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The Continuing Impact of the Reformation Print E-mail
The Protestant Reformation

Sunday Evening, October 30, 2005

I.  Introduction:
 One of the questions that often puzzle people when considering Church history is this: how did we get here?  How did we get to this point in Church history?  Of course some make the mistake of just assuming that it has always been this way when really nothing could be further from the truth.  The difficulty in answering this question rests in the fact that we would have to consider over 2000 years of Church history in order to be faithful with all the facts.  Thus, there is really no short answer to that question.

Yet, as we have seen over the past few weeks, one reason we are where we are in Church history is the Protestant Reformation.  We have seen that at one time there was really only one Church in Christendom, namely the Roman Catholic Church.  We have seen that the reform centered around the issues of authority and doctrine.  We have seen that the differences between the Catholic and Protestant Church were very marked and indeed called for a split.  Tonight, I want us to consider again how the Reformation is continuing to impact the Church.  I want to begin with a few words about how the Reform swept through Europe.

II.  The Outflow of the Reformation
 As we have said, Martin Luther was not the only person involved in the Reformation.  In fact, it is important to realize that Germany was not the only place that reform was taking place.  Many other reformers were fighting in other places for the purity of the Church.  Many of these reformers, along with Luther, have had a great impact on the history of the Church.  I would like to mention just a few.

In Switzerland, there were two major figures and places for reform.  The first is Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) who fought for reform in Zurich.  Zwingli was committed to the Scriptures and was faithful in preaching the Bible to the people.  He fought hard for reform and was killed in battle, fighting for his beliefs.  The second reformer in Switzerland to mention is John Calvin.  By some interesting events, Calvin was convinced to stay and fight for reform in Geneva.  Calvin was a brilliant scholar and through his writings of The Institutes was able to solidify much of the teachings of the Reformation.  He also started a school in Geneva which ended up training many men who take his views back to their homeland, one such person being John Knox from Scotland, who would lead the reform movement there.

Another group that arose out of Switzerland was the Anabaptists.  Some followers of Zwingli, who agreed with their teacher’s strict call to follow the Scriptures, became convicted that only believers should be baptized.  They also saw the need for a separation of Church and State.  Since Zwingli would not support them, they split off from him and were labeled as the Anabaptists, which meant ‘to baptize again.’  Baptist history is linked to the Anabaptists and some of their beliefs.

In England, the real struggle was with the King.  A simple way to view the battle for reform in England is if the King was Catholic, then England was Catholic, but if the King sympathized with the Protestants, then England was more protestant.  Obviously this is an oversimplification, but for the most part it rings true in the early years of the Reformation.

One other move to consider is the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  The Catholics had to respond to what was taking place throughout all of Europe.  Many continued to fight for moral reform from within the Catholic Church and they were able to have a great impact on the Catholic Church at large.  With the rise of the Jesuits and others, Rome took a militant stance against the reformers.  At the Council of Trent, which concluded in 1563, the Roman Catholic Church officially rejected nearly all of the new teachings of the Protestants.  Battles over land and converts continued between the Protestants and the Catholics until the end of the 30 years war in 1648.  Most consider this the end of the Reformation period.

III.  The Continuing Impact:
 Let me conclude our discussion of the Protestant Reformation by identifying two aspects of reform that still impact us today.

First, we still see that authority matters.  Luther and the other reformers brought into question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and its popes and bishops.  They insisted that Scripture alone was the sole authority and that every believer deserved to be able to read the text in his or her own language.  Thus, one of the key issues in the reform was that of authority.  Who, or what, has authority in the Church?

This is a question that the Church is still wrestling with.  The split still remains between the Catholics and the Protestants.  Yet, after the Enlightenment, a new fighter for authority has emerged: reason.  Thus, there are now those on both sides of the battle, Catholic and Protestant, who believe that our reason is the ultimate authority and it trumps all other authorities.  This has led to the questioning of the Bible’s inerrancy and numerous theories on how we should interpret the Bible and how it applies to our lives today.  Thus, the battle for authority continues.  As one who holds that the Bible is the ultimate authority for the Church and for life, I see the need for faithful teaching and practice of the Bible’s truths.  Yes, we say we believe in sola scriptura, but have we done the hard work to actually live that out in our Churches and in our lives.  We must be thankful for the battles that the reformers fought and the privileges that we know enjoy.  We must also remember that we must continue to fight for reform in our own day.

Second, we still see that theology matters.  We noted that Luther fought for salvation by faith alone.  He argued, based on God’s Word, against the Catholic Church and what it had held for years and years.  He held firmly that salvation was the work of God and was not earned by the work of man.  Rather, salvation was a gift that came by faith alone in Jesus Christ.  As we have said, this was a recovery of the biblical gospel.

Even today, the question of how a person is saved is still being debated in the Church.  Again, the Catholics and Protestants are still divided, but there are now those from both camps who do not want to teach the importance of belief in Christ.  They emphasize tolerance and encourage us to admit that there are many ways to heaven and to pleasing God.  Yet, with the reformers we must cry, ‘Sola Fide,’ it is only by faith alone in Christ alone that men will be saved.  The encouragement that comes from the fight of the reformers should lead us fight faithfully in our day for a proper understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

IV.  Conclusion:
 In the end we must realize that today matters.  We must avoid the two errors of Church history.  First, we cannot believe that everything was great in the past for that is simply not true.  Second, we cannot be so arrogant as to think that we have nothing to learn from the past.  Both of these errors are simply not true.  Rather, we must learn what we can from both their strengths and their weaknesses so as to be better equipped to battle in our day.  Instead of taking the stance that ignorance is bliss or tolerance is the key, may we be a people whose consciences are held captive to the Word of God, imitating the faith of those who have gone before us.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 08 March 2006 )

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