The Reformation Speaks Today

Several times this year I have been asked why the Reformation still matters. After all, the key events happened 500 years ago and a lot has happened since then. A century of ecumenical endeavour has led some to insist that the Reformation is no longer needed or no longer relevant. Who wants to celebrate a moment of division?

My by-now well-rehearsed answer (it is October after all) is that the Reformation still matters because of the changes that were made, the doctrine that was taught, the blood that was spilt, the error that persists, and the gospel mission that remains.

The Reformation changed our world. That is a big claim but it is true. The Reformation changed the nature of family life, the nature of church life and even architecture, the nature of Christian ministry, and the relationship of church and state.

Protestant homes were different in many ways from Catholic homes. The prominence of reading the Bible versus dependence upon sacramental grace dispensed by the priest is just one example. Family life received new attention as the centrepiece of a new piety. Luther himself rejoiced at the pigtails on the pillow beside him in the morning and opportunities to play with his children. These weren’t distractions from the Christian life but an integral part of it. The earthy demands of family life were every bit as honouring to God as the dedicated celibate life of faithful priests and monks.

Church life changed from being something you attended while everything was done for you at the front by the priest and the choir, to something in which you genuinely participated. Cranmer’s liturgy with its emphasis on hearing the word of God together, of common prayer and common praise is one of the best examples of this. Hearing God speak was more central than the sacramental activity of the priest. The sacraments were not jettisoned altogether — the Reformers were convinced that both baptism and the Lord’s Supper were biblical and important — but they were put in a proper context.

I remember a set of lectures given by the late George Yule years ago where he showed slides demonstrating the changes in church architecture over the centuries. In the pre-Reformation church the altar was central and a rood screen often separated the ‘holy’ part of the church from the place where ordinary parishioners would gather to listen and receive that part of the sacrament they were allowed to receive. Come the Reformation, the pulpit or even the lectern took centre stage, with the communion table, and sometimes the font, put behind them and sometimes in a different room. The elaborate decorations which made Christian faith a very visual thing were often removed and the importance of the word and hearing was recognised afresh.

We could also look at ministry, with a fresh importance upon the teaching and administration of the word and rejection of the notion of a priest who represented the sacrifice of Christ; or church and state, where, for good or ill, the state tended to have much more involvement in the life of the church than before. Henry VIII insisted he was the earthly supreme head of the church in his commonwealth.

The big change though was in the doctrine that was taught. At the heart of reformation teaching is the biblical doctrine of justification only by faith. There is nothing in us that we can plead with God as a basis for, or contribution towards, our salvation. We are sinful even when we are at our best. We have no hope but Christ and we come to him with an empty-handed trust. Of course, flowing out of our new justified state is a new commitment to faithfulness, love and mercy, alongside proclaiming the same gospel by which we have been saved. We are not left where we were. Both faith and repentance are ongoing characteristics of the Christian life. Yet nothing we or the church can do prepares us for grace or is to be added to grace. It is only by faith that we are declared in the right with God. Luther believed that everything he and the other reformers taught depended on this one central truth.

Yet Luther and others brought other revolutionary doctrinal changes too. They spoke of Scripture as its own interpreter. The authoritative interpretations of the Pope and the scholars were unnecessary and had in fact obscured the plain meaning of the Bible. Every believer should have access to the written word of God in their own language. Every doctrine taught by men and women in the churches should be tested against the only infallible standard, the words of Scripture themselves.

Our access to God is immediate and does not come through the ministrations of the church. This does not make the church dispensable or irrelevant. The church is precious in the sight of God and must be guarded and nurtured by the word of God. Yet the priests do not have a special status. Instead they serve God’s people by exercising a particular ministry. They are not priestly mediators. We have only one mediator and that is Christ. What is more, in the most important sense all believers are priests, as the apostle Peter says: ‘a royal priesthood’.

The Lord’s Supper is a visible word, reminding us of what has been done for us. It is not a mechanism by which the church dispenses grace to God’s people. We recognise a single sacrifice, that of Christ, and only one altar, the cross of Calvary. The role of the priest (or pastor) is to speak the words that make sense of this memorial meal, the words of the gospel that focus not so much on what we do as what has been done for us, once for all.

Yet as well as the changes made and the doctrine taught, the Reformation saw men and women courageously stand and many lose their lives for their testimony to the authority of God’s word, the unrepeatable nature of Christ’s sacrifice, our justification only by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and even the necessity of having the word of God in our own heart language.

The first Reformation martyrs were Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes, young men burnt at the stake in Brussels on 1 July 1523. Luther wrote his first ever hymn celebrating their example of faith. Yet soon they would be joined by many others, men and women. William Tyndale the Bible translator, strangled and burnt in Antwerp on the orders of the King; the three bishops burnt outside the north gate in Oxford — Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer; Anne Askew, that extraordinary woman whose proclamation of Christ crucified and justification by faith led to her execution, but not before weeks and months of the most gruelling torture, intended to force her to disown the Reformation. Yet these are just a few. There were many others.

The Reformation still matters because the price of its revolutionary change was so high – the blood of these men and women.

The Reformation still matters too because the error against which the Reformers fought and sometimes gave their lives still persists. A great deal of effort has been put into ecumenical discussion over the last century. However, a careful examination of the documents these discussions have produced reveals that the Catholic church has not budged an inch on doctrine, for all its changes in practice and appearance. It says what it has always said. Faith is still joined to works of love as the basis of our justification. Mary and the saints are still intercessors to whom we are encouraged to pray. The sacraments still are necessary means of receiving grace. The authority of the church remains inviolable alongside that of Scripture. It is the Protestants involved in these conversations who have most often lost their nerve and surrendered the distinctives of the Reformation.

Yet it is worth reminding ourselves that when all is said, the Reformation was a missionary, evangelistic movement. Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and the rest wanted the people of Germany or Geneva or England to hear and respond to the gospel of grace. They wanted to see men and women come to faith and grow in godliness. They wanted to give them access to the pure life-changing word of God. Luther spoke of how the real treasure of the church was the gospel of Christ and it had been locked away from those who needed to hear it. Tyndale dreamed of the day when the boy at the plough as well as the scholar at his desk and the noble at court would know and rejoice in the teaching of the Bible.

500 years on and on the other side of the world, the Reformation definitely still matters. It is nowhere near over yet. The word still needs to be heard. The gospel still needs to be proclaimed. Lives and patterns of living — the lives of God’s people and the practice of the churches — still needs to change in line with the teaching of the Bible.

I suspect we do not know the Reformation, its people and its teaching, as well as we should. This is a great year to become acquainted all over again with those brothers and sisters of a long ago age who risked everything to ensure that we could hear and respond to the gospel preached by Christ and his apostles. There is a great deal for which to thank God in the Reformation.

The Rev Dr Mark Thompson

A longer form of this article was delivered in Belfast in March 2017 as the Clive West Memorial Lecture, and in New Zealand in August 2017 as the William Orange Memorial Lecture.

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