Just like the author’s comment on Luther, it is true for the rest of the Reformers: they “had done more than write a page of history”, they “had thrown out a challenge for every generation”. The Reformation is a remarkable and fascinating chapter of the history. And it is still relevant to us today.
The danger of the word “history” is that it has an old, boring and irrelevant tone. People forget it’s about real people who ate and lived just like us, and about events that had an impact on people’s everyday lives at the time and continue to do so even today. The whole episode of Reformation history is breathtaking and dramatic: Luther’s trials and kidnapping, Zwingli’s marvellous public debate and training of a whole generation of bible teachers, Calvin’s multiple exiles and missionaries made in Geneva, England’s royal drama, the massacre in Paris, martyrs in Oxford, and Puritans to reforming the Reformed and sailing for a brand new world. There’s never a dull moment.
Although the book is full of fascinating accounts of many Reformers’ lives, the biggest lesson I learnt is the power of God’s word. As soon as the bible was available for people to read in their own language, it shone light in the darkness of the oppressive medieval religion and the sinful human heart. It was so bright, so clear and so convincing that Luther was enabled to take up the “seemingly impossible task of challenging all Christendom and turning it around”; in his trial facing a death sentence he was able to say “here I stand” and could later on die without priests, sacraments or last confession knowing with complete confidence that he would be welcomed into heaven by faith in Jesus alone.
In the same way, God’s word touched the hearts of thousands and thousands of people hungry for truth who, when convinced by it, were willing to follow Jesus wherever it took them. Some of those people are well-known names whose influence lasts till this day, like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer and Bunyan, some are less known or even completely unnamed. Some of them were used greatly by God to teach many people; some were ordinary people who found this hidden new hope and simply rejoiced. Some died by the sword; Some tortured cruelly and burned in flame.
If you have never heard of the Reformation before, you might ask: “why all these arguments and bloodshed? Does life here and now not have more value than a mere disagreement over religion?”
The key point of the disagreement between Rome and the Reformers was on ‘justification’, which is the question of how you can be made right with God. Rome taught that justification is by good works in addition to faith. The Reformers taught that justification is by faith in Jesus alone, just as the bible teaches, and the bible has the highest authority because it’s the word of God.
Why is this disagreement worth thousands and thousands of people dying for it? And why does it matter to you and me today?
Because if the Reformers were right and justification is by faith alone, then all the teaching about doing good works, about Mass and about purgatory is wrong. Going to holy sites and collecting merit doesn’t contribute to your likelihood of entering heaven, because a guaranteed place in heaven doesn’t depend on your merit. Buying indulgences won’t free your dead relatives from purgatory because purgatory doesn’t exist. It matters to you and me, because it’s not about religion; it’s a matter of eternal life or eternal death. Life here and now is more than church tradition. But eternal life is far more than life on earth. And for that truth, the Reformers and faithful Protestants fought and died 500 years ago. May God kindle the same spirit and love that “all the world shall never be able to quench”.