500 years ago, a young German monk embarked on a spiritual journey that would ultimately culminate in the shattering of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Today, evangelicals celebrate the stance Martin Luther took against the organized church of his day and appreciate a return to gospel simplicity. But the Reformation was not, and is not, about a single person in history. Here, then, are 7 important truths we should remember when celebrating the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
1. Church history did not start 500 years ago. Evangelicals are good at naming Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century but are less able to cite church figures before then in a meaningful way. We must not pretend as if the church disappeared following the life and ministry of the apostles and only reemerged during the Protestant Reformation. The Lord promised the apostle Peter that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church (Matt. 16:18), and so we must take Jesus at his word and recognize he has always had his people in every age, preserving truth for future generations in the visible church.
2. We celebrate God’s work, not man. The apostle Paul likewise grappled with the cult of personality in his own day and had to rebuke the Corinthians who were claiming allegiance to Apollos and others to Cephas (1 Cor. 1:12). The apostle swiftly reminded the Corinthians that these people are nothing apart from Christ, and our eyes must continually be upon the one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).
3. We need the spirit of the Reformation. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” These are the words uttered by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521 as he stood before the authorities of his day and asked to recant his writings. Luther recognized by this time in his spiritual journey that there is a higher authority to which he was responsible, and he refused to alter the gospel message as he understood it. Instead, he boldly proclaimed truth. Likewise, we too must hold tenaciously to the truths revealed to us and speak those truth unapologetically to those we know are on the path to destruction.
4. If the gospel is worth living for, it is worth dying for. Heresy was punishable by death. There was no such thing as free speech or religious liberty. Luther knew full well what happened to Jon Huss a century earlier and was emotionally prepared to suffer, like the apostles and ancient martyrs, for the Savior. In fact, when Luther discovered shortly after the Diet of Worms that fellow countrymen had burned to death for their Reformation beliefs, he lamented the fact that he had thought he would be the first to be martyred but was not worthy of it.
5. Learn to proclaim the entirety of the gospel message. Though Luther considered himself a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church and mourned the fact that his actions would cause division, he was committed to preaching the entire gospel message. It is not sufficient to tell people Jesus died for their sins unless you also tell them of punishment eternal without being united to Christ. Many people believe in their own relative goodness, so without understanding their plight, they are unfazed by a message of mere love.
6. Learn to praise God when we’re shamed or when we suffer. We live in a society where it is considered a great shame not to accept individuals for expressing themselves however they see fit. Oftentimes we fail to speak truth lest we be publicly shamed or be accused of being intolerant. Yet, the apostles recognized it is better to obey God than man and even praised God for suffering physically and emotionally for doing what is right (Acts 5:17–41).
7. Realize that God works through fallen humanity—which can include you. Even the most influential of the Reformers were deeply flawed individuals. Many would be aghast if they discovered Martin Luther’s deep-seated anti-Semitism and tolerance of religious suppression or John Calvin’s complicity in the death of a heretic. Yet, in spite of serious characters flaws, God has used, and will continue to use, men and women for profound and dramatic differences in ushering in his kingdom. It is easy to believe that God only works through the most spiritual among us, but the truth is, he can take the chief of all sinners and use him mightily. In other words, despite our own brokenness and frailties, God can even use us for great and mighty things.