Reformation 500: Five Local Church Benefits
2017 witnessed some large sale commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Conference organisers and publishing houses have worked hard to ensure that the long lasting implications of Luther’s ‘breakthrough’ are not lost on our own generation of believers, and for this we are much in their debt. The story less told, however, is the impact that this quincentenary has had on ordinary pastors serving in local churches. The following are my reflections on five benefits which have been ours in one such setting:
1. A personal revisiting of some familiar and all too easily assumed doctrines.
We are blessed in Ulster to have a strong Reformation history, fueled and vivified by God’s gracious work of revival in the nineteenth century. Such spiritual ancestry carries with it the danger of mindless assumption or spiritual amnesia, and a commemoration of the mighty work of God which saw the Reformation birthed serves to keep the doctrines of grace central to how we think and how we worship. One of the tragedies of our current evangelical culture can be that of singing ‘Amazing Grace’ without fully appreciating either the majesty of that grace nor the force of the adjective which precedes it. Looking back can help us once again look up in wonder to the God whose gospel is utterly breathtaking.
2. Pastoral encouragement from God’s use of humble men.
John Knox’s famous summary of the Reformation as God giving ‘the Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance’ was far from self effacing rhetoric. The convergence of intellectual and technological advances in Western society can, no doubt, account for something of the spread Reformation thought in the sixteenth century, but the fact of the Reformation is traceable only to the hand of God. The simplicity and humanity of those who m he used as instruments gives great encouragement to ordinary men in ordinary pastoral charges who are seeking to be faithful. There was more than a hint of genius about Luther, but the perforation of his character with so many evident weaknesses is testament to God’s specialism of using earthen vessels to carry his glorious gospel to the world. And one of the individuals who were instrumental in the Reformation whom we might highlight had not only feet of clay but lived lives of ordinary men beset by the hindrances of their own lack of capacity and the resistance of circumstance, and truly use them to see his work advanced. Although our local church endeavours will never carry the broad consequence of the lives of these men, God has set us where we are, to use us as he ordains, to garner glory to his name through the very weaknesses that we are all too aware of in ourselves. As simple men, how we should long for the Holy Spirit in great abundance.
3. Church-wide benefit in understanding the importance of church history and our place within it.
Many folks within our influence can easily equate church history with the fairly contemporary circumstances in which the local church to which they belong came into being. Teaching church history to our people can be challenging, but events like Reformation 500 provide a pathway to helping them see God’s work in the distant past and its relevance today. Sharing about the reformers by way of background and also via excellent resources such as the Luther documentary has lent a sense of definition to how we conceive of ourselves in the broad sweep of God’s work in history. Speaking personally, it is clear that many of our people are now more curious and engaged about history than they were before this year took place.
4. Individual blessing in preaching the doctrines which turned the world upside down.
Perhaps more than anything else this year, our decision to preach the Five Solas over the course of three Lord’s Days has been a rich blessing to us as a church. To indulge the indicative element of gospel preaching, to lay our explicitly and clearly just what the biblical gospel really is has enriched my heart in preparation and warmed our hearts together in its proclamation. The preacher is dwarfed by such themes in the very best sense. Like a tour guide to the high alps, none of our people have been impacted by the mere presentation of these truths through me limited capacities, but the unfiltered glory of gospel grace has captivated our hearts afresh and preoccupied our worship of our Saviour God. To engage in post-service conversations with people who are face to face with the sheer God-centred majesty of the evangel has been a fearful blessing to my heart. These are truths to weep with joy over.
5. An explicit sense of connection between the Reformation and renewal.
For all of the things which the Reformation has meant culturally, intellectually and politically in in the 500 years since its birth, there is no doubt that the re-emergence of gospel truths in the sixteenth century was a work of revival. The incendiary blend of propositional truth and Holy Spirit renewal in the lives and ministries of those closest to the Reformation is evidence that the term ‘logic on fire’ may have been coined by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but the phenomenon it describes was not original to him. The Reformation steers us away from the dangers of either effective concerns for revival which have little grounding in gospel proclamation, or a dead orthodoxy which is academic or purely cerebral. Reminding ourselves of the historical roots and biblical realities of the Reformation encourages us to go as deeply as we can in our Scriptural understanding of the doctrine of grace, while seeking as humbly as we ought that God might animate our own hearts and those of our church member with the marvel of he has wrought for us in Christ. For God to freshly breath the truth of these things on the hearts of his people by his spirit would be a wonder beyond our best imaginings.
I, for one, am grateful to God for the Reformation 500 commemorations, not in an obscurantist sense of marking history, but for the fact that history bears the mark of the gospel of our great God and the undeniable power that it carries. May God once again stir us to respond to his fathomless grace by pouring out our Christ-bought lives in sheer gladness at the doctrines which we espouse.
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