Since the Reformation, the Reformers’ message has been diluted.… Today the Church needs a new “outpouring of God’s Spirit”
Dining with a well-known evangelist not long ago, I was somewhat shocked to hear him remark that although the Reformation witnessed a rediscovery and re-enunciation of biblical doctrine, a real spiritual revival did not take place until the eighteenth century. He apparently did not feel that a great resurgence of interest in and obedience to the Scriptures in itself evidenced a deep spiritual movement. That secular historians who have had little interest in the teachings of the Reformation have described it as a great social revolution, in fact the beginning of Western capitalism, and have credited it with other achievements good and bad, seems natural. But that many Christians either ignore or deny the fact that the Reformation was probably the greatest revival ever to influence the Western world seems strange indeed.
Yet perhaps one should not be so surprised at this attitude. The Reformation had a strongly intellectual flavor. For one thing, at its very core was doctrine: justification by faith, the priesthood of believers, and, above all else, the sovereignty of God. Moreover, apart from the vernacular Bible, the most powerful and effective book of the movement was the first great work of Protestant systematic theology, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Reformation also had a great effect on the intellectual world, being responsible not only for the reforming of many of the old universities but also for the creation of many new ones. Because of this, it had much to do with subsequent intellectual developments, such as the “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century. Furthermore, it had wide repercussions in social, economic, and political thinking in many lands. For these reasons, today many Christians feel that the Reformation was too “intellectual” or too “worldly” to be spiritual, forgetting that at its heart was a dynamic, spiritual force without which it could have accomplished nothing.
It would seem well, therefore, that Christians stop to examine this matter, for a careful analysis of the Reformation should make it quite clear that the essence of the movement was a true Christian revival.
Probably the most important and most fundamental characteristic of the Reformation was that it restored to Christian thought Christ’s centrality in salvation. During the Middle Ages, although Christ had not been denied, others had tended to take his place. The saints and martyrs, the Virgin Mary, and the belief in the resacrifice of the Mass had all partially obscured his atoning work. Then, too, when good works became a means of avoiding or at least mitigating purgatory, the faithful found it more important to look to their own and the saints’ merits than to Christ’s. Thus when Luther sounded forth the biblical teaching that man is justified by faith in Christ alone, he introduced a change in the whole pattern of Christian thought. A little later John Calvin related this doctrine to other biblical doctrines, to make it clear that redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ comes solely from divine grace. Thus the Reformation brought to light the central doctrine of the Atonement.
This revival of the doctrine of justification brought another change: a new emphasis on faith. True, during the Middle Ages great stress had been laid upon faith in what the Church taught, because the Church represented the realm of grace and revelation; but this was to be an implicit faith, that is, a general acceptance of and obedience to the Church’s teachings. To the Protestant Reformers, however, such faith meant nothing. Man as an individual must make his decision for Christ and by faith must personally commit himself to Christ as his Saviour. Faith was no longer thought to be merely a general or implicit acceptance; it became once more a matter of personal transaction between man and God. Moreover, the Reformers also recognized that no man comes to this position except by the drawing action of the Holy Spirit of God himself. In this way the Reformers became the means for a new proclamation of the Gospel of grace.
The revival of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith had another natural but very important effect: it led to a revival of preaching. During the Middle Ages preaching had gradually declined, largely because of the emphasis upon the sacraments as the means of the conveyance of grace and upon the intercessory role of both saints and priests. The Reformers, however, with their New Testament conception of the importance of personal decision and self-committal to Christ, found that they had to take seriously the New Testament stress upon preaching. To reach sinners and persuade them to believe in Christ required not more ceremonies or symbols but the clear proclamation of the Word calling all men everywhere to repent and believe. Preaching again came into its own at the very center of the service of worship, for the preacher did not proclaim his own theories but set forth the Word of God. In this way preachers once more became conscious of themselves as ambassadors for Christ.
But when men had laid hold upon the Gospel, they also had to live by it. In medieval times, holiness was generally thought of as physical separation from the world. The holy men and women were those who separated themselves from the rest of mankind by going into monasteries or nunneries. And if one remained “in the world” he could seek and find holiness only through fastings, pilgrimages, and penances. Yet by 1500 monasticism had so deteriorated that monks and friars were often bywords for immorality, while pilgrimages and the like had become excuses for self-indulgence. It remained for the Reformers to point out that holiness in the biblical view consists not of outward conformity to human ordinances but of the outworking of Christian love, faith, and obedience toward God. From this true concept of holiness there came a revival of truly Christian living.
This revival then led to a further step. The Middle Ages had distinguished between nature and grace, nature being the realm of man’s life merely as man: his daily work, thoughts, and actions. In his actions he was always to obey the Church when it spoke of faith and morals; but if it said nothing, he could do whatever his autonomous reason directed. To the Reformers such a position contradicted biblical teaching. All of man’s life must come under the light of eternity. Christianity is totalitarian in its demands. The Reformers proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord of life—all of life—and of the whole of the universe. Each Christian must be directly responsible to him and must see himself as a steward of God’s bounties. Thus the Christian found himself faced with his responsibility to God not merely as a churchman but also as a citizen, a businessman, a scientist, a teacher. Even today we have come nowhere near these New Testament objectives.
From the foregoing one can easily see that the Reformation was a revival in that it was a rediscovery of biblical Christianity. It brought to light teaching that pointed man once more to him who is the true object and source of faith, the triune God. The Church ceased to be the mediator between man and God, and man stood before God himself, to learn through Christ and the Holy Spirit how to know him, trust him, love him, and obey him. This in itself was a revival such as the Christian world has not seen since that day.
Even if one looks at it from other angles, however, the Reformation was still the greatest of revivals. For instance, it came at the end of a period of spiritual darkness greater than Europe had seen for a thousand years. Learning, education, culture had all reached very high points by 1500, but the moral and spiritual situation had hardly ever been worse. One need only think of the scandalous lives of the Borgia popes, of the flagrant disregard of nearly all moral standards throughout European society, of the superstition that abounded, and above all of the venality of the Church, with its selling of ecclesiastical benefices and its trade in indulgences that Christians might escape the terrors of purgatory. Out of this darkness, only God by his Spirit could bring forth light—and he did.
This light manifested itself in the many transformed lives that resulted from the preaching of the Gospel. True, none of those who heard the teaching of Luther or Calvin and believed became perfect overnight; the correspondence of the Reformers clearly indicates that. Christians in those days as in ours had their weaknesses, their failings, their sin. But still through it all one can see, in the changes that occurred in such men as Luther, Calvin, Knox, as well as in many of the humble and almost unknown Protestants, that the Spirit of God worked mightily in those days. How many, indeed, in France, Germany, Holland, England, Italy, and elsewhere went gladly to slow and painful deaths to bear testimony to Christ! Others expressed the newness of this life by their day-to-day living. One has only to read Knox’s account of Geneva or Palissy’s description of the Reformation in Saintonge to realize that this was indeed a tremendous revival.
Furthermore, this change of life did not take place merely in one or two places but affected over half of Europe. Sometimes it virtually captured a whole city, such as Lucca in Italy, so that when the Protestants had to migrate because of persecution, the city was left almost depopulated. The Reformation reached to out-of-the-way places such as Transylvania and Serbia; it gained a large part of the population in central and northern Germany and what is now Holland, and in England, Scotland, and France. Between 1517 and 1564 it had gained hundreds of thousands of adherents, practically turning the whole of Christendom upside down. True, in some places hostile rulers and ecclesiastics succeeded in crushing it out while in others it had a long fight for its life. Nevertheless, it had an effect upon the world for which one can adduce no parallel since the Day of Pentecost.
Finally, to look at the Reformation historically, it had the most lasting effect of any of the great Christian revivals. For four centuries its influence has been great. One can see this very easily in nearly every phase of Western thought: political, scientific, artistic. The Reformation has touched deeply every facet of Western life. But, perhaps even more important, the Reformation has provided the foundation for all subsequent revivals. This fact, very obvious when one considers the seventeenth-century Puritan movement, is also evident in the great revivals of the eighteenth century under the Moravians, the Wesleys, and Whitefield, or of the nineteenth century under Moody and Sankey and many others. These all drew their doctrine and their inspiration largely from the Protestant Reformation. The same is true in our own day and generation. The great trouble has been, however, that over the years the Reformers’ message has been undergoing dilution, with a consequent weakening of the power and influence of the more recent revivals.
Undoubtedly the Reformation still holds the position of the greatest Christian revival; it revivified the Church both intensively and extensively as no other has done. Thus today the Church needs not merely “a revival” but rather an outpouring of God’s Spirit such as that experienced in the sixteenth century. It needs a reforming that will not only give new enthusiasm and understanding to the Church but also, through the Church’s witness and testimony in every sphere of life, bring about a revolutionary re-forming of individual and social life. This will come only when the Church returns to its Reformation foundation and builds once again on the doctrines set forth and applied by the Reformers.
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