Editors’ note: This article was originally published in the 9Marks Journal. For a concise introduction to the Reformation, please see Michael Reeves’ 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 had 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 a Latin unintelligible to the people (and, perhaps, to the priest).
As for the content of these rare delicacies, they were highly unlikely to go anywhere near Scripture. The vast majority of the clergy simply didn’t have the Scriptural knowledge to make the attempt. Instead, wrote John Calvin, 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 the Word and gospel of God was profound and widespread.
Centrality of the Sacred Desk
In eye-catching contrast, the Reformation made the sermon the very focal point of the church’s regular worship, and emphasized it architecturally through the physical centrality and conspicuousness 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 each week.
In Zurich, the Reformation began on January 1, 1519, when Zwingli announced from the pulpit of the Great Minster that, rather than fill his sermons with the thoughts of medieval theologians, he would preach his way through Matthew’s Gospel verse by verse. And when he had finished that, he’d keep going through the rest of the New Testament.
In Geneva, Calvin spent much of his time preaching: twice on Sundays (New Testament) and, on alternate weeks, every weekday as well (Old Testament), each sermon lasting about an hour.
Engine-Room of the Reformation
It’s not hard to see why expository preaching was so intrinsic to the Reformation and so marked a feature of the reformers’ personal ministries. It was through the God’s Word that Luther had first heard the joy-giving message of the gospel. The early English reformer, Thomas Bilney, found on first reading “the Scripture began to be more pleasant unto me than the honey or the honey-comb.” Their longing, then, was that many others might, as Luther put it, “seize and taste the clear, pure word of God itself and hold to it.”
Wrote Calvin: the church “cannot be brought to soundness, or continue in a good state, except by means of the preaching of the Word.” In fact, declared the Lutheran Augsburg Confession—and here it would speak for all the mainstream Reformation—the church is defined precisely as being that place where the Word of God is purely preached and the sacraments duly administered. The church is the creature of the Word of God. No word preached, no church.
Whether in Germany, Switzerland, England, or elsewhere, the expository preaching of the Word of God was the real engine-room of the Reformation. And therein lies both challenge and encouragement for all today who see themselves as heirs of the Reformation. When we read all those horrifying statistics about current church drift and decline, it’s easy to lose confidence in the simple preaching of the Word. It is tempting to look elsewhere for the silver bullet.
Still the Power of God
But 500 years ago, the Reformation demonstrated the astonishing transformative power of regular and clear biblical exposition. It stands as historical evidence that there is nothing inevitable about church decline. The spiritual darkness of our day can be checked and turned back. Five hundred years ago, it was—and by the same Word which has lost none of its inexorable power.