One of the most persistent misperceptions about the Protestant Reformation is that the movement now celebrating its 500th anniversary was only about recovering biblical truth.
Ask the typical Adventist to describe the core experience of the Reformation, and if they find words at all, they will likely murmur something about “salvation by faith” and sola scriptura—the only Latin phrase most Adventists know. But the world-changing events precipitated by Luther’s propositions 500 years ago this October 31 aren’t reducible to only the doctrine of righteousness by faith, and the authority of the Bible that teaches us to believe in it. Significant as they surely were—and are—if these ideas hadn’t dramatically reshaped—that is, re-formed—the daily lives, the work, and the worship of individuals and congregations, we would have likely never heard of the Reformation, let alone be celebrating its half-millennium.
All godly ideas have real-life consequences, and the rediscovery of the Bible’s teachings about how human beings are saved began immediately to change the structures of daily life. If accumulated and repetitive prayers no longer shortened one’s stay in purgatory nor vicariously freed another soul, the purpose of prayer itself in the believer’s life was “re-formed.” Slowly, haltingly at first, men and women whose spirituality had been enacted for them by robed clergy began to experience the unspeakable joys of actually communing with a Father who heard and understood them.
If the focus of the church’s worship was no longer on the repeated and daily sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus on the altar, then worship could be “re-formed” as the expression of personal and corporate praise it was always intended to be. Creativity, once only for the “gifted” and the sponsored, now moved with grace among the pews. Western Christianity experienced an unparalleled explosion of hymnody, poetry, and musical composition.
If God’s ideal for human sexuality was no longer the celibate priest denying himself the full expression of his personhood as a symbol of consecration, then marriage as the God-ordained covenant between a man and a woman was dignified, elevated—and righteously enjoyed. Unbiblical traditions of male domination and female subordination began to erode as both women and men read for themselves the Word that proclaimed in its first chapter—“In the image of God He created them: male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27, NRSV1).
If God not only gave human beings meaningful work, but further gifted them to use their skills in the building of His kingdom, then labor became a means for godly self-expression, character development, and the wise use of well-earned money. The yearly and weekly calendars, for centuries invaded by more than 125 annual feasts and holidays, became the measuring rods for progress, innovation and social success: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Ex. 20:9, NRSV).
The Reformation may have begun as an academic’s invitation to a scholarly debate, for that, in fact, was Luther’s purpose in nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door. But it escaped the limited vision of even its first hero to become, in God’s gracious hands, the instrument of social renovation and change that created the modern world.
The literacy that allows you to read and understand these words—by yourself, and for yourself—is the legacy of the Reformation. The job you hold—wiring houses as an electrician or “turning on the lights” for classroom students—was shaped by the Reformation. The hymn you sing—first softly, then with grateful tears welling in your eyes—was chorused by the Reformation. And if, in grace, you have come to know God as a mighty fortress in your life, “a bulwark never failing,” you can thank the Reformation.
This October 31, while children ply the neighborhood with cries of “Trick or Treat,” pause for a moment to offer your grateful thanks to the Lord who still says to His faithful church, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5, NRSV).