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Principles Of The Reformation

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 263

Perhaps the greatest renewal in the Church since first century was the Reformation. As a movement it changed the Church in ways that virtually no previous phenomenon had. Certainly the Reformation was a unique action used by God for His purposes of furthering the Gospel.
 
What things characterized that movement? More importantly, what principles were evident that may be used today to bring about such renewal in today's Christian Church? By examining the work and ministry of Martin Luther, one gains insight into some of the major principles of the Reformation. By God's working, these principles propelled unparalleled church renewal in virtually all of Christendom.
 
Certainly this listing is not exhaustive. This listing will, however, describe the major Reformation principles which still propel the renewal, growth and expansion of the Gospel today.

1) Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
 
We're saved only by faith ("fide") in God's undeserved grace ("gratia") in Christ. This gift of grace is properly described and given only in Scripture ("scriptura"). This is the starting point of the Reformation and of our Christian faith as well. If we don't start the Christian faith with faith, grace and Scripture, we don't start Christian faith at all.

2) A Clear Understanding of the Church's Identity and Purpose
 
Why does the Church exist? It's sole purpose is to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations. The church, Luther taught, is not simply defined where clergyman is present. Rather it is wherever "the Word of God is found in its truth and purity and the sacraments administered as Christ administered them." The church, therefore, is not so much a grouping of people as it is a grouping of people committed to the sole purpose of proclaiming grace to the world.

3) A Contagious Passion For God's Church

Luther believed God's Church was worth fighting for. It's worth the price to do everything and bear everything possible so that God's Church will stand and God's truth will be proclaimed to the nations. It is pastors and congregations who have that passion. It is also they who must often pay the price.

4) A Captivating Vision For The Spread Of The Gospel

Luther is known primarily as a theologian, scholar and Reformer. So often overlooked is that he was a missionary with a captivating vision for the spread of the Gospel.
 
The Reformation was a mission movement, guided by Luther's Scriptural conviction to "make disciples of all nations." If he didn't have this vision, the Reformation would have started--and stopped--in a little east German town called Wittenberg. Indeed, it would have never made it off campus of the University of Wittenberg! But it didn't! It spread through Germany, Europe, and all the world! The Gospel permeated the world then. Today it can permeate the world in an even greater manner than ever before.

5) A Contagious Desire For Outreach

Luther used every means possible and the very latest and best of all media available to him to proclaim the Gospel to the world. He used the recently invented printing press, preaching, teaching, newspapers, 95 theses on a church door, countless brochures, friend-to-friend sharing, and even governmental forums ("diets") to promote the message of salvation even before kings and emperors. Nothing could stop his contagious desire for sharing the Gospel--even the threat of death.

When forced into hiding, Luther became a writer. He developed volumes of worship materials, adapted, created, rewrote and edited all kinds of worship materials. He wrote over 125 hymns. He wrote over 400 pamphlets. Why? Simply to reach out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
 
The proliferation of Christian literature and the fullest use possible of all available media was a key to the success of the Reformation. Ought we doubt that a similar use of all available media would help propel the Church to a new--and greater--reformation?

6) A Preference For The Practical And The Simple

Whatever was orderly, orthodox, and easily understood was used. If people were going to hear and respond to the Word, Luther believed it had to be simple. It had to be in the language of the people. No more Latin for worship. Let them worship in their language, in their culture, in their own common language.
 
Paul in I Corinthians 14:24-25 spoke of the importance of the simple proclamation of the Gospel. When the Gospel is preached in a simple, understandable fashion, an unbeliever
"will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you!'" (KJV)

It is this simplicity which resulted in the remarkable renewal and expansion of the Reformation Church. This soul-winning simplicity may also bring the Church closer to the original Reformation zeal.

7) Vigorous Church Planting

Historians don't even know how many new churches Luther directly planted or was instrumental in supporting. One thing for sure: Luther never said, "There are already enough churches." He also never said, "Oh, there's enough churches now. Let's stop this Reformation thing and just let things settle down a bit."
 
Instead, as people caught on to his contagious vision for outreach, Reformation Christians demonstrated their joyful obedience to Christ's command to "make disciples" by planting new churches. That is one of the ways the Reformation became a worldwide phenomenon! One cannot be a true Reformation Christian without this desire, passion and involvement in the planting and support of new churches locally and throughout the world!

8) A Proper Understanding Of The Role Of The Laity

Luther never understood the laity to be idle spectators. Though not called to be pastors, they were expected and encouraged to develop the gifts which the Holy Spirit had given them. It was the pastors' role to equip and prepare them for suitable service in the Kingdom.
 
In order to develop greater strength in their ministries, they were encouraged to read the Bible for themselves...in the simple German translation which Luther himself provided. Indeed, Luther even had the parents participate in their children's confirmation instruction. Using Luther's Small Catechism, parents (i.e. the "head of the household") were to instruct their children. The pastors would then examine and confirm them. Such partnership and trust and common understanding of the essential relationship and proper role of pastors and laity formed a dynamic bond of ministry.

9) A Proper Understanding Of The Ministerial Office

The Office of Pastor was not to "lord it over" the people. Instead, it was an office of service. The pastor did not exercise absolute temporal power. Instead, the real power of the ministry was purely the power of proclaiming the Word of God publicly, in God's stead, for the purpose of granting God's forgiveness and helping God's people reach maturity in the Word.

10) A Passionate Desire To Study of God's Word

The Reformation Church was a Church of the Word. Its people were marked by a desire to learn, read and follow God's Word. They knew it was the power behind the Reformation. So they remained faithful in it--reading, studying, learning, growing and obeying it.

11) A Singular Focus On Glorifying Christ...In Everything

In everything Luther did, he followed one simple standard: "Does it glorify Christ?" Whether it was His preaching, his teaching, his serving, his prayers, his devotional life, his actions with his family, he always measured its usefulness in terms of whether it glorified Christ and exalted His Word. In asking, "What would Jesus do?" today's Church also seeks to have Christ pre-eminent and glorified in all that it does in His Name.
 
12) A Predomination Of The Cross
 
Luther understood the ultimate importance of the Cross for ministry. As he stated in I Corinthians 15:17, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (KJV). As it is the Cross which gives meaning and power to the ministry of the Gospel, it follows that the proclamation of the Cross must always predominate.
 
What pre-dominates the preaching in your church? Law or Gospel? Legalism or freedom? Duty or joy? Ought to's or love? Bondage and guilt or Freedom and forgiveness?
 
The proclamation of God's undeserved grace is the greatest heritage of the Reformation. It glorifies Christ and it transforms sinners into forgiven saints. Whatever your ecclesiastical tradition, recall, consider and implement these principles in your church and watch the power of the Spirit working in God's Word renew and reform Christ's Church where you are!
Thomas F. Fischer
The Festival of the Reformation
October 31, 1998

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