The Reformation’s Gifts to Us

I wrote the following for the October issue of Obitelj List, the magazine of the Council of Churches of Christ in Croatia.  I offer it to you today, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther setting match to fuse.

“The Reformers’ Gifts to Today’s Christian”

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this fall, let us consider three important gifts that the reformers gave to Christians today.

First, the reformers gave the Bible back to the people. Prior to the Reformation, the church hierarchy treated as heresy all attempts to translate the Bible into the vernacular or to update its language.  William Tyndale was executed for translating the Bible directly from its original languages, Greek and Hebrew, into English.  The leading light of the Reformation, Martin Luther, was the first person in centuries to translate the entire Bible into the common language of his people in 1534.

This is important because the Bible is our spiritual food.  In 2 Timothy 2,15 Paul writes, “Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately.”  Later in the same letter (3,14-16), he writes, “Continue in the things you have learned and are confident about. You know who taught you and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.“ See also Psalm 1,1-3; Psalm 119; Deuteronomy 6,6-9; and Deuteronomy 17,18-20.

Because of the convictions of Luther and the reformers, we have the Bible translated today into hundreds of languages, including several excellent Croatian translations. This fact means that the Bible is not a dead, magic book that mysteriously links us to a distant, unapproachable God.  It is God’s word for YOU, for US, and it does not belong to church leaders or priests.  God’s word belongs to believers, to each of us who are part of the Body of Christ.

This new view of God as close and available is restored from the earliest church.  It leads to the second gift the Reformation gives to Christians today, namely, “the priesthood of the believers.”  For centuries, Christians were taught that God was distant and inaccessible, and could only be approached through a priest.  Luther and Calvin brought back to the church the attitude of Jesus and the earliest Christians, who addressed Jahweh as “abba[1].” We worship a God who is both majestic and familiar, who dwells with the believer (“Emmanuel”, Matthew 1,23) and in the believer (through the Holy Spirit.)

Just as Jesus’ claim to closeness with God shocked the Jews of his day, so also the Reformers’ insistence that we need no mediator to come to God, that Jesus is the only mediator necessary: “For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.” (1 Timothy 2,5-6).

And our third gift grew out of this conviction for the reformers, namely the belief that the work of the church belongs to the people of the church, not some special priestly class; Paul writes in Ephesians that God gave spiritual leadership gifts to the members of the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ” (4.12).

According to the New Testament, who are the priests?  Who are Jesus’ hands and feet, doing his work in the world?

It’s you and me, and the brothers and sisters around us.  Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not a spectator sport, or some esoteric system that only the initiates can participate in or understand.  It’s not passively sitting back and watching someone else do the work of Christ.  It’s us, brothers and sisters, doing the work of Christ together.

The Reformation gives the church these three gifts: access to God’s word, access to God’s presence, and empowerment to carry out God’s work.  As the church puts them to use, as the church continues to be reforming (“ecclesia semper reformanda” which means “the Church is always being reformed”) by the Spirit and the Word, God’s power will act through us to transform lives, break addictions, and save marriages, here in Croatia and beyond.

[1] “Abba” is the Aramaic equivalent of “dad” or the Croatian “tata”, an affectionate and informal way of addressing your father.


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