It has been 496 years since Martin Luther’s Treatises were nailed to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. But we would be mistaken to think that the Reformation began or ended on that October night. Beyond the rumblings that were present in the church before Luther, the Reformed Church has ever since been required to keep its doctrine and life in accord with the Word of God. That, after all, was the foundation of the Reformation which remains today. We are the heirs of the Reformation, not in genealogy, but in what has been entrusted to us. It has been said that Luther began the Reformation, but Calvin finished it.
It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt. That may also be true of those who have been in Reformed Churches for some time. That which a new convert to Reformed doctrines is exuberant about, becomes increasingly commonplace or taken for granted by those who have known it for most of their lives. Or worse yet, these precious doctrines are no longer seen as essentials of the Christian faith.
It is good for us to remember the main areas that were “reformed,” some of which are badly in need of a renewal today.
1. The Bible is the sole inspired and authoritative source for doctrine and life. The Roman church had placed the Bible on equal footing with tradition and the proclamations of the church. In addition to that, it was forbidden for the average person to take up the Word and see if these things were true. The clerics were the sole interpreters of Scripture. The Reformers not only produced translations of the Bible in the people’s own language, but encouraged the people in the pew to pick it up and read it. Already in 1382, John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Bible, and was a forerunner of the Reformation. In 1415 the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic posthumously. His works were to be burned, his body exhumed (in 1428, at the Pope’s command it was burned and the ashes cast into the River Swift.) In that same year John Hus, a Czech priest who followed Wycliffe’s teachings, was burned at the stake for daring to challenge the church hierarchy and the Mass. Luther’s translation of the Bible into High German was the impetus for a return to the Bible in Europe. The Wycliffe Bible Translators have since played a part in more than 700 Bible translations.
2. Justification by God is by grace alone through faith alone. No longer were man’s works taught to be the basis of his righteousness before God. Christ’s death on the cross removed all of the believer’s sin and clothed him in the pure righteousness of Christ. The Reformers taught that saving faith is always evidenced, but not determined, by good works. The Roman Church erroneously teaches the infusion of Christ’s righteousness into a person, thus enabling him to perform works acceptable to God for righteousness. Our righteousness is imputed to us and covers all our sins—past, present, and future. Not only are we saved by faith alone, apart from our works, but faith itself is the gift of God through His Word and Holy Spirit. With this doctrine, central to Luther, gone were the necessity for indulgences, purgatory, and prayers to the saints—along with the financial profits that the church had been collecting through these.
3. Grace is in the hands of God alone to sovereignly dispense to undeserving sinners. The Church is not the dispenser of grace, nor can man cooperate, and by his works merit greater graces for himself. God alone gives the gift of salvation purely by sovereign grace. The Reformed Church teaches the “means of grace” (The Word, the sacraments, and prayer), but these are only the means that God uses to pour out His grace to us. Grace is, by definition, the gift of God to undeserving and condemned sinners.
4. Christ alone is the only mediator between God and man and the only way of salvation. It is Christ who purchased His Church with His own blood on Calvary’s cross. It is Christ who is the sole Head of the Church, not popes. Prayer and confession is made to the Father through Jesus Christ. His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to the Father. Christ’s death did not just make salvation a possibility, but through it He actually and effectually saved His people.
5. It is all for God’s glory alone. We cannot give glory partly to Christ, partly to Mary and the saints, and partly to the works of the sinner himself. If salvation is all from God alone, then the glory must go to God alone. If we are new creatures in Jesus Christ, then “old things are passed away; behold all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Romans 11:36 teaches us, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” Here, not only formal worship brings praise to God, but our entire lives are made new to praise God.
6. In addition to the five “solas” of the Reformation stated above, there were other contributions that flowed out of the Reformation. The creeds of the Reformed faith were produced to express clearly the doctrines it held. The Scriptures were systematically explained to identify the specific doctrines of the Reformed Church. Some were in the form of catechisms—the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Some were statements of faith—the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. There were many others, but historically these are the most significant and widespread.
7. Worship changed dramatically. The beauty of worship was no longer focused on the liturgy, the artwork, the statuary, or the ornate garments. Gone were the icons. The Reformers sought a simple and humble worship because they stood in awe at “the beauty of God’s holiness.” The Reformed Church set forth the regulative principle of worship, namely, that we are not to worship God in any other way than He has commanded in His Word. The people were encouraged to actually sing about their faith. So Psalms were put to music and hymns were written where the people, and not just a choir, could lift their voices to the Triune God. Worship was not to please or entertain the people, but to hear, to be edified, and to respond to a Holy God. The altars in Reformed churches were removed, and the pulpit now occupied the prominent location in the church because the preaching of the Word was central in worship.
8. Church government necessarily had to change. Gone was the church hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes. Pastors, elders, and deacons were chosen by and from among the people. The government of the church was conducted by elders (teaching and ruling) who formed the consistory and the spiritual council. Beyond the local church was the Classis and the Synod (or Presbytery and General Assembly) where business was conducted and appeals heard. Church government was patterned after the New Testament Church. The ruling elders, chosen by and from among the people, in particular were given the oversight and discipline of the church. There was a return to the meaning of the word “church”—the called out ones who were engrafted into the body of Christ. The Roman church bristled at the idea that there is a “holy catholic church,” (see HC54) because, to them, salvation was only to be found within the Roman Catholic Church.
9. The sacraments were the subject of the most heated of the debates at the time of the Reformation. The Reformed Church, in distinction from the Roman and Lutheran churches, has set forth the meaning of the sacraments in their creeds. Baptism was the covenant sign and seal given to infant children of believers in the church and to converts to the faith to show their inclusion in the Christian Church and the covenant of grace. Lord’s Supper did not present the physical body and blood of Christ to be eaten, but taught that Christ was spiritually present and that we partake of Him in faith. It was not a sacrificial act, but a sacramental act. It became a celebration by all believers of what Christ has done for them on the cross.
10. The doctrines of grace were set forth in what has become known as the Five Points of Calvinism. While these were touched on in other doctrinal areas earlier, here they are placed under the spotlight to distinguish them from Arminianism, where man has a free will and God’s power to save is limited, and thus man plays a pivotal part in his own salvation. Calvinism teaches the sovereign grace and power of God to save His helpless, elect people. These doctrines are especially spelled out in the Canons of Dort: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. To place salvation entirely in the hand of God removes the one thing that plagued people before the Reformation—FEAR. Instead of fear and insecurity, complete salvation by grace through faith alone gives us the assurance and comfort that can never be achieved apart from the grace of God.
Now, there are certainly more off-shoots and applications of the Reformation that we could look at, but let it suffice to say the Reformation was a top to bottom change in the faith and life of the church. We have an incredibly rich heritage given to us by God—something to really be excited about!
The Reformation became the occasion for various groups to depart from Roman Catholicism, but certainly not all adhered to the Reformed doctrines as we know them today. There was pietism, rationalism, Lutheranism, anabaptism, Pentecostalism, and Arminianism, etc. These might find their roots in the Reformation, but would not be followers of the Reformers that we have been led by—Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Bullinger, Ursinus, and Olevianus, etc. It is invaluable for us to pick up the books these men have written to see again how they directed the Reformed Church based on a true interpretation of God’s Word.
The question is, how are we handling the inheritance? Is it already spent, or are we investing it in the lives of our offspring that they may have the amazing joy that sprang from the hearts of the people who had become a part of the Reformation? It is said that the church must always be “reforming.” That is true to the extent that we should be building on the doctrines given to us and always directing and redirecting the church according to the infallible Word of God. What this does not mean is that we can depart from these teachings in order to be more culturally acceptable.
Among the heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we have seen enormous departures from the most basic teachings of our Reformed forefathers. In some cases this unraveling harkens back to a pre-Reformation mindset. It is the task of each generation to examine where we have come from, in order to determine where we are going.