by Kevin Tery
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason… I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything….”
Martin Luther’s reply to the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521
Such words were the lasting heritage of the Reformation, the appeal to an authority that knows no flux nor folly, a total submission to divine edict. Having addressed the excesses and abuses of the Roman Catholic church by the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses and his subsequent sermons and letters refuting the practice of selling indulgences (reduction of punishment) and the mode of salvation by confession and sacrament, Luther was called to recant and refute his teachings at the Diet in 1521. Faced with twenty-five publications of his work as evidence against him, Martin Luther spoke with the same conviction of those whose blood had paved the way for reformation. By Scripture alone were his teachings forged, and by Scripture alone could his mind be swayed.
In response, the Diet declared Luther an outlaw that was to be punished as a heretic, threatening penalty to any in Germany who would dare offer him food or shelter; further, it was decreed that the killing of Luther would be met without any legal consequence. He had been excommunicated from the church of his upbringing, savaged by the words and writings of his peers and colleagues, condemned by the principalities of his homeland, and stripped of even the basic protections of imperial law.
Yet firmly upon the Word of God he stood. He could do no other.
There is much that we can learn from the words and responses of Luther and the other Reformers, but there is perhaps none more central than the basis of his pleas: a call to sola scriptura, establishing doctrinal truth by Scripture alone. From this tenet all pillars of the Reformation were erected, and there is no firmer foundation for them to be set upon than the unchanging, perfect Word of God. And seeing as they challenged the papacy’s claim to the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, their only appropriate appeal resided upon the Word itself.
We would be remiss to not consider the beliefs of the world in which they lived: the papacy alone bore the responsibility of interpreting Scripture; the papacy interpreted Scriptures infallibly; the layman neither required nor possessed access to a vernacular Bible; and the church functioned by prima scriptura, acknowledging the tradition handed down from the apostles as equally important to Scripture in establishing doctrine. While the induced ignorance of the laity was left supine before the juggernaut of the Holy Roman Empire, the Reformers – as learned students of the institution – were uniquely equipped to recognize the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies that had broadened between the papal dictates and the Word of God.
Impinged by matters of both economy and state, the church had become an anathema to the work of Christ, burying the good news of his grace behind ritualism and mysticism.
In short, the papal councils interpreted, communicated, amended, and added to the Word of God in such a way that the Truth was obfuscated for their own gain. There was a sort of theological relativism that was dependent upon and deciphered through papalinterpretation. Yet fearing the Lord more than any threat of man, the Reformers appealed to absolute Truth, sought refuge behind that Truth, and stood strong amidst slander, exile, and persecution.
To them, the cost of obedience was clearly worth it all.
As we reflect upon the Reformation a half-millennium later, we Christians should take note of the Reformers’ appeal to Scriptural authority. The centuries have seen much change, but the symptom of sin remains and continues to be expressed in the manipulation of truth. Still today we see countless communities abusing the Word of God to fit their desires, warping and de-contextualizing passages in effort to satisfy their own appetites.
“Gospels” of prosperity, power, and universalism are rampant worldwide, and they offer no true hope or joy.
Just as the Word warned, wolves have emerged and they speak flattering words that lead not to life, but to death (1 Timothy 4:1-2, 2 Timothy 4:3-4). But the problem extends beyond the purview of the outright heretic; many a well-intentioned pastor avoids the uncomfortable and the challenging and subtly crafts doctrine that glorifies one aspect of God above all others, unbalancing our understanding of who He is and unbalancing the hope/severity/necessity of the Gospel. The consumerist nature of our world has invaded otherwise devout bodies of Christ, tempting some to betray sound doctrine in the hopes of avoiding conflict or worldly judgment. In many ways, we face today the sort of crossroads that Catholicism stood before in the centuries preceding the Reformation; where the central trunk of the church had abandoned Scriptural orthodoxy then, many smaller braches of the church follow suit today. To them, the Word of God is ultimately a book that serves rather than the God-breathed Word that is revered. It is subordinate rather than authoritative.
And when the voice of Truth is stymied and its countenance bludgeoned by a culture that embraces and celebrates relativism, we should be rightly incensed. But take heart – just as it had been with the Reformers, the Truth shines most splendidly in the dark.
But what are we to do? How are we to answer? There are three things that we must remember, dear Christian:
The Word of God is of the utmost authority and is the basis for which all doctrine of faith and service should be bound. It is God-breathed, useful for teaching and reproof (2 Timothy 3:16); without flaw (Psalm 18:30); unchanging and timeless (John 1:1, Hebrews 13:8); and it is sufficient for knowing, trusting and obeying God. Admittedly, this is easier to say than it is to demonstrate. Despite what we know of the wisdom of man (1 Corinthians 3:19), we all remain prone to the sin of pride, and whether by arrogance or complacency we are tempted to consider ourselves to be the ultimate authority. Test yourselves, friends; inspect your works and your ways through the lens of Scripture. Make effort to leave no stone unturned, and accept the reproach of others with kindness and humility. Experiences, customs, and culture can be practical and useful modes of delivering the Gospel of Hope, but they cannot be allowed on any level to influence doctrine. If we prop ourselves up by a popular style of worship, by the hottest new business plan to grow a church, or by the exegesis of Marvel films, we do more than abandon the safe ground and firm foundation of our Father’s Word: we tacitly avow that gimmicks and fads carry more weight than the Scriptures.
As disciples of Christ, we are to dwell in his Word as he dwells in us, growing in knowledge of him as we grow in faith (Ephesians 4:11-14). This knowledge yields obedience and a desire to see his glory over our own, indeed at the expense of our own. With the Word of God written on our hearts, set aside as a chosen priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), we bear the responsibility to test all manner of teaching against Scripture, no matter the source (1 John 4:1). If we neglect pursuing a greater knowledge of God through his Word, we remain as ignorant to false teaching as the masses during the Reformation. Let us not be ill-equipped to hold every teacher of the Word accountable to the very Word they preach. Consider the Bereans (Acts 17:11-12) who searched the Scriptures to authenticate the preaching of Paul. His designation for them was not one of frustration or dismay; in fact, he regarded them as people of “more noble character”. There was purpose and method to their reception of the Truth, and we can only hope to apply such tendencies to our own study. There are far too many pastors today that discourage others from reading the Bible, assuring them that the words preached to them are trustworthy, and even lashing out at those who dare challenge their teaching. Remember the Reformation, Christians. Just as the papacy declared itself supreme in Biblical interpretation, men today declare themselves to be the same, uniquely qualified and unchallengeable. Of this sort of teacher be wary, but more importantly, be well-equipped and grounded in the Truth that alone can put an end to deception (2 Corinthians 10:5).
As children of God, it is not only our duty to listen to and obey His Word, it is our joy. Again, consider the Bereans. They not only searched the Scriptures, they did so with eagerness. Friends, the Bible is not some simple rule book that we must study for guidance on how to play the game of life. Nor is it a private, intellectual primer that expands knowledge for the sake of debate. The Creator of the universe breathed the Living Word, and by the inspired hands of authors throughout the age, He has communicated to us what He wants us to know. What a wonderful gift it is that we should not only know He is, but who He is! Let us not drearily open the book from which flows God’s Truth; let us desire the Word of the Lord like the famished yearn for food, like the parched require drink. Furthermore, let us never allow ourselves to become complacent in ritualism and method, and to never become indifferent to the accessibility of the Bible. The laity of the Dark Ages were considered unable to understand and unable to rightly study the Bible for themselves; it was scandalous to imagine allowing the common man to explore God’s Word. And in turn, there was much despair for those under the oppressive jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church with no knowledge with which to defend themselves. Think well on this, Christian: the opposite of that despair should not be casual indifference or mild interest. Our Heavenly Father made the paths straight over the centuries to carry His good news to the ends of the earth, and His constant work of faithfulness toward us should be met with joyful obedience in searching His Word daily.
As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, remember the wonderful work of God and the faithful obedience of His people in revering His Word. And as culture and entertainment and every manner of idolatry seeks to subvert the work of God and attempts to steal His glory, we should never forget that the legacy of Reformation carries on. Remember that the path of Christ is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14); lack of discipline and purpose will always lead toward destruction, never toward life. It is my prayer that we remain ever vigilant in defense of the Gospel, faithful in pursuing a greater understanding and deeper love for our Savior through His Word, and joyful in our efforts to live obediently according to His will. In all things stand firm upon the foundation that is everlasting, for as Jesus affirmed – Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Matthew 24:35). Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.