The Reformation: Unchanging Truths Uncovered
This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of a monk named Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg. Obscure though this sounds, it was a major catalyst of what history has called the Reformation which changed the political and religious landscape of Europe forever. While this is undoubtedly interesting for historians and theologians, its relevance to the rest of us may seem less obvious.
However, as a student worker in London, it strikes me that these events have immense value for life today, particularly focusing on female students. The Reformers rediscovered the most precious Biblical truths of the salvation which Jesus offers: by grace alone, through faith alone. Today, as then, this changes everything.
Living by works
We live in a world which encourages us to place our identity and our worth in what we do and achieve.
The academic world demands that you reach a certain standard. The world of sport requires you to perform, and if you fail then you lose your place. There is so often a pressure felt among students to achieve the perfect body. The university culture can cause a desperation for a relationship or a one night stand.
The world demands that they perform - and this is an exhausting and enslaving way to live! When students fall short they may feel worthless, anxious and inadequate as they obsess about how to improve, how to get thinner, how to be more attractive. Yet even when they DO achieve their goals the satisfaction is short-lived. There is always the pressure to maintain the standard or to reach a higher level. It is still never enough!
And what if our religion is like that too? What if we have to endlessly strive to be good enough for God, and live in fear that we haven’t done quite enough?
That’s how Luther felt. The church was teaching that in order to be saved you had to do endless acts of penance, pilgrimages, and even spending cash. It is said that Luther went to the priest for confession so constantly that he was asked to come back when he had done something serious! He was painfully aware that no matter what he did, it was not enough for a holy, perfect God. He wrote, ‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience...I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.’1
And yet as Luther studied the Bible in the monastery tower, he rediscovered the eternal truths of justification by grace alone through faith alone! In reading Romans 1:17 - ‘the just shall live by faith!’ - Luther understood that we do not need to make ourselves good enough for God, but that God gives us his own righteousness. We can trust in what Jesus did for us on the cross in taking the punishment that we deserve for our sin, and we can stand before God ‘holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation’ (Colossians 1:22).
Living by faith
Why is this life-changing and liberating? It means anyone can stand before God without fear and guilt, for they are justified. It means the students I minister amongst can experience being truly loved, for the Almighty God was willing to die for them. It means they can know complete security, because although they may stumble, grace is enough. It means they can live for something better than this world, because they have a certain hope of an eternity with God.
This truth liberates them from the demands of the world. They need not be defined by their academic success. During exam season, students can know that no matter the outcome they are valued and loved by God who has amazing plans for them.
In the world of sport they need not feel worthless when they fail. Win or lose, the King of the universe still loves them and their medals will not come with them to the new creation! They are liberated to play to worship God!
They do not need to obsess over the perfect body or clothes because God has made them beautiful in him! He has given them the ‘unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.’ (1 Peter 3:4). They can eat and dress well in order to please God, not to define themselves.
They can find complete intimacy, attractiveness and worth in the arms of God, rather than needing to flirt with, sleep with or date someone. They can be free to seek a God-honouring relationship with Christ at the centre, or they can be content in singleness because by grace they will be the perfect bride for Christ and enjoy the ultimate marriage for eternity.
The Reformation may have taken place 500 years ago but the Reformers foresaw that it would have enduring significance, which is why one of their catchphrases was ‘semper reformandum’ (always being reformed). As Paul urges his readers in Romans 12, not conforming to the pattern of this world but rather being reformed by the gospel remains a challenge for students today.
1Reeves, Mike, The Unquenchable Flame, 41.