After 500 Years
This month marks 500 years since the day which is conventionally identified as the beginning of the Reformation. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, a monk and theological professor in Wittenberg University, nailed to the church door a set of 95 theses, statements intended for debate. They were provoked by the unscrupulous sale of indulgences not far from Wittenberg, promising deliverance from the consequences of sin while leaving sin itself entirely unchallenged. Such an attitude completely contradicted Luther’s own spiritual experience and, more seriously, contradicted the teaching of the Scriptures.
The October 31 date is more symbolic than anything else. Luther still had much more to learn, but he was a man who could sincerely write, ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says, Repent, He means that the whole life of believers upon earth should be a constant and perpetual obedience,’1 and this indicated that he now took sin and the authority of God seriously.
An article in this [October Edition of the Free Presbyterian] Magazine 100 years ago, marking the four-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, said of Luther: ‘He restated the fundamental doctrines of the gospel against the delusive errors of the Church of Rome, and spoke in trumpet tones of remonstrance and appeal against the many forms of practical iniquity which these errors produced and encouraged’.
The article continued:
We do not say that he was perfect in idea or practice – he was newly out of Rome’s darkness – but we maintain that the vast proportion of his teaching was entirely wholesome and beneficial. He plucked up by the roots the false doctrine of justification by human works, and proclaimed in words of clear and burning eloquence the grand gospel truth of justification by faith in Jesus Christ and His perfect substitutionary righteousness. He declared in no uncertain terms the truth that the human will was in bondage through sin, and that they only were free indeed whom the Son of God made free.
Let there be no mistake about it: Luther was a spiritual Samson who, endued with power from on high, broke the gates of brass and cut the bars of iron in sunder which ‘the Man of sin’ had forged and fastened, to the moral and spiritual destruction of whole nations. And who that has ever read, without prejudice, the inner history and life of this noble-hearted man and observed his daily wrestlings with sin, his close communion with God, his cordial, loving warmth to his friends, and his generous liberality to the needy but has felt that here was a burning and a shining light, a living epistle of Christ to be known and read of all men?2
Clearly Luther did have much more to learn, but he did make considerable further progress in understanding the doctrines of Scripture. As we look back, we should be very thankful that the Lord raised up a strong-minded man such as Luther and placed him in a position where, by God’s blessing, he was able to make such a tremendous impact on Europe’s desperate spiritual condition in the early sixteenth century. Luther was never altogether alone in preaching truth, but later God raised up many other godly men, including John Calvin and John Knox, who were to take the work of the Reformation further. We should be thankful for them also, and for the many others through later ages whom God used as instruments to advance His cause, and likewise for those whom He used to restrain the influences that have tended seriously to weaken the Church.
If we are to single out one central point of early Reformation doctrine, it must be justification by faith. The Reformers emphasised that justification, God’s acceptance of the sinner as righteous, must be only by faith in Christ, not by works. Sinners cannot contribute to their salvation in any way; the sinner must, by a God-given faith, lay hold of Christ and what He has done as the Substitute for sinners. So Paul emphasised, ‘Not of works, lest any man should boast’ (Eph 2:9).
Luther made the clear statement:
I Dr Martin Luther, the unworthy evangelist of the Lord Jesus Christ, thus think and thus affirm: That this article – namely, that faith alone, without works, justifies us before God – can never be overthrown, for . . . Christ alone, the Son of God, died for our sins; but if He alone takes away our sins, then men, with all their works, are to be excluded from all concurrence in procuring the pardon of sin and justification. Nor can I embrace Christ otherwise than by faith alone; He cannot be apprehended by works. But if faith, before works follow, apprehends the Redeemer, it is undoubtedly true that faith alone, before works and without works, appropriates the benefits of redemption, which is no other than justification, or deliverance from sin. This is our doctrine; so the Holy Spirit teaches, and the whole Christian Church. In this, by the grace of God, will we stand fast. Amen.3
We should be immensely thankful for the heritage that has been passed down to us from Reformation times – which, not least, includes the Bible in our own language. And we should remember Luther’s great labour in translating the Bible into German while he was shut up in the Wartburg Castle for his own safety. It is a heritage that every generation is duty bound to value and preserve, and to pass it on intact to succeeding generations.
And as we remember the valuable work of generations of godly men in advancing the cause of Christ, we should praise God for His great kindness to the world in making these men His instruments in preaching the Word; in explaining the doctrines of Scripture and in putting them into a systematic form; in writing books, some more difficult and others more popular, which spread the teachings of the Bible, and sometimes take them where the human voice cannot reach. We are to be particularly thankful for men like Luther whom God raised up to be leaders of others.
We live in an age when our Reformation heritage is valued by very few. Accordingly God is largely ignored, the Bible and its teachings are despised, sin is not taken seriously and eternity is disregarded. Of course, there are exceptions; there is still a remnant according to the election of grace; but God is very much leaving people to themselves. And we have reason to mourn how little we see of the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the Word powerfully to the hearts of sinners. Not even the most terrible military conflicts in history – the two world wars of the twentieth century – had any effect in restraining the declension from scriptural standards and teachings. Most people are giving themselves up to the twin secular idols of pleasure and possessions. The Psalmist says of the wicked: he ‘will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts’ (Ps 10:4); and how accurately these words describe the vast majority of people today! There is a refusal to see that God is ruling over everything, that He is to be worshipped and obeyed. But God cannot be mocked, certainly not without serious consequences following.
The situation is serious. What hope is there that nations such as Britain and Germany can recover their Reformation heritage? We must be clear that, humanly, it is impossible. But, as the Saviour made clear, ‘The things which are impossible with men are possible with God’ (Lk 18:27). It was by divine power that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was brought about, and it is only by the same divine power that there can be deliverance from the prevailing unbelief within the professing Church and the secularism and false religion outside it.
But God uses means. We see this when we look back to the various influences on Luther’s spiritual life, as he was delivered from a state of ignorance and brought to a saving knowledge of Christ by faith alone. We must also look back to the whole web of providences in Luther’s later life which resulted in true religion making a great advance. Besides Luther, various other men were raised up in many European countries, through whom further advances – some more permanent than others – were made. We lose much if we lose sight of the great works of God in the past, for ‘He hath made His wonderful works to be remembered’ (Ps 111:4). We do well to remember the human instruments, but particularly we are to remember that ultimately the effects were the wonderful work of God.
As we look forward with the hope that further wonderful works of God will yet take place on a large scale, we may ask, as Paul did: ‘How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?’ (Rom 10:14,15). The means of spreading the gospel, preachers in particular, are necessary, and it is God who must send them, or else these preachers cannot go out with divine authority, and therefore no blessing can be expected from their work. We noted that Luther was suited to the work he was to carry out; that was part of God’s providence in raising him up at that particular point in time, in his particular circumstances, and to carry out the very work that God intended him to do. So in asking the Lord to send out labourers into His harvest, we must pray that some of them would have particular gifts which would make them specially suitable to be leaders in the Church in these days of unbelief and rejection of God.
Clearly all God’s children have a duty to pray, ‘Revive Thy work . . . in wrath remember mercy’ (Hab 3:2). Wrath is what we deserve as a generation – though the withdrawing of the Holy Spirit and leaving people to go on their way unhindered towards a lost eternity is the severest judgement possible. So we must pray for an outpouring of the Spirit. At the same time, we must ask God to send out ministers and to bring about whatever other circumstances God sees to be appropriate in order to turn multitudes of sinners to Himself and change the whole face of society throughout the world, until true godliness appears perfectly normal everywhere.
Yet, while it is our duty to pray for a new reformation, we must also seek grace to obey the call, ‘Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die’ (Rev 3:2). Our heritage is precious; may we truly value what God has done in the past and what He continues to do now! And may each one of us personally make a profitable use of our heritage!
This article first appeared in the October 2017 edition of the Free Presbyterian Magazine and has been reproduced with permission.
- The first of the 95 theses, quoted from J H Merle d’Aubigné The History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century, vol 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker reprint, 1976) p 97.
- The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 22, no 7 (Nov 1917), pp 237-8. The writer was the then Editor, Rev J.S. Sinclair.
- Quoted in James Buchanan, Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth reprint, 1961), p 143.
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