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If you’ve heard much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you’ve probably heard the word hero.

Martin Luther, the hero of Wittenberg, who took his stand against corrupt priests, cardinals, and the pope himself. John Calvin, the hero of Geneva, who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ulrich Zwingli, the hero of Zurich, who outdebated the city’s Catholic leaders and persuaded the people to join the Reformation.

But anyone who knows the history well enough may balk at that word hero. The Reformers were not only courageous men and women who recovered the gospel, but also inconsistent men and women whose lives often betrayed the gospel. Consider some well-known examples from Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the Reformation’s three brightest lights.

  • Luther repeatedly leveled vicious insults at his opponents, including Catholics, Jews, Anabaptists, and others. Although Luther attacked Jews primarily for theological rather than ethnic reasons, many have understandably accused him of anti-Semitism.
  • Calvin allowed Geneva’s city council to execute Michael Servetus, a heretic on the run from Roman Catholic authorities.
  • Zwingli, in similar fashion to Calvin, approved of the drowning of Felix Manz, one of his former students and a leader in the budding Anabaptist movement.

If you read biographies of the Reformation’s other leaders, you’ll find that many harbored character flaws as devastating as Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s. Each goes down in history with their own glaring asterisk. One might begin to wonder if we should celebrate these men and women at all.

The Right Kind of Celebration

But the difficulty is at least as old as the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 11, the author celebrates a band of believers just as flawed as our Reformers. Consider Noah, who got drunk off his own vineyard and lay naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20–21). Or Moses, whose disobedience left him dead outside the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4–5). Or David, who wielded his royal authority to commit adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1–27).

Somehow, the author of Hebrews gazed out across these walking contradictions and saw a group of heroes. I believe we can see the same in Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of our Reformers. But in order to process their failures and praise their victories as we ought, we would do well to follow a three-step process: understand their context, name their sin, and celebrate their faith.

1. Understand Their Context

First, we should try to learn what we can about the figure’s historical context and the particular situations that provoked their sinful responses. As we do so, we are not looking to minimize, excuse, or explain away their sin; instead, we’re placing ourselves alongside them as fellow sinners and seeking to grasp why it happened. It’s remarkably easy to cast stones across the centuries before we’ve tried to travel there ourselves.

For example, let’s attempt to inhabit Geneva in 1553, the year Calvin approved of Servetus’s execution. For the last twelve centuries, the Church has locked hands with the state, a marriage that has made unorthodox beliefs a threat to both parties. Under this arrangement, Church and state authorities often did not merely excommunicate heretics; they executed them. Calvin breathed this political and ecclesial air his whole life.

Calvin, who knew Servetus and had labored to persuade him of orthodox theology, warned Servetus not to come to Geneva. When he came anyway, Catholic authorities had already condemned the man to be burned at the stake for heresy, a decision that placed Geneva in a corner. Historian Mark Talbot writes, “Not to execute Servetus, if he did not repent and retract his views, would make the Protestant territories seem dangerously soft both religiously and politically” (With Calvin in the Theater of God, 151).

We could say more, but from these facts alone, we should admit that the Servetus affair would look a little different to a sixteenth-century Genevan than it does to a twenty-first century American. If we faithfully uncover the historical context of our leaders’ sins, we will often be left saying, “That could have been me. I could have done that.”

2. Name Their Sin

None of this circumstantial information, however, removes the Reformers’ responsibility. And we don’t do anyone a favor by pretending that it does.

If we try to whitewash Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, we hide a lesson all of us need to hear — namely, that Satan and our own hearts can deceive us so thoroughly that we cannot even see the ways our lives contradict our message. As John Piper writes in his short biography of Luther, “the devil is real and can trip a great man into graceless behavior, even as he recovers grace from centuries of obscurity” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 32). Studying the Reformers should humble us and send us searching for our own flaws that we fail to see — the sins that may scar history books written five centuries from now.

Even more importantly, when we downplay the Reformers’ flaws, we obscure the heart and soul of the Reformation itself. Even at their best, the Reformers were object lessons for the gospel they preached: Jesus came for failing, broken people. God does not search for beautiful people to save; instead, he searches for broken people to make beautiful through his Son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:13; Luke 19:10).

If the gospel is only for the beautiful, or only for saints who leap from peak to peak on their way to glory, then the gospel isn’t for you and me. A gospel that promises instant and total transformation is a sentimental lie, a rose hiding its thorn, a vain attempt to varnish the canvas of history and human hearts so we don’t look so desperately wicked. In other words, it’s no gospel at all.

To be sure, people who make a practice of sinning will not enter God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 John 3:8). But if we dig deeply enough into these Reformers’ historical context and personal lives, we will find (in most if not all cases) that they did not make a practice of high-handed sin. Their culture and times may have blinded them to their particular evils; rarely (if ever) did they walk in conscious, unrepentant rebellion.

The Reformation was never about a cast of holy characters, but instead about one holy Christ, the Son of God, whose suffering and resurrection fully cover his people’s sins — including the sins they commit when they should certainly know better. Jesus has washed our Reformers white with his own precious blood. You and I don’t have to.

3. Celebrate Their Faith

Now we’re in a position to celebrate these Reformers with our eyes wide open. We may have to denounce Luther’s runaway tongue. We may have to lament Calvin’s and Zwingli’s complicity with the state. But once we’ve done so, we can step back and recognize that these tangled men also modeled lives of spectacular faithfulness. And along with the author of Hebrews, we can celebrate the faith of God’s flawed heroes.

We can celebrate Luther’s faith in God’s word as he stood before the imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire and said, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

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