The Reformation: Trick or Treat?

It’s no accident that October 31 is both Halloween and the day remembered for the start of the Reformation. Both key off November 1, All Saints’ Day — or All Hallows’ Day (Hallows from the Old English for saints or holy ones).

On All Hallows’ Eve, October 31, 1517, the Roman Church received the world’s most memorable trick-or-treater at its door — though barely noticed at the time — when a lowly priest named Martin Luther approached the threshold of the Wittenberg branch in Germany and posted his 95 measly theses (they aren’t nearly as impressive as you would expect). The coming All Saints’ Day seemed like an excuse for sparring about the Church’s deplorable sanctioning of indulgences, and Luther was angling for some good-spirited debate.

The Spark That Set the Church Ablaze

But the Church was centuries overdue for major reform, the kindling was in place, and Luther’s little, almost accidental spark set the whole thing ablaze. Some nameless visionary translated his theses from the Church’s Latin into the people’s German and sent them far and wide through the printing press. In time, this lowly monk proved to have what it took to hold his ground against the Church and the world — “Here I stand,” he said courageously before the emperor — and under God, he became the human tip of the spear for massive reform.

“Embrace the ‘accidents’ in life and trust that God’s plans for you are better than your wildest dreams.”

Of course, that’s the reductionistic version of the story. Save his own Son, God doesn’t change the world through a single person, but through people. With and behind every remembered individual is some great collective. Luther had a significant supporting cast in his Wittenberg work, and on the grander scale, it took many others — like Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and many more, all with their associates and assistants — to usher in reform far and wide. God gave Luther the bullhead to do the pioneering. He was the battering ram. But five centuries of Protestant Christianity wouldn’t have followed in the wake of Luther alone.

Enter the French Humanist

In particular, Calvin’s thinking, writing, and systematizing played a complementary role to Luther’s pioneering flair. Born in 1509 in France, Calvin was only eight years old when Luther played his Halloween trick in 1517.

Calvin was trained as a humanist and converted sometime between 1528 and 1532, while at university, and by All Saints’ Day, 1533, he had himself in hot water. Sixteen years after Luther posted his theses, Calvin’s friend Nicolas Cop delivered an All Saints’ convocation heralding Christ as the sole mediator (not the “saints”). Some suspected this patently Protestant address was written by Calvin, and he soon found himself on the run.

As an exile, Calvin spent time in Basel, and seemingly by accident came to Geneva for a single night in 1536 on his way to Strasbourg for an ivory-tower, academic life of study and writing. The fiery Swiss reformer William Farel learned Calvin was in town and prevailed upon him to join the reformation cause in Geneva. Calvin acquiesced, and stayed there in Geneva — minus a three-year exile from 1538–1541 — until his death in 1564 at age 54.

The “Accidents” of Providence

Reformation Day is ripe for remembering an array of biblical truths — that the Scriptures are our only final authority (sola Scriptura); that God accepts us by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ alone (justification); that God often uses the unlikeliest of people to turn the world upside down; that God doesn’t just raise up great individuals, but collections of people, veritable teams, each with his lot, and his own local cohort, to bring about widespread change; and all these conspiring to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria).

But here’s one to keep on your radar this year. God loves to use the seeming accidents in our lives to bring about his purposes. It’s the “accidents” that remind us we’re emphatically not the captain of our own soul, we’re not piloting our own destinies, we’re not on the point for planning the whole thing out and executing on it. How sad a course it would be if we cooked up the whole thing as we came of age and spent the rest of our lives living out our boring and uncreative little visions?

“God loves to use the seeming accidents in our lives to bring about his purposes.”

That such a Reformation began almost 500 years ago, and continues to this day — this is your story too — is not the result of any human plan. It has been the “accidents” which have given it the markings of divine fingerprints — Luther’s accidental spark that first lit the flame and Calvin’s accidental lone night in Geneva that changed the course for that city and for a major branch of Protestant theology.

Reformation Day is a reminder to embrace the “accidents” in our lives, look for the hand of providence, and trust that his plans for us are better than our wildest dreams. For those who are his, he truly works together for their good all things — even and especially the seeming accidental — to do for us far more abundantly than all that we ask or think (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 3:20).