This past Tuesday marked the 500th anniversary of the day a quirky Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther nailed a document called the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany sparking the Protestant Reformation. I started thinking about this when I registered for Together for the Gospel in 2016, and we went all in. I bought a monk robe, and got a couple cool reformation t-shirts. We also did a series on the Solas of the Reformation – which you can hear here. I know that so much has been written and said in the last several months, and more so in the past week. So I am not going to recount all the theology or give another biographical sketch. But I have spent the past couple months immersing myself in both the history and the theological thought from that moment, and I am incredibly thankful for the chance to do this. So as I am sitting here this morning, somewhat bringing that season to a close in my mind, I wanted to throw out a few random thoughts about that moment, and how it has affected me in ours.
- I am thankful for church history, and we need to teach it – I have spent most of my life in traditionally structured Southern Baptist Churches, and attended a SBC affiliated university. And the truth is that nobody ever taught me about the key figures and moments from our 2000+ year history. Yes, I learned about the book of Acts, but, for the most part, as far as I knew, the next important figure in history was Lottie Moon. I pretty much figured Baptists were direct descendants from John the Baptist, and for the most part, everyone else was just wrong. Little did I know that I actually had more in common in the Gospel to my Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Christian church brothers who took Sola Scriptura seriously than I did many of of those in SBC life who were even teaching at the colleges and seminaries at the time. And I realized that my faith in Jesus is tied to a huge story that involves lots of moments, people, and movements, and my story is shaped by those things. My time studying the Reformation and the life of Luther was a good reminder that we need to teach church history. We can do this by using Christian history illustrations in sermons, and by pointing people to moments in the story of the church in our theological discussions. Furthermore, we can provide resources to help our people teach these stories to children.
- Sola Scriptura is more than a catch phrase – The one thing that stands out to me from my own study is that, for the most part, almost every early reformer was influenced by the Humanist movement and had their epiphany moment when they opened the Scriptures for themselves. People like John Huss, William Tyndale, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin, and Wycliffe started reading the Scriptures in Greek, and God used the text of Scripture to open their eyes to the wonder of the Gospel. As a result they found their happiness in making much of Jesus. I need to remember this! My job as a preacher is to proclaim the Scriptures and show people Jesus, and then let the Holy Spirit do His work. My favorite quote from my study was from Luther on this point: I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. My people will learn the importance and authority of the Word from how I handle it in my preaching. I must continually show that my authority is in Scripture alone, and encourage their personal reading of the Holy Word of God so they too will discover the depths of Christ and His Gospel.
- The Gospel is deep, rich, and glorious!!!! – The Reformation proved that the Gospel really does not need to be defended, it just has to be unveiled and unleashed. Once the Gospel is proclaimed to a people who are thirsty it will satisfy, while at the same time leaving them wanting more. This happened in Acts when the Gospel was proclaimed in Jerusalem, and the crowd of believers went from 120, to 3,000, to over 5,000 men in three chapters and a period of months. It seems as if Pentecost happened again in Wittenburg, because in a few short years God brought awakening through the Gospel to Germany. And much like the Jewish leaders in Acts 3-5, the Roman church leaders and Emperor Charles were not prepared for the masses of people whose lives were being changed by the power of the Gospel. I actually believe there is an interesting parallel between the Diet of Worms in 1521 and the story in Acts 4:1-22. In both stories they want to silence the Gospel, return religious power to their control, and force the men in front of them to recant. In both stories the accused preachers stand firm on the centrality of Christ and truth of the Scriptures. And in both stories the religious leaders had not taken into account the miracle God was performing, but quickly realized that to act against the men in front of them would be incredibly dangerous. They thought they would have a pro-Roman crowd at the Diet of Worms, only to find that a huge majority were ready to defend Luther. Why was this? Because Luther brought them the Gospel, and their lives were changed.
- The Solas always have a works-based enemy – In the 16th Century, Luther and the Reformers were being confronted with the works-based system flowing from the authority structures in the Roman Church. But we live in the 21st Century, where people for the most part have cast off any authority structures from organized religion. Yet, there is always a works-based religious system that leads the majority of people in the culture on a self-salvation experiment and opposes the Gospel. The call for those redeemed by the Gospel to remain faithful. I believe the works based system in our day flows from the culture’s message of the autonomy of the self and the pursuit of self-actualization. In this system salvation is being true to yourself, pursuing your dreams and desires, and making the most of your life here on earth. For our culture, the only sin is the denial of the true self, especially the sexual self, or any person who makes truth claims on another person’s life. The only authority in your life is you. And the call is to a works-righteousness of self-esteem by making the most of yourself. Much like the Roman church in the 16th Century, the religion of our day is fine with each of the Sola statements, as long as we drop off the sola. They love the idea of a holy book that can help in the pursuit of dreams and give a few quotes. This religion loves faith and spirituality, and even the idea of Jesus as a guru. The problem is when you point to the absolute authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Jesus, that sin is actually an affront to a holy God, and that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. My point is that the Solas are still so very important, but in our culture we need to shift the direction of the preaching of them from that of confronting organized religion to addressing the Disney and Oprah induced religion of the masses in our day.
- The Reformation Still Matters – So, I guess this is the key theme. We are always reforming according to the Word of God. The reason is that I am always drifting back into a religious system where I find my identity and worth in my accomplishments. I start believing that I am really justified by my actions, and I will tend to treat my children with approval when they are good, and disapproval when they act like wicked sinners. So I need the Gospel continually, and need to continually be reforming. And so does my church. It never ends, so the truths rediscovered in the Reformation need to be proclaimed always.
So I am thankful for Luther, and for the moment 500 years ago. But I am also thankful for my moment in the story and the opportunity to preach and live my life standing on the authority of Scripture alone and proclaiming that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.