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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the 9Marks Journal. For a concise introduction to the Reformation, please see Michael Reeves’s book Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation (10Publishing).

Almost certainly, the most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

In the centuries preceding the Reformation, preaching had been in steady decline. Eclipsed by the Mass and rendered non-essential by the theology of medieval Roman Catholicism, preaching had lost the primacy it once enjoyed in the days of the early post-apostolic church.

By the 15th century, only a small percentage of people could expect to hear their priest preach to them regularly in their local parish church. The English reformer Hugh Latimer spoke of “strawberry parsons” who, like strawberries, appeared but once a year. Even then, the homily would often be in Latin, unintelligible to the people (and, perhaps, to the priest).

The most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

As for the content of these rare delicacies, they were unlikely to go anywhere near Scripture. The vast majority of the clergy simply didn’t have the scriptural knowledge to make the attempt. Instead, John Calvin wrote, pre-Reformation sermons were usually divided according to this basic pattern:

The first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the hearers might be kept on the alert. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities.

As a result, ignorance of God’s Word and gospel was profound and widespread.

Centrality of the Sacred Desk

In eye-catching contrast, the reformers made the sermon the focal point of the church’s regular worship, even emphasizing it architecturally through the physical and conspicuous centrality of the pulpit. And while today we tend to think of the leading reformers as theologians (and therefore, not preachers), it was preaching—especially expository preaching—that normally defined and took up the bulk of their ministry.

For a quarter-century in Wittenberg, Luther preached through the Bible, usually at least twice on Sundays and three times total each week.

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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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by Timothy George

Editors’ note: Come celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with us at our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis. The theme is “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond.” Timothy George will be speaking on “Reformation Before the Reformers” and “Early Reformers: Why Didn’t They Unite?” in workshops. Space is filling up fast, so register soon. The following article originally appeared in First Things.

The preaching of the gospel as a sacramental event is at the heart of Reformation theology. Preaching is also at the heart of Reformation faith—preaching as an indispensable means of grace and a sure sign of the true church. Where is the church? According to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (1530), the church is that place where the Word is purely preached and the sacraments are duly administered. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) went even further when it declared that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

Of course, preaching—unlike the printing press—was not a new invention of the Reformation era. Far from it. Think of Augustine and Chrysostom in the early church, Bernard of Clairvaux, John Hus, and the many mendicant friars who fanned out across Europe in the Middle Ages.

St. Francis preached the gospel to a Muslim sultan, and Savonarola declared God’s judgment on the sinful leaders of Florence. Bernardino of Siena, the great Franciscan herald, preached to throngs in the 15th century, calling on his listeners to repent, confess their sins, and go to Mass. The Protestant reformers knew this tradition and built on it, but they also transformed it in two important respects.

Central Act of Worship

First, they made the sermon the centerpiece of the church’s regular worship. Prior to the Reformation, the sermon was mostly an ad hoc event reserved for special occasions or seasons of the liturgical cycle, especially Christmas and Eastertide. Most sermons were preached in town squares or open fields. The reformers brought the sermon back inside the church and gave it an honored place in the public worship of the gathered community. The central role of preaching in Protestant worship can be seen in the way pulpits were raised to a higher elevation as families gathered with their children to hear the Word proclaimed.

Second, the reformers introduced a new theology of preaching. They were concerned that the Bible take deep root in the lives of the people. The Word of God was meant not only to be read, studied, translated, memorized, and meditated on; it was also to be embodied in the life and worship of the church. What might be called the practicing of the Bible—its embodiment—was most clearly expressed in the ministry of preaching. Martin Luther believed that a call to the preaching office was a sacred trust and shouldn’t be used for selfish purposes. “Christ did not establish the ministry of proclamation to provide us with money, property, popularity, honor, or friendship,” he said.

Luther

Preachers should be wary of listeners who are too complimentary, for flattery can have a sinister outcome. Puffed-up preachers are likely to think, This you have done; this is your work; you are a first-rate man, the real master. Such conceit is not even worth throwing to the dogs, Luther said. Faithful preachers should teach only God’s Word and seek only his praise. “Likewise, the hearers should also say: ‘I do not believe in my pastor, but he tells me of another Lord whose name is Christ; him he shows me.’”

Zwingli

Preaching was no less important in the Reformed tradition. When one visits the Great Minster Church in Zurich today, the following inscription can be read over the portal: “The Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli began here on January 1, 1519.” That date, no less than October 31, 1517, can answer the question, “When did the Reformation begin?”

For on that first day of January, which happened to be Zwingli’s birthday, the new pastor began his pulpit ministry by announcing his intention to dispense with the prescribed texts of the traditional lectionary. He would follow a new paradigm: preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter, starting with the Gospel of Matthew. After completing Matthew, Zwingli resumed the same lectio continua method by taking up Acts, then the letters to Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters. He then turned to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.

Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger, who succeeded Zwingli as the Reformation leader in Zurich, reported “a rush of all sorts of people, in particular the common man, to these evangelical sermons of Zwingli’s, in which he praised God the Father, and taught all people to place their trust in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as the single Savior.” One of those common people who rushed to hear Zwingli in the 1520s was a young student named Thomas Platter. He tells of hearing a sermon by Zwingli that was “expounded so powerfully that I felt as if someone was pulling me up by my hair.”

Calvin

From the pulpit of St. Pierre in Geneva, John Calvin followed the preaching pattern established by Zwingli. His pulpit work was marked by sequential, text-driven preaching. In the course of his ministry at Geneva, Calvin delivered more than 4,000 sermons, and many have survived for us to study.

What was the secret of Calvin’s preaching? Hughes Oliphant Old gave this answer:

Calvin drew out of the Scriptures aspects of Christian teaching which the church had not heard for centuries. This was above all the case for the doctrine of grace. The promise of salvation was presented to all who would believe it. Calvin preached justification by faith, as all the reformers did. More than some, perhaps, he also preached sanctification by faith. The lives of those who believed the Word of God would be transformed by that Word. Holiness was the fruit of faith. To believe the Word was to live by the Word, and that life lived according to the Word of God was blessed, both in this world and in the world to come.

Three Marks of Reformation Preaching

In an important essay published in Theology Today in 1961, Heiko A. Oberman set forth the distinctive marks of Reformation preaching in terms of three interrelated aspects.

1. The sermon is an apocalyptic event.

Not quite in the sense of Savonarola’s preaching of impending doom to the people of Florence, but in the sense that the sermon unveils and makes present the last judgment here and now. Without demythologizing Christ’s future coming, gospel preaching existentializes the final will of God for every hearer by calling for a decisive response here and now. “In the sermon,” Oberman observed, “Christ and the Devil are revealed, Creator and creature, love and wrath, essence and existence, ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’”

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October 31, 2016

Today is Reformation Day, October 31, 2016 — the 499th anniversary of Luther writing out his Ninety-Five Theses and sending them to the Archbishop. And that means, of course, next year marks the 500th anniversary of the letter that ignited the Protestant Reformation, and there will be a lot of celebrating. And there will be a lot of debate about what exactly we’re celebrating: is it justification by faith alone, is it the Bible made freely available in the language of the people, is it the end of indulgences, the rejection of papal authority, or rejecting the priest class, etc. When you think of celebrating the enduring legacy of the Reformation, Pastor John, what are you celebrating primarily?

Let me fudge on the word primarily. I would like to replace it with five other words, but I couldn’t think of five other words. But I did think of five other questions. I just couldn’t think of words to go with them. I thought of two, but I gave up on five words. So, I am going to replace your question with five, but I will at the end, I think, answer exactly what you are asking. Here we go.1) What am I celebrating ultimately? That is, what is at the top as the goal of all things when I celebrate the Reformation? And the answer is, the glory of Jesus Christ. In Calvin’s response to the Roman Catholic Sadolet, he said, “You . . . touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. . . . Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished.” I think the same point could be made on issue after issue in the disputes of the Reformation. So ultimately we celebrate the exaltation of the glory of Christ.

2) What am I celebrating most foundationally? The first one was ultimately and the second is most foundationally. That is, what is at the bottom as the ground of all things when I celebrate the Reformation? And the answer is, the free and sovereign grace of God. When Martin Luther came to the end of his life, he regarded his book The Bondage of the Will as his most important work.The reason is that he regarded the issue of human autonomy versus sovereign grace as the key underlying issue of the Reformation. He said, “I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrines which exalt our ‘free will’ as being directly opposed to this mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. For since, apart from Christ, sin and death are our masters and the devil is our god and prince, there can be no strength of power, no wit or wisdom, by which we can fit or fashion ourselves for righteousness and life.” Which means that, as long as someone insists on ultimate human self-determination, they fail to grasp the depth of our need, and they obscure the greatness of the free and sovereign grace of God, which alone can give life and faith. So, I am going to celebrate that as bottom. That is the bottom.

3) Between the glory of Christ at the top and the free and sovereign grace of God at the bottom, what am I celebrating in between as the greatest achievement of God flowing from grace, leading to glory? And the answer is, the decisive achievement of the cross of Christ in providing peace with God for guilty sinners. Four times in the book of Hebrews the author underlines and emphasizes the work of Christ in the forgiveness of sins as “once for all.” I love this phrase and the way he uses it (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). “He [Christ] has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27).So, I will be celebrating that the finished and complete work of Christ in providing imputed punishment for our sins and imputed perfection for our righteousness was once for all and cannot be reenacted in the Roman Catholic Mass so as to become a necessary point of transfer of that decisive grace purchased once for all for us and given to us through faith in Christ alone.

4) Between the glory of Christ at the top and the free and sovereign grace of God at the bottom, what am I celebrating in between as the decisive means of my enjoyment of peace with God that Christ achieved? Answer, the inspired word of God in Scripture read and known by every Christian. The church of the Middle Ages cut people off from the word of God. They had done so intentionally. It was a capital crime in the 1400s in Britain to translate the Scriptures into English so that people could read it. They burned people alive for reading fragments of the English Bible, even children. They believed that God did not offer his fellowship to be enjoyed through a personal encounter with him in his word, but rather through the ministry of priests and sacraments. This was evil.The chasm created between Scripture and the people of God has not been closed to this very day. I have mentioned before in this podcast just last summer’s experience in Europe where a nun was converted at eighty years old and had never read the Gospel of John. So, a Roman Catholic professional religious woman never had read the Gospel of John. That is symptomatic of a deep evil in cutting people off historically and, today, doing things that subtly discourage the personal encounter with God through Christ in his word. So, I will be celebrating the personal preciousness and access to the word of God from my daily means of enjoying personal fellowship with my Father in heaven.

5) Lastly, what great Reformation truth will I be celebrating concerning how I experience the living Christ through his word? Answer, I will be celebrating the truth that faith acted directly on Christ through his word — not mediated by priestly sacraments — is the decisive, primary way I enjoy what Christ purchased and what the word makes possible.Here is what I read this morning, Tony, in my devotions that made my heart sing. I was reading in Ephesians 3 and that unspeakably great prayer where Paul says, “[I pray] that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:16–17). That is amazing. Christ dwells.

Now, this is a prayer for Christians. This is not a prayer for conversion. We think, “Oh, that means Christ knocks on the door and comes in.” That is not the case. He is in. We are Christians. He is praying for saints in Ephesus “that Christ may dwell” — that is, consciously alive, present, at home, experienced, how? — “through faith.” “So that Christ may dwell in yours heart through faith.” He is praying for Christians who already have Christ. This is a prayer for a real, authentic experience of the living Christ.

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Of course, the courage of Bonhoeffer to defy the compromising state church of Germany in the early days of Nazism is inspiring. A church that did not stand with the Jews,  he said, was not the church of Jesus Christ. So at great risk he came out.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, 84, is the retired professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich where he served since 1968. He was very much the rage when I was in seminary, and I was honored to sit in some of his lectures while I was a student in Munich.

The connection I am drawing between Bonhoeffer and Pannenberg is their strong statements about what constitutes the un-churching of a church. For Bonhoeffer it was the failure to stand with the Jews. The “Aryan Paragraph” was a Nazi demand that all Jewish officers and eventually members be excluded from the German church. For Bonhoeffer, that un-churched the church.

For Pannenberg the line is crossed when a church approves of homosexual relations.

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. (“Should We Support Gay Marriage? No“)

While Bonhoeffer drew the line at the church-rejection of Jewish ethnicity, and Pannenberg drew the line at the church-affirmation of homosexual behavior, the principle was the same: both the rejection of Jewish ethnicity in the church and the affirmation of homosexual behavior in the church stand in opposition to the cross of Christ.

Christ died to include Jew and Gentile in one body. “He has made us both one . . . that he might . . . reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14–16). Therefore to exclude Jews is to oppose Christ and his cross.

And Christ died to bring repentant sinners into the kingdom of God. But homosexual behavior excludes people from the kingdom. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). To affirm a way of life that excludes people from the kingdom of God, is to stand opposed to the cross of Christ which aims to save people for the kingdom of God.

Should one stay in such “churches” to work against their delusions? Bonhoeffer gave his answer: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”

For the post by John Piper….

Any account of Finkenwalde written today must not fail to mention especially one of the for ordination who became Bonhoeffer‘s students at the time. Eberhard Bethge was a pastor’s son from a villager of Magdeburg in central Germany; together with a few friends, he had been expelled from the preacher’s seminary in Wittenberg. These young men had protested against the Reich Bishop, had placed themselves under the care of the Confessing Church and were referred to Bonhoeffer’s seminary to complete their preparation for the parish ministry. Eberhard Bethge soon became Bonhoeffer’s closest friend!

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 178-179).

…and then it will be back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I want to encourage anyone who is interested to go Calvin in the Theater of God website and listen to the messages of the speakers.

I am still in Minneapolis, MN for the Desiring God Nation Conference 2009. The theme is: With Calvin in the Theater of God. Sam Storms delivered an incredible message about John Calvin and the Joy of the Final Resurrection.  The video of this post will be posted soon.  It will be worth your time to check it out.  We all need to focus on things above rather than on things below.

Calvin was riddled with adversity and opposition and ill-health, yet his constant meditation on the life to come gave him endurance and joy.

Why? Because I am in Minneapolis, MN for the Desiring God Nation Conference 2009. The theme is: With Calvin in the Theater of God. I just returned to my hotel room after listening to Dr. Julius Kim speak on Calvin the Man and Why I Care.

You can pick up some his statements on the above link.  I walked away with many statements that remind us why John Calvin is still very relevant for today.  Dr. Kim pointed out that that last thing Calvin wanted was to produce “Calvinists”!

No John Calvin wanted to produce Biblical Christians–all for the Glory and praise of God.

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