"For God's sake, do something brave!"
Those bold words come from the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli. He was a courageous man whose actions corresponded to his deeds. Zwingli died in battle, fighting alongside soldiers from Zurich in 1531.
Reflecting on his words in light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Protestant church in America can act bravely in one specific way.
Learn and follow the theological heritage that was foundational for the Evangelical church in America today.
In other words, understand the importance of the Reformation and follow the fundamental teaching of Reformers such as Calvin, Beza, and Bullinger today. This would be a bold action because the Protestant church in America, as Bonhoeffer observed in 1939, is Protestantism without Reformation. Too many churches and denominations today have not considered the theological significance of the Reformation and how it should impact American Christianity.
If American churches consider the theological heritage of the Reformation, I believe it can lead us to two specific re-formational actions which will build up the church today.
1. Learn the Bible and teach the Bible.
This may sound simplistic and common, but unfortunately learning the central truths of the Bible and teaching them is increasingly rare in contemporary churches. The mega-church movement has not led to more bibilcal literacy and discipleship, Rather, it has too often led to big-box churches built around a celebrity pastor who dispenses self-help messages to parishioners seeking to improve their lives and advance their careers. Moreover, mainline denominations such as the PCUSA and ECUSA lost their Bibles decades ago and too often exist as a tribute to a nostalgic religious past, while promoting a progressive liberal future.
Put simply, too many churches and too many pastors are not preaching the redemptive truths found in Scripture, but have compromised their message. As a result, parishioners who sit in these pews today share similarities with pre-Reformation parishioners who sat in Roman Catholic churches each Sunday and never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Reflecting on the Reformation should inspire and encourage church leaders to study, learn, and teach the Bible. Describing the ministry of John Calvin during the Reformation, one theologian wrote, "At the beginning of the history of the Reformed church...stood a schoolmaster with his textbook." One of the chief characteristics of Reformers such as Calvin was their desire to educate men and women about God and his Word.
2. Glorify God rather than the individual.
Sociologist Christian Smith describes American Christianity as 'moralistic, therapeutic deism." Put another way, for many churches Christianity is a list of things to do and self-help steps to follow in order to manage life and a tame deity. Or, as Michael Horton describes American religion, God is nice and we are nice, so we should all be nice.
The truths of the Reformation shine a light on the religious idols of moralism and therapeutic spirituality. The Reformation reminds us that religion is not primarily about us, but about the Triune God and what he has done. It it not about what you can do for him, but what he has already done for you.
Reformation Christianity presents a theology of the cross of Christ that crushes the fluffy worship experiences many sit through each week. The light of the Reformation focuses our attention, not on an enterating worship experience, but on the eternal, infinite, unchangeable, Triune God. Highlighting the glory of Father, Son, and Spirit will lead pastors and church members to God's Word and his Sacraments where God's promises to his people are presented and confirmed.
It is a historic day. A day to celebrate the history of the Reformation and consider the impact of that global movement today. In his book on the theology of Calvin, Karl Barth asserts, "History will talk to us and we will then be shown who we are. To study history is to come under judgment."
As you think about the history of the Reformation, consider how the Reformation shows us who we are and how it judges Christians and churches today. As you reflect on this truth, may it lead church leaders and church members to prioritize God's Word and seek to glorify the Triune God.