Rev. Koole is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
The Reformation was many things. It was a return to the supreme authority of the Scriptures. It was a restoration of preaching to its place of primacy. It was a revival of true, heartfelt worship. It was a “re-formation” of the church institute, a re-emphasis of the doctrines of sovereign grace, and more besides.
But one of its greatest contributions was its restoration and revival of the blessedness of family life. Here we come to the full harvest of what the Spirit worked in the Reformation.
God’s chief purpose in the Reformation was not to revive preaching for its own sake, so we could have great works of preaching to admire and discuss. The great purpose of the Reformation was to restore preaching that would restore godliness, godliness in the lives of believers, and to produce Christian homes.
Permit me the use of an extended metaphor. The church of Christ at the dawn of the Reformation was like a great oak tree standing dormant under the cold, dark, European wintry-blast of the Middle Ages. Then came the springtime of the Reformation. And from the roots of the Scriptures the Spirit began to send His life into the church, stirring its sluggish sap and sending His vitality first into the trunk of the preaching, then on into the branches of the sanctuaries and congregations, and at last producing the blessed foliage and fruit of the God-fearing family and home.
And when you think of it, in many ways this is the very goal and purpose of God’s saving Word altogether, namely, the salvation of believers and their seed who live together and confess and praise the same Jehovah God. This follows from the fact that God is a covenant God.
It is these families that would come and fill the sanctuaries of the church, worshiping God as His great congregation.
One is reminded here of the very last promise found in the very last verse of the very last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, as he speaks of what would characterize Messiah’s great kingdom and church. “And he (i.e., the second Elijah) shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:6).
What a striking promise with which to end the Old Testament! A covenant promise, a promise that speaks of the revival of family ties. It speaks of fathers with children, no longer estranged, but worshiping one and the same God through the Mediator sent.
And this is what the Spirit accomplished in the tree of the church by means of the Reformation—the flourishing again of godly and pious family life; family life that is itself centered in God’s Word and worship; family life in which the father (not to exclude the mother, but we speak of the ideal), as head of the home, understands his spiritual calling and leads in prayer and instruction and praise.
This was no small gift to the church through the Reformation.
That the Reformers should be used by God to reintroduce family worship into the lives of believers is a striking thing. It is striking because, if there was one thing that seems to have been absent from the lives of the early Reformers, it was their being raised in what we would call God-fearing homes, homes in which the Word of God ruled, homes where there was family worship. I am speaking of men of such stature as Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Knox, Zwingli, and others besides.
The Reformers were voluminous in their writings. Yet one looks in vain for references to themselves as being the products of spiritual, God centered homes. Such references are conspicuous by their absence.
In a couple of instances you do have favorable mention of the piety of their mothers, namely, of Luther’s and Calvin’s. They had mothers to whose religious sincerity one is attracted, though even the piety of these mothers was mixed with great ignorance and superstition.
Calvin, for instance, had an early memory of his mother walking with him for two hours to enter a cathedral (when he was three years old) and then lifting him up to kiss the supposed skull of St. Anne, Mary’s mother. It indicated devout zeal, but not according to knowledge.
As for Luther’s and Calvin’s fathers, they were members of Rome’s church. Luther had a great deal of respect, one might say dread, for his father, and he did recall seeing his father praying. But the general impression of the fathers of the Reformers is that their church membership was a matter of economic wisdom more than anything else. It was a matter of livelihood.
The Reformers were raised in typical Roman Catholic homes of the time. We should pause here for the praise of women!
It is a striking thing that even in the most spiritually barren times of the history of the church, when not a man can be found in Israel, still women, mothers, were quietly, patiently laboring to preserve some piety in the home. Women, mothers, seem always to be the one great constant in church history. So often they are found laboring with little help, and with no leadership or encouragement from their husbands.
The spiritual home-fires burned at low ebb. That they burned at all was due to the mothers, not the fathers.
The absence of being raised in sound, God-fearing homes was apparently characteristic of the lives of the Reformers. And yet from such homes came the men that God used to restore spirituality to the home, and family worship itself.
The homes of the early Protestants were markedly different from the homes of their Roman Catholic neighbors.
The primary reason?
Protestant homes had fathers who began to function as heads of their homes—not only in financial matters (what trade their sons were to pursue) but also in spiritual. They began to function as spiritual heads of their homes. They took it upon themselves to provide leadership in the spiritual development of their children. They became New Testament Joshua’s—”As for me and my house . . . .”
The Reformation served to revive the hearts of the fathers for their children. Men became spiritual leaders in their homes. Such involvement paid rich dividends in the spiritual climate of the home and for the church herself.
All this raises a deeper question, namely, what was it that prompted these “sons of the Reformation” to take this sudden interest in the spiritual quality of their families and to provide the leadership?
One could say, the Holy Spirit. That is true enough.
But what truth and doctrine did the Spirit use to prompt men to see what their task and calling and qualifications were?
Here we run into the rediscovery of the truth of the priesthood of all believers. This is what had been stolen from God’s people along with God’s Word. And that robbery left the members of the church destitute, spiritually lethargic, and chained in their own ignorance, convinced it could never be otherwise.
All knowledge, all understanding of God’s Word and ways had to be left to the professional priesthood of the church. They alone had the spirit of understanding and interpretation. No one could approach into the presence of God without a priest acting as his mediator, or giving him temporary permission to do so.
The Reformation changed all that.
There is but one Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ. All believers have His good and Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of knowledge and understanding to all, young and old. And, having the Spirit and anointing of Christ, one has the right of direct access to the Father and the throne of grace.
This was of practical importance.
This meant that the Protestant husband did not simply turn his family over to the church and her priests. Rather, he understood his own office and task as spiritual head of the home. He took it upon himself to lead his family in the ways of God and into His presence.
The fruit of the Reformation was found in its widespread effect on home life across the map of Europe.
James W. Alexander, in his book entitled Thoughts on Family Worship, wrote of a wide prevalence of household piety found across the map of Reformation Europe. He states that “… in no country did the light of the dwelling burn more brightly than in Scotland…. Probably no land, in proportion to its inhabitants, ever had so many praying families…” (p. 22).
Having stated that “in Scotland especially the humblest persons, in the remotest cottages, honored God by daily praise…” (p. 25), Alexander goes on to quote a Mr. Hamilton.
I have sometimes seen family-worship in great houses, but I have felt that God was quite as near when I knelt with a praying family on the earthen floor of their cottage. I have known of family-worship among the reapers in a barn. It used to be common in the fishing-boats upon the friths and lakes of Scotland. I have heard of this being observed in the depths of a coal-pit.
There is historical evidence to substantiate this description of the land of John Knox.
This family worship is the legacy of Calvin, who taught, “Every family of the pious ought to be a Church” (Commentaries, Genesis, I, p. 455).
Luther, who married and had children and a lively household, took the time to draw up a “Small Catechism” with the specific intent that it be taught to children. At the heading of its first part are the words written large, as the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household. In this section he includes such basic items as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed, with simple explanations of each point.
Luther also included a section entitled, “How the Head of the Family Should Teach His Household to Pray Morning and Evening.” Here he composed what he calls some “little prayers” for children to recite for various occasions, to be taught by parents.
The very Heidelberg Catechism with which we are so familiar was written with the instruction of the youth in mind. This instruction was to be promoted in each and every home.
We see then that the Reformers were conscious of the need for parents (and for fathers in particular) to serve as “teaching-priests.” They gave not only exhortation here, but also direction and assistance. The fruit of their promptings could be seen in the vigorous growth of godly homes. They were homes not only of doctrinal knowledge, but of personal piety and family worship. Around mealtime and bedtime large sections of Europe took on a different face. Praises to God could be heard as you walked down the villages lanes.
(to be continued)