And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess. 2:13)
Such questions will never end, and they will never cease to miss the point. But they do at least touch upon the perennial paradox at the heart of Protestantism. The question for all Protestants today is: why remember the Reformation? Isn’t it ironic – inappropriate even – that we want to have a day of celebration on the Reformation to remember these great ‘saints’ of old, revering how great they are in comparison to us? Well, yes. Ultimately, the Reformation came down to one singular thing: where’s the power? Is it in the words, traditions, rules, and actions of people – or in the living and enduring Word of God at work in those who believe it?
The sad truth is, Protestants don’t usually make the best Protestants. Especially these days. The cancerous spirit of what Luther challenged (human idolatry) is alive and well across the entire spectrum of the protestant Church today. As has been noted and noted and noted and noted some more, there are more than a few – shall we say – ‘problems’ with the Protestant legacy, within and beyond the Church. Depending on who you believe, the Reformation invented individualism, denominationalism, schism, consumerism, atheism, and – according to a recent Guardian article – the Reformation even invented Brexit!
And what kind of hill was it? By all accounts, even the most ardent critic of the Reformation must see that this was no molehill; it was an epic mountain. It wasn’t just a ‘culture’ thing, it wasn’t just a ‘style’ thing; it was the very foundations of whether or not we will take God at his Word – which just so happens to be the very foundations of our faith, of the Gospel, of salvation, of eternal life itself. Yes, that kind of stuff. All of that can’t-have-Christianity-without-it type stuff. All of it had been obscured, muted, complexified to the point of bewilderment – it wasn’t that the Bible was ‘lost’ in the Church; they had it; they just had other things too! And those other things changed everything.
It’s easy to think we ‘get’ this, to see it as not that big a deal, and yet to proceed to add more things to the Gospel, as we continue to do each and every day of our lives, every time we decide not to take God at his Word. And we’re as subtle as sixteenth century cardinals when we do so. We don’t deny the Word, we just want to give it a little face-lift, a little touch-up, a few anklets and bracelets to help it sparkle, to give it a little ‘boost’. And in doing so, we show we don’t really believe it. Luther’s world was dominated by this precise problem, as the eminent church historian Owen Chadwick once noted:
Medieval Christianity had been rich and varied, but it had been like a church where the furniture is cluttered, the altar obscured, and the corners undusted. The Reformation age, amid grievous destruction, swept away the clutter, pursued simplicity of vision, and directed the gaze of the worshipper towards that which truly mattered.
To take God at his Word means to not take men at their word, and to not reach behind the human words that first gave you the Gospel. And that takes courage and conviction. Many will oppose you, because the Devil categorically does not want the Word to do its work in you, as it did with the Thessalonians. As Luther himself said: ‘when God’s Word comes, the world goes mad and refuses to tolerate it.’ Satan loathes the life-giving glory of the Word, and wants you to love the madness of the world, to join in its madness. So taking God at his Word means standing on a rock in an age of madness, only to be – like Paul – heckled as mad yourself.
Of course, it’s all too easy to be an Evangelical idiot and then call it ‘social martyrdom’. The hotheads amongst us see a Wittenberg door on every corner, and can be eager to rush in and raise our names to prominence as the righteously defiant voice of the true Gospel. Perhaps such moments may come, but we need not go looking for them, or play at this game called ‘Reforming’. There is no game, only a battle for souls – our own included. Yet perhaps the greater problem for Luther’s Evangelical grandchildren today is cowardice. We are the post-Mount Carmel Elijahs, fleeing from the sword of Jezebel – only, most of us have never been anywhere near a Mount Carmel and try to actively construct lives for ourselves which mean we never will be.
We don’t remember often enough that the Reformation was not simply a time in which a historical shift happened in the global church – it was a revival. i.e. God did stuff in and through the Reformation. His Word was ‘at work’. People found faith who had never before believed, who had never before had the opportunity to grasp the Gospel for themselves. It literally changed everything. Not just because ‘the established authority’ / ‘the system’ was attacked. It changed everything because people grasped the Word of God in such a way that it caused a spiritual revolution. People got saved, churches were planted, people were filled with the Spirit. And it paved the way for many revivals after that time (e.g. the Great Awakenings, Azusa Street, etc.), each of which were based on a fundamental returning to this ‘living and enduring Word of God’ (1Peter 1:23), where someone got hold of it in a fresh way and were mightily used by God.
We could probably do with being less idolatrous of particular Protestant heroes within Protestantism, true. But it’s also abundantly clear that we could probably do with another Reformation, and a few more ‘heroes’ (if that’s how they will be seen) willing to take God at His Word. Christianity in this country is barely recognisable to the faith we see in the pages of the New Testament. Most people know this. Most denominations know this. Even unbelievers know this. Churches, Christians, all of us get stuck in somatic ruts. We get tired of battling for truth because nothing seems to change, so we give up. We get cynical and settle down with things as the way they are because we can’t imagine anything better. But Luther did imagine something better because he saw it in the Word, and he took it, stood on it, ran with it, acted like it really was true. Like the Thessalonians, he saw the Word ‘as what it really is’.
So don’t idolise Luther, don’t act like Luther, don’t mimic Luther. Imitate him as he imitates Christ, who is the Word. As you recall the Wittenberg door, let Luther lead you away from it, away from himself – as Paul did – back to the Word for which he fought. It was this Word which he had received, which worked miracles within him, and which he then joyfully passed on to others that it might work miracles in them too. And history testifies, wonderfully, bountifully, that this has been the case, that God’s Word has gone forth and done extraordinary things (cf. Is. 55). Hopefully that’s at least one good reason to keep remembering Brother Martin’s impudence.