Five hundred years—the amount of time it’s been since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door in Wittenberg—is hard to wrap our minds around. That’s over double our American history as a nation. It’s even longer than the children of Israel were in Egypt or the timespan between the Old and New Testaments.
But if it’s hard to fathom five hundred years, it’s harder still to fathom what our lives would look like today had the Reformation not taken place all those years ago.
Those who know me know that I’m a Baptist through and through. Historically, Baptists were not Protestants (we existed before, during, and after the Reformation, as even early Baptist persecutors testified), so I don’t trace my spiritual heritage to the Reformation. I do, however, recognize and thank God for the spiritual and historical significance of the Reformation.
In particular, God used the Reformers to break the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, bring widespread use of God’s Word and hearing of the gospel, and lead Europe out of the Dark Ages.
I’m aware of the theological and eschatological shortcomings of the Reformers. I know they were deeply flawed men and that some persecuted our Anabaptist forefathers. But the truth is all of us are flawed. The fact that God uses any of us is a testimony to His grace.
Because the Reformation literally changed the trajectory of history and because this month marks its five hundred-year anniversary, I’d like to focus on how God used some of its leaders.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting many of the historic sites related to the Reformation and contemplating the sacrifices made for the sake of the gospel during one of the darkest times in history. I’d like to introduce you to a few of these:
Peter Waldo (1140-1205)
We know less about Peter Waldo, often referred to as a forerunner to the Reformation, than we do about his followers. He stands apart from most of the other Reformers in that he never was an ordained priest. In this and other respects, he was closer to a biblical Baptist than to a Protestant Reformer.
Waldo either translated or paid someone to translate the Bible into a dialect of French and was thus the first to provide a translation of the Bible in a “language of the people” during the Dark Ages. This would be key to the growth of the Waldensian movement.
I have been to the caves in northwest Italy where Waldensian churches met and underground Bible colleges were conducted. Students in these colleges learned to preach the gospel and defend their faith from Scripture, knowing that they would be martyred and were in a race against time to preach until martyrdom.
I have also been to the Piedmont valleys where the 1655 Waldensian “Massacre in Piedmont” took place. That Waldo’s followers were still preaching the gospel four hundred years after his death is testimony to the power of Scripture and the value of a life given over to Christ.
John Wycliffe (1328–1384)
Called “The Morning Star of the Reformation,” Wycliffe is remembered for being the first to translate the Bible into English (from Latin). Even without the aid of a printing press, Wycliffe’s Bible was so widely distributed that, even after many copies were burned in Europe, today there are still 150 original manuscripts. His preaching so relied on Scripture that his followers were derisively called “Bible men.”
Wycliffe was so despised by the Roman Catholic Church that over forty years after he died, his body was dug up and his bones burnt. I have stood by the side of the River Swift in England where Wycliffe’s ashes were tossed. Although this action was meant as a desecration to Wycliffe’s remains and a warning to others, the spread of his ashes served as a picture of his influence which had already spread. With the Bible translated into the language of the people, it was too late to undo the knowledge of the truth.
John Huss (1369–1415)
Influenced by the writings of Wycliffe, John Huss was also a predecessor to the Reformation. Through studying Scripture, Huss discovered that salvation is only possible through faith in Christ’s payment for sin and, with strong biblical conviction, preached compelling sermons against works-based salvation. Because of his “heresy,” the Roman Church excommunicated him and later called him before a council in Constance, Germany, to stand trial. He was sentenced to being burned alive at the stake on July 6, 1415.
When his executioners chained him to the stake, Huss proclaimed, “My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder ‘chain’ than this for my sake, and why then should I be ashamed of this rusty one?” Just before the flames were lit, the Duke of Bavaria urged him to recant his faith in Christ and retract his preaching. “No,” he replied, “what I taught with my lips I now seal with my blood.”
William Tyndale (1494–1536)
Tyndale’s great contribution was translating the Bible into English from Greek (rather than from the Latin Vulgate as Wycliffe had done). Attending Oxford and Cambridge, Tyndale was a brilliant scholar and a gifted linguist. The Tyndale translation of the New Testament was so precise, in fact, that 90 percent of our King James Version is directly from his work.
Tyndale’s most famous quote was spoken in response to a clergyman who, in opposition to Tyndale’s preaching, said, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded, “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” And we can all thank God that he did.
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
You almost can’t mention Luther without distancing yourself from some of his loudest and most egregious errors—including statements about the Jews, his response to the German Peasant uprising, and his views concerning the state church. These are beyond the scope of this article, and I’ll leave it to biographers to explain or condemn these more thoroughly.
As is so often the case, however, these weaknesses in Luther were the underside of his strengths. And God used his strong, forceful personality to take on the greatest empire of his day—the religious empire of the Roman Catholic Church.
Although there were others who preached as Luther did (some even more closely to Scripture), it was Luther whose Ninety-five Theses sparked the undeniable start to the Reformation. Interestingly, at the time of nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg (which was used something like a community bulletin board), Luther still had not discovered the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace. He was protesting the abuses of the clergy and rampant immorality of the church. He merely intended to start discussion, not a reformation.
It was the Pope’s reaction to Luther that pushed Luther to further Bible study, which resulted in his understanding of justification by faith alone.
I have visited the church in Worms, Germany, where Luther was tried before the Diet of Worms. After days of questioning, Luther refused to recant his writings (except any that could be proven false from Scripture). His final and famous response was, “Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” He was condemned and went into hiding. During his period of hiding, Luther translated the Bible into German, which was one of his greatest legacies and most enduring influences.
John Knox (1513–1572)
The most famous quote about John Knox was from Mary, Queen of Scots: “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” And the most famous quote by Knox is, “Give me Scotland, or I die.”
That both of these quotes represent his prayer life—one about his prayers and another from his prayers—says something of the depth of his dependence on prayer.
Knox, like many of the other Reformers, was a Catholic priest who discovered the gospel through the study of Scripture. When he began preaching salvation by grace alone, the Bible as sole authority, and against Catholic mass and purgatory, he was imprisoned to French galley ships. Eventually he was released, went to England, and later back to Scotland. It was there that he led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
Felix Manz (1498–1527)
Although not always included in a list of the Reformers, I include Manz because he came to Christ out of Roman Catholicism and, for a time, partnered with the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich, Switzerland.
Through studying Scripture, however, Manz wanted to take the principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) to fuller biblical conclusions than most of the Reformers. Specifically, he called for the Mass to be abolished and for believer’s baptism to be practiced, making him an Anabaptist. (The title meant “re-baptizers” because belief in believer’s baptism meant that even those who had been “baptized” as infants would be baptized by immersion after their profession of faith in Christ).
I have been to the River Limmat where Manz was taken by boat to the middle of Lake Zürich and, with his hands tied behind his knees, pushed into the water to drown. One of the saddest aspects of Manz’s martyrdom is that he was sentenced by the Zürich council, led by Zwingli.
Zwingli, like most of the Reformers, never seemed to be able to understand the biblical concept of the local church as separate from the state. Zwingli and Calvin, however, were the harshest toward Anabaptists. Nonetheless, we owe much even to these for how God used them in breaking the political power of the Roman Catholic church, which in turn, brought Europe out of the Dark Ages, and would eventually pave the way for true religious liberty, even for Anabaptists and other Non-Conformists.
For his part, Manz was a bold preacher of the gospel, preaching and praising God even as he was taken to be executed. His followers, expelled from Zürich, eventually made their way to Holland, joined Menno Simons, and were later known as Mennonites.
What Should We Celebrate in the Reformation?
It is true that most of the Reformers did not go far enough in their conviction of Sola Scriptura. How else do you explain their continued use of sacraments and their development of Protestant (Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian) state churches? Even Wycliffe remained Catholic until the day of his death. (He died of a stroke while he was saying Mass.)
So if the Reformers (aside from the few Anabaptists Reformers) are not our Baptist forefathers, what from their lives or from the Reformation should we celebrate?
We should thank God for their courage. The Reformers willingly lived hard lives, enduring ridicule, exile, poverty, and often martyrdom, to courageously defend their beliefs. And God used them to reshape Europe—politically and spiritually.
For the fact that God sovereignly uses imperfect men—during the Reformation or otherwise—I will always be thankful.
We should celebrate the accessibility of Scripture. That Waldo, Wycliffe, Luther, and Tyndale all translated God’s Word into common languages is no coincidence with the widespread impact of their lives.
The “Dark Ages” were indeed a spiritually dark time. It was the inaccessibility of Scripture by common people that led to such darkness. And it was the propagation of Scripture that led to spiritual light.
Although I disagree with some of the Reformers’ theology, for every element of biblical truth they did bring to light, I’m grateful. And for the fact that we have God’s Word in our language, I’m beyond grateful.
Movements and men rise and fall. Legacies fade. Histories are forgotten. But God’s Word endures: “For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89).
 In 1554, Cardinal Hosius, who was the Chairman of the Council of Trent and the most powerful person in the Catholic Church outside the pope himself, said that: “If the truth of religion were to be judged of by the readiness and boldness which a man of any sect shows in suffering, then the opinions and persuasions of no sect can be truer or surer, than those of the Anabaptists; since there have been none for these twelve hundred years past, that have been more generally punished or that have more cheerfully and steadfastly undergone, and even offered themselves to the most cruel sorts of punishment than these people.” (Mike Gass, A Glorious Church, Striving Together Publications, 2009, pages 240–241.)