Celebration at the end of this month of the 16th century Reformation of the church will be a dangerous activity for Protestants. The danger is that churches and their members seize upon the occasion of the anniversary of the onset of the Reformation to praise the Reformers profusely, while repudiating the truth of the gospel that the Reformers proclaimed. Men and women who in fact are hostile to the Reformation doctrines decorate the monuments of the Reformers, strewing the flowers of their praise upon the Reformers’ graves.
Christ called this hypocrisy, and pronounced His woe over it. Referring specifically to the scribes and Pharisees and their loud declarations of regard for the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus said, “Woe unto you . . . hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous” (Matthew 23:29).
The evil is prevalent today. Lutherans who are indifferent to the doctrine of justification by faith alone and whose churches are busy selling out the doctrine in high-level discussions with the Roman Catholic Church will bless the name of Martin Luther on Reformation Day. Presbyterians and Reformed who vehemently oppose Calvin’s doctrine of eternal, sovereign election and reprobation will, nevertheless, extol the Genevan Reformer as a hero of the Protestant church. Protestants who are disgusted with the Reformation’s insistence upon Scripture alone, including the stress upon doctrine and expository preaching, and who are swept away with the giddy excitement of the charismatic movement will yet pay homage to the Reformation.
What accounts for this strange behavior?
Why do these Protestants not spit on the graves of the Reformers, or, at least, leave any adorning of their tombstones to those who believe what the Reformers taught, and love the Reformers for the truth’s sake, as spiritual fathers?
Such towering, powerful figures are the Reformers, by the Providence of the God Who governs history and its thought, that their enemies cannot ignore them and dare not revile them. Such a glorious event is the Reformation in the history of the church that those in the Protestant churches, at any rate, who radically differ with it dare not launch a frontal attack upon it, but must pay lip-service to it. Besides, it is much more effective to blunt the Reformation’s message among the people when one is draped in the mantle of an admirer of the Reformers than when he appears as an out-and-out adversary. The Pharisees could spread among the people the legalism that the prophets abominated when they were building the tombs of the prophets, as they never could do if they were perceived by the people as the children of them who killed the prophets.
Even the atheistic, Communist regime of East Germany joined in the monument-decorating charade in 1983—the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. Not only did the East German authorities refurbish the notable Luther-sites, but they also spoke highly of “Comrade Luther,” claiming him as a forerunner of socialism. Surely, the activity of decorating the graves of the righteous attained an extreme bordering on the farcical, in this praise of Luther by the Communists. A State for which God is the enemy extolled the man for whom the God revealed in Jesus Christ was the only hope of men. A State committed to the notion that religion is the opiate of the people honored the man for whom the Christian religion was the sinner’s only peace. A State slavishly serving the idea that true happiness for man must come through revolution hailed as a hero the world’s fiercest anti-revolutionary, whose denunciation of revolution, “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants,” is much to strong even for most Christians.
To a man, the Reformers rejected all honoring of themselves. Zealous as they were for the name of God (the motto of them all was “To God Alone, the Glory”), the thought that men might praise them was obnoxious to them. Luther expressed displeasure at his followers’ naming their church after him. Calvin was buried without any monument at all, so that in a few months no one could know where his remains awaited the resurrection. There would be no decorating of his grave!
Nevertheless, Protestants ought to honor the work of the Holy Spirit through the Reformers, and the Reformation as the greatest deliverance of His church by our Head since the days of the apostles. By it, “Zion in her low estate/Was bro’t from bondage by the Lord,” as we sing in a versification of Psalm 126. Of those who enjoy the liberty that resulted from the Reformation—true Protestants, it ought to be the case, as The Psalter continues, that “in ecstasy we sang for joy/By grace and wondrous love restored.”
This is done by embracing the truth—the doctrines—given back to the church by the Reformation, with believing hearts and minds, and by confessing these doctrines with the mouth. The church honors her prophets by receiving the prophets’ message!
It is fitting that the churches keep up the remembrance of the Reformation among us by a special meeting at which the history of the Reformation is recounted and the doctrine explored. Ministers do well, on the last Lord’s Day in October, to preach a passage that sharply teaches one or another of the outstanding Reformation truths, explicitly drawing attention to the Reformation and our indebtedness to it. The theologians of the church have the duty, and privilege, to be busy studying that fascinating history, as well as the teachings of the Reformers, for the benefit of the people of God. Our Christian schools and our homes should avail themselves of the annual anniversary of the Reformation to instruct the next generation as to the great things God did for us in that mighty movement. High school students can be encouraged to read Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther; we might put into the hands of the grade school children such small books as Peter de Rover’sChampion of Geneva: A Sketch of John Calvin for Young People, or Thea B. Van Halsema’s Glorious Heretic: The Story of Guido de Bres (author of our Belgic Confession).
But none of these activities, commendable as they all are, is a substitute for the Reformed man or woman’s hearing, believing, confessing, and living the Reformation doctrines, week-in and week-out.
Will our celebration of the Reformation be genuine, or will it be a mere decorating of the Reformers’ monuments?
Do we regard Holy Scripture, in its entirety, as the inspired, and therefore inerrant, Word of God? Is our confession of the sole authority of Scripture as God’s Word proved by our diligent attendance at its preaching every Sabbath; by our willing attendance at the catechism classes this coming season; by our daily reading of the Scriptures; and by our effort to direct our behavior according to Scripture’s role? Do we live by faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and by faith in Him alone, i.e., by the grace of God only? Is the cross of Christ, i.e., His doing and dying some 2000 years ago, our only righteousness with God the Judge, so that we have peace—actually and experientially have peace? Is this Christ-received-by-faith-only the power of a new life for us, so that we are holy, in a corrupt world? Do we confess these doctrines, regardless of the cost personally? Do we contend for them, when they are contradicted, or corrupted? And is this because we love the truth? Men and women (and their covenant children) who can answer yes to these questions are no hypocrites when they commemorate Reformation Day on October 31.
This has everything to do with our church membership. We honor the Reformation by supporting the preaching of its gospel in a congregation and a denomination that are faithful to the Reformation doctrines. We ourselves receive the truth restored by the Reformation by sound preaching of this truth every Lords Day. We confess “Scripture alone”; “faith alone”; “grace alone”; and “Christ alone”—not individually, but with the church to which we belong. That man truly celebrates the Reformation, and he alone, who joins the church that proclaims and defends the body of truth that the Reformers fought and suffered for; maintains his membership in her; and is a lively member of her.
As for the church, she celebrates the Reformation, not by mouthing empty praise of that work of our Lord in history once a year, but by being the pillar and ground of the truth that has come down to her from the Reformation—the Reformed Faith set forth in the Reformed Confessions. She herself submits to the authority of Scripture, in order then to teach it to her spiritual children, insisting on it, if need be, to rebellious children, by her discipline. In season and out of season, she proclaims the good news of that Scripture—the grace of God in Jesus as the only cause of the salvation of elect sinners.
This is the church, this is the people, who are the living monument of the Reformers, and of the prophets whose message the Reformers echoed.
Over them, Jesus pronounces His blessing.