“Reformation 500”

Talk given at Poole High School for Poole Christian Fellowship on 29 October 2017

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Today’s talk is less preaching and more lecture, and will lead us into the breaking of bread.

On 31st October 1517, five hundred years ago on Tuesday, a burly German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a document called the 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg in Germany.

The event itself was fairly unremarkable. If you wanted to start a public debate, or to make a political or religious point, you would put your thoughts in writing and nail them to a church door. A bit like putting on Facebook something that you are very unhappy about inside the church. Yet this seemingly insignificant gesture started an event called the Reformation, that has touched the lives of billions of people who have lived since then. It has touched your life and mine. A recent contributor to the Gospel Coalition website described it as the most significant event in human history since the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. And this week it is exactly 500 years ago. So what was it all about?

In order to understand it you have to understand the church situation in which Luther lived. The church had started with a blaze of glory at Pentecost, had consolidated through the centuries that followed, had recognised the full Bible by about 300AD and had spread across Europe and much of the world by 500AD. But then the church become institutionalised, political, wordly , corrupt and totally without power. Despite many glimmers of light and attempts to reform, the following 1000 years became known as the Dark Ages. And it the meantime, the religious landscape became a cauldron of discontent. Across Europe, in a world dominated by worldly clergy and bishops who had virtually no connection with authentic Christianity, the church was like a barrel of gunpowder waiting to explode. All it needed was for someone to strike a match. And on 31st October 1517, Martin Luther lit the match.
The initial issue was the selling of indulgences. The heretical idea that the dead went to purgatory to be purged of their sins was exploited by ruthless clergy who sold indulgences to get the dead out of their suffering and into heaven. Luther protested against this, and, by implication, the authority of the church.
Luther was summoned before the church hierarchy, ordered to recant and uttered those famous words “Here I stand, I can do no other”. He was declared an outlaw and the gunpowder barrel exploded across the Europe. Those who had wanted to return to the authority of the Bible now found a way to do so, and the following hundred years saw an explosion of light and grace across the world, as the truth, hidden for centuries, now became available for all to see and hear. We are children of the Reformation. If these events had not happened we would still be stuck in idolatry and witchcraft.

There were many bad consequences of the Reformation. The Counter Reformation which followed led to a thirty years war in which many thousands died, and, of course where there is truth there is also error. But men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and a whole host of other, were now free to bring the truth to millions who had been enslaved in darkness. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the German Monk and those who followed him.

Specifically, historians have said that the reformation discovered five truths:

1. “Sola Scriptura” – Scripture alone. The Reformers insisted on the truth that the only authority we have is that of God, who has made His will known through the scriptures.

2. “Sola Fide” – Faith alone. Luther discovered and taught that his entrance into heaven could not be bought by doing better, by living better or by earning heavenly brownie points. His life was changed when he realised that he did not have to fight the battle to be good enough for God, when Jesus had already fought the battle and won it.

3. “Sola Gratia” – grace alone. The Reformers understood that our sinfulness made it impossible for us to be saved any way other than by the mercy of God.

4. “Solus Christus” – Christ alone. There is only one way to God, and that is through the man, Jesus.

5. “Soli Deo Gloria” – Glory to God alone. The only one in the universe who can get any credit for the salvation of the human race is God himself.

Standing on these truths is more important than ever, and they all come together around the Lord’s table as Scripture alone testifies, to the finished work of Jesus, our only Saviour, so that, because of God’s grace, by faith we are able to come into God’s presence – for which the glory goes to God alone.

The Reformation indicates that God purposes will be done, even through sinful and flawed men. Even the most cursory glance indicates that the Reformers were fallible people who often got things wrong. What an encouragement that is for those of us who want to see God’s will done, but who know that we are so messed up. Take heart – God can work even through people like you and me!

There are so many stories of the Reformation, but let’s conclude by looking at one from our own country:
What follows is an excerpt written by Scott Hubbard, taken from the “Desiring God” website

For those familiar with the English Reformation, the name Latimer sounds incomplete on its own. It demands a Ridley.

Bishops Latimer and Ridley lived during the reigns of four English monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII (the one with all the wives), Edward VI, and Mary I (aka “Blood Mary”). Both witnessed the Reformation’s tug and pull under Henry VIII’s tentative acceptance, Edward VI’s warm embrace, and Mary I’s violent resistance to Reformed doctrine. But they were anything but casual observers.

Latimer, born around 1485, was converted around aged 40.Throughout the next couple of decades, he distinguished himself as a fervent Reformed preacher, at times enjoying Henry VIII’s favor for it, and at other times fearing his persecution (depending on the king’s mood).

Latimer assisted Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in reforming the English church, and he also preached like a man who just couldn’t stop. According to J.C. Ryle, “No one of the Reformers probably sowed the seeds of Protestant doctrine so widely and effectually among the middle and lower classes as Latimer.”

Then, in 1553, Queen Mary came to power, and Latimer was sent to a cell in the Tower of London.

Ridley, nearly twenty years Latimer’s junior, was born around 1502 near the border of Scotland. Throughout the next five decades, he would become one of England’s sharpest intellects, even going so far as to memorize all the New Testament letters — in Greek.

Ridley’s scholarly abilities launched him from one post to the next, From Canterbury to Westminster to Soham to Rochester to London, Ridley studied, preached, and, once Edward VI took the throne, threw himself into Cranmer’s reforms. But then Queen Mary came to power, and Ridley joined Latimer in the Tower.

On October 16, 1555, after spending eighteen months in a tower cell, Latimer and Ridley met at an Oxford stake. With Latimer in a frock and cap, and Ridley in his bishop’s gown, the two men talked and prayed together before a smith lashed them to the wood.

As the bundle of sticks caught fire beneath them, Latimer spoke. Raising his voice so Ridley could hear, he cried, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

And this candle never has been put out. We stand in the good of it today

John MacDiarmid
October 2017

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