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  • Daniel Klassen

Lessons from the Reformation: Ideas Change the World

The one who studies history has a unique vantage point. You don’t have to be a scholar with a degree to qualify, simply visit your local museum – even the smallest are filled with an abundance of information. With this vantage point, you can find answers to questions that the people of the past could only ask but never answer.

One that would certainly fit into that category would be: How will I influence future generations? You cannot answer that in the present. You do not know how future generations will perceive you, or through what kind of perspective they will observe your life. This is a question you can only answer in the stead of past generations.

My own heritage, the Mennonites, are linked to the Reformation, though not directly. The Mennonites were part of the Anabaptists, a broad title for a group which many of the Reformers despised as heretics. Not all of them were, but their radical tendencies often led them into unbiblical territory. Included in this territory was their emphasis on morality and pious actions. Although they had joined with those who broke away from the ties of the Pope and the Catholic Church, they blazed their own trail. However far the Reformers turned from traditional ways, they turned further; they were a radical bunch.

For the Mennonites, the distinction which set them apart from the rest was their emphasis on dressing different than the world and working differently than the world. How you dressed and how you worked were the keys to being Mennonite. To be sure, biblical teaching was a part of the Mennonite way, and doctrine had its place, but their emphasis was on the way they lived their lives. With this formula, it is no surprise that legalism became dominant in the Mennonite tradition. You could say they traded the traditionalism and legalism of Rome for their own form of tradition and law. And so, Mennonites were founded, not on ideas but on actions. They were founded on morality, not theology.

What seemed to be a foundation turned out to be no foundation at all. Today, Mennonites are not what their founder had intended them to be, namely morally upright people. As they fled persecution, they spread to many different areas of the western world. However far and wide they have spread, one thing has always caught up with them: sin. They may still dress different, some may still have that hard work ethic, but few have true Christianity. It is only those who have placed Scripture as a higher authority than tradition and legality that remain in the faith. Some have fully embraced the moral and sexual revolution as something good, some live lives of gross sin, and some are bound up in the attempt to attain salvation through good works. It has progressed so far that to be a Mennonite simply means that you are part of the Mennonite culture and not the Christian faith.

For the Reformers, doctrine was where all the emphasis lay. Just take a look at Martin Luther’s 95 Theses that started the whole thing. They were all doctrinal at the root. The main disagreement over indulgences, purgatory and the traditions and rituals which accompanied them was not with the practice, but the theology behind it. Luther accused the church of misunderstanding repentance, Christian love, the cross, the priority of God’s Word, and true assurance. The moral problem, as the Reformers understood, was foundationally a theological problem. To get biblical doctrine wrong was to get something other than Christianity. So they fought for proper doctrine, the main one being the doctrine of justification.

It is often said by the Reformers and those who follow in their footsteps that the doctrine of justification "is the article on which the church stands or falls." Although it was not the doctrine which started the Reformation, it certainly became apparent that the main disagreement was over this doctrine. Does God save us alone, or do we meet Christ halfway? The centrality of the argument that God alone saves us shows us the focus of the 16th Century Reformation was clearly doctrine, not action. Doctrine was the force behind every action, and so the emphasis was placed on theology and not works. The Reformation was not fundamentally a change of actions; it was a change of ideas that led to a change of actions.

Built upon biblical doctrine, the Reformation exploded onto the scene in Europe, infiltrating every aspect of life. From family and marriage to political movements, the Reformation infected both private and public life. Most of the deeply held beliefs of western civilization find their origin in Reformation thought. The Reformation not only changed the church but the world outside the church. We learn from studying the Reformation that ideas change the world, not actions.

I often hear teaching directed toward youth, that tells them they have an opportunity to go out and change the world. In a certain sense they do, having the potential to head in whatever direction they please. But there is one thing missing in this teaching, an idea. To tell someone to change the world is too vague. If there is no idea backing it, such an encouragement becomes the idea. All they are able to resort to is action, and actions alone have never changed the world. Give them an idea that changes the way they live, and you have a start. If this idea can be transferred to others so that their way of life is changed, you are on your way to changing the world. Ideas that change the way we live are, as the Reformation teaches us, the ideas that change the world.

There is only one idea worth promoting in this pursuit of changing the world, and that is the gospel. For starters, the gospel is the only idea that has the power to change the heart in the most profound and enduring manner. It is the most comprehensive of ideas because it changes the whole of the person. The reason the gospel is so transformative is that it calls people to believe, not to act. It is an idea that permeates the very root of the person.

Historians agree that the 16th Century Reformation was one of the greatest movements in modern history. The reason for this, as Christians should know, is that it was simply reverting back to a proper understanding of the greatest event in the history of the world, namely Christ’s atonement. So if we wish to go out into the world and have a culture-shaping impact, we do not go with merely political ideas or philosophical ideas, we go with the gospel. The Reformation displays that the gospel is the idea that changes the world. No other message is as far-reaching, nor is there a better influence for the generations to come.

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