Anniversaries mark the passage of years for an important event. They are a time to reflect, be thankful, and recommit. Some anniversaries are personal. Donna and I celebrated 44 years of marriage this past July while my parents giggle at us newlyweds as they are approaching a whopping 70 years of marriage this coming March! Other anniversaries, while no less impactful, are more corporate in nature. This past 4th of July our nation turned 241 years old and this September SBCC will observe 38 years together as a church family. Unfortunately, some important anniversaries get overlooked because they may have transpired so long ago that we have forgotten the significance of the event.
The church is on the cusp of a very important anniversary. I don’t mean SBCC but rather the larger (big) church around the world. This October will be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This is a big deal. It is worth remembering and celebrating this watershed event in the history of the church of Jesus Christ.
The spark that ignited this protest, revival, and reforming of Christianity was the act of a young disgruntled man named Martin Luther. This Augustinian monk walked to his local church in Wittenburg, Germany and posted 95 theses, 95 complaints, on the door. Such an act of posting debatable points was not all that unusual. What was unusual was that the theses were written in anger and struck a blow to the heart of the authority of the Roman church. Luther, who was soon joined by many other reformers, had become convinced that the church of his day had drifted far from the original and foundational teachings of the Bible and the Christian faith. As the Reformation movement gained momentum, the corrupt practices of the medieval church were challenged and replaced with a vibrant Protestant faith that sought greater fidelity to the teachings of the Bible. While Luther (and others) were accused of heresy and threatened with excommunication and death, he refused to budge from the clear message of the Bible concerning the nature of salvation. At the dramatic conclusion to his trial for heresy, Luther uttered the now famous words; Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. Amen.
As the distinctive tenets of the Reformation took shape there eventually emerged five statements that summarized the Reformer’s essential theological convictions. The five statements were written in Latin as the five Solas (meaning “alone” in Latin).
The first of these was, Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone. This meant that the Bible alone is the highest authority in the life of a Christian. In the sixteenth century most Christians, and even many monks, priests and church authorities, were largely ignorant of the teachings of the Bible. Ecclesiastical traditions and pronouncements had usurped the words of Scripture. As a young monk Luther himself was largely unaware of what the Bible taught. As a result, Luther had developed an unbiblical view of God and an understanding of salvation that lead to a constant turmoil about his own sin. Yale historian Roland Bainton says, Luther was too obsessed with the picture of Christ the avenger to be consoled with the thought of Christ the redeemer. In one of the great ironies of church history, Luther was assigned to be a preacher and to assume the Chair of Bible at the local university. In 1513 he began lectures on the book of Psalms and shortly thereafter on the book of Romans. It was through his preparation for these lectures that the spiritual lights came on and Luther came to a new understanding of God and of Jesus Christ. Luther describes this discovery as leading to his salvation. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.
As the Reformers rediscovered the Bible, they understood the Scriptures to be both trustworthy and clear. They believed that any person could understand the message of salvation found in its pages. Unfortunately, in the early part of the sixteenth century the Bible was not readily available in the vernacular for average people. All of that was about to change – and to change very quickly. With the advent of the printing press, printed material became easily and widely available. At the same time as the dawn of the printing press, the rapid translation of the Bible into every-day language was taking place. In fact, Luther’s translation of the Bible into German is largely responsible for unifying the myriad of German dialects into a national language. As a result, the gospel message began to be understood by the masses as never before.
With the posting of Luther’s 95 theses and the beginning of the Protestant reformation, theological battle lines were about to be drawn. In 1545, twenty-eight years after Luther posted his theses, the pope convened the Council of Trent to answer and push back against the teachings of the reformers and establish the position of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the first things the Council of Trent did was to loudly and defiantly reject the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. The Council of Trent asserted that both Scripture and church tradition should be given equal allegiance and authority.
At our recent anniversary dinner at a very fine Italian restaurant, Donna and I marveled at how we have enjoyed, survived, and changed over 44 years of marriage. It was a time to look at each other and say how glad we were to be married. Our anniversary was also a time to look forward and joyfully recommit to the essentials that make for a strong relationship. As the Reformation turns 500 we should do no less. SBCC is a Sola Scriptura church. We trust the Bible to make us wise for our greatest need: salvation. Here we stand.
In the months ahead, in the Community News we will learn of the other four Reformation distinctives: Sola Fide – faith alone, Sola Gratia – grace alone, Sola Christus – Christ alone, and Soli Deo Gloria – To the glory of God alone.