This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On Oct 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. We typically point to that event as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
It’s remarkable to think that such an insignificant event as nailing a document containing a list of propositions for an academic disputation would be remembered and celebrated five-hundred years later, but millions of Protestants around the world are commemorating the Reformation this year. Even non-religious organizations are taking an interest in the commemoration.
You may have seen the film that PBS released earlier this month (September) entitled “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World.” PBS observed that the Reformation was “one of the most important events in Western civilization,” one that gave birth to “an idea that continues to shape the life of every American today.”
According to PBS, “the Protestant Reformation changed Western culture at its core, sparking the drive toward individualism, freedom of religion, women’s rights, separation of church and state, and even free public education. Without the Reformation, there would have been no pilgrims, no Puritans, and no America in the way we know it.”
One wonders how the religious concerns of a single monk could start a movement that would eventually bring about such radical changes in Western civilization. One might wonder whether PBS has overstated the significance of the Reformation. Are they sensationalizing the Reformation in order to stimulate public interest and excitement simply to increase their viewership?
To claim that the Reformation “changed Western culture at its core” and that without the Reformation there would be “no America in the way we know it” might sound a bit overhyped to some people. But in my opinion, it’s not overhyped at all. In fact, I think in some ways it trivializes the Reformation.
If the greatest achievement of the Reformation was that it radically changed Western civilization and culture, then of course, it would be worth remembering for its historical relevance, but it would ultimately have no relevance for the kingdom of God. Like the American Revolution, the Civil War, or Apollo 11 landing on the moon, it would be worthy of study for its historical value but not because it concerned something of eternal significance.
Whatever effect it may or may not have had on Western culture, the Reformation deserves our attention because it concerns something of infinite value and eternal significance. The Reformation deserves our attention—not because it enables us to understand the course of Western civilization and, therefore, helps us to make sense of the world in which we live—but because it points us beyond this world to the world to come. In other words, we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation not because of its earthly significance but because of its heavenly significance.
The Reformation was not ultimately about an “idea that changed the world” but about a rediscovery of the One who Redeemed the world, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is revealed in the gospel. The Protestant Reformation was not ultimately a sociological or cultural phenomenon but a theological one. To be sure, the Reformation of the Church was intertwined with political, social, and cultural concerns, but the Reformation was inherently a theological matter. And therefore, it should not be interpreted as a merely human event.
The Protestant Reformation was a purification of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the church is not an institution of man; it’s a creation of God through the gospel. And the preservation of the church—its continued existence and its faithfulness to the Holy Scriptures—is not a work of man but of God. To be sure, it’s a work of God in which people like Martin Luther and John Calvin participated, but it’s a work of God nonetheless.
So to understand the Reformation, we must begin with what God has accomplished in the Person and work of Jesus Christ in redemptive history and consider the application of that redemptive work by the agency of the Holy Spirit who uses the ordinances of the church to form us into a heavenly kingdom and bring us into a state of glory in which we will enjoy for all eternity unceasing, consummative communion and fellowship with the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Reformation was a rediscovery of the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. And that’s why the Reformation deserves our attention.