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3 ways the Protestant Reformation reshaped Christianity

Martin Luther
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“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” That was the desperate question cried out by the Philippian jailer in Acts 16 after Paul, Silas, and the other prisoners had been miraculously freed by a divine earthquake. Approximately 1,500 years later, it was the exact same question that drove Martin Luther — a Roman Catholic German monk tortured by the weight of his sins before a righteous God — to Romans 1:17. There, finally, he found the glorious doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Luther’s self-wrought chains of perpetual guilt finally fell away. He exclaimed: “I began to understand that the ‘justice of God’ meant justice by which the man lives through God’s gift, namely by faith … Here I felt that I was altogether born again and entered paradise itself through open gates” (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 63).

Yet this soothing balm for Luther’s troubled soul — the biblical teaching that forgiveness and salvation are the free gifts of God, not earned by human merit — would not be constrained to the life and times of one man. No, it would prove to be the spark of the Reformation, lighting what Richard Sibbes called “that fire which all the world shall never be able to quench” (Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, 191).

By questioning the method of securing God’s grace unto salvation in the life of a Christian, Luther — and subsequent Reformers — struck at the core of the entire Catholic religious and political system. If sinners were made right by God on the basis of His free gift of grace, what need was there to participate in the costly and convoluted system of confession, penance, prayers, pilgrimages, and the purchase of indulgences?

Now, over 500 years after the start of the Reformation, the big picture results are obvious. Part of better appreciating our heritage is understanding how it continues to play out in our lives today. So, let’s take a moment to zoom in and explore how the Reformation specifically reshaped our understanding of:

  1. The Church
  2. The role of the pastor
  3. The administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper)

How the reformation reshaped the Church

The Reformation reshaped our understanding of the Church in at least two substantial ways. First, it reordered the hierarchy of authority between God’s Word and the Church. Roman Catholic practice and tradition held that the Church, and ultimately the pope, was the highest authority in the life of a Christian, even over Scripture. 

But Reformers, like Luther, came to understand that the truth was actually the other way around: “The church, far from having priority over the Scripture, is really the creation of Scripture, born in the womb of Scripture” (George, 82). It was from this doctrine of sola scriptura that Luther and others were able to slowly recover the New Testament vision of the Church as a body of believers, who join together in submission to God’s Word.

A second way the Reformation reshaped our understanding of the Church was by exploring this fundamental question: Who gets to be a part of the local, visible church? Prior to the Reformation, national identity and church membership went hand in hand. Though Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli broke with Rome, they did not dispense with infant baptism as being an acceptable entryway into the life of the Church.  And while we have records that Calvin did seek to exclude notable profligates from the Lord’s Supper — “I will die sooner than this hand shall stretch forth the sacred things of the Lord to those who have been judged despisers.”

The belief and practice of believer’s baptism was, in large measure, initially brought into the Reformation mix through figures like Felix Manz, who was drowned for his support of believer’s baptism, and notable Anabaptist leaders like Menno Simons. By preaching and practicing regenerate church membership, along with the belief that “faith does not follow from baptism but baptism from faith,” the Anabaptists placed themselves in the crosshairs of both the mainstream Reformers and the Catholics, suffering severe persecution because of it.

How the Reformation reshaped the role of the pastor

The principle of sola fide (faith alone) dispensed with the need of priestly practices for the absolution of sins. This led to jettisoning the observation of the Catholic Mass as the main purpose for gathering. Thus, the Reformers came to understand that preaching God’s Word rightly to the people in a language they could understand was the primary responsibility of the pastor.

Few Reformers embodied this better than John Calvin. After laboring in Geneva for less than two years, Calvin was, for a time, expelled. Yet just three years later, Geneva asked for him to return. Calvin reluctantly agreed, and in 1541, resumed his role as pastor and walked back into his pulpit. Reeves writes that “the congregation braced themselves for the torrent of anathemas that must surely come from an embittered deportee now given a public voice. Instead, Calvin simply took up the exposition of the next verse which followed his previous passage, from three-and-a-half years before.” Calvin returned with no personal agenda but had come as a preacher of God’s Word. In fact, “Calvin preached more than 200 times per year and lectured through nearly the entire Bible” (Jon Balserak, Calvinism: A Very Short Introduction, 4).

Calvin was no exception amongst the early Reformers, as Zwingli equally prioritized preaching as the primary function of a pastor, claiming, “Lo, here you have the Scripture as master and teacher and guide, not the Fathers, not the misunderstood Church of certain people” (George, 131).

This understanding of the primary role of a pastor continued on through the Puritans, in the likes of Richard Sibbes in the 17th century, to Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century, Charles Spurgeon in the 19th, Martin Lloyd Jones in the 20th, and now to us today, with men like John MacArthur.

How the Reformation reshaped the sacraments

The Roman Catholic Church taught that were seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Mass, penance, marriage, ordination, and last rites, which functioned as “taps of grace” administered by the priests into the life of the Christian (Reeves, 18).

But, with almost universal agreement, the Reformers rejected all but baptism and the Lord’s Supper as authentic sacraments. In their retention of these two, they advocated for a fundamentally different understanding of the nature and purpose of both. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were no longer a means of receiving faith but rather the expression of a faith already confessed. Luther argued that “You can believe even though you are not baptized, for baptism is nothing more than an eternal sign which reminds us of the divine promise” (George, 93). 

Regarding the Lord’s Supper, the Reformers made a radical change in advocating for the masses to receive both the bread and the wine, and on a regular basis. Previously, the practice of the Catholic Church was to perform the sacrament in front of the people, only allowing participation once a year, and even then, just to receive the bread. More significantly, the Reformers rejected the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine were transformed in their essence into the literal body and blood of Christ.

Conclusion

The Reformation didn’t just reshape our understandings of the Church, the pastor, and the sacraments, but rather it gave birth to a new ecclesiological and theological tradition. This tradition is one that prioritizes the authority of Scripture over human tradition, God’s divine initiative in salvation over human effort, and the sufficiency of Christ’s saving work over any human works to merit saving grace. I say “new,” but, in fact, it is as old as Christianity itself. 

We teach that the Church is under submission to the authority of God’s Word. We prioritize the role of a pastor as an expositor of God’s Word. And we properly administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, not as means of saving grace but as “tall guideposts along life’s highway” (George, 94).  These Reformation recoveries, this reshaping of our lives and teaching as Christians, have served as guideposts for over 500 years so far. And should the Lord tarry, we trust that they will continue to guide the way for 500 more years yet to come.


Originally published at the Standing for Freedom Center. 

William Wolfe served as a senior official in the Trump administration, both as a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon and a director of legislative affairs at the State Department. Prior to his service in the administration, Wolfe worked for Heritage Action for America, and as a congressional staffer for three different members of Congress, including the former Rep. Dave Brat. He has a B.A. in history from Covenant College, and is finishing his Masters of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Follow William on Twitter at @William_E_Wolfe

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