October 31st is the unofficial anniversary of the Reformation, and this year it will mark 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Last week, Andy wrote about the Key that Set Martin Luther Free, and so this week, I want to talk about two ingredients that sparked and fueled the Reformation as a whole: Conviction & Courage.
In the world that our Reformed fathers and mothers dwelled upon in the 16th and 17th centuries, challenging the teachings and practices of the Catholic church carried with it a death sentence. When you dig deeper into what sparked this movement, you must start with conviction. Here’s a simple truth that is true even today: levels of conviction vary from person to person and subject to subject, but the deepest and most profound convictions are the ones you’d give your life for. The willingness to pay the ultimate price reveals the strongest of convictions, and the deep conviction of the founders of the Reformation came from a single source: their Bibles.
- As a teacher at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s lectures through the book of Psalms placed a weight on him that sparked a search for a remedy to the gravity of his sin, a remedy he later found while lecturing through the book of Romans: faith in Jesus Christ alone.
- Argula von Grumbach, an oft-overlooked woman during this time, wrote an article mapping out the authority of Scripture over the tradition of the Roman Church.
- Ulrich Zwingli extensively studied the Greek New Testament and he too affirmed the true meaning of salvation and the centrality of the Scriptures.
- William Tyndale was so impacted by the Scriptures that he illegally translated the New Testament into English so that the people back home could read it in their own native language, a work that would later be published by peers after he was arrested.
- John Calvin took his knowledge and conviction of the truth laid out in Scripture and developed the first and most prominent outline of Protestant theology called Institutes of the Christian Religion.
- After being exposed to the Biblical works of John Wycliffe, John Huss exposed the excess and corrupt practices of the Catholic Church, which took advantage of its authority to enrich itself through extra-biblical traditions.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, for we could go on and on. The common thread through the heroes of the Reformation is an unadulterated conviction that God’s authority lay with His Word and not with a group of men, a conviction that deemed them all heretics and got many of them killed. The central points of contention were the source of salvation through the “5 Sola’s” (faith alone, by God’s grace alone, in Christ alone, to the Glory of God alone, as laid out in Scripture alone) and exposing the systematic epidemic of indulgences.
Bottom line: You cannot live your life to the fullest until you find something that you are willing to die for. These men and women found it, and we’re grateful they did.
Conviction was vital for these men and women, but conviction alone wouldn’t be enough to follow through and make an impact. When you read or hear about the stories, what stands out is the unbelievable amount of courage to live out their convictions.
I once heard a pastor recount the story of little known reformer named John Rodgers. While in Holland, Rodgers met William Tyndale who shared the gospel with him and taught him the Bible in his native language. Rodgers would go on to pastor in Germany, but always longed to return to his homeland in England, a wish that came to fruition in 1548 where he began pastoring a congregation safely under the reign on King Edward VI. Once Edward died, however, his half-sister Mary declared herself queen. From 1555-1559, the reformers within the Church of England were under the wrath of Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”) and in that time, 288 people were burned at the stake for their Protestant faith. At the outset, Rodgers knew where Mary stood on Protestant religion and yet on his first Sunday in the pulpit following her installation as Queen in London, he boldly preached salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for God’s glory alone and warned against trusting in anything else, regardless of the cost.
This courageous, passionate sermon that Rodgers gave that day would be his last. He was arrested a week later, and would be put in prison for the next year and half, leading up to January 15, 1555, where he was formally charged for standing against the Church of Rome. During his tenure in prison, Rodgers had no communication with his wife or 11 children, the youngest of which he had never met, and was denied a final request to see them or speak to them. He was led out to the grounds of the parish he once pastored, as thousands of spectators lined the way, and on the walk Rodgers saw his family in the crowd. His wife was holding a baby he had never seen, and their 10 other children circling around her staring back at their daddy with tears in their eyes. Rodgers was a man who was overtaken with emotion at the sight of his family, and yet, he held an unshakeable resolve in his Biblical convictions that continued to lead him to his death. It was at the stake where Rodgers was heard to be reciting Psalm 51 softly to himself over and over again. When given a final opportunity to recant his beliefs, Rodgers simply said, “that which I have preached I will seal with my blood”. And with that, the flame was lit.
It’s important to point out that their courage did not flow from personalities, or their desire to be famous, remembered, or well thought of, but rather their courage flowed from conviction of the truth of Scripture and the need for reform.
Conviction & Courage for the Church Today
As we think about this here and now, Christians in the West don’t wake up thinking today the day will be the day we are captured and killed for our convictional beliefs. It is a different time where churches with different convictions can coexist without violence, and we’ve found that government-enforced religion actually can do more to harm the mission of the church than help. But make no mistake, if you actually want to be a faithful, missional Christian in today’s day, you will need both conviction & courage, even if we don’t have to risk our lives for it in our current context.
It’s a strange world we’re in, a postmodern society where everyone finds their own way to God and it’s deemed unloving and intolerant to ever promote one God and a single set of beliefs over another (except, naturally, that one). Navigating it all can seem overwhelming for the church today, like you’re climbing a snow-covered mountain in flip flops, but we can do well to take the two simple lessons from our reformation founders:
1. Conviction flows from seeing and beholding Jesus Christ and the freedom that He represents. At the deepest part of our soul, we shouldn’t be more passionate about anything else other than the teachings, person, and work of Christ, and ought to make it a daily habit to simply see and behold Him. Let us make a commitment to not spend more time and energy staring at Twitter than we do our Savior. One is passing away, the other is everlasting.
Hebrews 12:1b-2 “and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Colossians 3:1-3 “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
It is when our eyes are on Him that we become convinced that there is no other place we can go, no other person we can put our full trust in, no other power in which we can stand with. It’s when we behold Christ every single day that a small flicker of interest turns into a blazing inferno of passion for His name’s sake.
2. The larger the flame inside us, the more courage we’ll have to live and love the way we’re called and equipped to. Courage doesn’t just mean to stand up for what you believe in when the name of Christ gets desecrated, but it also means choosing to deny our comforts in order to serve the least of these, to live below our means in order to be more generous, and to listen to our neighbors empathetically before we share with them boldly.
1 Corinthians 15:58 “ Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Romans 8:31-32 “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be[i] against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
Courage can manifest amongst the body of Christ in a lot of ways, but at its base, courage is waking up every morning to experience the new mercies of God, fix our eyes on Christ and decide we will win the day, we will be bold in the name of Christ, we will live missionally for the kingdom of Christ and leave the rest up to the Lord.
Conviction & Courage is what leads us all to say, individually and as a church, that we will plant and water today, and then get on our knees and plea with God to make it grow for His Glory, our joy, and the good of the world.