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Editor’s Journal: A modern Reformation?

Martin Luther, 1483-1546

“I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.” —Martin Luther, April 18, 1521, Diet of Worms

The world of the early 16th Century could accurately be described as a religious system of corruption that had as its goal the growth of a Christian “industry” built on the backs of peasants. Research has revealed that the culture during this era was anything but anti-religious. To the contrary, religion was big business.

Peter’s successor as the father (or “papa” or “pope”) of the Roman church was believed to be the vicar (representative) of Jesus Christ. The pope was, therefore, the primary channel of God’s grace to the world. Through him came the power to ordain bishops who, in turn, would ordain priests who would, in turn, manage the Christian empire. God’s grace was known through the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Mass, penance, marriage, ordination and last rites. Participation in these actions became the path to receiving God’s grace.

The Mass was performed in Latin. Most who attended did not understand one word that was said. Worse, most of the professional priests did not understand what they uttered before the people. For many of them, it was easier to learn the sounds of the words by rote than learn a new language that was as unfamiliar to many of them as it was to the people who heard them speak. The words of the Bible remained hidden in obscurity until courageous martyrs stepped forward to speak the truth.

Many people believe the Protestant Reformation began on Oct. 31, 1517. To be sure, Martin Luther’s 95 theses quickly gained traction in the new world of the printing press and the overall unrest surrounding the unjust practices of the Church. Long before Luther’s dramatic appearance on the world stage, however, tremors of reform had been felt through the lives of people who dared to read the Bible in English to “commoners.” Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) became bishop of Lincoln in 1235 and believed that the chief duty of the “clergy” should be to preach the Bible—not give the Mass. He preached in English—not Latin—and clashed a number of times with the pope.

Jan Hus, 1369-1415

In the early 1300s, John Wycliffe openly stated that the Bible, and not the pope, was the supreme authority for the Church. This created a huge backlash that ultimately ended in Wycliffe being banished to obscurity until his death in 1384. Jan Hus, the rector of the University of Prague, became the champion of Wycliffe’s teaching. Hus challenged the authority of the pope to issue indulgences (a gift of merit by the pope to free imprisoned souls in purgatory) and reaffirmed the primacy of the Bible as the only authority for the Church. He was put to death as a heretic in 1415.

By the time Luther stood before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, on April 18, 1521 and uttered his famous statement (quoted above), the thunder of reformation had been heard and was gaining momentum. Slowly, the grip of the papacy was loosened as many of the nefarious teachings of the Church were shown to be erroneous. Luther’s grand message was that a person could stand confident before God on the basis of “merely” trusting God’s acceptance of Jesus’ work in their behalf by faith. And so works were replaced by words which were founded by the Word of God. By faith alone a person was justified before the judgment throne of God by believing it was so on the basis of Holy Scripture alone.

Most modern Protestants who read the history of the Reformation cannot fully grasp a world without the Bible. Today, however, the reformation which must come is not one void of the presence of the Bible. Today’s scandal is that the Bible, while widely available, is seldom read let alone understood by most who listen to preaching every week. For many of them, it is as if the Latin Mass is still in play.

In Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, it seems that the problem is far worse than anyone imagined. The National Study of Youth and Religion discovered that “the majority of American teenagers, who disproportionately call themselves mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic, harbor an attitude toward religion that one researcher described as ‘benign positive regard.’ While teenagers (and young adults) agree that religion is good, even important, they cannot explain why this is so, and many of them believe religion makes no difference to them personally. Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion, but teenagers’ benign whateverism.”

John Wycliffe, 1324-1384

A move must be made away from “whateverism” to a biblical reality grounded in the doctrines of the Bible. In the words of historian Michael Reeves, the Protestant Reformation was not simply “a negative movement” away from Rome. Rather, it was “a positive movement” toward the Gospel. Such a movement must emerge again beginning with many supposedly “evangelical” congregations who stand in deep need of reformation—16th Century style.

Soli Deo Gloria

Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

Author: Douglas Baker

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  • Bill Nettles

    Doug,
    Thanks for raising this point. I believe it goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of lifelong adolescence without any responsibility that is prevalent in American society, especially in the advertisement world.

    Churches need to move away from “keeping kids out of trouble” to giving them (and adults) opportunities for Gospel responsibility. This begins with knowing what the Bible says about God and living that belief.

  • http://www.resolve-to-commit.com Harry Hillyard

    Doug,
    What a great topic that you have immerged yourself in.
    Well done, and I sadly, with heavy heart comment;
    2nd Timothy 3;1-9 But realize this,that in the last days
    difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of money,
    boastful,arrogant,revilers,disobedient to parents,ungrateful,
    unholy,unloving,irreconcilable,malicious gossips,without
    self control,brutal,haters of good,treacherous,reckless,
    conceited,lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
    holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.

    God forbid that we throw in the towel,but as you brilliantly put
    it ;moving away from whateverism and doing everything we can
    to put our young people in a position where the Holy Spirit can
    work with them. One way is our “AWANA” programs and such.

    Harry Hillyard

    Have a blessed day!

  • Davey Jones

    Doug,

    Thank you for hitting the nail on the head.

    Now that you have pointed out where we find ouselves in the Church, what are your suggestions on how we can best turn the tide in the direction of right thinking, which should lead us to right teaching, and eventually lead to right theology in our congregations that will stand the test of time and cultural attacks?

    I fear that as Southern Baptists, we have been hesitant to take a lead position in the area of theology because a focus on theology will necessarily cause one to take firm positions. We all know that is not politically correct, nor is it a quick way to increase numbers in attendence. Becuse we have not had a focus on this area, we find ourselves lacking good resources, literature, and teaching materials that enable us to attack this problem on a widespread basis.

    I would like to suggest that you and/or others at our state convention contact Michael Patton with “Reclaiming The Mind Ministries” in Edmond. I know Michael personally and have studied and participated in some of his teaching programs. His ministry is totally focused on the area addressed in this article. He is not Baptist, but if you take the time to visit with him, review his materials, and witness his heart for biblical authority and clearity I am convinced that you will find the fact that the ministry isn’t a carbon copy of teaching material we have filled our churches with for decades is actualy a very stron positive. You can find information about them @ reclaimingthemind.org.

    I am a deacon at FBC Fletcher and have been under extreme conviction about this very subject for 6 or 7 years. It is totally exciting for me to read this article and I would very much like to visit with you about it if you can find time to talk. My e-mail is available where I singed in to make this comment. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Gary Capshaw

    I would hasten to point out that if our youth have a problem understanding Scripture and relating to God via Biblical principles, the fault doesn’t lie with them. It lies with us, the older generations who have failed to disciple them. It seems to me that such a new reformation must begin with us before it can flow to them.

    There is much confusion within the Church and it doesn’t affect just the young. Too many of our brethren don’t understand the Bible themselves, so how can they lead young people to it? Wrapped up in “churchy” work, distracted from the Great Commission by intriguing but unproductive doctrines which emphasize self-help, political activism or which appeals to our vanity (“Godly workouts?”), we’ve become an enclosed, separated community which makes little contact with the lost outside of throwing more dollars at some new “program.”

    We study little, listen to false teachers who scratch our itching ears for more money, practice a form of legalism which puts obedience to a set of rules ahead of standing on God’s grace and the redemption of the blood of Christ, point our judgmental fingers at anyone and everyone (except ourselves) and generally make ourselves unattractive to those who need us most. Among those I interact with on a daily basis, there’s not much interest in knowing more about the modern church. We’re seen as hypocritical Bible-thumpers who don’t understand the every day needs of “regular” people. We’re viewed as different, alright, but it’s a negative difference.

    Not surprisingly, attendance is down, professions of faith are down, baptism’s are down and churches struggle with declining membership all over the country. Polls reveal astonishing statistics about what we, in the church, believe. Many don’t believe the Holy Spirit is a separate, sentitent being; far too many don’t believe God is personally active in their lives; some don’t believe they have a mandate to be involved in spreading the Gospel and some don’t even believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. And this in the Church! Yet, there they sit, every Sunday, wallowing in ignorance and unaware of it! And these people are leaders of the Church or future leaders!

    We do desperately need a reformation, but that reformation better begin in the pulpits and in the hearts of us all or it’s not going anywhere.

  • Bill Oldham

    I see your article as being right on. I was a Catholic for 30 years before being born again. The night of my conversion two things happened: the Holy Spirit cut out from under me all of my religious upbringing and I was left standing knowing that Jesus Christ was the answer. Within two weeks I was directed to start reading the Bible. Within two months I was led to start scripture memorization. Growing up we didn’t even have a Bible in the house. I had to go buy one. Said that to say this: Jesus said man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
    I see that the word of God is mentioned as being the need of the hour but in practise we are constantly promoting the latest books as being the source to go to. In recent years when a controversial person, book or movie appears, we immediately go into action and write and recommend books…and more books….and more books, but rarely will I find anyone saying or writing: here’s what the Bible says.
    Admittedly there are many great Christian authors for at least the last 250 years but mainly what has been accomplished is a weaning Christian people away from the Bible as the go to for the final answer. We’re all waiting for the next great book from our favorite author. It appears in actuality that God is no longer our first, foremost and favorite author. We would rather read a 250 page book on a subject than spend some serious meditation on any given chapter in the Bible to see what God has said.
    Thank you and I pray that what I have written will cause us to reconsider how we serve the church with God’s word. Bill Oldham, former pastor, Pickett Prairie Baptist, Sapulpa

  • Jason

    “since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” I disagree with Martin Luther on this, you see, God’s Word is more sure and Powerful than my conscience and everyone’s Conscience. I believe that’s our Problem Today as Christians, We’ve been telling ourselves that wee need to Follow our Heart or Go off our Conscience. The Bible Teaches Different. it Teaches that we ought to base our Faith and Practice out of the Bible.

    “While teenagers (and young adults) agree that religion is good, even important, they cannot explain why this is so, and many of them believe religion makes no difference to them personally. Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion, but teenagers’ benign whateverism.”

    If you Dont Lead a Personal Walk with the Lord Jesus, then Don’t Blame God, or the davil or even your kids. The only one to Blame is yourself. instead of teaching them that Religon is Good, Teach them That God is Good and That Jesus Saves, Show them God’s Love in Your Life. Show them by your Service and Committment to the Lord, show them by your prayer life by the Your personal Devotions that you have with God in God’s word. put that Magazine down and actually read the Bible.

  • chance ruhnke

    this was well said and much needed. i agree fully with your statement, yet i must ask how you are taking action in your life to correct the problem? i ask not to be disrespectfull, but to perhaps get ideas for i my self have noticed then trend in my brother and his friends long before this day. i would love to see you responded.

    • Douglas Baker

      Chance –

      Thank you for taking time to comment here on the website. I know you will be an encouragement to many who will read your comment and see how the Lord Jesus Christ has rescued you from the dominion of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of His Son.

      I welcome your question about what I am personally doing to make certain, by God’s grace, that I do not lose the gospel and work to share its proper (that is to say Biblical) focus is never lost.

      First, I am a member of a local church. That might sound unimportant, but a healthy congregation is the greatest blessing for any believer and your greatest weapon against temptation. Each week, I look forward to hearing the Bible preached and seeing fellow believers; I seek to really worship God through music, and remain grateful for my fellow brothers and sisters in my church. Staying connected to my local church is vital for me. So many who are involved in “religious” work stray from the accountability and protection of their church. Find a good church and plant your life there.

      Second, I read. I read the Bible and good books. Currently I am reading Graham Cole’s book, He Who Gives Life. This is a wonderful book on the Holy Spirit. He is an excellent scholar and helps lead me and teach me things I did not know. We must fill our minds with the Bible and with good teaching so that we might be built up the faith.

      Third, I work to maintain accountability with other brothers in Christ. I have about five men with whom I speak if not daily – then at least weekly – and we talk about what is going on in our lives. They help me and I trust, by the grace of God, I help them. We are learning to love each other, and I cannot imagine life without them. Some live here in Oklahoma City. Others live across the country, but they are a critical part of my spiritual growth.

      Fourth, I work to accurately teach and/or write through every opportunity afforded to me by God’s design. Whether that be in writing for The Messenger or preaching or teaching or meeting with people, I seek to serve Jesus Christ and be the best servant of the Word of God I can be.

      I am encouraged by your note, Chance. May the Lord bless you and help you as you walk day by day in the power of the Holy Spirit. You contact us any time we can help you. Many people will be praying for you as a result of your courage to comment here.

      Yours in Christ,
      Doug

  • chance ruhnke

    once again i say well done. i know you are right in pointing these things out and shedding light on them. however i have read some of the comments that have been left and i see talk of programs and talk of the older generation not understanding the gospel them selves. the simple fact is that if we have the older generation that does not understand the word then i believe that no amount of programminng will do any good. i agree with gary that we dont have the right leaders in alot of churches.

    i am a 20 year old male i was not saved till i was 17 going on 18. this i can tell you is because before i moved to the town that i am currently in all i was showen was that church is hang out. i was never taught anything real foundational, and i new little to nothing about the lord Jesus. then when i moved to lone grove oklahoma i was invited by this guy to a church and so i went cause i thought “sweet pretty girls and free food”. well needless to say it was much like what i had been used to, but the one thing that stuck with me the first night i was there a man stood up and said “in here it is about the word of god and its truth and its not social hour so if you dont want to be here there is the door”. for the first time in my life i had run into a christian who wasnt a coward. yes i said coward because that is what most christians are is cowards and i am sick of it. the Lord GOD gives us armor for a reason because we are soliders and we are in a war zone everytime we wake up.

    so we need to study, train, and desciple the ones under us to do the same or we will lose the church

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