A Transforming Light: The Impact of the Reformation

                Over two thousand and five hundred years ago, Nebuchadnezzar, King of ancient Babylon, saw in a dream a stone cut without hands, destroying the proud image of the kingdoms of the earth, and then growing into a mighty mountain.[1]  That stone, thrown once again into the sea of society during the Reformation, has caused spreading waves of effect – waves reaching to the farthest corner of the globe.  Like salt,[2] which pervades the flavor of food wherever it is introduced, the Reformers’ new presentation of the old truths of the gospel has had, and is still having, a tremendous influence on this earth.  Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, based on the Bible alone, to the glory of God alone, has left its mark on human culture in each of society’s three main branches – on the individual, on family, and on government.

Hard work, honesty, perseverance, politeness – where do these traits find their basis?  Why are they, even today, admired and respected in society?  Perhaps the answer is to be found in the Reformation emphasis on the eternal significance of the actions of every individual.[3]  Indeed, because the actions of each person will have consequences into eternity, anyone who tries to hide behind a party name or denominational branding is on perilous ground.  Each person will himself stand before God; and thus each individual has the right to search the Scripture and submit to its directions.[4]  Rights and responsibilities, however, go hand in hand.  On the one hand there is certainly a woe pronounced against those that shut up the kingdom of heaven, neither entering in themselves, nor allowing others to enter in.[5]  The individual, as Tyndale insisted, must be taught;[6] but the individual must respond to the preaching of the gospel, and to be enabled to do so he must be completely transformed.[7]  This change cannot fail to have an influence on society, causing others to respect the uprightness of a true Christian and perhaps even emulate it in some respects.  In this manner the “Puritan work ethic” has influenced even those who make no profession to Christianity, and the truth of the saying “honesty is the best policy,” is admitted by many who are not children of the God of Truth.   The Reformation ideal of a life lived for the glory of God and for the benefit of others has had ongoing impact in transforming lives and cultures as the world watches the true Christian individual seeking to apply God’s word in every area of life.[8]

As we have already remarked, the Reformation placed a great emphasis on the eternal implications of life.  Moreover, the Reformers stressed the need to live for others.[9]  The natural consequence of these two truths is a long-term, multi-generational outlook – one that looks beyond present afflictions to an eternal weight of glory.[10]  Many Christians during the Reformation gave their lives for their beliefs, not only by dying for God, but by living for Him.  The Reformers and those who followed in their footsteps had a vision for the future, even though they might never see that future.  William Bradford records one of the motives of the pilgrims as they sought freedom in a new land: “they cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations… for the propagation and advance of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.”[11]  This is the vision that built the United States of America, at its inception one of the freest nations ever established.  This is the vision that took the gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth; the vision that inspired thousands of men and women who have lived it and bequeathed it to their families.

Without doubt, the Reformers were convinced that God is sovereign.[12]  Clearly, however, if God is sovereign, the state – and all human authority – must be limited.  If God has established His law, then lawlessness, whether it takes the form of anarchy – each man becoming his own law – or tyranny – one man declaring himself the law for all others – is wrong.  Each person is individually responsible to God primarily, not to the state.  Both by precept and example, the Reformers maintained the principle that “we ought to obey God rather than men.”[13]  Far from being the ultimate authority, there are situations in which government must be disobeyed!  This mentality was inconsistent with the tyranny of any king who sought to rule by “divine right,” and it unquestionably has had a tremendous impact on the political landscape of northern Europe and North America in particular.  As we have already noticed however, the Reformed outlook on the state did not substitute anarchy for tyranny, as humanist ideologies often do.  Calvin was adamant in upholding the necessity of lawful government.[14]  He makes it clear that the people are not to rebelliously take matters into their own hands when seeking to redress tyranny.  Instead, it is the lower magistrates who have the responsibility to protect those beneath them.[15]  While the French Revolution, spurred by humanist systems of thought, tore down all in its path in a bloody Reign of Terror, the nations which embraced the Reformation went through much less violent, much slower, but much longer lasting periods of change and increase in liberty.  For no nation, in which a free church had been established, could long fail to make the connection between freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, or between representative rule in the church, and representative rule in the government.  The Reformation, in emancipating the church from the Pope, emancipated the people from tyranny; and the liberty so many western nations take for granted today could never have been realized apart from that great change.

By bringing the light of God’s word to shine on every aspect of life, the Reformers set the stage for a transformed culture and a transformed world.  The impact of their radically Biblical outlook is tremendous, and one which we so often take for granted.  Whether we consider the individual, whose worth and dignity can only come from a belief in a personal God, or whether we look at the family and the multi-generational legacy that involves, or whether we contemplate the state, and the freedom and liberty that we enjoy as a direct result of the Reformation, the sublime consequences of a Biblical worldview stare us in the face.  Praise God, His word will not return unto Him void.[16]  The God who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, the God who gave David the victory over Goliath, the God who raised His Son Jesus Christ from the dead, is the same God who worked in the Reformation five hundred years ago and who is still working today.  Where we perhaps least expect it, the continuing effects of the Reformation crop up in the transformed lives and cultures of those who have been touched by the light of the city set upon a hill – the city of God, the city which can never be hid.[17]  May we all, seeing the good fruits of the lives of the Christians during the era of the Reformation, give glory unto their Father who is in heaven.[18]

[1] Daniel 2:34-35.

[2] Matthew 5:13.

[3] For instance, Tyndale, William.  The Obedience of a Christian Man.  London, Great Brittan: Penguin Books.  2000., and Watson, Thomas.  The Godly Man’s Picture.  Carlisle, PN: Banner of Truth.  Reprinted 1999.

[4] Calvin, Jean.  Translated by Ford Battles.  Institutes of the Christian Religion.  2 vols.  Collated Text.  Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.  1960.  Vol. 1, pp. 71-75, 78-81.
Watson, Thomas.  A Body of Divinity.  Reprint.  Carlisle, PN: Banner of Truth.  1986.  p. 26-30.
Van Til, Henry R.  The Calvinistic Concept of Culture.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.  2001.  pp. 49, 157-168.
Tyndale, p. 17.

[5] Matthew 23:13

[6] Tyndale, p. 22.

[7] Van Til, p. 95.

[8] Ibid, p. 245.

[9] Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture.  pp. 183-188.

[10] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

[11] Bradford, William.  Of Plymouth Plantation.  San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum.  1998.  p, 21.

[12] Knox, John.  Edited by Hilda Schroetter.  Great Thoughts from Knox.  Choteau, MT: Old Paths Gospel Press, n. d. p. 81-82.
Calvin, Vol 1, p. 198.
Watson, A Body of Divinity.  p. 81-82.

[13] Acts 4:19 KJV.

[14] Calvin, Vol 1, p. 847.

[15] Ibid, Vol 2, pp. 1518-1519.

[16] Isaiah 55:11

[17] Matthew 5:14

[18] Matthew 5:16


2 thoughts on “A Transforming Light: The Impact of the Reformation

  1. Gloria September 10, 2017 / 8:52 pm

    Congrats on winning first place in the Essay Contest! Your essay was well-researched and your points clearly conveyed.


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