I used to hate studying history. Boring, dry, stale, and completely unable to hold my attention. I would run from a history book (or blog) like it was the plague. Looking back, most of my disdain for history stemmed from my false belief that what happened in the distant past has no real implication on my life. I know, that’s a really stupid belief. Thankfully, I eventually came around to the importance of studying history. My mind was changed while studying Christian history. I found it fascinating that many of the traditions and beliefs held by individuals and churches have their foundation in events that happened hundreds, even thousands of years in the past. I quickly began to realize that you cannot really know what you’re doing unit you know why you’re doing it. And that brings me to October 31; Hallowee….I mean, Reformation Day.
Growing up, I had no idea that October 31 was a day to celebrate something far greater than candy and costumes. On October 31, 1517 a man named Martin Luther nailed a small work outlining his thoughts on indulgences. It would later be know as the 95 Theses, a work considered by many to be the spark of the Reformation. In the day’s of Martin Luther an indulgence was the catholic church’s way of removing punishment for sin–especially purgatory. You could do good works for an indulgence or simply buy one. One of the catholic church’s best know purveyors of indulgences, John Tetzel, is most remembered for his quip, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther, after spend much time studying the New Testament, was convinced that punishment for sin could only be removed by faith in Christ. That simple, biblical conclusion split the church.
If it’s your first time hearing Luther’s story you may have the common reaction of, “How could people believe that? How could people believe you could buy your way out of God’s punishment? After all, it’s plain as day in the Bible that only by grace through faith in Jesus is anyone saved.” But you have to remember another reality of Luther’s world. The common Christian could not read the Bible. And it wasn’t because they were illiterate. It was because the catholic church only allowed Latin Bibles–a language that only trained priests, bishops, and cardinals could read. In other words, the people of Luther’s day were completely at the mercy of their teachers. If your priest said, “The Bible teaches indulgences,” you had no way to argue against him.
But then there was the Reformation. A wave of God sweeping over countries. Brave men (you could be killed for these disagreements!) began translating the Bible into people’s native language, preaching from Scripture, and proclaiming the gospel of faith in Jesus. And so many things changed. Luther began to teach positively on marriage (he married the escaped nun Katharina von Bora), new churches formed, and so much distorted biblical doctrine was regained. In fact, if you go to a church that’s not catholic, chances are it began in the Reformation. Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and many more. Lump them together and they’re called Protestants (those people who protest catholic doctrine).
Unfortunately, we tend to forget our history. What, after all, are we supposed to do with it? Do we venerate reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon? No. These were not perfect men, especially Luther! As we remember, however, we can learn and be encouraged. You often see truth most clearly in the heat of the battle. I’ve personally learned more about faith, grace, baptism, repentance, and sovereignty from the reformers than any other group–precisely because they were fighting for those truths. There is so much we can learn from our collective Christian family history, and so much we may forget if we fail to do so.
If you want to learn more about the reformers here are some good starter resources:
Trick or Treat? It’s Martin Luther (online article)
Martin Luther: Lessons from his life and labor (online article)
The Freedom of a Christian* by Martin Luther
The Legacy of Sovereign Joy* by John Piper
*I own these books are you’re more than welcome to borrow them.