The Legacy of the Reformation
Text: Acts 8:1-8
As we have said already, and as many of you are aware, the date remembered as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation is October 31, 1517. On that day, when a troubled Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, addressed the abuses he saw with indulgences and to some degree papal authority, gave momentum to something that had been threatening to occur for a some time before that – that was, dealing a stinging blow to the power of the Church of Rome.
But it wasn’t just Luther. Other men had sown seeds of reformation. Men like John Wycliffe (died 1384), and John Huss (died 1415). Along with these early lights of dissent came the invention and use of the printing press, which gave rise to the ability to distribute literature at an unprecedented rate.
Our reason for remembering that event is varied. However, the purpose is not to exalt men, “let no man glory in men” 1 Cor 3:21. Nor is it to look back and mourn over better days, “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.” Eccl 7:10. I want us to firstly Recognize the Value in the legacy we have, much of which is due to how God used these men. Secondly, to Renew our Vision for what God is able to do.
In a devotional written by a dutch man Van Lodenstein in 1674, stated, “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” He, and others, understood then that we’re always in need of being reformed by the Scriptures and the Spirit of God. We know little of the reformation if it does not renew our vision for continual personal reformation, and another widespread reformation.
I. A LEGACY OF SELFLESS PERSEVERANCE
1. They Persevered in their Work
Translating the scriptures is no easy task. Nowadays when they bring out a new version they have scores of men working on the project. For the reformers it was a long, tedious task that was not done for themselves, but for others.
Those who undertook the task of translating from the original languages, had no need to translate themselves since they could read it in the original or in Latin. They laboured for years for others. When Luther translated the NT scriptures into German, it took him the better part of almost two years. But by the end of it he didn’t just give the German people a Bible they could understand, but it so permeated the nation that it unified the German language.
Philip Schaff records, “Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.”
William Tyndale was similar. A scholar and linguist fluent in eight languages modern and ancient, he became the Father of the English Bible, the Father of the English Reformation, and the Father of the Modern English Language. His translation work of the NT took a similar time to Luther, not just doing something unprecedented and laborious, but doing it under the constant threat of death.
These were men with huge intellects, worldly potential, and yet they persevered in a difficult work to give the Bible to the people. Tyndale’s impact was like Luther’s, changing and unifying the English language.
2. They Persevered Unto Death
In 1521, Tyndale was meeting in the White Horse Inn with a number of men to discuss the works of Luther. Thomas Bilney (martyred, 19 August 1531), John Frith (martyred, 4 July 1533), Robert Barnes (martyred, 30 July 1540), Nicholas Ridley (martyred, 16 October 1555) , Hugh Latimer (martyred, 16 October 1555), Thomas Cranmer (martyred, 21 March 1556), Miles Coverdale (Coverdale Bible), and others.
Along with them was Thomas Hitton, Thomas Benet, Richard Bayfield, Thomas Harding, William Cowbridge, John Lambert, William Collins, William Jerome, Richard Spenser, John Ramsey, Thomas Bernard, James Morton, Anthony Pearson, Henry Filmer, Anne Askew, John Adams, and that is just those in England prior to the Mary I, whom John Foxe states martyred 284. They lived to experience that salvation spoken of by Paul, Romans 8:35-39.
Pius IV, hearing of Calvin’s death, exclaimed: “Ah, the strength of that proud heretic lay in this, that riches and honour were nothing to him.”
II. A LEGACY OF SCRIPTURAL PREACHING
More than anything else, the vast majority of the Reformers were preachers. They gave their life to the study and teaching of the Word of God. I may be biased, but I think the legacy of scriptural preaching is highlighted best by John Knox.
The only thing the reformers preached was the Bible. Knox said in a letter to other brethren in Scotland, “For as the word of God is the beginning of spiritual life, without which all flesh is dead in God’s presence; and [as it is] the lantern to our feet, without the brightness whereof all the posterity of Adam does walk in darkness; and as it is the foundation of faith, without which no man understands the good will of God; so it is also the only organ and instrument which God uses to strengthen the weak, to comfort the afflicted, to reduce to mercy by repentance such as have slidden, and, finally, to preserve and keep the very life of the soul in all assaults and temptations. And therefore, if you desire your knowledge to be increased, your faith to be confirmed, your conscience to be quieted and comforted, or, finally, your soul to be preserved in life, let your exercise be frequent in the law of your Lord God.”
The reformers preached through scripture verse by verse. In Geneva’s three churches, the Word was preached every day of the week and twice on Sunday, with sermons lasting for more than an hour. John Calvin rarely preached topical sermons, but rather taught consecutively through books of the Bible.
When he was banished from Geneva for three years, his first Sunday back in the pulpit he picked up with the next verse following his previous sermon three years before. He preached 123 sermons on Genesis, 200 on Deuteronomy, 159 on Job, 174 on Ezekiel, 189 on Acts, 25 sermons on Lamentations and 5 sermons on the one chapter of Obadiah!
In 1560, John Knox who learned much from Calvin, in a publication he put together with a committee of other church men called, ‘The First Book of Discipline’, stated, “We think it most expedient that the Scripture be read in order: that is, that some one book of the Old or New Testament be begun and orderly read to the end. And the same we judge of preaching where the minister for the most part remains in one place. For this skipping and divagation from place to place of Scripture, be it in reading or be it in preaching, we judge not so profitable to edify the Kirk as the continual following of one text.”
The personalities of the reformers were very much different. William Farel, Luther, and Knox were intense, whereas Calvin and Tyndale were more reserved characters. But when these men preached, there was a fire in them that burned and touched the lives of their hearers.
It has been said of Knox that when he preached it seemed like all his powers were intensified for this one purpose of declaring God’s truth. His words seemed to explode within the hearts of his hearers. One biographer said, “his ministerial functions were discharged with the greatest assiduity, fidelity and fervour. No avocation or infirmity prevented him from appearing in the pulpit… His powers of alarming the conscience and arousing the passions have been frequently celebrated, but he excelled also in unfolding the consolations of the gospel and in calming the breasts of those who were agitated by a sense of guilt or suffering under the ordinary afflictions of life. When he discoursed of the griefs and joys, the conflicts and triumphs, of genuine Christians, he described what he had himself known and experienced.”
A 15 year old heard him at the end of his life in 1571, said, “I heard him teach there the prophecies of Daniel that summer and the winter following, I had my pen and my little book, and took away such things as I could comprehend. In the opening up of his text he was moderate the space of half an hour; but when he entered to application he made me so [thrill] and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write. He was very weak. I saw him, every day of his doctrine, go slowly and warily, with a furring of matricks about his neck, a staff in one hand, and good, godly Richard Ballantyne, his servant holding up the other oxter, from the abbey to the parish kirk and, by the same Richard and another servant, lifted up to the pulpit, where he behoved to lean at his first entry; but ere he had done with his sermon he was so active and vigorous that he was like to ding the pulpit in blads [beat the pulpit in pieces] and fly out of it.”
III. A LEGACY OF SPIRITUAL POWER
As I said this morning in Bible Class, not everyone involved in the Reformation did everything we would expect them to do. However, if you believe in the work of the Holy Spirit there is no denying that it was a movement propelled by the power of God.
This was no localized revival. It turned nations upside down! And no surprise. No doubt the Holy Ghost softened German hearts, as they saw one of their own in Luther resolutely stand against the most power organization in the world, and being prepared to die for the conviction that the Bible had more authority that the monolithic Roman Church. This was a work of the Holy Ghost.
For in this hour in which we live and in which we are called upon to bear witness to the truth of God, there needs once more to be that burning, inward religious conviction concerning these fundamental issues.
For too long we have waxed eloquent about the past without living as they lived. These men didn’t talk about power, they had power! It has been said that Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” That is power!
These men did not waste time. As David MacIntyre put it, “Each day is a vessel to be freighted with holy deeds and earnest endeavours before it weighs anchor and sets sail for the eternal shores. How many hours we misspend! How many occasions we lose! How many precious gifts of God we squander! And the world passes away, and the fashion of it fadeth.”
IV. A LEGACY OF SUPREME PRIVILEGES
More than anything else, the Reformation gave to the west the privilege of gospel liberty. Many areas experience the same as Acts 8:8 “And there was great joy in that city.” That was the legacy of the preaching there.
“If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” John 8:38. Christ came to give freedom to mankind, and where He is embraced freedom is known. Do you realize that my friend? Are you still in bondage to yourself and your sin?
Many European countries were removed from the fear of an unknown eternity. This liberty to the soul changed how men lived, which changed the workforce, the political landscape, and the economic structures of the nation. And the message of Paul in Gal 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” He tells us that the Author of liberty is Christ. That was the focus of the reformers, the message of Christ, and they set multitudes free. Free from sin, free from condemnation, free from fear. “he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman” 1 Cor 7:22
Close – Are you set free? Are you in Christ?