The Reformation of the Church is generally considered to have started in earnest almost 500 years ago, on the 31st day of October, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door, “out of love for the [T]ruth and a desire to bring it to light…”. A few years later, at the Diet (congress) at Worms in 1521, the church of Rome demanded that Luther recant his belief and teaching, or be declared a heretic. He responded:
“Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, not embellished: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand. May God help me, Amen.”
The church of Rome declared him a heretic, and Charles V, emperor of the ‘Holy’ Roman Empire, placed him under imperial ban. For the rest of his life, Luther could be hunted down and killed, with the approval of the ‘Holy’ Roman Empire! (see S.J. Nichols, Martin Luther, 2002)
The Reformation of the Church spread rapidly throughout Europe and Britain, despite the efforts of Rome to prevent it – there were those who were prepared to die for their faith, so certain of the truth were they. And yet, now, as Bishop JC Ryle wrote in the 19th century, “It is fashionable in some quarters to deny that there is any such thing as certainty about religious truth, or any opinions for which it is worthwhile to be burned. Yet, 300 years ago, there were men who were certain they had found out truth, and were content to die for their opinions. – It is fashionable in other quarters to leave out all the unpleasant things in history, and to paint everything with a rose-coloured hue. A very popular history of our English queens hardly mentions the martyrdoms of Queen Mary’s days! Yet Mary was not called ‘Bloody Mary’ without reason, and scores of Protestants were burned in her reign. – Last, but not least, it is thought very bad taste in many quarters to say anything which throws discredit on the Church of Rome. Yet it is as certain that the Romish Church burned our English Reformers as it is that William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings.” (J.C. Ryle, Five English Reformers, 1960 Banner of Truth ed)
Queen Mary ordered the burning of at least 288 Protestants during the last four years of her reign, including an Archbishop, four bishops, twenty-one clergymen, fifty-five women, and four children. These martyrs “were not rebels against the Queen’s authority, caught red-handed in arms. They were not thieves, or murderers, or drunkards, or unbelievers, or men and women of immoral lives. On the contrary, they were, with barely an exception, some of the holiest, purest, and best Christians in England, and several of them the most learned men of their day.” “One by one they were called before special Commissions, examined about their religious opinions, and called upon to recant, on pain of death if they refused. No third course, no alternative was left to them. They were either to give up Protestantism and receive Popery, or else they were to be burned alive. Refusing to recant, they were one by one handed over to the secular power, publicly brought out and chained to stakes, publicly surrounded with faggots [logs of wood], and publicly sent out of the world by that most cruel and painful of deaths, – the death by fire.” (Ryle, Five English Reformers)
What relevance does this have to us, in the Church today?
These men, women and children who died during the Reformation (and, ultimately, all other martyrs through history, from righteous Abel to Stephen, the Waldenses, Albigenses, Huguenots, up to the present) died for refusing to deny the Word of God. The blood of the martyrs, in what it represents, is an acknowledgment of the supreme authority of God’s Word over men. Heb 11: 36 – 38 reminds us that those faithful to God, throughout earth’s history, “had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
The blood shed for obedience to the Word of God was the foundation of the church throughout the world. The Reformers refused to accept the teaching of the church of Rome because it denied the absolute authority of the Word of God. And men, women and children died for refusing to recant their belief in the supreme authority of God’s Word.
When, in the light of this, did we last give thanks to God for raising up men, women and children at the Reformation, and throughout history, who were faithful unto death, and provided the foundation upon which the Church could build? Reformation Day used to be celebrated on the last Sunday of October every year, in many Protestant churches worldwide – but it seems to be fading into the forgotten past. Dare one ask what is happening to the teaching which went with the Reformation – the emphasis on the supreme authority of God’s Word and all that accompanies it?
The foreword to Five English Reformers warns that “while we sleep, an onslaught is being mounted against us – an onslaught which the Protestant Churches of our land were never less ready to sustain. … leaders alike have thrown away the only weapon that could defend us – ‘the sword of the Spirit,’ the Infallible Word of God. The Word of God alone, the grace of God alone, the power of the Spirit alone, these were the watch-cries which prevailed four hundred years ago. They are not the watch-cries of our Protestant pulpits today.”
How many people in the Church today care about the Reformation, or even know what it was, let alone what happened or who was martyred? How many are aware that the Reformation was a battle for the supreme authority of the Word of God, a battle which sometimes resulted in the death of the faithful? How many appreciate that we have Bibles in our own language because these martyrs – like William Tyndale (strangled and burnt at the stake) – were prepared to die rather than recant their belief?
Or do many think that these men, women and children need not have died because they were just causing trouble about some minor point? How many now realise that the false teaching they stood against utterly undermines the Gospel? These were not minor issues, as people might think from a superficial hearing: The teaching of Rome (in particular the ‘real presence’ during the mass) marred, obscured or distorted the Biblical record of Christ’s finished work on the cross; Christ’s (unique) priestly office; and Christ’s human nature. Rome also exalted sinful men to the position of mediator between God and man, as priests – and, effectively, placed sinful mankind in authority over the Word of God.
We forget these faithful men, women, and children, “of whom the world was not worthy,” and the reason for their death, at our peril and to our disgrace. They died because they would not bow to “philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men” (Col 2:8). Are we prepared to follow the same path, if it is ever required of us? Are we prepared to examine ourselves in the light of God’s Word alone to determine if we have gone astray? Or are we too arrogant and self-assured to make the effort?
We ought to make the effort; for many in the church today have allowed teaching that destroys the principle of the supreme authority of God’s Word. The Church, having been reformed, is in (continuing) need of being reformed [Ecclesia reformata reformandum est], as Calvin declared. The Word of God is losing – indeed, has lost – its place of absolute authority. We have erred, as seriously as the church of Rome; for we have welcomed the teaching of man over God’s Word – be it disguised as ‘logic’ or ‘reason’ (higher criticism, rationalism), or any other version of ‘intellectualism’ which elevates the ability of man.
This is seen today in the confusion within the church throughout the world: for example, the teaching of the Bible about itself is ignored, and it is treated as merely another book written by fallible people. The specific miracles of the Bible are denied, because ‘science’ has either shown that they are not possible (!) or because ‘science’ has provided a vaguely possible mechanism; alternatively, miracles are explained away as forms of speech that ‘the people of the time,’ (who were apparently incapable of observing the normal course of nature) used to describe things that they could not understand. The Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is ignored – sometimes the reason given being that ‘science’ has shown it to be purely genetic (material) in origin. Love not the world, neither the things of the world, the Bible commands; and yet all manner of worldliness is to be found in the church – be it an unhealthy love of wealth, possessions, public image or filthy books and films. Christians marry unbelievers and yoke themselves unequally. The seriousness of sin is downplayed: sin becomes merely that which has bad consequences for mankind, whereas, in actuality, it has bad consequences for us because God abhors it.
Possibly the most pervasive, destructive and least recognised means by which the authority of God’s Word is being attacked today is the so-called ‘supremacy’ of the type of ‘origins science’ that talks about the origin of the universe and all life in it. Schools, universities, media – all proclaim that it is ‘fact’ that this ‘origins science’ has proven that life on earth originated by chance. It is ‘beyond question,’ they claim, that life on earth came to be by chance, and it must be explained purely by chance, long periods of time, and the laws of nature – which is known as naturalism. God is automatically and arbitrarily discarded as a possible cause – for no room is left for supernatural creation of life, or miracles of any sort, in this framework. Yet this framework is entirely based on the unsubstantiated assumption that God has not been supernaturally active in creation. Only a complete and accurate record of history from a trustworthy witness could provide proof that this was actually the case. And, in opposition to this assumption of naturalism, God’s Word records many examples of God’s supernatural activity on earth.
And yet teaching linked with naturalism has been broadly welcomed by most of the Protestant church worldwide, despite being directly contradicted by Scripture, which records that our God has been supernaturally active in creation, from the very beginning of beginnings. Even more seriously, the view that life came about by chance and death – that the different kinds of animals formed over millennia by gradual random changes, finally leading to humankind – completely removes the foundation on which the Gospel stands. This teaching, when examined in the light of the Biblical Gospel message, denigrates and negates the sacrificial death of our Lord and Saviour no less than the teaching of Rome, and it also distorts the goodness of God. You may ask, how so?
The Bible teaches that God made the universe perfect – without blemish or fault in his sight. There was no pain, suffering, disease or death. That was the case, until Adam, as the representative head of the created order sinned by disobeying the Word of God, after which death, disease and suffering came into being as a part of the curse. “For since by man [Adam] came death, by man [Christ] came also the resurrection of the dead” 1 Cor 15:21; The whole of creation groans and travails because of the fall, Rom 8:22.
Conversely, the ‘philosophy and vain deceit’ of mankind now teaches that chance and the laws of nature, acting through pain, suffering, disease and death, formed man and all the animals, and that all creation was subject to death and disease long before Adam and Eve disobeyed the Word of God – in other words, “For since by death came man”!
But if suffering and death is “very good” and perfectly pleasing in the sight of God, what is God’s curse and punishment in this world for our fallen state? And why is heaven described as a place where “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away,” Rev 21:4?
If death existed before Adam and Eve fell, then there was no need for Christ to die for our sins: his death was utterly pointless, for Genesis 1 and 2 specifically state that the creation was “very good” in the sight of God, from the very beginning. If there was already death before Adam and Eve fell, this implies that death is “very good,” and therefore there was no sacrificial aspect to Christ’s suffering and death on the cross – it loses its meaning entirely! From what did Christ purchase us? Not suffering – for that existed before the fall. And with what sacrifice did Christ purchase us – if suffering and death is not a consequence of the fall, a punishment for sin? If suffering and death is not a punishment for sin, then Christ did not bear the punishment for our sin in his death on the cross. But the Bible repeatedly states that the forgiveness of our sin is through his suffering and death – through his blood, shed for us:
“And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt 26: 27-28); Paul charged the Ephesian elders to “feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20: 28b). “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Rom 5: 9-10).
It is Christ “In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1: 14); and “by his own blood he [Christ] entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:12-14); “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate” (Heb 13:12). In Rev 5:9, “… they sang a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation”. (see also Is 53; Rom 3: 24-25; Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 1:17-19 …)
Deny death and suffering as a punishment for sin, and there is no biblical basis on which Christ suffered the punishment for our sin. If he did not bear the punishment of our sin, there is no way in which we can be forgiven. If there is no forgiveness of sin, what is the Gospel?
The Word of God calls us to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Cor 10:5, ESV). Would you stand firmly on God’s Word even if you might be excluded by academia, society, your friends, work colleagues or family as a consequence? Are you prepared to take a stand against the worldly belief that life formed according to chance, death, disease, and the laws of nature? Would you be prepared to be publicly burned at the stake – or even ridiculed – for failing to recant your belief in a supernaturally active God who created and has supernaturally declared his Word to us?
Let us take a stand against the philosophy and vain deceit of the world, as the faithful before us have done, lest God spit us out of his mouth because we are found to be lukewarm (Rev 3:16). May we wholeheartedly, in thought, word, and deed, take up the full cry of the Reformation:
by the grace of God alone, by the Word of God alone, by faith in God alone
The church of Rome did not go astray overnight. It gradually collected more and more false teaching because it did not test all of its teaching by God’s Word. Let us take heed! Let us ensure that, in our services, teaching, and way of life, we truly show an unwavering belief, in statement and in practice, that
“Thy Word is Truth” (John 17:17)
Here let us stand. May God help us. Amen.