The Reformation was, of course, the birth of Protestantism, which manifested itself in various forms in short time. It was also a revolt against the religious establishment which many considered corrupt in teaching and practice. This conflict was intense, fracturing western civilization within its religious, political and social spheres. Because of the wedding of state and church in sixteenth-century Europe, bloody conflict between states and within their own citizenry resulted.
Now, 500 years later the hostilities have long since ceased. Catholics and Protestants are no longer at each other's throats. In modern western civilization, we now cherish individual freedom in regards to matters of religion. We have effectively compartmentalized government and religion so to keep them out of each other's business, even if occasionally we find ourselves debating which has the proper jurisdiction on a certain issue.
500 years seems to separate two worlds completely foreign to one another. Those of the sixteenth-century could not have imagined such individual freedom and the toleration of certain beliefs and behaviors today. Conversely, we can't imagine people literally killing each other over what we would consider religious issues. Because of this stark contrast between then and now it may be natural to wonder why the Reformation should matter to us today. Why celebrate it?
Among all the complexities of the Reformation - within all its triumphs and tragedies - two key aspects of its significance for faith stand tall. These two matters still need our historical appreciation and current attention and application.
The Reformation offered revolutionary answers for two vital questions: How do I know what I should know about God? And, what must I do to have favor with God? The reformers' answers to these turned the common notions upside down and ignited a true spiritual awakening.
The first reason the Reformation still matters – the reformers boldly established the Bible as the supreme authority for the church. The Roman Catholic Church asserted that three sources of authority worked together - the Bible, the papacy, and the official laws and customs of the church. In theory these three sources of authority worked harmoniously together. In reality, educated men, like Martin Luther, saw clearly where popes and councils and scripture had often contradicted one another.
The reformers defied the powers in charge and declared that for matters of faith that the Bible alone was authoritative. It was no longer a matter of what the church hierarchy declared to be true, but whether doctrine and practice was upheld by the clear teaching of the Bible. Protestants shifted their allegiance to scripture and away from institution. This continues to be of vital importance for us today.
Our culture suffers from the church’s a lack of biblical authority. Individualism rules the day and our own personal right to our opinion is often our most sacred treasure, even in the church. Our intellectual default is to respect each other's opinions, which sounds reasonable, tolerant, and enlightened. However, it's pure nonsense if our goal is to know truth. Truth by nature is specific and absolute, not subject to my opinion. I am subject to it. We have no problems with this when it comes to subjects like math or physics. However, many push back at the notion of an absolute religious truth to which we must submit, especially in matters of morality.
The Reformers took Christians back to the Bible as the authority for matters of faith. The Word of God would no longer be subject to the control of the church; it would be unleashed so it would dictate to the church the truth of God. Today, we need to be grateful for this rediscovery of proper authority for the church and for every individual Christian. This still matters today.
The second reason the Reformation still matters - the reformers, through the Bible, recaptured a biblical understanding of how each of us can have forgiveness and the favor of God. This understanding became captured in the phrase justification by faith alone. In other words, personal salvation was not the result of earned merit through a sacramental system of religious works and observances. The Roman Catholic Church had conditioned people to think of salvation as doing. Protestants seized upon the biblical truth that salvation was about believing after which came the doing. Salvation was through grace through faith solely based on the merits of Christ.
Today, this still must be repeated over and over because human nature continues to want to earn God's favor. Martin Luther found himself desperately seeking to accomplish various aspects of devotion in acts of penance and spiritual disciplines. However, he never achieved peace in his soul, but only became more aware of is own hopeless sinful condition. Only when he was enlightened to the truth of the Bible - that the just shall live by faith - did he finally encounter the truth that brought spiritual transformation and satisfaction for the soul.
We must never lose sight of the biblical truth for each man and woman. Reconciliation with God comes through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. Our relationship with our Creator is not based on what we can bring and offer to Him; it is dependent on faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And if that faith is real, then it follows Him, loves Him and keeps His commandments. This still matters today.
The Reformation is not dry, dusty irrelevant history. What we wrestle with today in regards to questions of authority and how we have favor with God is exactly what they were wrestling with then. Their voices still speak loudly to these matters to which we need greater clarity and stronger conviction. We would be wise to renew our commitment to that which they sacrificed so much.