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Unforgettable Lessons From the Protestant Reformation

by Dr. Jack Sin

 

Introduction

We live in an age of forgetfulness and a pre-occupation with the trivia of life. Pleasure, fun, work, entertainment and secular interests have occupied centre-stage in many Protestant homes and churches. It is a mindless age as less people are concerned with using their God-given mental faculties in searching and studying the Scriptures or delving deep into the historic past concerning our glorious spiritual heritage. There is more self-styled man-centred new fangled ways of worshipping God. The Reformation of the 16th century still has significant relevant lessons and applications for the 21st century church after more than 500 years.

The Reformation cause of the 16th century is not a petty, humanistic movement of a few individuals’ personal theological convictions alone. It is the historic bedrock of the Church of Christ being founded on the very Word of God. Arguably, the 16th century Protestant Reformation is one of the most life-changing and significant dramas of all times. The 5th to 15th century, the lamp of truth burnt dimly in the medieval church for almost a 1,000 years where man made ecclesiastical traditions and lifeless ceremonies reigned supreme. God remembered his covenant promise to his own people and sovereignly enlightened the world with the glorious saving message of the gospel of Christ through his anointed servants, from Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Tyndale, Cranmer and many others. The regenerate heart of a seeking German Augustinian monk named Luther who shared his new found faith with the whole world with his 95 theses supported by the manifestation of God’s reviving power forever changed the civilised world (Isa 59:9,19).

The Reformation of Doctrine

The Reformation introduced the biblical doctrines of grace, including justification by faith, universal priesthood of believers, sole authority of the Bible, total depravity of man, the sovereignty of God and the election of sinners unto salvation. It was radically different from the established medieval Church. It festers the very foundation of the ecclesiastical system built on works, purgatory, man, prayers to the saints, priests, Mary worship, indulgences and sacramentalism that deviated from and undermined the core doctrinal principles from Holy Scripture. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was correctly taught in accordance with the Scriptures expounded by Calvin. The Reformation of the 16th century is essentially among others, a Bible-based doctrinal movement. It is back to the Bible and saturating the mind of the common people with the inspired and inerrant words of the all sufficient Holy Scriptures. It is a recovery of the discipline of searching the scriptures directly with our God-given sound mind (2 Tim 1:7) to re-discover fundamental biblical truths in God’s Word and put them into practice in the church. Today, the modern church’s emphasis is more experiential and emotional than logical, Spirit sanctioned understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

There is a principal debilitating weakness of the modern liberal churches. The whole gamut of biblical doctrine is seldom preached and its relevance and application is found wanting. The 16th century Reformation was at its heart a powerful re-discovery of the doctrines of grace, of the vicarious atonement of Christ, the sovereignty of God, the covenants of grace, the laws of God, election, effectual calling, justification, perseverance of the saints and is intensely pertinent and practical ministering to the hearts of men. The clarion call to search out and practise biblical truths are powerful rallying points of the continental Reformers in the reformation of the churches in Scotland, Germany, England and Switzerland and many other countries in western Europe.

The doctrine of salvation was the primary doctrine among others expounded clearly together with the doctrine of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit and later of the church and the sacraments (only two, baptism and Lord’s supper; not seven) are correctly understood and properly administered as well. Today, we need to do no less. Preachers, elders, missionaries and pastors must be bold and uncompromising in declaring the pure gospel and the doctrines of grace, the faithful defence of the precious truth (Jude 3,4) in a climate of compromise and accommodation in an ecumenical world. It is not a personal feel good theology that we need but a bible-based yet practical doctrinal orientation made plain and simple to the members each Lord’s day. The Reformation is intensely theological as well as pragmatic as it transforms the hearts of men through the clear proclamation and exposition of the inspired Word of God (2 Tim 3, 16,17; 2 Thes 2:15). Worship and sound biblical theology goes hand in hand and we need a return to a Christ-centred and bible-based gospel preaching ministry today. Today Christians can fully trust the Bible in the absolutely reliable and faithful word of God (Isa 40:8), as the only rule of our faith and practice.

The Reformers excelled in their biblical convictions and God-given faculties in a sanctified sound mind (2Tim1:7) to comprehend profound scriptural biblical truths and taught them through the catechetical method, such as Luther’s small and large Catechism, (1530) the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechism, (1647) Baptist’s Confession (1689), Canons of Dort, (1618-9), Helvetic Confessions (1536), Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and Belgic Confession (1561). All these are excellent models of lucid, profound thinking and application of Christian truths from the hearts and minds of redeemed men. Our Lord told his disciples to love Him with all our heart, mind and soul (Mt 22:37-39). Today a mindless Christianity has resulted in a emotional and sense appeal congregation that is easy prey to ecclesiastical counterfeits and charlatans with their maverick consumerism as can be seen in some mega churches in the West and even here. Modern education is influenced by a secular humanistic evolutionary philosophy. Some Christian schools and colleges capitulated to the world’s demand for state accreditation. Liberal education dominates the ecclesiastical world and even preaching from some pulpits today concentrated on social and secular issues and not on the glorious gospel of everlasting life, the whole counsel of God, and other biblical themes. The average modern church has slowly relegated expository preaching of the pure Word of God to favourite pet subjects like secular psychology, self esteem, positive thinking, emotional appeal and physical self-styled homespun worship and other themes of self interest.

Reformation in Worship

A lesser-known consequence of the 16th Century Reformation was the drastic change it brought to the practice of the true worship of God. Before the Reformation, worship was almost entirely a non-participative performance ceremony by the medieval priests watched by the laity. (The mass is a sacrament ritual performed theatrically by the priests). There was little or no bible based preaching, with minimal congregational singing of songs, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col 3:16). The greatest liturgical innovation of the Reformation was congregational hymn singing. Unknown to the laity in the Middle Ages, the spiritual hymns or metrical psalms became the main vehicle of congregational praise and the most powerful of doctrinal and practical forces within the Protestant Churches. Some of the Reformers, like Luther, had composed their own hymns and sang them in the church (e.g. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”). This was almost unheard of in the medieval Roman system of formal ceremonial worship. In the later years, more Protestant composers enriched the Church with its wide repertoire of devotional and inspiring hymns of the 17th and 18th centuries revival, by men like Isaac Watts, James Montgomery and Charles Wesley, which are still relished and appreciated today (by many Reformed and conservative churches).

The worship of God today is increasingly presented as a spectator event of visual and sensory experience rather than a reverential engagement in sacred verbal and heart worship from the depth of a redeemed soul to the thrice-holy God. Jesus himself said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (Jn 4:24-25). Aesthetics, personal enjoyment and entertainment have replaced holiness, quietness and reverence in modern church worship (Hab 2:20). There is a sensory and emotional quest for the superficial and excitable but not the profound feeding of the soul in reverential worship. According to the Reformers, true worship is the bible centred congregational encounter with God in which Christ meets and hears the prayers and accepts our praises and proclaim His word to us through His ordained servants. The entire body of Christ is solemnly engaged in adoration, exaltation of the most High God on the Sabbath day. The Reformers like Calvin and Zwingli emphasised honouring and keeping the Lord’s day holy (Isa 58:13). Today the Sabbath is desecrated with work and leisure often to the detriment of our souls.

During the Reformation, traditional God honouring and edifying hymns and Psalms with sound biblical theology are sung with meaning and understanding unlike a new generation of trivial and superficial ditties that have invaded the modern mega churches today. The author recalled watching the big-time televangelists on TV with a large following in the US and hearing the superficial and senseless ditties sung (coupled with dancing) during church entertainment services. It is irreverent and unedifying to say the least and is inconsistent with the true worship of thrice holy God.

One of the distinctives of the Reformation is the adherence to the bible as the only authoritative rule of faith in contradistinction to the church councils or traditions on the one hand to subjectivism and mystical spiritualism. The sole sufficient authority of the bible is the foremost of all theological principles that helped to strengthen and undergird the Reformation cause above all. The Reformers rejected the rationalistic and superstitious teachings of the medieval church and rested wholly on the perspicuous Word of God are their basis for all religious conviction and doctrines. The sufficient, authoritative and inspired word of God must be the basis of the faith and not subjective emotionalism as can be seen in many modern liberal churches (2 Tim 3:16,17).

Reformation of Domestic Life in the Home

Together with the Reformation of doctrine and worship, there was an important reformatory change in the establishment of the Protestant covenant home. Biblical Protestantism stands against the dogma of the church that its priests should be celibate contrary to scriptural injunctions (cf. 1 Tim 4:1-4). Luther married Katherine von Bora, an ex-nun, a stalwart and strong confidant for Luther; and Calvin married Idelette de Bure, an excellent helpmeet to the Reformer. Zwingli and John Knox married too and raised children. It was revolutionary in those days when the medieval church supports celibacy. They had no precedent but, based on the scriptural principle of marriage and covenantal home life, they started a Christian family and reformed home life and domestic relationships. It was a lesser-known revelation but has great implications for believers today. They started family worship, catechism of the children, family corporate prayers, domestic life and God-centred household government (Ps 127:1, Prov 23:3,4). Let every Christian home return to this fine model of covenant home life and build up godly households in this morally chaotic and confusing age when the most basic building block of society the family is under siege

Reformation of Church Polity / Government

The ecclesiastical system of the medieval church was an Episcopal system. It is ruled by one man, the Pope, supported by the cardinals and bishops, whose rule is supreme and unquestionable. It is claimed that this is in direct succession of St Peter, an Apostle of Christ (see Matt 16:18-20 for a clear understanding of these verses, misinterpreted by the Roman Church). The Greek word for rock (petra) is different from the word for Peter (petros). So the rock referred to was not Peter, but the confession that Peter made in verse 16, that Christ is the Son of the Living God.

The Reformation changed and challenged the whole system of Church government. Not only are the priests rendered obsolete but believers loyalty and submission is to Christ who is the true Head of the Church and not to any other. Although the different Reformers later developed different systems of Church polity, they are all unanimously against the supreme and universal authority of one man over the rest of the Churches of Christ globally. Of particular interest is the Presbyterian system of Church government developed and practiced primarily by Calvin and John Knox. This was successfully implemented in Geneva and Scotland and for a season in England during the times of the 17th English Reformation. It is the rulership by the plurality of elders according to Pauline instruction, with the deacons assisting in the stewardship of administration. This is the closest model of Church polity as outlined by the Apostles Paul in the scriptures. The congregational system of Church government later developed with the Baptist, Brethren and other independent groups. Only the Anglican Church in England maintained a close resemblance to Rome when it comes to Church government, with the appointment of the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and the King of England as the head of the Church ( but radically different from the Roman Church in its doctrine ).

A Reformation of Secular Work in the World

The Protestant Reformation also affected the realm of secular life and work. It gives dignity to the working believer in that there is no dichotomy between the secular work of the world and that of the Church. The English Puritans were foremost in putting their doctrine into practical life and gave impetus to honest hard work within what is commonly called the Protestant Work Ethic. Calvinism especially has a great impact in giving meaning, purpose and dignity to vocational life in that Calvin taught that “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31). It was a spirit of excellence, discipline and diligence that give rise productivity and industry was a prelude to 19th century Industrial Revolution. The Protestant Reformation was a tremendous blessing to human civilization and also though lesser known, it was a precursor to modern democratic societies as Calvin for the first time allowed the election of elders in Geneva. it was unheard of in those days and almost revolutionary. We owe a great debt to the reformers for the manner of international governance In many countries and even our national polity in many countries today.

The 16th Century Protestant Reformation had more far-reaching influence and consequence than the world could imagine. It has transformed not only the Church, but also the family, society, and the whole state/nation (in the example of Scotland and Geneva). The Spirit of God continues to work on the hearts of men to give them new light and principles of life through a deeper understanding of the Truth of the Holy Scriptures and the Reformers did not hesitate to apply and practice what they had discovered from the Word. Hence the significant and profound change to the lives of human civilsation hereafter to our spiritual benefit and modern societal enrichment.

Conclusion

The 16th Reformation is a historic revival of the conscience and hearts of men made captive to the word of God again. It is a grand stark truth that broke almost 1000 years of spiritual darkness and ecclesiastical bondage when the churches are devoid of the light of the glorious gospel of redemption. The Reformation restored to men the glorious and unadulterated message of Christ centred redemption and the Bible as the central place in the lives of the redeemed constituency. The church today must continue in the true defence of the reformed faith, His Word and dispel spiritual darkness, declension and deception in these last days and unashamedly and courageously hold on to the precepts and practices of the historic Reformation times. Ponder the spirit of this uncommon hymn that Martin Luther wrote, as our final challenge:

A safe stronghold our God is still
A trusty shield and weapon
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That hath us now o’ertaken
The ancient prince of hell
Hath risen with purpose fell
Strong mail of craft and power
He weareth in this hour
On earth is not his fellow.

God’s Word, for all their craft and force
One moment will not linger
But, spite of hell, shall have its course
’Tis written by his finger
And though they take our life
Goods, honour, children, wife
Yet is their profit small
These things shall vanish all
The city of God remaineth.

(composed on 16 April 1521, when Martin Luther arrived at Worms for the Diet before Emperor Charles V).


Author

Dr Jack Sin is the Pastor of Sovereign Hope Bible Presbyterian Church in Singapore. Permission to reproduce this article has been granted by the author.



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