have to remember that these Reformers, as brilliant as their insights were, were just men. They still had their unusual personalities and views. For example, Luther still took a wrong view on the Lord's Supper. On the other side, if we ignore their key doctrinal lessons, then we stumble along blindly, making the same mistakes in the dark that the church has previously made.
As we look back at the changes the Reformation made to the church, we have to remember that changing church structure (e.g. the leadership structure, forms of worship etc) does not change hearts. The Reformation aimed to change the theology of the day, not the forms and structure of the church. Luther wanted Christ to be the centre, and as a result, the church was changed. He did not aim to change the structures/forms of the church.
The same happened in Josiah's rediscovery of the Law (2 Kings 22 onwards). Getting people to follow laws or the 10 Commandments doesn't make them Christians. The heart change must come first. And the heart changes through theological discovery. Corrupt belief and corrupt practice go hand-in-hand. Poor theology produces poor church practice.
The Reformation still challenges us to rediscover the key doctrines revealed in the Bible and live them out. It aims to restore the roots, and as a result, the branches and the whole tree grow.
Reformation isn't just something "the church" should do. It is part of your walk with God. And it isn't something that happens at just one point in time. Rather, it is a process that starts in our hearts and grows to change outward structures and practice. The key is our need to be constantly examining ourselves in the light of the Word of God. This is a legacy of the Reformation for us today.
Want to go deeper? Read, "Reformation: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow" by Carl Trueman.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html