Anniversaries can be very important – ask any husband who has forgotten his wedding anniversary! They usually mark significant events, sometimes life-changing events, that ought to be remembered. The annual return of anniversaries such as Remembrance Day serves to keep the lessons of the past before our attention. Happy anniversaries can bring renewed joy in the recollection of good times, especially when they are viewed in the light of God’s providence in our lives. Some things ought never to be forgotten.
There is certainly the danger of living in the past – of letting what is now over govern our lives to an unhealthy extent. Old hurts, old grievances, old failures, old sorrows can shape us in ways that hinder our growth in grace. We need to learn when to remember and when to let go. Churches too can live in the past, keeping the focus always on past glories and successes, conveniently overlooking the weaknesses and failures that might suggest the past was not quite as glorious as we like to think. At times we as a denomination have fallen into that trap, idealising the Scottish Covenanters in ways that made it difficult to learn from them for the challenges of our own day. To forget history, however, cuts us off from the valuable lessons regarding the providence and purpose of God that it could teach us.
2017 marks an anniversary that should be – and no doubt will be – marked in a variety of ways. On 31 October, 1517, the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the accepted way of raising issues for academic debate. These ‘Ninety-five Theses’ however were profoundly radical and marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Luther was by no means the only theologian raising vital questions about gospel truth – Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, for example, also played a significant role in the reforming movement – but Luther was certainly used powerfully by God to shake the foundations of established theology and ecclesiastical life in Germany and much further afield.
Luther’s 95 propositions go to the heart of the gospel message and so demand our continued attention. Many historians offer explanations for the rise of the Reformation in terms of the historical and sociological circumstances of the time and some of these do have value, but we have not understood the Reformation unless we see it as a mighty work of God. In the Reformation the Holy Spirit transformed people and communities through the saving application of the Word of God. Whatever else the Reformation was, it was primarily spiritual.
The Reformation was a revolution that took the Church backwards – it was a rediscovery of great biblical truths that had been obscured by the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The Reformers went back to the biblical roots of the Christian faith and, on the basis of Scripture alone, proclaimed a message of salvation by grace alone, through Christ alone and received by faith alone, all to the glory of God alone. Multitudes experienced the true spiritual liberation that comes through an undiluted gospel. This was not just an intellectual movement – lives were transformed.
Now Luther was not perfect. Nobody knew that than Luther himself. He had his weaknesses and, like most things to do with Luther, they were on a fairly large scale. On some issues, such as his view of the Lord’s Supper, he was beyond listening to contrary opinions. There was in some of his writing a streak of crudity (shared with Erasmus, among others) that forbids quotation. His positon on a variety of matters represented a kind of half-way house between Roman Catholicism and biblical truth. We are, after all, not Lutherans, and with good reason. Nevertheless he was – by grace – a mighty man of God who was instrumental in revolutionising the spiritual life of a significant part of Europe and ultimately the world. A lesser man, a smaller man, would not have been up to the job.
The 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting the Ninety-five Theses ought to be commemorated enthusiastically by the people of God everywhere. We will be doing so at the Shaftesbury Reformed Conference on 15th February. Why not take the opportunities that 2017 will bring to deepen your knowledge of your spiritual heritage and to thank God for these wonderful events?