There have been key moments in history where the entire course of human civilization has been affected and shaped by the actions, words and influence of a single individual.
One of those moments occurred early in the morning on October 31, 1517, when a young German monk nailed a document on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
That monk was Martin Luther, and he changed the course of Western Civilization that day with his pen, his mallet and 95 theses.
Luther did not intend to change the world by his action that day. The last thing he anticipated was igniting a movement that would have such deep and lasting impact. All he wanted to do that day was to have an informed, theological debate with someone Luther believed was deceiving his people and peddling error. But God had much bigger plans for Luther and for the world!
Almost unwittingly, Luther launched a movement that moved the theological center of much of Western Civilization and in the process recovered the most precious truths entrusted by God to His Church.
As a result, our world is far different than it would have been had Luther slept in that morning!
The Protestant Reformation is arguably the most significant and most effective protest in church history. Consequently, everywhere you turn people who are serious about history, society and theology are giving appropriate attention and consideration to the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation this year.
In light of this important anniversary, it is especially fitting for us to focus a blog series (based on Bob Jones University’s chapel doctrinal series this semester) on the importance of the Reformation and especially on the most important consequence of Luther’s protest—the triumph of truth over the darkness of error.
Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free . . . If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. — John 8:31-32, 36
From this text, we see that freedom comes from truth, and truth is intrinsically tied to the person and work of Jesus as God’s appointed Christ.
So when truth triumphs, freedom flourishes—when truth is lost, darkness descends spiritually, morally and socially.
And the vehicle for all of this truth is God’s Word! So when Scripture is exalted as the sole repository and final authority for spiritual truth, then freedom reigns.
When Scripture is displaced or distorted, darkness rules. Which is what was happening in the time of Luther.
So why was the Reformation needed?
By the end of the first century, the light of truth had dawned and the fullness of that truth had been given to the Church in the inspired authoritative revelation from God—the Bible.
And truth reigned through the Scriptures for almost five centuries.
Then it didn’t. And as Scripture was lost to the common man, a great and pervasive gospel darkness fell on the Western world. And it was dark for a long time—almost 1,000 years, which was known as the Dark Ages or more appropriately the medieval period of Western history.
Prior to the Reformation there was only one basic religious stream in the Western world—the Roman Catholic Church. All of life was governed and shaped by one’s relationship to the Church. There was no personal relationship with God to speak of for the common man.
Most of the major theological truths that were clearly understood in the time of the Apostles had been displaced and distorted. The Church had distorted views of God—He was angry and distant. Distorted views of Jesus—He was dead and impotent. Mary was needed to intercede for us. There was a displaced view of Spiritual authority—the hierarchy was the Church, tradition, and then Scripture. They had ultimately assigned the Bible third place!
Not only that, but there was wickedness of the basest sort at the highest levels in the church—popes, bishops and priests reveled in the very sins they preached against until they stopped preaching altogether.
Loss of spiritual vitality led to a focus on temporal authority—and when the Bishops of Rome ruled over the temporal affairs of men, true darkness and oppression reigned.
There was a loss of the value of human beings as image bearers—common people were illiterate and those few who had power and social status oppressed those who didn’t. There was a loss of the value of the high calling of human vocation. The highest vocation was clergy; everyone else was just “putting in time” and supporting the clergy.
Above all, there was a loss of the pure Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Loss of the mercy and grace of Jesus as a personal Savior. Loss of the comfort and assurance of eternal salvation. Loss of the spiritual rest that comes by trusting in Christ’s work instead of the endless and hopeless pursuit of salvation by my own righteousness.
The Reformation was needed because truth had been displaced and distorted by those who were charged by God to protect it and proclaim it!
But why does this really matter five hundred years later?
Because you and I are the spiritual descendants of the Reformers! We are recipients of its consequences and blessings. Therefore, you and I have a responsibility to know, embrace, guard and proclaim the truth that triumphed through the Reformation!
Ultimately the Reformation matters because truth matters—it is what makes men truly free! And that truth must be contended for in every generation—including ours!
John Piper says,“God preserves the experience of salvation and holiness from generation to generation by means of a Book of revelation, not a bishop in Rome.”
And as time has passed, that bishop in Rome has become more and more appealing to the spiritual descendants of the Reformers.
So what do we need to learn? Five things . . .
1. Truth matters more than our lives.
These truths were considered so important by the Reformers that they were willing to die for them—and many did!
2. Truth matters enough to spend our lives displaying and advancing it.
They didn’t just die for truth—they lived for it!
3. God uses weak and ordinary people to do great things for the truth and for His glory.
God is faithful to preserve His true Church—no matter how pervasive the darkness or how long it lasts.
4. The Gospel is everything because it is about Jesus who is the Truth.
So don’t lose the Gospel. Lose the Gospel and you lose Jesus. Lose Jesus and you lose everything!
Truth will ultimately triumph—so let it triumph now in you!
This article begins a new series on the Reformation in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses. It was originally published on Life to Life, Dr. Sam Horn’s blog. This series complements Bob Jones University’s doctrinal chapel series with this post being taken from a sermon preached on Sept. 6, 2017.