What was the Protestant Reformation?

We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old. (Psalms 44:1)

“We have heard” the text says. But the problem is that, for generations, we have not heard! Our fathers have failed to pass on to their children the good heritage of the knowledge of God’s mighty acts; and we have been left to find out for ourselves, or else to remain ignorant.

On this 500th anniversary of the Great Reformation, it behooves us to do what in us lies to make known just what it was, and how it has mightily affected the lives of all nations to this day! Just what are we talking about when we speak of “the Reformation”?

Most of you know that the Reformation involved a rediscovery of the holy Scriptures. You may have heard of the four “solas“:

Sola Scriptura — Scripture alone

Sola gratia — Grace alone

Sola fide — Faith alone

Sola Christa — Christ alone

This is a good summary of the principles of the Reformation; but if this is all we know of it, we will not fully understand what it was, and why it is so important.

It is, of course, impossible to do this subject justice in the space of forty minutes. All one can hope to do is to shed some rays of light upon it, and hopefully to create an interest in those who love truth — a desire to know more. This presentation will be short on historical details. I have had to leave out much that I would have wished to put in. There is no shortage of books and videos that give that information better than I could have done. My aim is to give you the “big picture”, rather than a historical sketch.

It is my belief that it is our duty to recover our Reformed heritage. And it is my fervent prayer that God’s people will awake to the glory of their heritage; and to find inspiration and wisdom for the difficult times in which we find ourselves — times which call for a new Reformation!

What then was that great upheaval that we call “The Protestant Reformation”?

First, it was a resurgence of biblical Christianity in doctrine and practice. As such, it transformed the social life of whole nations. It was such a powerful and sustained moving of the Spirit of God that it even transformed the central institutions of life: the family, the church, the school, the legal system, even governments and international relations.

Second, it was a work of God, born out of the cry of the Christian conscience. It was carried on as a powerful Spiritual revival and a sequence of striking Divine providences. Because it was God’s doing, and not man’s, it cannot be limited to any one man or any single place. It took its rise in many places simultaneously, building on what had gone before.

Third, it has had lasting effects on the culture of the whole civilized world. It dramatically lessened the power and weakened the influence of the Papacy throughout the world. It left its mark in every sphere of human creative endeavor: literature, music and the fine arts. Most importantly, it started a missionary movement that carried the gospel to the heathen world; and goes on today!

I will endeavor to make a few pertinent comments on these three points.

First, the Reformation of the sixteenth century was a restoration of Christianity to a world that had effectually suppressed it and substituted a counterfeit. This had been effected by the apostasy of the church and its gradual corruption, until it was no longer the church of Jesus Christ; but an organization wholly co-opted for the evil purposes of men: wealth and power.

The church was no longer defined as the whole company of the faithful; but as the clerical hierarchy. The people were merely their servants, and had no voice or vote concerning any matter.

The wealth of nations was being systematically drained away by church taxes, charges for services, and impositions of all sorts. The richest man in England at one time was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and not the King! While the Bishops and Abbots and the horde of locusts called the lesser clergy lived in luxury, the greater part of the spoils went to Rome, which, like our Washington D.C. had an insatiable thirst for money.

The Pope was called “God’s Vicar” and had unlimited authority in every area of every man’s life. He could nullify a vow or forgive any sin. This kind of unlimited power was logically consistent with the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation, which is that the physical body of Jesus Christ could be conjured up out of a piece of bread by the incantations of a priest (and then eaten by people who could only taste, feel, and smell it as ordinary bread. What a miracle!)

To doubt the universal authority of the Pope was heresy. The clergy were exempt from arrest or prosecution by any secular authority. They literally had license to do what they pleased; and many of them were no better than criminals. Monks and priests, who had to take a vow of celibacy, were notoriously unclean, and a threat to the wives and daughters of honest men. The monasteries in England were systematically investigated under Thomas Cromwell; and many of the practices uncovered there were so vile that they could hardly be believed. Yet these men were, according to the “church”, more holy than ordinary men.

In short, what was called “the church” was a vast, international criminal conspiracy under the name of the church. The real church was in captivity, as documented in Luther’s famous book, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.

For centuries before the Reformation, anyone who had the temerity to reject any of “the church’s” teachings or practices in favor of the religion of the New Testament placed himself in mortal jeopardy thereby. Anyone who was not regularly seen at mass, or who ate meat on Friday, could be imprisoned, tortured, condemned and burnt. To possess the Scriptures, or even a few verses, in the vernacular language was a crime. Not only were individuals and religious communities persecuted for the gospel’s sake; but the Papacy slaughtered whole populations of peaceful agrarian Christians who lived in the Alpine valleys. The demonic brutality of these soldiers of the Pope is documented; but it takes a strong stomach to read of them. He literally made war against nations, such as Bohemia, that declared themselves under the authority of God’s word, rather than the Pope’s.

If any king or prince resisted his iron hand in his own realm, the Pope could declare his subjects free from obedience, and could command them, and other princes, to overthrow him. In addition to this, the confessional allowed him to spy on everyone, and to pry into every man’s inmost thoughts. Remember that the confessional was not optional. One’s sins had to be pardoned by a priest, or they would have to be atoned for in the fires of purgatory, or even Hell! Even the royalty of Europe were not exempt — each had his appointed confessor; and the mighty emperor, Charles V, trembled when his confessor would not give him absolution until he promised to wipe out the Protestants in Germany.

The evils of the Roman catholic cult were so many and so great that it would take a book just to survey them, without going into much detail. The so-called “church” was a terrible, crushing burden rather than a blessing on mankind. It was a cloud of locusts, eating up all the labor of men’s hands. It threatened the populace with damnation for minor or even non-offenses, while absolving the most horrendous crimes committed by it’s own protected class. Even today, where Rome reigns, these same evils exist.

We talk about the difficulty of “draining the swamp”. Yes, it looks impossible. But consider the swamp that Luther and Calvin and all the other faithful men of that age had to drain! And yet they succeeded to a degree almost unimaginable! They could not reform the unreformable false church; but they built up the true church in many lands, and conquered territory held for centuries in darkness with the light of God’s truth. They set free the consciences of men bound with the Pope’s laws, that they might fear God, and obey His! They restored faith, hope and love to the lives of people, families, churches and communities that had only known moral degradation and oppression.

Second, it was an awakening of the consciences of men, a sovereign work of Almighty God. The awakening of consciences is His work alone. Men do not become more sensitive to the voice of conscience on their own. The tendency is rather for conscience to be suppressed until it gradually becomes silent. It was men whose consciences would not leave them alone that drove on the work. Martin Luther’s famous words , spoken when he was on trial for heresy before the Emperor Charles V will never be forgotten:

“Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments… my conscience is bound to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!”

Calvin documents his own struggles to shake off the convictions he received, and to suppress the thunderings of God in his own conscience. Here was a man who could have become a famous jurist, a Cardinal, or even a Pope! He would rather have been a secluded scholar, writing books somewhere, than be in the midst of the storm, giving up all his comforts, risking his life every day for the glory of God, for conscience’ sake!

The fruit of the Reformation shows it to be God’s work. The character of the reformers and martyrs abundantly evidence it to be God’s work. The innumerable striking providences of God that brought it to pass are further evidence. But ultimately, the fact that the Reformation was founded on God’s word, and furthered it, is the surest proof that it was the work of God.

Many people think that Luther was the first to declare the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and so credit him with starting the work; but this is not quite true. Wyclif and Hus went before him by a hundred years, and left behind a numerous body of believers. Lefevre in France and Zwingli in Switzerland both anticipated Luther’s formulation of the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” by several years. Before they had even heard his name, they were teaching the so-called “Lutheran” doctrine. The Vaudois had retained the gospel since they moved to those Alpine valleys many centuries before. This fact of the multiple sources of the Reformation adds yet another proof of its Divine origin. That such a movement could begin in different nations and cultures; and yet unite them in a common faith is itself remarkable.

Third, it has had lasting effects on the culture of the whole civilized world. It was not merely a great revival of religion, such as the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century under Whitfield and the Wesleys. This is not to diminish that wonderful work of God, documented in breathtaking detail by Arnold Dallimore in his three-volume work. It differed from this in that it was not clearly “over” in a few years. Nor did any revival in history have the scope or the deep effect on the world that the Reformation did. It was more like the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the first century, when the gospel first went into the world and won conquests everywhere, putting an end to Paganism and transforming the Gentile world.

If a new Reformation were to be granted by Heaven today, it would not only mean the revival of the churches and the conversion of multitudes, but also the end of secular humanism’s dominance: a restoration of biblical law in the state, an end to humanistic mis-education in the schools, the salvation of marriage and the family, and a radical reconstruction of the work life of man in the economy.

The Reformation dramatically lessened the power and weakened the influence of the Papacy throughout the world. It did not end it; but it greatly reduced its scope, and ended its dominance. The Protestant nations gained the ascendancy in power, wealth, science and technology, industry and commerce in a short time. This dominance continues to this day in the nations that were once Protestant.

It left its mark in every sphere of human creative endeavor: literature, music and the fine arts. In this, it resembles the first conversion of the Gentiles and the age of Constantine. Art reflects the artist’s aspirations, ideas of beauty, and inevitably, his religion. Some of the most important literary works, and those acknowledged as the greatest or the most popular, were written by the Reformers or those of following generations who were educated in Protestant schools.

Most importantly, the Reformation started a missionary movement that carried the gospel to the heathen world; and goes on today! It was providential that Luther’s struggles with the Papacy began shortly after the invention of the printing press. By this means, his written works and doings were made known wherever there were people who could read. Entrepeneurs made fortunes publishing his works, and tracts, essays and books by the other Reformers. The instinct of every true Christian is to evangelize — to share the great news of Jesus Christ with his neighbors. The field was ripe. The whole world was Roman Catholic, and very few had any notion of the gospel. So the work began at home. But it was not long before colporteurs and preachers were being sent out to foreign lands, wherever the gospel had not been preached before. Succeeding generations of Protestant Christians have carried on the work, which reached its zenith in the nineteenth century.

The Reformation was most concerned about the relationship of the individual to God. Everything starts there; but it does not end there. The new-created, enlightened soul then finds that the Word of God is a rule for all of life and all its institutions. Men and women who fear God and not man exert an irresistible force, each in his own sphere, and the world is changed thereby. Even if the world makes a martyr of him, he conquers; for in his honest adherence to his principles, he bears eloquent testimony to the truth and value of them. He glorifies God in his death, and makes an impression on those who look on that is not easily forgotten. Consciences are awakened, and that is what a Reformation feeds on!

Dear brothers and sisters, let us so live that we can be an instrument for awakening the consciences of our fellow human beings! Then they will be open to hear the word of God as never before! And let us never fail to give out the word when we have opportunity. We know not what our witness will effect in others. Perhaps if we were more faithful, we would be seeing a revival of religion even now! Perhaps it is true of us, as it was of the cities of old: “But Jesus could do no mighty works there because of their unbelief.” Let it not be so! Hearing of the mighty works of God in the past, let us believe all things with respect to the future. The early Baptist missionary to Burma, Adoniram Judson, was once asked “What are the prospects for the speedy conversion of the heathen?” His answer — “They are as bright as the promises of God!”

Howard Douglas King

October 28, 2017