For some, the Protestant Reformation conjures up images of dusty old tomes and yawn-a-minute lectures from even dustier old men. We Christians talk about the past an awful lot, and this year many of us have been going on about Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the others even more than usual. Why so much fuss about all these dead guys? Aren’t we in danger of becoming outdated and irrelevant?
Actually, marking the anniversary of the Reformation isn’t about reveling in past glories or pining for an idyllic golden age. We’re celebrating this year because 500 years ago, when the church was deep in darkness, God shone the light of the his gospel afresh. Luther made a discovery that changed the world then, and continues to transform lives and cultures today. What the German monk uncovered in his Bible is as explosive and wonderful now as it ever was.
Here are three things every single Christian should know about the Reformation.
1. It was about happiness.
Luther discovered a powerful secret that would shake the world, unleashing happiness wherever it went.
The secret was this: Failing, broken people “are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”
Could that be more countercultural today? It is deep in our blood that the more attractive we make ourselves, the more loved and happy we will be. The Reformation was a story of one man discovering to his delight that, with God, it the other way around. God does not love people because they have sorted themselves out. He loves failures, and his love makes them flourish.
At its heart, the Reformation was about happiness.
So Luther was concerned with people’s happiness. In fact, he would come to believe, he had found the secret of happiness. And that, at its heart, was what the Reformation was all about. Not moralizing. Not self-improvement. It was a discovery of stunningly happy news, news that would transform millions of lives and change the world.
2. It was about freedom.
The Reformation was the beginning of Protestantism, so people sometimes assume it was simply about protesting, arguing, and getting tied up in knots about what was right and wrong to believe.
Yet when Luther wrote a short book to explain his discovery, he called it The Freedom of a Christian. In it we find that the Reformation was a freedom movement, not an excuse to impose new rules or complexity.
The Reformation was a freedom movement, not an excuse to impose new rules or complexity.
In fact, Luther argued that the gospel was breathtakingly straightforward. He said the good news he had found was like the story of a wealthy king (representing Jesus) who marries a debt-ridden prostitute (representing one who trusts him). The girl could never make herself a queen. But then the king comes along, full of love for her. And on their wedding day he makes his marriage vow to her. With that, she is his, and the prostitute becomes a queen. He takes and bears all her debts, and she now shares his boundless wealth and status.
It is not that she earned it. She didn’t become a queen by behaving royally. Indeed, she doesn’t know how to behave royally. But when the king made his marriage promise, he changed her status. Despite all her backstreet ways, the poor girl is now a queen.
Likewise, the greatest failure who accepts Jesus Christ gets to share his righteousness and status. What happens is a happy status-swap: When Jesus died on the cross, he absorbed and dealt with all our guilt and failure; and out of sheer love he now shares with those who trust him all his righteousness and life.
It means, wrote Luther gleefully:
Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, which she may boast of as her own and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his.”
3. It was about the future.
Consider these words, written by a team of scholars in Westminster, England, in the 1640s: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Those words capture the heart of the Reformation. For what Luther’s discovery had made abundantly clear was that God is glorious: beautiful, good, kind, and generous. We can therefore actually enjoy God. Not hate. Not avoid. Not appease. Enjoy.
This was all quite different to what so many had known before. As a monk Luther had confessed he’d come to hate God; doubtful of whether he’d made himself worthy of heaven, he shook with fear at the thought of how God might judge him on the last day.
Yet armed with his new discovery, Luther realized he could face such fears like this:
When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”
And so the horrifying doomsday became for him “the most happy Last Day.” The gospel had so transformed Luther’s life that he was able to look to the future with unshakeable hope and assurance that he would enjoy the living God forever.
And there could be no better hope for hurting, hopeless people today.
Editors’ note: For a concise introduction to the Reformation, please see Michael Reeves’ book Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation (10Publishing).