The last day of this month will mark the 467th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation, dated from Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, was a great work of God for the renewal of His church. Prior to the Reformation, the church had departed from the truth of God. There were departures in doctrine. Many serious errors were held and taught by the church. There were also departures in the Christian life. Ungodly and carnal living characterized both the clergy and the laity at the time of the Reformation. The Reformation was the means of God to purify and reform His church. It was such a reformation as called the faithful people of God out of an apostate church in order to institute the church anew.
We today are heirs of the Reformation and of the work of the Reformers. We are children of the Reformation; the Reformers are our spiritual fathers. The Reformation is our heritage. This applies to you young people. You young people are children of the Reformation. The heritage of the Reformation is YOUR heritage. It’s a blessed heritage, a glorious heritage, a priceless heritage. For this heritage you ought to be eternally thankful to God.
What is the Reformation heritage that is yours and for which you ought to be thankful?
That heritage is, first of all, the Bible. The Reformation was the great means of God for the recovery of the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church had buried the Bible. The people were forbidden to have and to read the Bible. Besides, Rome had obscured the Bible with all her traditions and papal decrees that were exalted above the authority of the Bible. Instead of faith in the Word of God, the people were exhorted to put their faith in the church. The Reformers reacted sharply to Rome’s denial of the central and exclusive place of the Word of God in the faith and life of the people. Through their efforts the Bible was restored to the church.
Secondly, belonging to our Reformation heritage is the truth of justification by faith alone. The Reformation not only recovered the Bible, but it also recovered the central message of the Bible: justification by faith alone. Rome had denied this truth. Rome had taught salvation by works, that men must earn their salvation. Through his own experience and from the study of the Scriptures, Luther came to see the error of this teaching. In its place he preached the truth that salvation is of grace. Salvation is not the work of man, but the work of God in Christ received by men through faith alone. God, not man, must receive the glory for salvation.
Thirdly, it was the work of the Reformation to restore preaching to its rightful place. The great truth of justification by faith alone was a truth that had to be preached. By the time of the Reformation, preaching had all but disappeared in the church. Instead of preaching, the priests administered the sacraments. Not the preaching, but the sacraments, and especially the Mass, was viewed as the chief means of grace and salvation. So little preaching was done that even the sacraments were administered in a language that the people could not understand. The Reformation restored preaching to its rightful place in the church. The Reformers themselves were mighty preachers. In harmony with the centrality of the preaching, the worship services of the Reformed churches emphasized the preaching, expository, doctrinal preaching.
In the fourth place, the Reformation restructured the church itself. The offices and discipline of the church had been thoroughly corrupted in the Roman Catholic Church. An unbiblical form of hierarchy had been introduced, with an infallible pope at the head. The office of all believers had been completely lost sight of. There existed almost no conception of the proper work and calling of the officebearers. A cleavage was made between the clergy and the laity. The Reformation did away with this hierarchical form of church government. Especially through the labors of Calvin, the Re formed churches were restored to a presbyterian form of church government.
In the fifth place, occupying an important place in our Reformation heritage are our creeds. Particularly two of our creeds, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith, are direct products of the Reformation. For the sake of the unity of the church, out of concern for the instruction of the youth, and to serve as a witness to the world, the Reformation wrote creeds. In these creeds we have not only the essentials of the Reformed faith, what it means to be Reformed, but we have also set forth all of the fundamental truths of the Word of God. How useful to the Reformed churches have not the creeds been!
In the sixth place, the Reformation restored godly living, and put the Christian life on its proper basis. The Reformers renounced as the basis for the Christian life the attempt to earn salvation. Instead they proclaimed as the basis for the Christian’s life in the world gratitude, gratitude for gracious salvation. The Reformers’ emphasis on justification by faith alone did not lead them to disparage good works. Instead it was this very doctrine which the Reformation recovered that led the Reformers to call God’s people to a serious and devout Christian life.
In the seventh place, the Reformation was instrumental in promoting and establishing Christian schools. Christian education is part of our Reformation heritage. The Christian school movement that flourishes among our own people rests on principles set forth by the Reformers. Luther once said:
When schools prosper the church remains righteous and her doctrine pure . . . . Young pupils and students are the seed and source of the church . . . . For the sake of the church we must have and maintain Christian schools. They may not appear attractive, but they are useful and necessary.
Finally, it must not be overlooked that belonging to our Reformation heritage is also the example of unswerving devotion to the truth which the Reformers give us. They were men who stood for the truth, and who stood for the truth at a cost. They were willing to pay the price, to make the sacrifice, for the sake of the truth. They endured the persecution, gave up their earthly possessions, parted with those who had been their friends and companions, for the sake of the truth. Many of them laid down their own lives for the truth’s sake. What an example of steadfastness and of faithful discipleship!
This is our heritage. This is YOUR heritage, young people. What a heritage it is! It is the truth, it is the gospel, it is God Himself.
For this truth you ought to be thankful. You ought to be thankful that you have this heritage. God in His grace has caused you to be born to believing parents. He has seen to it that you have been brought up in a Reformed church, in a church that stands on the Reformation. He has given you faithful instruction in the Reformed faith many years already, by your parents, in the church, at the Christian school. That the Reformation is your heritage ought to be reason for deepest gratitude on your part.
If you are grateful for this heritage, and to the degree to which you are grateful, you will use this heritage. This heritage is yours not simply to admire, but to use. Do you read and study God’s Word? Do you embrace with a believing heart the truth of that Word? Do you faithfully hear and receive the preaching of this truth? Do you participate in the life of the church and, through confession of faith, in the government of the church? Do you show a concern for a godly walk and separate yourself from those who do not? Do you avail yourself of the Christian education that is yours, and already now do what you can to support the cause of Christian education? Do you live a life of devotion to the truth of God and to the church that maintains that truth? This is how we show our gratitude for our Reformation heritage and identify ourselves as children of the Reformation.
Grateful for this heritage, you will also defend and maintain it. This is not only your heritage to enjoy and from which to profit, but this is the heritage that you are called to preserve for your children after you. On every hand today the heritage of the Reformation is being corrupted and sold. Every important aspect of that heritage is under attack and is being denied today. More and more there is a movement back to the very conditions from which the Reformation delivered God’s people. The Reformation heritage is despised and berated. As the children of the Reformation, you are called to preserve your heritage. Maintain and defend it against every corruption, every denial, every attempt at compromise. Be concerned to pass that heritage on intact to the coming generation.
A concern for the preservation of our Reformation heritage will also motivate you to continual reformation. We must never take the attitude that we have arrived. Nor must we suppose that the only threats to this heritage of ours are the errors of all of the other churches out there. The fact of the matter is that the greatest threats to our Reformation heritage are from our own selves, our own weaknesses, our own sins, both as individuals and as churches. Love for this great heritage which is ours must express itself in our being Reformed and always reforming.
We are grateful to God for what He has done and what He has given us in the Reformation. We are thankful for what He accomplished through men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox. May God preserve this Reformation heritage among us. And may we be used by Him for the propagation of the Reformed faith in all the world.