It goes without saying that Reformed Faith churches owe their very existence to John Calvin and Martin Luther. And if such a premise is true, isn’t it worth becoming acquainted with them in a more-than-superficial manner? Do we know anything more about Luther than the fact he nailed 95 theses on a church door? Is there more to John Calvin than the greatly misunderstood doctrines of election and predestination? Yes, so much more!
Years ago, Reformation Sunday never passed my city, St. Louis, Missouri, without a real turnout of Protestant Christians to Kiel Auditorium to celebrate the historical birth of the “Justification by Faith” movement. Today Reformation Sunday comes and goes with hardly a whimper from the evangelical sector. There are perhaps many reasons for this, including a possible ecumenical spirit and desire not to emphasize differences. However, it is also possible that special recognition of the Reformation has fallen into silent disrepute because evangelicalism has lost its fervor for sound doctrine. The emphasis has switched from doctrine to need-meeting (a form of narcissism). Many flock into churches today to have personal needs met rather than to know more intimately a great God or His will for the Church.
It goes without saying that Reformed Faith churches owe their very existence to John Calvin and Martin Luther. And if such a premise is true, isn’t it worth becoming acquainted with them in a more-than-superficial manner? Do we know anything more about Luther than the fact he nailed 95 theses on a church door? Is there more to John Calvin than the greatly misunderstood doctrines of election and predestination? Yes, so much more! I will even venture to confess here the impact Martin Luther had on me when I was eleven years old. I borrowed a book on Martin Luther’s life from the bookmobile that came to our elementary school once a week. It was a child’s book, but it communicated the fact that he experienced a turning point in his life and a personal relationship with God. Thanks to that story, I became a truth seeker at a very young age and searched for a personal knowledge and relationship with God. The fulfillment of that search became a reality when I was 19 years old.
Both John Calvin and Martin Luther, of course, can be faulted in one way or another from our “enlightened” perspective. We are not called to put anyone on a pedestal; and from our present vantage point, they would not desire such from us either. Nonetheless, the personal pilgrimages and teachings of these two men changed the known world of their day upside down, and 506 years later continue to impact us today.
Perhaps the greatest vestige of the Reformation attributable to John Calvin is his Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the most positive interpretations of the Christian religion. His prefatory letter to Francis I is a model of a “learned, eloquent, elegant, dignified address of a subject to his sovereign,” according to A. M. Fairbairn. “It throbs with a noble indignation against injustice and with a noble enthusiasm for freedom and truth. It is one of the great epistles of the world, a splendid apology for the oppressed and arraignment of the oppressors.” I can’t resist the thought that if families included the Institutes of the Christian Religion in their home libraries and read it frequently, a hardier Christianity would emerge today which would impact our culture greatly. Calvin was a super spiritual strategist. Within a period of eleven years, his center of education in Geneva sent at least one hundred sixty-one pastors into France. “They were learned men, strenuous, fearless, praised by a French bishop as modest, grave, saintly, with the name of Jesus Christ ever on their lips . . . The Reformed minister was essentially a preacher, intellectual, exegetical, argumentative, seriously concerned with the subjects that most appeared to the serious-minded.” Most of all, the teachings of the Christian faith, according to Calvin, transformed the men and women in the pew into a learned, vibrant, respected (and often persecuted) followers of Jesus Christ.
As for Martin Luther, according to Martin F. Marty, “There’s no more consistent strand in Luther than the gospel of forgiveness. That theme still isn’t heeded well.” Today, the gospel of self-esteem and marketing the church based on people’s needs takes precedence over the teaching of sound doctrine. Martin Marty also notes that, “Our culture promotes human ability and human will, as did the indulgences culture in Luther’s day, as a way to bring salvation.” If Luther lived today, he would probably direct his central message to the evangelical church itself. How history twists and turns!
John and Martin were two men who lived intensely in their day, who knew God and served Him diligently and without compromise. They were unashamed lovers of God and of His written revelation. If we are to experience revival or reformation in our day, such men and women are needed once again. Are we willing to pick up the torch which once beamed so brightly and to dare hope for true reformation in the Church in our day? If so, we must willingly give serious study to the Word of God and doctrine as these men once did. Let’s pick up the torch and run with it to the glory of God and for the sake of His Church!
Helen Louise Herndon is a member of Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri. She is freelance writer and served as a missionary to the Arab/Muslim world in France and North Africa.