- Daniel Klassen
Lessons from the Reformation: Weak Men, Strong Truth
If there is one relevant thing the Reformation teaches us, it is that God uses weak people to do His work. He does not pay greater respect to a person of greater ability, nor does He discredit those with limited ability. Rather, He uses whomever He will to perform His desired work for His glory.
Take Martin Luther for example. His boldness in the gospel was not there from the start. After he posted his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, he went back to his cloister and waited patiently to be called to an academic discussion. Unbeknownst to him, some students had taken the 95 theses and translated them from Latin into German. The ideas spread like wildfire throughout the German communities, causing the Church authorities to take note of them. Of course, they were all ideas against traditional Catholic doctrine, and so he was sent a papal bull (a public decree from the Pope) calling him to recant. In defiance, he publicly burned the papal bull. This could be seen both as a front of boldness from a timid man or a foreshadowing of the boldness that would follow.
When Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms, he figured this was his opportunity to discuss the ideas in his 95 theses. He was in for a rude awakening when the church officials only called him to recant. There was no discussion to be had; the Church was not open to questions about their doctrine. When Luther realized this, he timidly asked for an extension of time to think about his answer. They gave him a day, and Luther used that time for some serious soul-searching. He studied those who had taught the same ideas he was now convicted of, especially John Hus, whom he had been accused of following. The writings of Hus emboldened Luther to make his most famous statement:
“Unless I am convicted of error by the Scriptures . . . and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us or open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Historians note that Martin Luther did not state this with a booming voice as you would expect. Rather, it was with sincerity he timidly stated his decision not to recant. He resisted the papacy with much fear and trembling.
As the Reformation would progress, Luther's boldness grew to the point where it was overbearing. Later in his life, he would say harsh things towards the Anabaptists, Catholics, Jews, and all the rest who were still stuck in legalistic, anti-gospel ways. Contrasted with his earlier argument against Erasmus over the sinfulness of sin in the will of man, Erasmus was treated quite nice by Luther. Luther did not come across as a gentle person – that was his successor, Philip Melanchthon. Luther was bold, and this boldness was a blessing to the Reformation in standing up against the papacy. But it was also a curse because of his harsh treatment to those who would not turn from their legalistic ways.
It is that harsh treatment, especially toward the Jews, that leaves a stain on the legacy of Luther. There are hateful words, too foul to repeat amongst his later writings. Historians note that his statements were not racially motivated, that is they were not against Jews because they were Jews, rather it was the Jews’ unwillingness to turn to the gospel that sparked this hate-filled speech. Such is not a Christian tactic towards unbelievers, but it was Luther’s. Yet despite his shortcomings, God used Luther to spearhead the greatest movement in the history of the Church after the Apostles.
Likewise, John Calvin was used by God to bolster the Reformation with clear thinking, and passionate teaching despite his flaws. To start, Calvin was not a healthy man. Laden with sickness after sickness, Calvin labored to bring the Reformation to Geneva, and from Geneva to the world. The list of things he accomplished is phenomenal. It would take us a few lifetimes to complete what Calvin completed in his short lifetime - all the while under distress.
His lifelong struggle with his temper is the thing he most regretted at the end of his life. In his final confession to his congregation before his death, he sought most for the forgiveness from the hurt his anger caused to the congregants. John Calvin was not the best of men, nor did he always conduct himself in the right way, but God used him to the extent that he still speaks today. In fact, it is Calvin's contributions to the Reformation that still influence our churches and western culture today. In Foxe's Book of Martyrs, John Foxe quotes Rev. Dr. Wisner who, on the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, stated:
"Much as the name of Calvin has been scoffed at and loaded with reproach by many sons of freedom, there is not an historical proposition more susceptible of complete demonstration than this, that no man has lived to whom the world is under greater obligations for the freedom it now enjoys, than John Calvin."
Here is a frail, at times hot-tempered man whom God used mightily, not only to bring the gospel to light but to leave a legacy as few have left on society and culture.
Long before the Reformation, Paul taught this same truth when he wrote, "We have this treasure in jars of clay." It is his reference to clay jars that draws comparisons to the Reformers. The thing was, no one stored treasure in clay jars during the time of Paul. They were reserved for carrying refuse and dung to be disposed of. It is not the warmest analogy about Christians, yet it is effective. Why would anyone want to store treasure in a garbage can? Paul continues by stating that it is "to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." God uses weak men and women to do His great works so that we can see His power and glory more clearly.
How do we settle with the truth from the Reformation against the embarrassing and shameful shortcomings of the Reformers? The same way we must with our own: Understand that we are clay jars displaying the power of God. The sinfulness of the Reformers should help us realize that the Reformation is not about them, but rather the glorious gospel of Christ. Likewise, our sinfulness shows us that our spiritual well-being and our evangelism are not about us, but rather Christ.
The Reformation teaches us that mighty truth is carried along by frail and feeble men and women. Truth does not depend on the teller to make it true. You can assault the messenger with mean insults and curses, but it does not make the truth less true. God used men and women across all of Europe to bring to light the glorious truth of the gospel, and He did so despite their shortcomings and failures. Often we discount ourselves from the service of God because of our own failures and shortcomings. We think that God cannot possibly use us because we are not as good or talented as the next person. Such thinking is simply not true. God used weak people to carry strong truth against great opposition in the Reformation, and He most certainly will do the same today.
 Reeves, Michael. “Why the Reformation Still Matters.” Crossway, 2016.