Imagine you’re sitting in church this coming Sunday morning. Your pastor steps up to deliver his sermon and starts speaking in a language almost entirely foreign to you. You might recognize a few words, but the majority of what he says flies past you as gibberish. You can’t even follow along with the text—there are no pew Bibles, and you don’t own a copy to study for yourself.
Imagine if that were your entire spiritual intake for the week—a message preached in a language you don’t understand, from a text you can’t read, in a book you’re not allowed to own.
Such was life in the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. The pope and his priests had a stranglehold on the text of Scripture, withholding it from the common man. There was no personal study of God’s Word to speak of—you only got whatever you heard from week to week during mass. Those who couldn’t speak Latin—which was often the majority of the people—got even less.
These days, when information is so easily accessible, it’s hard to imagine being totally separated from God’s Word. An inaccessible Bible is a foreign concept to most of us in the developed world. You’ve likely got several copies laying around your house. As I type this, I have about ten Bibles within reach of my desk, not counting the digital versions on my computer and phone.
Because of such immediate and abundant access to God’s Word, believers today have a tendency to grow complacent and cold to Scripture’s preciousness. We purchase Bibles like accessories, giving more thought to their external appearance than the spiritual riches they contain. It’s the natural progression of the trend Charles Spurgeon famously described to his congregation more than 150 years ago:
Most people treat the Bible very politely. They have a small pocket volume, neatly bound; they put a white pocket-handkerchief around it, and carry it to their places of worship; when they get home, they lay it up in a drawer till next Sunday morning; then it comes out again for a little bit of a treat and goes to chapel; that is all the poor Bible gets in the way of an airing. That is your style of entertaining this heavenly messenger. There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write “damnation” with your fingers.Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Bible,” Sermon #15 in The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855), 112.
Most of us don’t know what it is to truly hunger for God’s truth, since we’ve never been without access to it for more than mere minutes.
Consequently, we don’t appreciate the widespread spiritual starvation that set the stage for the Reformation. We can’t fathom the bravery of men like John Huss, who was banished from his pulpit for daring to preach in the common language of his parishioners. We can’t understand the revolutionary work of men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, who labored tirelessly to translate and publish the Bible in English. We can’t appreciate the seismic impact of Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press, and the unprecedented access it gave God’s people to His Word.
What we can appreciate, from our vantage point in church history, is how the Lord sovereignly orchestrated events to bring about the Reformation in His perfect timing. We can see how He gifted and used His servants to recover His Word and shine the light of His truth into a world dominated by the darkness of Catholic lies. We can see the immense price so many paid to protect and preserve God’s Word for future generations of church history.
As beneficiaries of the Reformers’ tireless efforts, we’re right to recognize their lives and ministries. But don’t make the mistake of celebrating the Reformers while missing the point of the Reformation itself. Scripture alone is the authority in the church. Scripture alone defines and declares the truth about Christ and the power of His gospel. And Scripture alone is our standard for life and godliness.
In many ways, the church today is in at least as bad a shape as it was prior to the Reformation—it’s probably even worse . Overrun with worldliness, charlatans, and heresy, the Protestant church needed less than five hundred years to dig a deeper well of apostasy than the one it was originally born out of. And while the corruption might be more pervasive, the remedy is the same. The modern church does not need some new marketing strategy or public relations campaign—it doesn’t need to further mimic the tastes and trends of this wretched world.
Just as the Reformers before us, God’s people need to recover the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and return it to its preeminent place in our congregations. We need to shake off our indifference and complacency and get busy with the work of God’s kingdom. Like the Reformers, we need to expend ourselves—even unto death—to shine the life-transforming light of God’s Word into a world dominated by spiritual darkness.
And thanks to those faithful Reformers and Bible translators, much of the hard work has already been done for us. We don’t have to wrestle God’s Word out of the clutches of Satan—we simply have to submit to it and faithfully proclaim it.
The Reformers understood that God’s Word is a treasure worth fighting and dying for—it alone can bring life to the dead and sight to the blind. You can’t truly celebrate the Reformation if you don’t share that conviction.