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Contemporary Issues
The personal application of the protestant reformation 
by Rev Jack Sin
(Pastor, Maranatha B-P Church)


There is an important date in the calendar of every protestant church that is sadly neglected or ignored today.  Instead, the diabolical celebration, Halloween, has taken over and has displaced this historic commemoration of our rich protestant heritage.  This year is the 489th Anniversary of this epochal spiritual change in the heart of Europe during the 16th Century after the Renaissance - "Reformation Day" is on 31st October 1517.  In Wittenberg, Germany, the Augustinian monk and university professor, Martin Luther, nailed to the door of the great Church a list of 95 propositions, or theses to awaken the people to spiritual realities after a period of spiritual ignorance.  Christians who love the Lord ought to commemorate and celebrate this significant event of historic Protestantism, for it had tremendous significance for both the individual and the life of the family and the true churches of Jesus Christ. 

It is tragic that the churches and Christians today have so little knowledge of the Reformation and so little interest in it.  Ours is a sad and compromising time where we witness the re-establishment of relations with Rome by Protestants.  The sound understanding and knowledge of why there was a 16th Century Reformation is desperately needed in our hearts in the 21st Century. 

The Historical Context 

One of the precipitating factors over which the Reformation began was that of the sale of indulgences for the remission of sins.  This questionable practice of the church motivated Luther to publish the 95 theses.  Indulgences were pieces of paper which the church sold to the people for the remitting of the punishment of the people's sins.  The indulgence-business which the church engaged in was the sale of the forgiveness of sins for money.  The Roman church taught two kinds of punishment for the sinners: the eternal punishment of hell and a certain temporal punishment.  Christ by His death paid the former debt; each sinner had himself to pay the latter.  This, he would have to do either in this life or in purgatory after death.  The church apparently could help the sinner out in the payment of the temporal punishment.  For Christ is alleged to have given the church a treasury of merits.  These were apparently the merits that had been piled up by certain saints who in their lives had done more than God required of them.  These merits the church could apply to a sinner's account but at a price.  The sinner could supposedly buy these merits when he buys an indulgence which is a forgiveness ticket.  The benefit to him was that he would escape some punishment either in this life or in purgatory.  Indulgences apparently could also be applied to the dead in purgatory.  One could buy them for departed loved ones and thus spare them much torment in purgatory.  This was also the message proclaimed by the sellers of indulgences, sanctioned by Popes, cardinals and bishops for many years until the reformation which exposed its fallacy and deception. 

The Pope of the 16th Century at Rome was Leo X.  Leo, who was affected by the Renaissance wanted to renovate the already magnificent St. Peter's Cathedral at Rome, Italy.  Needing much money, he authorized an indulgence-selling programme throughout Germany.  A super-salesman in Germany was the Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel.  He went to Saxony and sold near Wittenberg, where Martin Luther laboured.  One of his favourite claims was expressed in a ditty: 

     "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,

     The soul from purgatory springs." 

In the much celebrated 95 theses, Luther blasted this ditty expressly: "They preach human doctrine who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles" (Thesis 27).  It was then that Luther wrote the 95 theses against the general practice and theory of indulgences.  At the same time, the theses set forth the truth concerning the pardon of sins and the righteousness of sinful man before God. 

In 1520, after trying to win him over by various means, the Pope excommunicated Luther who rejected the papal decree and even burnt the papal bull.  A severe struggle followed, for the Pope, in alliance with the Roman emperor, Charles V and exerted much effort to contain this monk in 1521 at the Diet of Worms but it led a reformed movement from the Roman Catholic Church.  In the course of this struggle, in 1529, the leaders who allied with Luther expressed their objections to the false teachings of Rome.  In the document, they protested against the fallacious doctrines of the church. The adversaries derisively, referred to the members of the church now reformed as "Protestants," a derogatory name (as it was meant to be) that has stuck with us until this day.  We are not ashamed to be identified with this phrase which properly represented our biblical convictions and doctrinal stand today that is different from the RC church. 

This was the historic occasion of the 16th Century protestant Reformation.  The main issue was the meaning of the true gospel that is only means to the regeneration of a soul, the authority and sufficiency (i.e. not visions and dreams and the apocrypha) of the word of God over man and the essence of true spiritual life of a believer at its very heart. 

The Precipitating factor of the Reformation 

The Reformation of the 16th Century was not an act of personal  insubordination by a recalcitrant monk at Wittenberg as some deceptively would have us to think today.  The Reformation was not a political movement, or an economic one.  Such is the analysis of it by secular or even religious historians.  According to this view, it was the assertion of independence by the German nation, the arising of a nationalistic, patriotic fervour, and the overthrowing of a foreign domination.  Or, it was nothing more than the expression of resentment by the Germans at the loss of their gold to Italy.  Politics and economics came to play some part later on, but the cause of the Reformation was not political, social or economic. 

Nor was it a movement that merely corrected some moral abuses and excesses within the church at that time although these were proven to be true.  Of late the modern Roman Catholic Church has been troubled by moral scandals and has led in the worldwide ecumenical movement of the World Council of Churches.  It is understood that some of the medieval Popes were worldly, that the selling of indulgences is wrong, and even that the preaching, teaching, and life of the church had become spiritually weak and even bankrupt at that time. 

The Reformation was a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the sphere of the church that effected a radical re-forming of the church after the word of the Son of God.  The Reformation as a movement stood for the absolute authority and veracity of the Word of God over and against the words of man.  It proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ over against "another gospel" which is no gospel (Gal 1:7).  The life-and-death significance of the Reformation was that Luther voiced already in the 95 theses of 1517: "Those who believe that through letters of pardon they are made sure of their own salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers" (Thesis 32). 

The chief significance of the Reformation, which it was doctrinal in essence and one must look at the practical and personal points of the controversy, which is relevant to the individual Christian / person. 

The Reformation to a certain extent originated with this question: How can my sins be forgiven?  How is the punishment of the infinite wrath of God taken away from me, a hell bound depraved sinner?  The Reformation started here, with this fundamental question: How can I, a dreadful sinner, be made righteous before a thrice holy God?  The doctrine and practice of indulgences was an answer of the church to this basic question, an answer that said: "You must pay for that pardon; and earn that righteousness; and save yourself by your works."  This doctrine out of which indulgences sprouted was the false doctrine that the salvation of man depended on his performance.  Man's righteousness before God as the basis of salvation is made up of a strange combination of Christ's work and man's own works.  His salvation, therefore, depends upon his own good works, and this is contrary to scriptural injunctions (Eph 2:8,9 and Tit 3:5).  The Reformation took issues with this doctrine, the judgment that it was no mere abuse but the denial of the gospel of Christ itself.  The righteousness with which a man is righteous before God is the work of Jesus Christ alone.  The satisfaction for sins, the suffering of the full punishment, and the obtaining of the perfect righteousness is possible only by Jesus in His vicarious atoning death on the cross.  This righteousness is now in Christ, and the way in which it can become mine through faith in Christ Jesus as the crucified and risen Saviour (2 Cor 5:20).  The way of faith is the way of trusting in Christ Jesus and His perfect righteousness, based on God's promises in His Word.  To the question, "How am I a sinner to be made just before God?" the Reformation gave a new, radically different answer, "Not by works which I do, but by faith alone." (Tit 3:5).  Romans 1:17 states, "The just shall live by faith"; and this is also mentioned in three other occasions in Habakkuk 2:4, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38.  Romans 3:28 says, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law."  Luther found this through his meditation of the word of God and that directed the course of the Reformation. 

This pure gospel of grace was proclaimed already by Luther in the 95 theses: "The true treasure of the church is the holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God"(Thesis 62).  There are two other truths that are closely connected with the truth of justification by faith alone.  The first is the truth that Christ Jesus accomplished everything that was necessary to obtain righteousness for His people.  He did this by His suffering and death, once accomplished on the cross.  He satisfied fully for the sins of all for whom He died, and obtained their righteousness.  After His death, no payment for sin was necessary for the sinner and this demolished the fiction of purgatory.  It exposed the basically wrong and unbiblical doctrines of the mass, which by its repeated sacrifice of Christ for sins denied the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and it set good works in a new, radically different light.  The Reformation established that no amount of works can truly be good to save ourselves from our total depravity. 

The second truth intimately bound up with justification by faith alone is the truth of the total depravity of man as he is in himself, apart from the Holy Spirit of Christ and His regenerating grace (Eph 2:8,9).  The church at that time taught that man had to perform good works upon which his salvation depended.  Man apparently could do this, so the church said, because he was somewhat good in himself, apart from the work of Jesus in his heart.  After the fall, man is not totally depraved.  Therefore, God can demand of him that he do something to earn salvation and to effect salvation.  The Reformation struck at the very heart of this error by proclaiming that man had no ability to do good works of himself, because in himself man is totally depraved and are incapable of doing anything to redeem his lost condition (Rom 3:10-12).  After the fall of Adam, all men have no ability for good that is acceptable to God.  As Eph 2:1 says, that Man is dead in trespasses and sins. and his salvation does not  depend on him but on God alone. 

By 1525, Luther was engaged in a fierce theological conflict over the question: Does man have a free will?  One of the humanist scholars, Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam, taught that the natural man was not totally devoid of all good and hence was not wholly sinful and evil.  Erasmus wrote publicly, in a book called On Free Will, that man, apart from Christ, man had a will that could choose for God, for Christ, and for good.  Luther saw this teaching as defective and that salvation also depends on man's good works.  Against the theory of free will by Erasmus, Luther wrote the book, The Bondage of the Will In it Luther maintained that the very will of man is bound as a slave to sin: and he (man) has no 'free will', but is a captive prisoner and bondslave to the will of Satan and sin (Eph 1:4; Rom 8:28-29)which is biblically correct. 

The Reformation confessed sovereign, gracious election rather than man centred work based redemption.  Writing strongly in defense of the truth of sovereign predestination, election and reprobation, are John Huss, Zwingli, John Calvin, Bullinger and the English puritans later.  The Reformation was one in preaching God's gracious election as the eternal fountain of salvation by grace and not by man's whims and fancies (1 Pet 1:2,20). 

What solid, sure foundation did Luther and the Reformation stand on in order once more to proclaim the gospel of grace and form the church anew?  This was no merely theoretical question in those critical times.  Arrayed against the gospel of justification by faith alone, on Christ alone and by grace alone stood very powerful foes.  The institutional Roman church at that time, with the authority of many centuries, condemned the biblical teaching as "heresy."  The climax came at Worms, in April 1521, where the church and state assembled to demand of Luther that he recant, where he stood alone.  Yet, it was there that he said, "Here I stand. I can do no other.  God help me. Amen."  God answered that prayer and vindicated him with deliverance. 

Besides the doctrine of justification by faith, the solid foundation on which the Reformation stood was the absolute authority, sufficiency and perspicuity of the Word of God, the Scriptures and the biblical teaching of the universal priesthood of believers (1 Pet 2:9) that and may come to God directly in repentance because of what Christ our mediator (1 Tim 2:5) has done for us and not through some human priests or female mediatrix or saints that cannot help us at all.  The application is the clarion call to fervent prayers and the constant confession and repentance of our sins before the Lord personally.  This was the other of the three outstanding truths proclaimed by the Reformation.  The Bible alone has the sole authority over believers and the church.  This has since been lost during the spiritually darkened middle ages for almost 1,000 years.  The authority was rather found in the hierarchy of the Pope and the priesthood.  The Scriptures were almost entirely absent from the life of the church.  The Reformation asserted: Scripture alone or the sufficiency of the word of God which is being undermined today.  The Bible, as the infallibly inspired and providentially preserved Word of God, is the sole authority in the church. In contradistinction from tradition, opinions of men, even popes and cardinals, the Scripture alone governs our entire faith and daily life.  The veritable Scriptures is given to every believer in their own languages, and not to some elite few in the church.  Everyone ought to read and can understand it by who the Spirit enlightens.  This Scripture plainly proclaims the sovereign gospel of grace, said the Reformers, and therefore we must carry on the Reformation faithfully and study and apply God's authoritative and inerrant word.  Later the Bible was translated into German in 1525 (NT) and given to the common people and into English by Tyndale the same year and made available to the ploughmen that brought the Reformation forward by leaps and bounds and forever altered the course of English history.  In our daily walk with him, there is a practical or experimental element in our understanding of the Reformation and we ought to be concerned with also the pragmatic precepts of the reformed movement relevant to us today. 

The Application of the Reformed doctrines to the believer 

What the Reformation stood for almost 490 years ago is true, as relevant, and as vital today as it was then.  Justification by faith alone as the basis of salvation and the absolute authority of the unchanging Scripture as God's inspired and preserved Word.  The gospel is sovereignly preserved by God and does not change from age to age; it will never be surpassed nor out-dated, nor there be a new message that outstrips the gospel in importance.  The Reformation is no historical curiosity or anachronism but a living, on-going reality, because of the unadulterated gospel of grace it preached, as compared to the false and truncated gospels of our times (i.e. the 'Passion of the Christ', the 'Alpha Course' and the subtle half truths and hence lies of   Da Vinci Code) which is often ecumenical or charismatic in nature and that is devoid of true evangelical repentance required of our Lord.  

What practical, urgent and relevant conclusions for the church and for the believers, can we come to, from this understanding of the Reformation? 

The first is that the Roman Catholic Church has not changed at all in its doctrinal beliefs from the time in the 16th Century of Luther and the Reformation.  The Reformation was about salvation by God's grace in Jesus Christ alone!  It was about Scripture, as the only authority in the church. The second is that the spiritual condition of so-called Protestantism is to a large extent deplorable.  Much of Protestantism is silent concerning the truths of the Reformation in its preaching and confession, and some even opposes and denies these biblical truths. 

      1.      Much of Protestantism today is ignorant of the Scriptures as the Roman church was at the time of the Reformation.  It implicitly sets aside Scripture as the basis of our faith and life by its acceptance of evolution or theistic evolution and its teaching of secular psychology and the approval of it renders its judgment on the ethical questions of our day suspect, e.g. capital punishment, civil disobedience, abortion, and sexual immorality, cloning and euthanasia relying instead on science, prevailing social opinions, and man's reason rather than the veritable and indestructible word of God. Knowledge of God and his word is important and this is where we are to make a conscious effort to meditate on the Word and do it and to teach it as well (Ezra 7:10).

      2.     Much of Protestantism is one with Rome (and other faiths) in making salvation dependent upon man today.  It boldly proclaims the free will of man and not the total dependence on God in salvation. It thereby denies total depravity, gracious election, and the efficacy and sufficiency of Christ's work.  InThe Bondage of the Will, Luther wrote that the issue of the enslaved human will was the fundamental issue of the Reformation…"

      3.     Much of Protestantism no longer bothers to preach and teach the pure gospel and the sole authority, inerrancy, sufficiency and perspicuity of the Scriptures at all.  Sermons are moralistic little stories or some favourite themes pandering to the likes and fancies of man.  The heart of the Reformation and the 95 theses was expressed in Thesis 62: "The true treasure of the Church is the holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God."  We need to bring the gospel to the people and the Reformation stands for biblical evangelism and gospel missions to a lost and fallen world.  John Calvin sent out a mission team to Spain in the mid 16th Century although it did not bear forth much discernible fruit.  Nonetheless, it showed the missionary zeal and heart beat of the reformers in the saving of souls and the zeal for gospel missions. 

Current trends and concerns 

Protestantism today is probably quite similar to the Pre-Reformation times.  There is still profound ignorance, superstition, spiritual idolatry, (i.e. worship of self, money, and images and icons) and the obsession with terror of man (i.e. terrorism) rather than the fear of God apply to us today. 

But what must our response be to the Reformation, who loves the truths of the God's word taught during and after the Reformation?  There ought to be a personal response.  The Reformation concerned the individual in a most direct and practical way.  Its truth was personal; it had to do with the question each asks for himself: How can a depraved and guilty sinner be declared righteous before a thrice holy God?  The Reformation arose in a personal way, as Luther himself struggled with utmost anxiety over that question.  The Reformation intended to give peace that only the gospel of grace can give to every repentant sinner.  The Reformation does concern every man and the question, "How can I a sinner be righteous before God?" being the most pressing one. 

Our Daily Walk 

There ought to be a personal response to the Reformation. There are 4 pressing concerns namely, Know it yourself first, Share it with others, Apply it personally and Defend it courageously and unashamedly.  The Protestant Reformation stands for the internal spiritual transformation of the believer first in his heart as he searches for God and repents of his sins.  There is to be a genuine desire to please and serve God in the true reformation of his heart.  The reformers were diligent and serious students of the word of God and they obey and kept the word (2 Tim 2:15; Jas 1:22).  The truly reformed Christian today believed, delves into and seeks to apply the word of God and studies it with great interest and discipline as the reformers of old.  The Reformation also gave to the individual and the church and the pure preaching of the gospel, the meaning of the sacraments and it being rightly administered, and the exercise of a spiritual discipline and the sound words of Holy Scriptures applied.  The true treasure of the Church is the holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.  Then, we ought to rejoice and give thanks to God for it and spread it abroad as they did to the 95 theses all over Germany and Europe.  So practical personal evangelism and missions is one of the applications of the reformation as well.  If one does not have this, he ought to pray to the Lord and ask for a burden for souls at all cost and for some, to humbly seek Christ in sincere repentance of our sins and be saved today. 

A Reformed and Transformed Mind 

"The just shall live by faith" (Rom 1:17).  That gave Luther a new heart in the truth of Holy Scriptures.  We need a new spirit to know, apply and pursue and defend the truth of salvation (Jude 3,4).  Salvation belongs to the Lord alone (Tit 2:10), not to man or works.  One is convinced that one of the battlefields today is the mind(Phil 4:8) which is one application in point.  God has given to us a sound mind (2 Tim 1:7), and we must strive to understand and know what and why we believe.  Emotions must not take centre-stage in our lives, understanding of the Scriptures should be instead.  Paul speaks of the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:1-2) that comes about as a result of knowing and applying God's Word, and "bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor 10:5).  We need to discipline our minds with the word of God and not the seductive pictures in the movies web portals and worldly magazines of today. 

Children of the Reformation are single-hearted and God minded by application.  It is a heart and mind dominated exclusively by one principle, love for God, His Kingdom, His cause, His Church and His Truth.  It is a heart of discernment and evangelical obedience to God's Word.  It is submission to the will of God and total reliance on the finished work of Christ alone at Calvary and not by man's defective works.  It is a disciplined, vigilant and diligent mental spirit to advance the cause of Christ to the saving of souls against all foes.  An informed and reformed mind must pervade every Christian today (Rom 12:1,2). 

A Reformed Covenant Home 

One application of the Reformation literally is the reformed and transformed Christian home.  With Luther and Katherine von Bora's marriage (Calvin and Idelette, and John Knox and Margaret and others also), they started catechising the children and had regular family worship.  It was unheard of for a priest to have a wife, let alone have children at home.  The Reformers blazed the trail of the setting up of covenant relationships at home.  It was an example for others on how to raise children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  The English Reformers and Puritans taught their children the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of faith and the holy Bible, and many children and youths came to know Christ as Saviour and Lord at a tender age. 

Do we fill our children/family with the Word and prayer or are their minds filled with the things of the world only?  The average family, the most basic building block of our society, is under siege by the adversary today.  There is an increase in the rate of divorce, recalcitrant children and irresponsible parenting today.  The English Reformers paid great attention to giving domestic instruction to their children.  Families are destroyed by a lack of knowledge of God's Word (Hos 4:6) and spiritual fidelity to God first and then to each other.  Today we need a reformation of the family, from worldly values and earthly pursuits to holiness, godliness and the principles of the Reformed faith found in God's Word.  Moses advised in Deut 6:6-7, 

        And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 

Let godly fathers and mothers follow the examples of the Reformation forebears, and protect and preserve the sanctity, vitality and harmony of the Christian home in the midst of the demise of the homes wrecked by divorces, spousal violence, teenage rebellion and godlessness (Psa 127:1).  Where the Christ-centred home is, the fear and worship of God will be there also for every member there. 

But there must also be the response, by the individual believer and the Christian home and by the congregation, of a staunch willingness to share the gospel and defend the truth of the pure and unadulterated gospel and the authority and sufficiency of the indestructible word that God has kept pure for us through the ages.  The Reformation stood for the truth, in the defence of the Reformed faith.  "We protest," the Reformation-believers said.  The Reformation stood for the truth and it also stood against the new age movements, deceptive and growing false teachings in the deadly cultism, agnosticism, and seductive occultism of our times and the growing ecumenical and charismatic movement with the contemporary worship phenomena that is invading the church as well. Sadly Protestantism at large is no longer protesting.  It is lukewarmness and nonchalance (Rev 3:16) that have infiltrated our church.  The reformation stands for a new spirit and fresh zeal of the Lord to defend the truth as it grips our hearts that the gospel is the revelation of the glory of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the greatest and most pressing issue of all life: How shall God be glorified in us?  For the glory of God in the saving gospel of Christ, we must stand fast and be faithful to the end.  One needs to continue stedfast to grow in the knowledge of God and to press on the important contest for our faith (1 Tim 6:11,12) in the faithful and vigilant propagation of the pure gospel and the defence of the reformed faith and His word till Jesus' soon second advent. 


Finally, the heart of the Reformation is the reformation of the heart.  The 16th Century Reformation stood for justification by faith, the universal priesthood of believers and the holy and indestructible, authoritative and sufficient Bible as the only rule of faith and practice, Christ alone is supreme in salvation, the grace of God alone and not works by faith in Christ’s atonement for our salvation and the glory of God only and this will impact and transform the lives of believers today in revival and repentance and consecration to him. 

There is much to be applied in our lives today and we need to also examine ourselves to see if we are still in the faith and if we are walking in the straight and narrow way of the truth.  One needs to seek Him in His word, practise gospel evangelism and daily prayer and to stand for Christ in these last days, defending the faith.  Let us continue to share the pure gospel of salvation to our loved ones and friends peradventure they may be saved before the Lord comes.  Will you do it today before it is too late?  This is the true spirit of the Reformation.  Something to think and pray about.

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