Happy Reformation Day! On October 31, 1517, 503 years ago today, the German monk Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That event marked the beginning of what became known of as the Protestant Reformation. Few remember that day today...even in the Church world. Even fewer remember what the Reformation was about or what it accomplished. It is no overstatement to say that the Reformation changed Western Civilization and was responsible for the founding of America as Protestants fled Europe to find religious freedom and a new beginning for their lives. Some of those people were called the "Pilgrims" who started our Thanksgiving tradition that most of us will celebrate in November.
At the heart of the Reformation was a story about how one man, Martin Luther, rediscovered God and changed the world. Before the Reformation everybody believed in God, but the God they knew wasn't the real God of the Bible. The Catholic Church at that time was very powerful and had its influence on every aspect of people's lives from their births and baptisms to their deaths and burials. But while the Church permeated every aspect of people's lives, the God behind the Church was largely unknown. People didn't read the Bible. There weren't any Bibles to read, nor any study guides available for the Gospels. People's only view of God was filtered and mediated by the clergy and the Church. As a result, people's view of God was whatever they were told by the Church's hierarchy.
Now the average person knew they had sinned against the Lord and others. They not only knew that from their own experience of life, but the Church told them that in a very clear way if there was any doubt of it. The problem, however, was that the people never really understood what God had done in and through the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel to deal with their sin. As a result, most people never had any clear understanding of how to get to Heaven. Most people believed they would go to Purgatory when they died for a few hundred years or so as a preschool or preparation for Heaven to purify them and make them worthy. The word "Purgatory" and the doctrinal beliefs surrounding it were not developed or created during the New Testament period of the 1st century. The doctrine and practice of Purgatory emerged up to a thousand years later as a part of the Church's tradition that came to be seen with the same authority as the Biblical view of the Gospel.
Before the Reformation, Martin Luther lived under this same cloud of sin, divine judgment and Purgatory. In some ways, Luther's very life as a monk reflected his attempt to escape his sin and please God. Luther clearly knew he was a sinner and was sure God was going to punish him one way or another in this life or in Purgatory. Luther's spiritual battles with himself and God in some ways reflected the plight of multitudes of people at the time. Sadly, Luther become so despondent about the Lord's seeming lack of love and grace that he began to resent, if not hate, the God of the Bible and the impossible demands placed on him and others to please Him.
Thankfully by God's grace, Luther eventually came to discover that everything he believed about God was largely wrong or twisted. He finally began to study the Bible for himself as a teaching monk at a university in Wittenberg, Germany where the Lord showed him the truth. Here are Luther's own words about that journey from confusion and anger to freedom and celebration as he meditated on the Bible's story of grace in passages like Romans 1:17,
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!" Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
Once Luther had discovered God's amazing grace for himself he started to share it with others. Luther finally understood that Christ died for him. He stopped trying to hide from God's righteous judgment for his sin by being "good" and/or doing something about that reality and truth with his "good works". Luther was able to see that the Gospel was the Good News that the Lord Jesus Christ took his sin, death and Hell away and gave him a new beginning and right standing with God by grace alone. Here is a famous quote that Luther used to share with members of his congregation about how he dealt with these nagging spiritual issues that come to us all. Luther said,
So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: "I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!
Luther understood that the Lord Jesus Christ had exchanged His life for Luther's. Jesus took Luther's sin, death and Hell away by His substitutionary death on the Cross for him. Luther came to realize that the entire message of the Bible and the Christian faith was really about God's grace and what the Lord had done for him, not what he had done for the Lord. That truth and discovery changed Luther, Europe and the entire world. Luther never discovered anything new about God, Luther simply rediscovered the God of grace in the Bible that was always there from the beginning.
On this 503rd anniversary of the Reformation today, multitudes of people are still confused about the Lord's grace and love for them. Multitudes still have no real assurance of going to Heaven and feel stuck in an early "purgatory". The majority of people, both Protestant and Catholic, still struggle with Biblical illiteracy and seem to know little more about what the Bible teaches on these issues than the people did in Luther's day. Multitudes of people are still attending churches today and/or listening to members of the clergy that seem to be just as confused as the spiritual leaders were in Luther's day. Several recent studies have even demonstrated that less than 10% of all church going people have a Biblical view of basic, Christian doctrine. It is almost as if the American Church has learned little from the Reformation and the life of Martin Luther. In some ways, history has come full circle and we are now repeating the errors of the past and need another Reformation.
But on this Reformation Day weekend, it is a joy to celebrate with Luther and all of the redeemed that sin, death and Hell has passed over our lives. We have experienced a Passover of these things through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on the Cross. Yes, we did deserve divine judgment, but God's amazing grace has set us free to live a new and wonderful life. The truly redeemed person can confidently look at sin, death and Hell and know they are free from them and can live a new life forevermore with the Lord. That is the Good News for every Christian to celebrate and share with others. So, in a way, the Reformation is NEVER really over. There will always be someone that needs to discover the Lord and His grace and Gospel afresh. May our Lord raise up a new generation of "Luther's" in this hour to share such wonderful truths with everyone we can. Pass it on.