The Protestant Reformation: A Glorious Heritage
Beloved Christ Church, as Reformation Day approaches (October 31st) I thought I'd send along a few thoughts for your encouragement.
A few years ago my mother gave me a ninety-year-old confirmation certificate which belonged to her mother, Charlotte Emily Zilz. The entire document was written in German. My maternal grandmother was a member of a German speaking, Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Decatur, Illinois. On the certificate are drawings of the four gospel writers and Jesus nailed to the cross. Also displayed are the words Ich bin der Weg und die Wahrheit und das Leben [I am the way, the truth, and the life]. It was given to my grandmother in order to be a life-long reminder (Denkspruch) of her confirmation of faith and Godâ€™s steadfast love in Christ. Little did she know upon receiving it that it would make a powerful impression upon her grandson almost a century later! I was reminded of Godâ€™s covenant-keeping faithfulness which has been transforming lives for generations. I am profoundly grateful for my familyâ€™s rich Protestant / Lutheran heritage. Much bigger than a single family heritage, however, is the heritage that all Reformed and Lutheran Protestants enjoy, one that reaches back five centuries to the age of the Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation had its birth pains during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries through the extraordinary ministries of John Wycliffe (1320-1384), who was nicknamed the â€œMorning Starâ€ of the Reformation, and Jan Hus (1372-1415), the Bohemian Reformer, who was burned alive at the Council of Constance for defending the authority of Scripture over Popes and Councils. A hundred years later in 1517 the young Augustinian Monk, Martin Luther, (1483-1546) nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. Many have identified these protestations against Roman Catholic indulgences as the main catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. All across western Europe, in the 1520s and 30s, people were being influenced by Lutherâ€™s sermons and polemical writings. In Godâ€™s providence, the Gospel had been unleashed afresh and was transforming lives by the tens of thousands.
Some of those changed lives included men like the great Genevan Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564), systematizer of Reformation doctrine in His Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the English Reformer William Tyndale (1494-1536) who, for the first time, translated the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into early modern English. Like Hus, Tyndale was burned at the stake for preaching and writing â€œheresy.â€
Let us not forget about the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) who was largely responsible for resurrecting systematic expository preaching, that is, preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible; or his successor Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), a lesser known Reformer - though hugely influential - who wrote the Decades, a masterful work on doctrine and pastoral theology, and was largely responsible for the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. On and on we could go, listing the men who helped build a theological heritage which unashamedly elevates the authority and sufficiency of Scripture (Sola scriptura), the sovereign grace of God (Sola gratia), and redemption solely through faith in Christ (Sola fide & Solus Christus) - all to the â€œpraise of His glorious graceâ€ (Ephesians 1:6; Soli Deo gloria).
As Reformed and Confessional believers, we are a part of a beautiful, God-centered heritage. It is important that we do not forget it. Especially in a day when so many evangelical churches - even Reformed churches - are abandoning the fundamental tenets of the Reformation (read: Biblical Christianity).
One consequence of this abandonment is that the God-ordained means of grace have been slowly replaced by the man-centered / pragmatic means of numerical growth. Church programs ad absurdum, sanctified entertainment, slick celebrity pastors, and high energy praise bands have eclipsed what the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) calls â€œthe outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption,â€ namely, â€œWord, sacraments, and prayerâ€ â€"â€" the primary means made â€œeffectual to the elect for salvation.â€ (WSC Q/A #88)
In large part, the broad evangelical church has minimized or jettisoned those ordained means of grace. Consequently, the American church is a mile wide and an inch deep spiritually. There is very little serious discipleship going on and, in general, we have a poor understanding of the gospel. According to recent statistics over 60% of our children are leaving the church.
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) also directs us to the means of grace. Q. #65 asks, â€œSince then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed? Answer: â€œFrom the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.â€ In other words, God communicates Christ and all His benefits to the church through the Word preached and the sacraments (baptism and the Lordâ€™s Supper) rightly administered and received by faith. This is Christianity on Godâ€™s terms. The Protestant and Reformed heritage, at its best, has always sought to promote and defend these divine terms, ardently proclaiming nothing but â€œChrist and Him crucified.â€ (I Corinthians 2:2) Should it be any different for us?
Brothers and sisters of Christ Church, let us be on our spiritual toes and not allow the means of grace to be distorted or slide back into oblivion as in the middle ages. May our zeal be kindled afresh to keep Word and sacraments central in our church. To do so is to keep Christ central. Indeed, when the means of grace are central in our worship and ministry, God is glorified, Christ and His redemptive work are magnified, and the Holy Spirit is actively uniting sinners to Christ and nourishing their faith in Him.
Christ Church, may we rejoice in our wonderful Christ-Centered Heritage this Reformation Day!
~ Pastor Jon