Today is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. But what was the reformation, and why was it necessary?
The ignorance of worship
There are so many ways to answer that question, yet I don’t know of any better answer than the one given by John Calvin. In 1543, he produced a pamphlet entitled “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in which he wrote, “The whole substance of Christianity … is a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped … When [this is] kept out of view, though we may glory in the name ‘Christian’, our profession is empty and vain.”
For Calvin, the Reformation had to happen in order to purify the worship of the church. I remember hearing that years ago and thinking that sounded like kind of a trivial reason to launch a movement that would split the church and lead to decades of war and strife across an entire continent. It sounded a little like the fights some churches have had over worship music – should we sing hymns or the songs on K-LOVE?
However, for Calvin “worship” meant how a believer related to God with his or her entire life. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church house door in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517, the first thesis read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed that the entire life of believers should be repentance” (emphasis added). For Christians, all of life is to be worship of the God who created us.
The hindrances to worship
Calvin, though, saw many hindrances in the medieval church to pure worship, and he frequently pointed out three.
First, the church was filled with ignorant priests, who did not teach the Word of God. Too often priests who had no idea what the Bible said, nor any inclination to teach it, were appointed to parish churches. For Calvin, this was an abomination. The only way we can know how to worship God is through the Word, as God only tells us through the Scriptures how to properly honor him. Otherwise, our worship will be in vain. Calvin wrote, “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His word. The opposite persuasion clings to them . . . that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But . . the words of God are clear and distinct, ‘To obey is better than sacrifice’ (1 Sam. 15.22) and ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men’ (Matthew 15:9). Every addition to His word, especially in the matter of worship, is a lie.”
Second, the various cults of the saints. In the medieval Roman church, virtually every city and church had its own patron saint. It began innocently enough: some godly person died, and in that locale the elders established and holiday to remember that person’s life. But the holidays were quickly perverted. The idea became, “I guess I can go to God through Jesus Christ. But that’s so intimidating. Maybe I could call on this really good person from my hometown to help … ” Calvin wrote, “They figured and had for themselves as many gods as they had saints, whom they chose to worship. Christ was indeed worshipped as God, and retained the name of Savior, but where he ought to have been honored, he was left almost without honor. For spoiled of his own virtue, he passed unnoticed among the crowd of saints, like one of the least of them. There was none who duly considered that one sacrifice which he offered on the cross, and by which he reconciled us to God – none who ever dreamed of thinking of his eternal priesthood, and the intercession depending upon it; none who trusted in his righteousness only” (Calvin’s letter to Cardinal Sadoleto, 1539).
Third, the sacraments, specifically the Lord’s Supper, blocked a biblical view of Jesus. Calvin said that the Lord’s Supper, instituted by Christ to be a simple remembrance of what he had done for his people through his body and blood, had been transformed into a “theatrical exhibition.” “People are entertained with showy ceremonies, while not a word is said of their significancy and truth. For there is no use in the sacraments unless the thing which the sign visibly represents is explained in accordance with the Word of God. While the sacrament ought to have been a means of raising pious minds to heaven, the sacred symbols of the Supper were abused to an entirely different purpose, and men, contented with gazing upon them and worshiping them, never once thought of Christ. Christ was sacrificed a thousand times a day, as if he had not done enough in once dying for us” (The Necessity of Reforming the Church).
According to Calvin, the reformation was all about simplifying worship – making it about preaching the word and praying and fellowship and celebrating the sacraments – so that men and women could know and enjoy God forever.
The work continues
The task of reforming the church has not ended. One of the battle cries of the Reformation was semper reformanda: the church must always be reformed. The years march on, yet the world, the flesh, and the devil continue to put the same stumbling blocks in front of worship. They just take on different shapes and sizes.
We may not have to worry about the church hierarchy appointing ignorant priests to our local parish, but we still have many churches where the Bible is not taught. In these churches, all too often the hindrance is pragmatism. The thought seems to be, “All we really need is to get people in the door of the church and make some kind of commitment. Whatever does that, whether Scriptural or not, is what’s best.”
Other churches succumb to an over-intellectualized faith. Few care in Protestant churches today which day belongs to which saint on the church calendar. However, these congregations engage in a so-called “worship” where facts of the Bible, theology, and church history are all widely known, yet hearts are not changed and people are not loved.
The “theatrical exhibition” of the sacraments is probably not an issue in many Protestant churches today, but the same desire for an experience, where emotion and feeling counts for everything, remains.
The final message of the reformation is that the work of purifying the worship of the church never ends. We must continue to go to the Scriptures, teach them, and prayerfully apply them to our own lives. Only then can we fight the good fight of ensuring true worship of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, that was what the Reformation, at its best, was all about.