A Brief History of the Reformation

In popular culture, October 31 is recognized as “Halloween”, a holiday which is thought by many to be a harmless occasion for children to dress in costumes and collect candy from neighbors.  In truth, though, this is a pagan practice which originated with the ancient Celts, who held the belief that – on this one day of the year – the spirits of the dead can return to earth.  In time, it was determined that the best way to prevent attacks from the evil spirits as they returned was by wearing costumes and masks that disguised the individual as one of those spirits.

The celebration of “Halloween” is recorded as early as 1556, when it was first known as “All Hallow’s Eve” – the day before the Christian celebration of “All Hallow’s Day” (also known as “All Saints’ Day”) on November 1, when Christians historically celebrated the legacy of the Christians who had already died and entered Heaven.  Prior to the establishment of “Halloween” as a secular holiday, though, there was a far greater event which took place on October 31…

For centuries, to be a Christian was to be under the authority and leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.  Growing dissension within the church led to an event known as “The Great Schism” in 1054, when the church divided into two distinct faith traditions – Roman Catholic and Orthodox.  Still, for those who remained members of the Roman Catholic Church and struggled to live according to the teaching of their leaders, something else still needed to be done.  The priests had refused to let the Bible be translated into any other language besides Latin, arguing that nobody but trained priests were equipped to read and interpret the Bible.  As a result, the church members were forced to depend upon the clergy for spiritual instruction and guidance.

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church had become increasingly governed by the superstitious beliefs and false doctrines of their leaders.  For example, the priests were calling upon the church members to purchase “indulgences” (pardons from sin) on behalf of their deceased loved ones who were believed to be in “purgatory”, waiting to be released from their eternal bondage and permitted into Heaven.  Rather than teaching what the Bible truly says about salvation, the church leaders were teaching their parishioners that only by purchasing specific “indulgences” could they – or their loved ones – be assured of an eternity in Heaven.  Each year, on “All Saints’ Day” (November 1), the church members would pay for the necessary indulgences, parade past a collection of spiritual relics owned by the church, and plead to the deceased saints for the release of their loved ones from purgatory.

A growing number of church leaders recognized that these teachings were heretical, and knew that change was desperately needed, but still they remained silent.  They lived in a day when the religious authorities would sentence anyone who spoke out against the Roman Catholic Church to excommunication from the church, or – worse yet – death by burning.  Then – as today – few people were willing to risk their own lives for the sake of what they knew to be true.

In God’s providence, a young monk and theology professor by the name of Martin Luther was assigned to a parish in the German town of Wittenburg.  He drafted a document, which came to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses, which offered a scholarly refutation of these unbiblical teachings, and on October 31, 1517 (“All Hallow’s Eve”), he nailed the document to the door of Castle Church (also known as “All Saints’ Church”).  The Ninety-Five Theses was quickly translated from Latin into German so that it might be more accessible to the people.  Within two weeks, copies of the document had spread throughout Germany; within two months, it had been circulated throughout Europe.

When Luther was brought before the religious authorities, accused of heresy, and called upon to recant, he offered the now famous reply, “…I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  I cannot do otherwise.  Here I stand.  May God help me, Amen.” Luther’s bold stand for the truth of God’s Word helped spark a movement which lasted until at least 1648, known as “The Protestant Reformation”, and it is from this movement that all Protestant churches (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) are originally derived.

Luther additionally produced many excellent books and commentaries, wrote hymns for congregation singing (most notably, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”), and translated the entire Bible into German so that people other than priests would have direct access to God’s Word.  Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation movement (John Calvin, John Knox, etc.) served not only to initiate a new era of church history, but also to call upon all who profess faith in Christ to submit themselves to the true, authoritative teachings of Scripture.  Now that day – the day that God used one faithful monk to call people to Christian obedience – is a day worth remembering and celebrating through all the years!  Praise be to God for Christians like this – past and present – who are willing to risk all in order to stand for the preservation and proclamation of biblical truth!

Remember the Past

While debates persist concerning who actually said it first, most everyone is familiar with the oft-repeated quote, “Those who fail to learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.”  If this is true (and I believe it is), then why do so few people today give any thought to the study of history?  Is it really enough to only learn the newest technology, the most recent ideas – the hottest trends of our day?  Personally, I don’t think so.

There are certain undeniable principles for being a good employee, a good leader, or even a good person…and they’re as true today as they ever were, no matter what new ideas, strategies, and methods may be celebrated in the days to come.  As Ecclesiastes argues so succinctly, “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?  It has been already in the ages before us.” (Eccles. 1:10).  The secret to living a truly great life will never be new methods or cutting-edge ideas, but rather learning and applying the ageless principles of wisdom, knowledge, and love as set forth in the pages of Scripture.  One way that God’s Word repeatedly calls upon us to do this is by considering the stories of the saints of old, listening to the accounts of the struggles, fears, and doubts that they encountered throughout their spiritual pilgrimages, and – quite frankly – learning from their mistakes.

Of course, if we desire to learn from history we should always start with the Bible itself.  How will we endure times of suffering if we haven’t studied the book of Job?  How will we handle power in a wise manner if we haven’t heard about Solomon’s shortcomings as a leader?  How will we know what God can do through us – in spite of our imperfections – if we haven’t read about Moses, Joshua, and Paul?  If we truly want to live lives that are rich, full of purpose, and bring glory to God, then we must read, consider, and appreciate the lessons learned by the individuals in biblical history, and commit ourselves to living in a way that avoids the errors in their thinking and builds upon their wise choices.

History isn’t just relevant for biblical study, though – we also benefit from studying more modern historical accounts.  After all, isn’t it important to know who we are, where we come from, and what decisions and actions have helped put us where we are today?  While history strikes many potential readers as nothing more than dull lists of dates, names, and locations, this is not what history (properly articulated) is supposed to be!  On the contrary, it’s the exciting accounts of what God and people have done through history to bring the world to where it is today.  Some of the stories are tragic and heart-breaking; others are magnificent and awe-inspiring; even the less eventful accounts are significant, for they all helped to make our world – and us – what we are today.

Do you want to know the most exciting thing about this?  YOU are a PART of that history!  The things that you and I do – or fail to do – are playing a role in what our history will look like tomorrow.  That’s precisely why we must make history a regular part of our educational diet…so we can learn about the consequences of bad ideas, the blessings of faithfulness to good ideas, and avoid making the same foolish mistakes that those before us have already made!  With this in mind, we should seriously consider making time to learn about the history of our families, our churches, the companies we work for, the schools we consider attending, etc.  Undoubtedly, we wanted to learn all that we could about our spouse’s history prior to marriage (“Have you ever been in love before?”, “What is your greatest memory?”, “Why do you act the way you do in certain situations?”, “What experiences helped make you who you are today?”, etc.), so shouldn’t we have some similar interest in learning about the other significant parts of our lives, too?

If we do not actively work to preserve, learn, remember, and teach our history to the next generation, it will be lost and forgotten and we will have learned nothing from it.  Scripture calls on us to not let this happen.  Consider, for example, the following Old Testament passage reflecting upon God’s promises to his people: “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.  Make them known to your children and your children’s children…” (Deut. 4:9).

Even artists take note of the significance of history, and the roles we play in helping to shape it for future generations.  Consider Walt Whitman’s poem, O Me!  O Life!, in which he contemplates the great ebb and flow of the human story and concludes, “That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”  Do you want your “verse” to count, to be remembered with fondness, and to make this world a better place than it currently is?  Then study history and consider how to build upon the fruitful work of those who came before us.  History is important for all of us, and we neglect it to our own peril.

Time….definitely NOT on my side!

Truly, I have no idea WHAT the Rolling Stones were thinking when they penned a song declaring that, “Time is on my side..”.  If they were singing that in sincerity, then their lives must have been far less demanding and complicated than my own – and mine isn’t even that bad, compared to the lives of many people I know!  Every single day, I wake up with a list of about ten things that MUST get accomplished, and then sixteen or so hours later, I realize that – despite my best efforts – I haven’t even passed the half-way point in my list.  It’s a daily – hourly – struggle.  If time has EVER really been “on my side”, then I must have been too busy catching up on my list to notice.

In truth, if I were to select a song that more accurately reflects my own daily schedule, it would probably be “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band, which reminds us (in words a bit more faithful to Scripture, I think), “Time keeps on slipping…into the future.”  As the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes so poetically explains to us, the world continues to maintain a regular pattern – the earth spins, the wind blows, the streams flow, the sun sets, and people die.  Time keeps marching steadily on, we are all painfully aware of this, and there’s not one single thing that any one of us can do about it.

It’s a sad truth….but, it IS a truth.  So then, what’s the good news behind this constant source of stress in our lives?  God is still sovereign!  Thankfully, though, most of the disappointing things about our lives – including its brevity – finds redemption when seen in light of the love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness of our loving heavenly Father.   We can be thankful that God’s Word offers clear, comforting passages that teach us how best to value the time that we do have.  Since many of you will likely be – like me – too busy to take time to read a lengthy article on the internet, I will limit the remainder of this article to just a few biblical passages upon which we should be meditating already.  If you feel stressed and frustrated because of the time constraints in your own day, then prayerfully consider the following passages:

“For man does not know his time.  Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. ” (Ecclesiastes 9:12-13)

“Wait for the LORD and keep his way….” (Psalm 37:34)

“This book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” (Joshua 1:8)

“He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)

“…pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16)

“…in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:16)

…and, of course, there are plenty more verses that could be added here.  Regardless of which verses you might would include in this list, though, God’s Word gives us some clear reminders that we are to be seizing the opportunities that God leads us to, living life to its very fullest, enjoying the good gifts which God has bestowed upon us, and – ALWAYS – thanking God for the ways that he blesses us, as well as for who he is.  May God continue to richly bless each of us as we make further efforts to fight the clock, focus our time on the most significant items on our daily checklists, and – most of all – seize every moment that we can for the glory of God.