I begin today's post by quoting from Paul's letter to the Church at Rome in Romans 4:1-3:
"What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
This Saturday, October 31, will mark a significant date on the calendar. Many people may think of "Halloween" when I mention October 31st. However, there is a far greater set of reasons to celebrate. An event of historic proportions occurred over 500 years ago that would shape the course of Christianity even to this day - the Protestant Reformation.
The big deal that led to the Protestant Reformation
What was the Reformation? In 16th century Europe, cries for reform in the Medieval Catholic Church had ensued for centuries. Within the church, 14th century Christian thinkers such as John Huss and John Wycliffe were preaching sermons which urged people to "return to the Gospel" proclaimed by the first-century Christians by "returning to the Book" - the Bible. Moral, spiritual and theological corruption invaded the church in Europe through centuries of accumulated human tradition and high Biblical illiteracy. Roman Catholic scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus (who would become a major theological opponent of Martin Luther, the historically recognized initiator of the Protestant Reformation) was even urging the need for reform.
Early 16th century Germany was ripe for the actions of Martin Luther when he nailed a public document to the door of the church in Wittenburg Germany, challenging Roman Catholic leaders to a public debate over the abuse of Pope Leo X selling documents which promised less time in purgatory to pay for the construction of the then new St. Peter's Basilica (Church) in Rome. This peddling of lessening people's time in purgatory was known in those days as "selling of indulgences", since the Roman Catholic Church taught that an over abundance of merit before God was "indulged" or available at the appropriate price. Many people sought to purchase these documents with the thought of their dead loved ones having an easier time in the after-life. Astute thinkers like Martin Luther knew that this idea was not taught in scripture (that is, indulgences and Purgatory itself), and thus needed addressed.
How the Reformation got to the root of major spiritual problems and the point of this post
The Reformation would soon get to the root of the problems abounding in 16th century European spiritual life: what has ultimate authority (the Bible or the church)? How is a person "justified" or made right before God (is faith alone in Christ sufficient to receive salvation or is participation in the church's sacramental system needed to attain righteousness)?
The two issues of ultimate authority for Christianity and how a person is made right with God ever remain top areas of contention in our world. As we think about October 31, all Bible believing groups, including Southern Baptists, are deeply indebted to what God did through the Protestant Reformation that began on October 31st, 1517. Today's post is aimed at issuing forth two direct challenges to Southern Baptists and all other Bible believing groups about Reformation Day, October 31st:
1. A rejoicing challenge.
2. A take back challenge.
1. The Challenge to Rejoice
So why rejoice over Reformation day, October 31st? Three reasons....
a. The recovery of "sola scriptura"
or "scripture alone"
First of all, as mentioned already, the root or "formal cause" of Luther's "call for reform" had to do with ultimate authority in the Christian life and church. Martin Luther had become a professor of theology in 1512, tasked with the responsibility of expounding books of the Bible to theology students. As he wrestled with lack of peace in his own soul, the matter of ultimate authority would throb in the backdrop of his mind. Yes, Luther would come to terms with the "material cause" of the Reformation - the doctrine of justification or "how a person is made right with God" - in his preparation of lectures on Paul's letter to the Romans. Yet, in the years following his "Tower experience" conversion in 1515, Luther would champion the view of Jesus and the Apostles: Scripture alone. In short, "sola scriptura" affirms that the Bible, not human tradition, constitutes the grounds of authority that shapes life, explains the after-life and addresses the conscience.
To sharpen what Luther was needing to address in the Reformation, the big question was this: is it the Pope and his statements concerning who went to heaven and who did not constitute the ultimate authority for the church, or is it sacred scripture that God alone revealed to communicate matters pertaining to this life and the one to come?
As Martin Luther wrestled over such questions, his conclusion was - Scripture alone! Doubtless, other forms of authority such as church leadership, conclusions from reason and other forms of knowledge had their place in Luther's thinking. Yet, all of those said authorities were subsumed under scripture. Luther and other Reformers, such as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox and others affirmed the "magisterial" role of scripture in its relationship to reason, tradition and church leadership.
b. The recovery of justification by
faith alone or "sola fide" (faith
The second reason to rejoice over October 31st and Reformation Day is due to the recovery of the Gospel of Justification by Faith Alone (sola fide). In contrast to the man-made traditions of the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, Luther and those after him re-asserted the Biblical truth that faith by itself is both the necessary and sufficient means of receiving the gift of salvation. Old Testament passages such as Genesis 15:6 and New Testament passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9 affirm "sola fide" or salvation by means of "faith alone". Thus, justification by faith alone became the central doctrine, "the stuff" or "material cause" driving the vehicle of the Protestant Reformation. The doctrine of scripture alone (sola scriptura) was Luther's fuel in the engine that drove His call for reform - Justification by faith alone (sola fide). Luther himself noted that Justification by Faith is the one article upon which the church rises or falls.
c. Recovering the truth about the Biblical concept of the church
The third reason to celebrate Reformation Day, October 31st, is because the Biblical concept of the church was recovered. As Martin Luther denounced the Roman Catholic Church's system of indulgences, a second question emerged: how is a man or woman made right with God? A church that does not derive its authority from the scriptures nor teaches the Biblical concept of the Gospel - justification by faith alone, cannot be deemed a true church.
Roman Catholicism of 16th century Europe, as well as today, communicates faith to be necessary for salvation - however it teaches that faith by itself is not sufficient. According to Rome, one must participate in the Roman Catholic church system of baptism, confession, penance and Mass to be deemed right by God and to stay right. The Gospel in the Reformation's recovery of the church shined forth not as a candle but as a brilliant sun. If God had not raised up men like Martin Luther to spark the Reformation movement, then the recovery of Biblical authority, justification by faith in the Gospel and the necessary truth of the local church may had turned out quite different.
So we need to answer the challenge to celebrate Reformation day due to what God did in calling us back to the Bible, the Gospel and the Church.
2. The Take-Back Challenge: Let's take back October 31st and celebrate God's Word, the Gospel and Jesus' mission for His church
It is time to take back October 31, and use this day to proclaim the truth of scripture and the reformation, sparked on October 31, 1517. Truly the message of the Reformation is a message about "after darkness, light" (post tenebras lux). Gospel Light, not darkness, should characterize our lives as Christians.
October 31st has been for years a time for paganism to observe one of the so-called "spirit nights" on their yearly calendar. Rather than promoting a day of darkness and wickedness, witches, ghosts and goblins, Christians need to take a God-centered event like the Reformation and remind themselves of how God led His church back to the Bible, the Gospel of justification by faith alone and recovery of the Biblical concept of the church.
The Reformation was about calling forth people from spiritual darkness into the light of Jesus Christ. Someone once said: "It is more effective to light a candle than merely curse the darkness". Let's light the Gospel light and shine the glory of the Gospel. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:16 -
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."