October Thoughts… Reformation and the Church

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

When one looks at the Church within the world and sees the many divisions that exist we can wonder why. Often, the blame is set squarely at the feet of the reformer Martin Luther. It is often argued that he had attempted to start his own church (even naming it after himself!) and that after doing that many others followed in splintering the church. How can we then have a day where we remember and give thanks to God for the Reformation?

That question makes sense, however, this is not what the Reformation was. Luther was not trying to start a church (and he didn’t name anything after himself either!), but rather he called on the leaders of the Church to introduce reforms which got rid of abuses that had crept into the Church over the years. The goal was to correct errors so that the truth of the Gospel may be taught in all purity and truth in the Church.

In the summary of the first part of the Augsburg Confession which detailed the teachings of the theologians of the regional churches undertaking reform in order to present it to the emperor, it is said “as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” The hope was that unity could be maintained because no new doctrine was being introduced. Instead, the truth that had always been accepted was brought forth to its proper place free from later medieval innovations which obscured it. That is why, in addition to the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions often quote from the Church Fathers and the canons.

And so what are we remembering on Reformation Day? I think the red colour of the paraments and vestments assigned for the festival is instructive. First, red brings to mind the Holy Spirit as we remember and give thanks to God for the grace which He showed us through the Reformation so that the truth of the Gospel was brought into its fullest and purest clarity. For while there were certainly many people who played a part, it was the Holy Spirit working through the Scriptures who brought the truth of the Gospel to its full light.

Second, it reminds us of blood as we give thanks to God for the examples of His steadfast love demonstrated in the lives (and deaths) of His holy martyrs from this time. These include Robert Barnes, Patrick Hamilton, Jean Vallier, Jan van Essen and Hendrik Voes and others. In fact, while it is not as well known in English today, Luther’s first hymn was written to give thanks to God for the martyrs Jan and Hendrik called “Ein neues Lied wir heben an” (A New Song We Raise).

Cover of a pamphlet about the martyrdom of Hendrick Voes and Jan van Essen, labeled here as “St. Henry” and “St. John.”

With this in mind, we pray that the Lord would keep us always within the true teaching of the Word and that He would continue to work by His Holy Spirit through the Scriptures that those in error would recognize their errors and come to a full knowledge of the truth and that the Church which is united in Christ, may also find a visible unity and unity in doctrine.

Prayer: Almighty God, author and source of all truth, grant that by Your grace we may be kept steadfast in Your Word amid all attacks of the world, the devil, and our sinful flesh. Pour out Your Holy Spirit that all schism may be brought to an end and Your people may all be united in truth for Your glory so that our eyes may see what we confess: that Your people are all united in the body of Your Son; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lived and died for our justification, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings: Psalm 119:41-48; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 8:12-36