The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and What It Means Today

By Scott S. Powell

When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, 500 years ago this week, he probably had no idea what forces he was unleashing. Although his intention was to spur reform within the Catholic Church rather than breaking off and starting a new church, he ended up accomplishing both.

In fact, the Reformation started by Luther set in motion an awakening that stimulated an unusual concentration of human genius and extraordinary wisdom that would culminate in the birth of a new nation — one unprecedented in human history, dedicated to upholding its citizens’ unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. If there had been no Reformation, there would be no United States as we know it today.

American history from the very beginning — with the Anglicans settling Virginia, the Puritans and Presbyterians settling in New England, the Reformed Dutch settling in New York, and the Quakers settling Pennsylvania to name a few — is inextricably linked to the Protestant Reformation. To understand the relevance of the Reformation, let’s revisit its core ideas and central figures and assess what is happening today.  

The drama starts with Luther, who after being expelled from the Catholic Church, stood trial, and stated publicly that it was wrong for anyone to act against his conscience in religious matters. In addition, Luther introduced the radical notion of human equality in a “priesthood of all believers.” With obedience to authority and class stratification having been the norm for most of recorded history, Luther appeared to be either a fool or a subversive for proclaiming that liberty of conscience and equality of all believers, regardless of class, was the proper basis for religious and political life. 

After Luther, it was John Calvin of Geneva who contributed the most to advancing the depth and breadth of the Reformation. Calvin’s “resistance theory,” which justified the people’s right to disobey unjust rule, would later find expression in the Declaration of Independence.  A majority of America’s Founding Fathers had read and probably memorized a brief summary of Calvin’s theology contained in the Westminster Catechism because in those days it was part of the curriculum of almost every school.  Calvin’s most important work, the multi-volume Institutes of Christian Religion, was cited by John Adams, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison in their correspondence and deliberations over the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

After the American colonies won the war of independence from Britain, the real work of forming an effective government for the United States began with the Constitutional Convention of 1787. That was no easy task for the 55 delegates who convened in the midst of a depressed economy, rampant inflation of the Continental dollar, territorial threats, and even talk of secession by New England.  

By today’s standards, it was nothing short of a miracle that the convention delegates could muster the tolerance and big-mindedness to agree on substantive terms of the new Constitution in just four months. But as good as that Constitution was (and is), it had to be ratified by the states to become the law of the land. Fear of corruption and abuse of power from a central government caused several key states to withhold support until the Constitution was amended with a Bill of Rights – starting with the all-important First Amendment of protecting and tolerating freedom of speech, press and religion.  

This being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation it’s appropriate to reflect on the present state of those freedoms embodied in the First Amendment.

In the last thirty years, America’s culture has been progressively enveloped by “political correctness” — which restricts discussion to stereotypes and requires that all social and political reality be seen through a particular “lens.” The politically-correct agenda has been advanced by manipulating the meaning of language, while it has also been helped by a public conditioned to ignore reality and common sense and accept distorted and even false narratives.

Because political correctness narrows the range of political thought, its adherents tend to be intolerant — seeking to shut down and silence people with whom they disagree on college campuses across the country, clamoring for removal of historic statues and monuments, and even demanding that people with opposing views on such subjects as climate change and gay marriage be silenced, fined, or arrested.

Today’s problems are also compounded by social media, which has many benefits, but also tend to promote groupthink conformity that marginalizes and silences opposing and independent voices. Because most people avoid inviting criticism, denouncement or being bullied, there is a “spiral of silence” on social media, which reinforces the default groupthink of what is trending and what appears to be the social and cultural majority.

As we survey the popular culture in America today, we get a sense that the Reformation that ushered in an unprecedented appreciation of both freedom and equality, as well as a deeper and more personal relationship with God the Father, has not completed its destiny. Indeed, in the last two or three generations there has been a significant regression of some of the Reformation principles and basic common sense that was endowed by God the Creator, both of which flourished in early America.     

History shows that the great leaps forward in progress were almost always spurred by individuals who had original ideas and the courage to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes of their times. May this 500th anniversary of the Reformation be an occasion to commit to a spiritual revival and a renewed passion to protect our nation’s freedoms and rekindle the liberty of conscience that elevates tolerance, original thinking, courage and character. 

Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle. Reach him at scottp@discovery.org

What Caused the Reformation?

by Nathan Busenitz

What caused the Reformation?

Many people might answer that question by pointing to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.

But if you were to ask Luther himself, he would not point to himself or his own writings. Instead, he would give all the credit to God and His Word.

Near the end of his life, Luther declared: “All I have done is put forth, preach and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing. . . . It is the Word that has done great things. . . . I have done nothing; the Word has done and achieved everything.”

Elsewhere, he exclaimed: “By the Word the earth has been subdued; by the Word the Church has been saved; and by the Word also it shall be reestablished.”

Noting Scripture’s foundational place in his own heart, Luther wrote: “No matter what happens, you should say: There is God’s Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains. Where it remains, I, too, remain; where it goes, I, too, go.”

Luther understood what caused the Reformation. He recognized that it was the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God preached by men of God in a language that the common people of Europe could understand and when their ears were exposed to the truth of God’s Word it pierced their hearts and they were radically changed.

It was that very power that had transformed Luther’s own heart, a power that is summarized in the familiar words of Hebrews 4:12: “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.”

During the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church had imprisoned God’s Word in the Latin language, a language the common people of Europe did not speak. The Reformers unlocked the Scriptures by translating them. And once the people had the Word of God, the Reformation became inevitable.

We see this commitment to the Scriptures even in the centuries prior to Martin Luther, beginning with the Forerunners to the Reformation:

In the 12th century, the Waldensians translated the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate into their regional French dialects. According to tradition, they were so committed to the Scriptures that different Waldensian families would memorize large sections of the Bible. That way, if Roman Catholic authorities found them and confiscated their printed copies of Scripture, they would later be able to reproduce the entire Bible from memory.

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe and his associates at Oxford translated the Bible from Latin into English. Wycliffe’s followers, known as the Lollards, went throughout the countryside preaching and singing passages of Scripture in English.

In the 15th century, Jan Huss preached in the language of the people, and not in Latin, making him the most popular preacher in Prague at the time. Yet, because Huss insisted that Christ alone was the head of the church, not the pope, the Catholic Council of Constance condemned him for heresy and burned him at the stake (in 1415).

In the 16th century, as the study of Greek and Hebrew were recovered, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, with the New Testament being completed in 1522.

In 1526, William Tyndale completed a translation of the Greek New Testament into English. A few years later he also translated the Pentateuch from Hebrew. Shortly thereafter he was arrested and executed as a heretic—being strangled and then burned at the stake. According to Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Tyndale’s last words were “Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes.” And it was just a couple years after his death that King Henry VIII authorized the Great Bible in England—a Bible that was largely based on Tyndale’s translation work. The Great Bible laid the foundation for the later King James version (which was completed in 1611).

The common thread, from Reformer to Reformer, was an undying commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, such that they were willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, to get the Word of God into the hands of the people.

They did this because they understood that the power for spiritual reformation and revival was not in them, but in the gospel (cf. Rom. 1:16–17). And they used the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to emphasize the truth that God’s Word was the true power and ultimate authority behind all they said and did.

It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of the Scripture that made the Reformation possible. And it was the power of the Scripture that gave the Reformation its enduring impact, as the Holy Spirit brought the truth of His Word to bear on the hearts and minds of individual sinners, transforming them, regenerating them, and giving them eternal life.

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Source: The Cripplegate

“The work is not mine, but Thine.”

Those are words from Martin Luther and part of a prayer Luther wrote in the hours before his second appearance at the Diet of Worms, which had convened in 1521 and before which Luther was summoned and asked to recant his writings. At his initial appearance before the Diet, when asked by Johann vn Eck if he recanted his writings, Luther asked for time to think it over. It was during that time between sessions that he wrote the following prayer:

O God, Almighty God everlasting! how dreadful is the world! behold how its mouth opens to swallow me up, and how small is my faith in Thee! . . . Oh! the weakness of the flesh, and the power of Satan! If I am to depend upon any strength of this world – all is over . . . The knell is struck . . . Sentence is gone forth . . . O God! O God! O thou, my God! help me against the wisdom of this world. Do this, I beseech thee; thou shouldst do this . . . by thy own mighty power . . . The work is not mine, but Thine. I have no business here . . . I have nothing to contend for with these great men of the world! I would gladly pass my days in happiness and peace. But the cause is Thine . . . And it is righteous and everlasting! O Lord! help me! O faithful and unchangeable God! I lean not upon man. It were vain! Whatever is of man is tottering, whatever proceeds from him must fail. My God! my God! dost thou not hear? My God! art thou no longer living? Nay, thou canst not die. Thou dost but hide Thyself. Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it! . . . Therefore, O God, accomplish thine own will! Forsake me not, for the sake of thy well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, my defence, my buckler, and my stronghold.

Lord – where art thou? . . . My God, where art thou? . . . Come! I pray thee, I am ready . . . Behold me prepared to lay down my life for thy truth . . . suffering like a lamb. For the cause is holy. It is thine own! . . . I will not let thee go! no, nor yet for all eternity! And though the world should be thronged with devils – and this body, which is the work of thine hands, should be cast forth, trodden under foot, cut in pieces, . . . consumed to ashes, my soul is thine. Yes, I have thine own word to assure me of it. My soul belongs to thee, and will abide with thee forever! Amen! O God send help! . . . Amen!

While Luther’s “Here I stand!” speech at his next appearance before the Diet is by far his most famous, and has been memorialized on the silver screen forever, this humble prayer prepared Luther for the ‘final showdown’, as it were, and set the course of the rest of Luther’s life.

Perhaps this is a prayer to remember and pray even today, but from within the ranks of Protestant evangelicalism.

Foor for thought. . .