The Key to the Success of the Reformation

Saturday was Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation.

I like Reformation Day. It's not a holiday. Nothing special happens. But just the day itself is a reminder of the Reformation, and I like the Reformation. Even though it's something that happened nearly half a millennium ago, the Reformation is still of huge importance. Why? Well, simply because Martin Luther and his fellow reformers helped recover the Gospel and make it widely known. The Reformation was all about the Gospel; at he heart of the 5 Solas of the Reformation is the Gospel:
  1. Sola Scriptura - Scripture alone
  2. Sola Gratia - grace alone
  3. Sola Fide - faith alone
  4. Solus Christus - Christ alone
  5. Soli Deo Gloria - to the glory of God alone
Thinking about the Reformation this weekend, I was struck again by some comments of Martin Luther himself about the success of the Reformation:

Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything... I did nothing; I let the Word do its work. (Martin Luther, from a sermon on 10th March, 1522)

Luther didn't put the success of the Reformation down to his greatness. It wasn't his ability as a preacher. It wasn't his cleverness. It was the Word of God that was the key to the success of the Reformation. God's Word and God's Word alone was the power behind the Reformation.

Luther wasn't worried about gimmicks to gain adherents to his cause. He wasn't always thinking of a new strategy or programme to bring them in. He had confidence in the Word of God.

That really struck me. For Luther preaching the Word was the only way to success. Yet so often today it seems that the Word is sidelined by the latest methods for success. But Luther's idea of success wasn't based on market research or sociology. He didn't speak to the 'experts' or conduct extensive interviews of the 'unchurched'. He had a far greater authority: God Himself! Luther believed what God said about the efficacy of His Word (Isa 55:11; Rom 10:17).

By the way, it's interesting that, despite the various methods built on tons of data collected in recent years, research still points to Luther's concept of success as the right one. Although many studies have been made of the unchurched, asking them what would make them choose a church, a few years ago Thom Rainer took a different approach and asked formerly unchurched people why they did choose a church. The results were surprising to those who had relied on interviews of the currently unchurched, but would have been no surprise to Martin Luther. 88% said it was doctrine that led to their choice of church and 90% said preaching. (Only 11% cared about worship style.)

Martin Luther had confidence in God's Word to do its work, and that confidence freed him from the burden of having to be successful. As he said, while he slept or drank beer with his friends, the Word was doing its work. Luther didn't feel he had to convert people; that's God's job which He does through His Word and Spirit. Luther simply had to proclaim the Word and let it do its job. Luther didn't need to coerce people into believing; He believed in the power of God's Word to bring faith. Such confidence in the power and efficacy of the Word of God removes the pressure on us to save people; only God can save. All we can do is preach the Gospel, proclaim the Word.

Martin Luther had confidence in God's Word. Do we? Do we proclaim the Word and let it do its work, or are we always chasing after the latest gimmick? Do we trust that God will save through the preaching of the Gospel, or is our confidence in style rather than substance?

We need to be like Luther and trust God's promises that His Word is effective. We need to be like Luther and have confidence in God's Word to do its work.