How relevant is the 16th-Century Reformation?
As a church planter of a Reformed Church in a southern California beach city in which there is nothing even close to a Reformed church, I often am tempted to think the answer to this question is “No.” When one pastors a church of less than one hundred people, with limited resources in terms of leadership and financial stability, it is easy to want to become another community church to attract numbers of people and reach long-term viability.
The truth is that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century is relevant for the 21st century and beyond because its core principles were not rooted in the passing fads of culture, but in the Word of the Lord, which endures forever (Isaiah 40:8).
The core principle that Scripture alone was the ultimate authority of the faith and life of God's people was called the formal cause of the Reformation, because it was the source of authority that gave shape to Christian theology. It might seem as if this principle were no longer relevant, since “everyone believes the Bible.” In the context in which I minister, which, I have no doubt is no different than any other area, Christians and churches give a formal profession of the Bible being the Word of God, of believing “the Bible alone,” and even that any given church is a “Bible-believing church.” Yet how often is the Bible truly relied upon when a church decides to do anything? Instead of communicating through the preached Word, as Scripture commands, churches communicate through visual, dramatic, and simplistic means. Instead of asking what the roles of pastors, elders, and deacons are, churches turn to corporate America for the model of their government. And the list could be multiplied. We need the Reformation because our forefathers reminded us to turn to the living voice of Christ in the written Word of God.
Another transcendent principle is that sinful humans are acceptable to a holy God only through the sheer grace of that offended God alone (grace alone), by which He grants the sinner faith so that by it alone (faith alone) he may trust in God's provision of forgiveness and the imputation of righteousness (Christ alone). Ever since our righteous Creator slew animals instead of Adam and Eve, and covered them with the skins of those animals, sinful man has been able to stand before God only on the basis of another. The doctrine of justification, then, was not one that the Reformers contrived, but one that is on page after page of Holy Writ. And it is not only a doctrine, but the living reality of the people of God. Adam and Eve received coverings for their sins (Genesis 3). Abraham received righteousness through faith (Genesis 15). The Israelites confessed their sins while laying their hands upon the heads of goats, imputing their sins on the sacrifice (Leviticus 16). The saints know the peace that comes from embracing the Savior alone and the assurance that they are acceptable to God (Romans 5:1, 8:1). If this is irrelevant, and positive-thinking, drama, games, door prizes, entertaining music is relevant, I say give me the irrelevant “old, old story!”
Finally, an often forgotten core principle of the Reformers was the centrality of the public, visible Church as it is expressed in local places. In a day in which Harold Camping says the age of the church is ended, in which Fuller Seminary's C. Peter Wagner calls the age of the “post-denominational church,” and in which many professing Christians get their spiritual boost from radio, internet, tv, books, conferences, and retreats, the Reformation calls us back to the biblical picture of the people of God gathering together, and devoting themselves to the means of grace in Word and Sacrament (Acts 2:42). The Reformers affirmed Cyprian and Paul, who spoke of the church as our mother (Galatians 4) since by her we are nourished and reared in the Lord. The Reformers emphasized that the church was the Body of Christ, not the buildings nor the magisterium of Rome, since it is made up of living, struggling yet joyful, believers in Jesus Christ. They also spoke of the visible church as the locus of God's dwelling and meeting with his people in public worship. In an age that desires individual experience, the irony is that the true experiential relationship with the Triune God begins in public. It begins as we are brought into the covenant through baptism (BC 34), brought to life by the preaching of the Word (Romans 10:17), nourished through the Holy Supper (John 6), and built up as we fellowship and worship with the family of God.
Is the Reformation relevant? As long as there are sinners in the world who need to hear their Creator's voice, come to know him as their Savior, and be transformed unto eternal life, the Reformation will be relevant because it spoke to these core principles of human existence.