Why You Should Care about the Reformation

In my middle school days, I remember wondering about eighth grade math: “Will I ever actually use any of this information?” The more I convinced myself that none of it mattered in the “real world,” the less my fourteen year-old self cared. That’s probably the best excuse I could muster to justify not trying.

The Reformation’s 500th anniversary this week is a big deal. And I bet most people respect the Reformation as an influential historical phenomenon. It is possible, though, that many believers see it like eighth grade algebra––interesting information, but without much of an impact on day-to-day living.

But the Reformation gave us far more than interesting church history. And as silly as it was for me to dismiss eighth grade algebra, it would be a far worse mistake for anyone to regard one of the most important eras in history in the same way. With that in mind, let me offer three ways that the Reformation continues to affect the everyday life of the believer.

1. Confidence in the Power of the Gospel

The Reformation, as a movement, was a brushfire. Scientific, socio-political, and theological events made for the proper kindling; Luther, the match. Although brilliant and courageous saints existed prior to Luther’s penning of the ninety-five theses, the church lived under the clouds of false religion and had precious little gospel light. The Reformation, launched in Germany in 1517, parted the clouds.

The movement was a phenomenon against all odds. It had to overcome a millennium of tradition, the authority of the state, and the threats of the Holy Roman Empire. And then, if it succeeded, it had to be recognized as more than a fad, for it would have to endure another five hundred years of schism, antagonism, and persecution.

Non-Christian historians might characterize the Reformation simply as happenstance, coincidence, or the peculiar way in which ideas come to shape culture. But there is a more accurate explanation: the power of the gospel.

It’s tempting to look at the world through a distorted, unbelieving lens. And as much as we want to believe that the gospel is the “power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16), in the wake of some twenty-first century realities, it is challenging to believe. That’s why the Reformation matters. It embodies the words of Acts 12:24: “But the Word of God increased and multiplied.” The Reformation gives us a prime and living example that the gospel will always shake the nations.

The church prevails, not because of the talents of believers, but because it is animated by the Spirit’s application of the gospel, a power that shatters the gates of hell.

2. Critical Aid for Pastoral Counseling

Pastors must care for church members who wrestle with long-term guilt and insecurities. These people must move forward in life while dealing with brokenness, but it’s not always apparent how to counsel them beyond, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That’s a powerful truth, but oftentimes people need biblical truth to be applied with more nuance and depth.

One doctrine that can help is the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness. This doctrine, recaptured during the Reformation, affirms that believers have not only been forgiven, but also granted the righteousness of Jesus Christ. His perfect record of obedience is put to their account.

This doctrine undermines the powerful feelings of guilt and shame by robbing them of their legitimacy. It tells us that we are, in reality, whatever God has made us in Christ, regardless of what we think or feel. Our hope, as the hymn goes, is built on nothing less than “Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

Anchored in Christ, therefore, our standing before God is unassailable, and it is certainly unaffected by our emotions or life circumstances. The heirs of God’s kingdom are recipients of Christ’s righteousness, and since that’s the basis of our acceptance before God, then we stand on a rock that cannot be moved.

For the purposes of everyday pastoral ministry, I cannot exaggerate the significance of this truth. People carry guilt and anxieties and burdens with them all the time; Christians fret over what God thinks of them. Of course, there are other doctrines in the toolkit of pastoral care, but with the imputed righteousness of Christ the Reformation recaptured a particularly powerful one. And it is a mighty hammer.

3. Clarity in Confusion over the Scriptures

Bad theology is a perennial problem. And although its proponents and opponents may believe they are dealing with something new, it is generally the case that the various forms of  false teaching in our day are variations of the same ole’ bad ideas. That’s especially true of the controversies in our day regarding the authority, veracity, and sufficiency of the Scriptures.

Modern challenges to the Bible often separate inspiration (the doctrine that the Bible is inspired by God) from inerrancy (the doctrine that the Bible is without error). The Bible is authoritative, they claim, but not true on all accounts. This leads, inexorably, to the conclusion that the Bible is one authority among many, but not the final one.

The Reformers faced the same kind of challenge. While they did not set out to give us the detailed theology of inerrancy that would come later, they argued strenuously against the idea that sources other than Scripture could be afforded the same level of authority as Scripture itself. The Bible is God-breathed, Luther argued, not the Pope nor any other earthly authority.

What is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed.[1]

For some readers, that may seem obvious, but at the time of Luther’s writing, that kind of assertion was like the shifting of tectonic plates. The church, Luther continued, does not create the Bible, but rather it is the Bible that births the church. The Bible is, consequently, the church’s only “sure rule.”

Some contemporary movements in our day have been working hard to resuscitate arguments against the “sure rule” of the Word of God. They are not identical twins to the sixteenth century teaching of the Catholic church, but they may be considered fraternal. The Reformation matters, therefore, because it teaches us how to defend the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) against the continual barrage of assaults against the truthfulness of the Bible. To put it simply, we need to be reminded that the very reason we can know “Jesus loves me” is “for the Bible tells me so.” Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), as the Reformers put it, is the highest and final authority by which we come to know the reason for our hope, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Maybe you’re not a historian, so all the 500th anniversary stuff doesn’t excite you that much. I like history, but I get it. Why care about ideas that were important five centuries ago? Simply put, because they’re as relevant and as vital to Christian living today as they were the day Luther’s ninety-five theses were put on the door in Wittenberg.

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Ben Stubblefield is the senior pastor at FBC Jackson in Jackson, Alabama. He also serves multiple Christian colleges as an adjunct faculty member in New Testament and Theology.

[1] From Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

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