Few people these days enjoy history. I have begrudgingly accepted that fact, as much as it frustrates me. But next Saturday marks the 498th anniversary of the event that triggered the Protestant Reformation. I hold the opinion that many current problems in evangelical circles stem from ignorance of and indifference to the battles that the early Reformers fought. For that reason, I choose to blog about this period of Church History with the hope that my readers will better understand the dangers of neglecting our spiritual heritage.
Martin Luther’s disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church originated with his study of Scripture, which he regarded as God’s highest authority. The Catholic Church (which held both religious and political authority at the time), by contrast, insists that it has authority equal to the Bible. It calls this doctrine “Magisterium.” Although Luther originally posted his 95 Theses strictly in response to John Tetzel’s oppressive tactics of selling Indulgences (see my last blog post), the resulting conflict alerted him to Rome’s elevation of ecclesiastical authority.
Magisterium usually diverted attention away from God’s Word, leaving 16th Century laity at the mercy of church officials. Luther suffered personally from the church’s false teaching that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross required human effort in order for it to effect a person’s salvation; the church excommunicated him for preaching justification by faith alone. Yet he clung to his conviction that Scripture, not Magisterium, had to be his final authority.
Later in his ministry, Martin Luther’s writings reflected the lessons he learned from his battles with Rome:
[Commenting on Psalm 119] “In this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly—but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you His Spirit only through the external Word.”
As I read this quote, I marveled at how well it applies to a quite different controversy among present-day Christians. The Charismatic mysticism that teaches believers to expect direct revelations from God have infiltrated the broader evangelical church, again diverting our attention away from God’s Word. This divergence implies that God’s Word is insufficient to address the questions and needs of mankind. Even though this current problem differs from the Catholic teaching that Luther opposed, it also attacks Scripture in a dangerous way.
21st Century Christians must look back to the Reformers, and consider their many sufferings for the sake of the Bible. God’s Word must not be taken lightly, nor must those who profess to be Christians add to its authority! As we consider the Reformation, and the sacrifices that the great Reformers endured for the sake of the Bible, may we grow to appreciate this wonderful Book that contains the very breath of our God.