Reformation 2017: Relevant or Redundant? - David McKay

 

During the course of this year, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Affinity is commissioning six articles from church leaders across the UK to explain what the Reformation means to them. In this second of the series, David McKay, of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, reminds us of the core spiritual transformation that was ignited by Luther's 95 Theses.

 

A Big Anniversary

Anniversaries can be very important – ask any husband who has forgotten his wedding anniversary! They usually mark significant events, sometimes life-changing, that ought to be remembered. The annual return of anniversaries such as Remembrance Day serves to keep the lessons of the past before our attention. Happy anniversaries can bring renewed joy in the recollection of good times, especially when they are viewed in the light of God’s providence in our lives. Some things ought never to be forgotten.

There is certainly the danger of living in the past – of letting what is now over govern our lives to an unhealthy extent. Old hurts, old grievances, old failures, old sorrows can shape us in ways that hinder our growth in grace. We need to learn when to remember and when to let go. Churches, too, can live in the past, keeping the focus always on past glories and successes, conveniently overlooking the weaknesses and failures that might suggest the past was not quite as glorious as we like to think. To forget history, however, cuts us off from the valuable lessons regarding the providence and purpose of God that it could teach us.

This year marks an anniversary that should be – and no doubt will be – marked in a variety of ways. On 31 October 1517, the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the accepted way of raising issues for academic debate. These ‘Ninety-five Theses’, however, were profoundly radical and marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Luther was by no means the only theologian raising vital questions about gospel truth – Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, for example, also played a significant role in the reforming movement. But Luther was certainly used powerfully by God to shake the foundations of established theology and ecclesiastical life in Germany and much further afield.

Luther’s 95 propositions go to the heart of the gospel message and so demand our continued attention. Many historians offer explanations for the rise of the Reformation in terms of the historical and sociological circumstances of the time and some of these do have value, but we have not understood the Reformation unless we see it as a mighty work of God. In the Reformation the Holy Spirit transformed people and communities through the saving application of the Word of God. Whatever else the Reformation was, it was primarily spiritual.

The Reformation was a revolution that took the Church backwards – it was a rediscovery of great biblical truths that had been obscured by the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. Building on the work of Renaissance scholars who went ‘back to the sources’ in Greek and Latin writers, the Reformers went back to the biblical roots of the Christian faith and, on the basis of Scripture alone, proclaimed a message of salvation by grace alone, through Christ alone and received by faith alone, all to the glory of God alone. Multitudes experienced the true spiritual liberation that comes through an undiluted gospel. This was not just an intellectual movement – lives were transformed.

Now Luther was not perfect. Nobody knew that better than Luther himself. He had his weaknesses and, like most things to do with Luther, they were on a fairly large scale. On some issues, such as his view of the Lord’s Supper, he was beyond listening to contrary opinions. There was in some of his writing a streak of crudity (shared with Erasmus, among others) that forbids quotation. His positon on a variety of matters represented a kind of half-way house between Roman Catholicism and biblical truth. I am, after all, not a Lutheran, and, in my opinion, with good reason. Nevertheless he was – by God’s grace – a mighty man of God who was instrumental in revolutionising the spiritual life of a significant part of Europe and ultimately the world. A lesser man, a smaller man, would not have been up to the job.

The biblical principles which Luther and others brought back into focus in the sixteenth century are, in reality, a matter of life and death – eternal life and eternal death. How I live my life now and where I will spend eternity are determined by the saving work of God which was summed up in the five ‘solas’ – the ‘alones’ mentioned above – Scripture, Christ, grace, faith and God’s glory ‘alone’. No set of beliefs could have greater practical importance for human life and welfare. They are, in the most literal sense, life-changing. The deepest needs of the human heart are met in the most wonderful way. Sinners who deserve nothing good from a holy God are transformed into God’s children. The change is as radical as it could possibly be. Far from being a set of theological puzzles to bamboozle the unsuspecting or to entertain the intellectual, these principles are good news to be believed and lived out.

The benefits of the Reformation are numerous and give us endless joy, but if there is one principle that we need to grasp more than any other, it is simply this – it’s not about us. Yes, we are the objects of the infinite love of God, but the final goal of his redemptive work in Christ is his own glory, not our benefit. He is the God who proclaims, ‘My glory I will not give to another’ (Isaiah 48:11). At the last day ‘every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:11). That is exactly what the Christian longs to see – the Lord receiving the glory that is due to him. Reformation, then or now, means nothing if it does not redound to the glory of God.

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting the Ninety-five Theses ought to be commemorated enthusiastically by the people of God everywhere. Why not take the opportunities that 2017 will bring to deepen your knowledge of your spiritual heritage and to thank God for these wonderful events?


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