Here in the United States of America, our collective attention centers on the midterm elections. Inflation and abortion dominate as the two major issues, causing this election cycle to be a referendum on (respectively) the Biden administration and the Supreme Court. It’s quite appropriate that Christians, in our desire to be salt and light to a culture that thumbs its nose at God’s laws, would be deeply concerned about what happens on November 8.
As critical as the midterm elections are, it troubles me that very few Christians have any concern about what happened in Germany on October 31, 1517. Actually, most Christians think of October 31 as a reason to debate whether or not to participate in Halloween. When you mention the Protestant Reformation, they give you a quizzical look and hasten to change the subject.
I admit to once being indifferent to the topic, even as for a Christian. During my Freshman year of college, my Political Science professor covered it briefly, pretty much attributing it to Martin Luther’s chronic bouts of constipation. For decades, I knew little about Luther beyond his digestive problems. Furthermore, I didn’t really think the Protestant Reformation had much to do with me. I believe most Christians share that indifference.
Bear in mind that most evangelicals today confuse Martin Luther with a certain 20th Century civil rights leader whose Christianity was, at best, questionable. They don’t really care much about church history, and consequently they don’t understand the theological importance of the Reformation. Distinctions between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism blur into warm fuzzy ecumenicalism, obscuring the Gospel in favor of false unity.
Evangelicalism is a mess precisely because we ignore the Reformation.
We often forget, however, that the visible church has always been a mess. Paul wrote most of his epistles for the express purpose of confronting false doctrines and sinful practices within the First Century churches. As Roman Catholicism developed its system of justification by works, few professing Christians understood the Gospel of salvation by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
The Protestant Reformation restored the Bible to common people, showing them how the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the pure doctrine of the Gospel with its traditions. The Lord used Martin Luther to ignite all of Europe to compare Catholic teaching with Scripture, thus exposing that Rome indeed taught a system vastly different from what God had spoken through His Word.
Indeed, the central focus of the Reformation was leading Christians back to the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church, while acknowledging the Bible to be God’s Word, capitalized on the widespread illiteracy in mediaeval Europe by forbidding translations in any language other than Latin. This strategy ensured that it could rarely be read by anyone other than clergy, consequently concentrating power in the hands of priests, bishops and popes. Martin Luther saw how priests, bishops and popes abused this power by teaching the extrabiblical doctrine of Purgatory and then selling Indulgences so that people could shorten their loved ones’ (or their own) time there. As the Reformers translated Scripture into common languages, people could see various teachings of Rome that didn’t line up with God’s Word.
Since the 16th Century, Christians have once again concocted ways to distort or dismiss Scripture in favor of man-made philosophies. Although no one religious system holds as much power as the Roman Catholic Church held in the Middle Ages, many 21st Century churches distort Scripture and/or dismiss its authority. We’ve forgotten what the 16th Century Reformers and 17th Century Puritans went through in order to make good Bible teaching available to all believers. As we minimize the Bible, we become as vulnerable as the mediaeval Christians to false teaching and spiritually abusive practices.
That vulnerability, ladies, is precisely why we must learn from the Reformers! They set the example of measuring all things against the standard of God’s Word, and we must follow their example. October 31 is a time to remember God’s grace in raising up men like Martin Luther who would make Scripture available to all Christians.