Happy Reformation Day

Posted on October 31, 2013 by


It is time for a little “diversion” from politics and economics (partially anyway) to think for a moment about religion, in this case, the Christian religion and even more specifically, the Protestant religion.  For those who are not sure, this is not really Halloween Day.  Before Halloween this was Reformation Day.  It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther, the obscure German Augustinian monk, teaching theology at the obscure Wittenburg University in (yes) obscure Electoral Saxony, posted to the castle church door of the city a piece of paper calling for a disputation, an academic debate, on the issue of indulgences. The indulgence issue had been hot in Saxony and Luther had already come to some important and influential conclusions about the Roman Catholic Church and its use of the indulgence practice.  In fact, indulgences were only the “surface” issue for the real one–the answer to the all-important question, “How can a human being stand righteous before a holy God?”  Luther had read and heard that one could do so by “doing the best one could.”  He balked at this answer and studied Genesis, Romans, Galatians and other biblical books assiduously.  In particular, as he put it, he “beat upon Paul” at Romans 1: 16-17.  Finally he concluded that “the just shall live by faith” but what it meant was that the one who would desire to be declared and seen as forgiven and righteous in God’s sight must come to Him in faith–the great” breakthrough” of justification by faith.

After the 95 Theses were published that fateful day, Luther expected little to come of it.  But within weeks and then months it had been re-printed all over Europe and was being read by almost all literate people, including theologians.  Luther barely survived the first years after 1517, but within five years the “Lutheran” movement was spreading steadily.  Within ten years Luther’s core ideas had led to a Swiss Zwinglian reformational movement as well as the Anabaptist movement in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Within twenty years reformational ideas had influenced a young but brilliant scholar named John Calvin, whose ideas would spread far beyond the little city of Geneva to England, Scotland, the Netherlands, parts of the German States, Hungary, France, and later, to the American colonies.  

The ideas of Luther and Calvin became the dominant ones among Protestants, the new name since 1529 for those who broke with the Catholic Church.  From the first foundational principle–justification by faith–were added others that linked inexorably to it–the natural depravity of man, the unconditional election of God, the limited atonement of Christ’s death (still one of the most difficult of Reformation theology), the irresistible grace of God to save those upon whom His love was set, and the perseverance of the saints, those genuinely chosen and in time expressing real faith in Christ.  These ideas were predominant in America until well after the Civil War.  Even today, though there are competitors, few deviate completely from Luther’s initial breakthrough and many embrace aspects of Calvin’s theology in addition.

It would not be too bold to assert that the Protestant evangelical church today is what it is because of Luther’s small but bold step in challenging the church of his day to understand the Gospel correctly.  Many have come since, carrying the torch, and many are still living in our day who continue.  In this age of challenges to that simple but profound “re-discovery” of the Gospel, will we continue to honor our Lord as Luther did–and Calvin, and Zwingli, and the Puritans, and Whitefield, and yes, Wesley, and Edwards, and J. P. Boyce, and Charles Hodge, and Warfield, and Machen, and Piper, and Sproul, and Packer, and Albert Mohler and a host of others did and are?  

So Happy Reformation Day to all!  Happy 496th birthday!  Take time to remember and praise God from who all blessing flow.


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