In June of 2017, I had an unexpected opportunity to attend a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. It was hosted by a consortium of educators and church leaders in Wittenberg, Germany, drawing students and teachers from around the world. Ironically we were housed in a former East German school named after Karl Marx, the atheist.
In a large marquee tent, we celebrated the impact of the Reformation on learning, then marched together to the Castle Church near the town centre. We released balloons and entered the church through the very doorway where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses. This time we came not to protest, but to proclaim our multi-lingual praise to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Being a Protestant is ultimately about praise . . . seeking to remove all man-made obstacles that keep us from worshipping the Lord as he deserves, for rescuing us from what we deserve. This requires us to consider the hand of God in history. Those who forget the past deny so much comfort for their souls when they face trials. Come with me to three places: the pulpit of John Wycliffe, the dungeon of Jan Hus and the tower of Martin Luther.
John Wycliffe was the parish priest in 14th century Lutterworth, England. He devoutly followed God, and desired that his parishioners would know God better through having the Scriptures in their own language. He once said, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.” Sadly, the leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church opposed his translation efforts.
After Wycliffe died, the church authorities burned his bones and scattered the ashes in the River Swift. When I visited Lutterworth in 2015, the Swift had dwindled to a stream. However, Wycliffe’s influence did not dwindle at all. It expanded as the messages preached from his pulpit and the translation of the Bible into English spread throughout Britain and beyond. The good news of the gospel was starting to reach both milkmaids and merchants, peasants and princes . . . no longer locked in Latin for only the highly educated to learn.
On the opposite end of Europe, the Czech priest Jan Hus was influenced by Wycliffe’s writings and tried to reform the church in agreement with the Word of God. He wrote, “Therefore, faithful Christian, seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, adhere to the truth, defend the truth even till death; for the truth will make you free.”
He was imprisoned in a dungeon and finally burned at the stake in AD 1415. “Hus” is Czech for goose, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records the words of Hus before his death: “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan whom you can neither roast nor boil.”
Exactly 100 years later, in the spring of 1515, a monk named Martin was studying the book of Romans in the tower of an Augustinian monastery . . . 400 miles to the north of Hus’s martyrdom. As a professor of the new Wittenberg University, he was preparing a lecture series on Romans. As he came upon Romans 1:17, he wrote, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning.”
So we see that exactly a century after Hus was awaiting his death in a prisoner’s cell, Luther discovered the gospel in a monk’s cell. It was this tower experience that would lead to the 95 Theses, the Diet of Worms and every other bold act of faith – against incredible odds. It all began with the holy Scriptures.
“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).
The long Northern summer’s day had finally passed into a glorious twilight. As I stood in the city square of Wittenberg, Germany, I could still see a patch of dark blue fading in the west over the facades of the old houses.
I turned around to look to the east, and saw the imposing statue of Martin Luther barely visible in the dusk. All that I could see of him was his head and shoulders highlighted by the floodlit towers of the Stadtkirche, a thousand feet behind his image.
The profile of the Reformer, glimpsed against the backdrop of the church where he preached the Bible over 2,000 times, stared resolutely to the south. As I took several photographs, I paused and thought about the reason I had come: this man, but not this man. The unlikely architect of the Reformation never wanted adoration. The movement that he helped engineer was always greater than his abilities. It was a work of the Holy Spirit, unleashed by Luther’s faithful insistence that the Christian church should live by “Sola Scriptura,” solely basing our beliefs and customs on the clear teachings of the Bible.
Luther did not live in isolation, of course. There have always been true People of the Book since the days of the apostles; and Waldo, Wycliffe, Hus, and Savonarola all played an important part as early reformers. So Luther lived at the right time, when Europe was at its point of greatest spiritual crisis. He also lived in the right place. Germany was divided back then into many small realms, yet unified by language and culture. This allowed his Biblical arguments to spread rapidly, while the complicated regional politics prevented anyone silencing him immediately. God’s sovereign purpose created this intersection of space and time.
The man who did nothing
As I strolled in Wittenberg Square at night, I was quietly grateful for how the Word of God changed one man, and led to the Bible being translated into German. What happened here led to greater religious freedom in other parts of Europe. Luther recognized that the Reformation was a movement fueled by the power of the Word of God. He once wrote, “Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all.”
As we consider our times, we look with Luther’s statue to the Global South – and the amazing ways that the witness of the gospel of Jesus is going deeper: more indigenous in South America, Africa and Asia. Those who receive the truth will experience the reality of God’s kingdom in ways the secularized West often lacks. Yet we own in our homes the same powerful book!
It should give us great hope to see that the Word of God is still going out from Jerusalem to Judea, and Samaria, and Europe, and North America, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It’s accomplishing the purpose for which He sent it in AD 33, 1000, 1517 and today.