The importance of October 31 is not that it is Halloween. Rather, it is important because on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and eventually sparked the Protestant Reformation. It was a movement to rediscover that our salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, as described in Scriptures alone. This date reminds us of the incredible struggle to rediscover the gospel, the saving news of Jesus. We are reminded that against the threat of capital punishment, brave souls gave us a Bible in our own language, encouraging Bible reading and study, as well as a church premised on the gospel.
My home church took all the adult Sunday School classes of October to review the history of the Reformation. Since this October had 5 Sundays, it allowed us extra time to discuss this rediscovery of our faith.
One of our Sunday School teachers characterized the situation as follows: “For the first 100 years, the church was formed. Then, for the next 400 years or so, the expanding church was being conformed to fit the pattern originally laid down. But then, because of corruption, political power and the neglect of the gospel, the church was gradually deformed to become something that stopped looking like that which Christ formed. Then, in the 16th century, a new movement took place to reform the church to her original pattern.”
And with that, I was asked to lead the final Sunday School class of October, and answer the question: How are we doing? Did we continue to reform the church, ever bringing it closer to the pattern of Christ as is found in the Bible? Or are we allowing the seeds of deformation to again warp the pattern of the church, so that the gospel is in danger of again being forgotten?
I readily admitted to the class that the question was larger than I could answer. As a part of my answer, I took the class through a brief historical review as to how we got from the 16th Century to the present day. I said the original reformation was entirely a European phenomenon because the Roman Catholic Church was also an essentially European phenomenon. But by the 18th Century, evangelical missionaries had come to the new world. In the United States and Eastern Canada, the Great Awakening transformed the new world into a largely Christian consensus culture. By the 19 Century, the task of global Protestant missions was underway. William Carrey, considered by many to be the father of Protestant Missions, had gone to India. Hudson Taylor had gone to China.
But counter-reformational trends were also underway. Friedrich Schleiermacher, a protestant theologian in Germany, gave birth to liberal Protestantism. This was a move to marry the Christian faith to the Enlightenment. Within these circles, Bible study degenerated into “Source Criticism”. Rather than being thought of as a divine book, the Bible was now thought of as the best in religious evolutionary thought within the Jewish culture. Eventually, by controlling all the seminaries, all the “mainline protestant denominations” became liberal. As a result, the mainline churches collapsed. European protestant churches, now infected with liberal thinking, simply became empty shells, as Protestant Liberalism proved to be a “halfway house” out of the Christian faith. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others simply stopped going to church. In response, Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism sought to maintain the faith, once for all delivered to the saints.
Another movement also took root. Pentecostalism swept the world of the 20th century. Unlike and in direct contradiction to Liberalism, Pentecostalism was bent on rediscovering the divine. But in some cases, the desire to encounter God left the serious study of Scripture far behind. And then, the “Word/Faith Movement” was birthed within Pentecostalism, which completely redefined the Christian faith. Word faith teachers taught that God had to use faith to create, and we could also create reality in the same way as God does. Consequently, they wiped away the distinction between God and man. Man became little gods, able to command things into being by faith. These things included health and wealth. The Word/Faith Movement became global, capturing the hearts of the poor of the earth, promising them that anything they believed in faith would come to be.
In all of this, what is left of the Reformation? We certainly can’t return to 1517 and do it all over again. If there is need of another reformation, and I believe there is, it will have to be a “Back to the Bible” movement, in which men and women rediscover the Bible as the only sure revelation from God that we have, and the only infallible source of what we believe. We will also have to define justification by faith all over again, explaining both justification and faith. We will have to explain why the faith we proclaim is the one founded by Jesus and revealed to us in Scriptures alone. But we believe the true faith will not be destroyed. It will be renewed.
I hope you had a “Happy Reformation Day”.