Today marks one of my favorite holidays.
No, I’m not referring to Halloween.
I’m talking about Reformation Day — which is celebrated on October 31, and which commemorates the day on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517.
Reformation Day is not only celebrated here in the United States by a number of evangelical denominations, it is also an official holiday in parts of Germany and a couple other countries around the world.
In today’s post, I’d like to focus on a theme that particularly relates to the Protestant Reformation. That theme is captured by the Latin phrase, sola Scriptura. It is expressed in the familiar words of Hebrews 4:12.
Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Because it is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Word of God is a living Book. It actively convicts the human heart, as it pierces to the innermost depths of who we are. It is like a sword—the “sword of the Spirit” as Paul calls it in Ephesians 6:17 — a precise implement in the hands of its divine Author. And when it goes forth it will not return void, for God Himself energizes and empowers it.
The truth of that verse was vividly put on display during the Protestant Reformation — that seismic eruption of spiritual revival that shook Roman Catholicism to its core, causing the collapse of a corrupt religious system and permanently altering the course of Western church history.
We are familiar with the great heroes of the Reformation. Names like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and William Tyndale. And if space permitted, we could review some of the amazing stories from the lives of each of those men — like Luther meeting his wife Katie by smuggling her out of a nunnery in a fish barrel; or Calvin nearly getting run through with a sword on a Sunday morning because he refused to let an excommunicated man partake in the Lord’s Table; or Knox serving for two years as a slave on a French galley ship; or Tyndale being burnt at the stake by Henry VIII after translating the New Testament into English.
In fact, one of the reasons I love teaching church history is that I essentially get paid to tell stories — great stories, powerful accounts about the lives of courageous and faithful men and women who were mightily used by God to accomplish incredible things.
But, as I remind my students, it is important for us to recognize that the ultimate credit for the Reformation does not belong to those men. It was not their courage, cleverness, or creativity that brought revival to Western Europe in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was not the result of any church growth strategies, ingenious marketing schemes, or seeker-driven fads. Not at all.
So what caused the Reformation?
It was the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God preached by men of God in a language that the common people could understand. When their ears were exposed to the truth of God’s Word it pierced their hearts and they were radically changed. And as untold multitudes of individual sinners were changed, entire cities, provinces, and nations were changed as well.
The Reformers themselves recognized that fact. One of the Swiss Reformers, Ulrich Zwingli, compared the Bible to the mighty currents of the Rhine river. He said this: “For God’s sake, do not put yourself at odds with the Word of God. For truly it will persist as surely as the Rhine follows its course. One can perhaps dam it up for awhile, but it is impossible to stop it.”
Martin Luther echoed that confidence in the power of Scripture. Luther rejected the use of armed violence to promote the Reformation; all that was needed was the preaching of the Word. As he put it, “I will not have recourse to arms and bloodshed in defense of the Gospel. By the Word the earth has been subdued; by the Word the Church has been saved; and by the Word also it shall be reestablished.”
Quotes like those, and we could list many more, reveal the true catalyst behind the Protestant Reformation.
It was this Book, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that brought revival to an entire continent and changed the course of history. In looking at the Reformation we see the dramatic effects that the Word of God produces when it is unleashed on the hearts and minds of men and women.
An undying commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture is dramatically seen in the lives of those who translated the Word of God into the languages of Europe, at a time when the Catholic Church made all such translations illegal.
We could go all the way back to the Waldensians, a pre-Reformation group that began in the 1100s in the southern part of France. The Waldensians translated the Bible into the common language, and preached the gospel wherever they went. According to tradition, they were so committed to the Scriptures that different family groups would memorize large portions of the Bible — that way, if Roman Catholic authorities ever found them and destroyed their written copies of Scripture, they could later reconstruct the Bible entirely from memory.
Or we could talk about John Wycliffe, the great Oxford scholar of the 1300s, who translated the Scriptures into English from the Latin Vulgate. Wycliffe championed basic Reformation principles like “Scripture alone.” The Roman Catholic church hated him so much that after he died, they dug up his bones and burned him in effigy.
A Bohemian man named Jan Huss was greatly influenced by Wycliffe. He was a professor at the University of Prague, and also the pastor of one of the city’s largest churches. He preached in the language of the people, which made him very popular. But it also angered the Catholic Church, especially when he taught that Christ alone — and not the Pope — is the head of the church. In 1414, he was promised safe passage to the Council of Constance. When he arrived, he was arrested, imprisoned, and later burned at the stake.
A century later, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther too would have been martyred, if it had not been for the political protection of a local prince. In 1522, Luther translated the New Testament into German, because he understood how vital the Scriptures were to the Reformation work.
In 1526, William Tyndale completed a translation of the New Testament from the Greek. A few years later he also translated the Pentateuch from Hebrew. But shortly thereafter he was arrested and executed as a heretic — being strangled and then burned at the stake.
Tyndale’s last words were “Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes.” And it was just a couple years after his death that Henry VIII authorized the Great Bible in England — a Bible that was largely based on Tyndale’s work, and a Bible that laid the foundation for the later King James version.
Why is it that these men sacrificed so much to get the Word of God into a language that common people could read? A language like English? It is the same reason that missionaries, even today, sacrifice their very lives to translate the Bible into the languages of unreached people groups. It is because they understand this Book to be the very Word of God, inspired by His Spirit, authoritative in all things, sufficient for every spiritual need, and the only message of true hope for sinners both in the this life and the next.
You may have a dozen copies of the Bible in your house. But don’t ever let your familiarity with the Word of God breed indifference or contempt in your heart. The book you hold in your hand is a treasure. It is the revelation of God Himself — in printed form — empowered by His Spirit to conform you into the image of His Son.
The Word of God has the power to change history and transform continents. It has the power to change hearts, including yours and mine.
The best way to celebrate Reformation Day is to remember that truth.