“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). As we remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us, as we should in all things, consult the living voice of the Holy Spirit. For there have been many reformations in the history of the Church, and it has pleased God to instruct us through the example of men like King Josiah.
Josiah found a church deeply corrupted. Altars to false gods, pillars set up in worship, false priests, everything that God had forbidden were multiplied throughout the land, even in the temple. The Book of the Covenant had been neglected to the point of being forgotten. Josiah knew that these things were making Judah fall further into depravity. Josiah knew what had to be done.
With a mighty hand, Josiah tore down the altars. With a burning wrath, Josiah burned the Asherah-poles. With an unsparing eye, Josiah defiled the high places that had stood for hundreds of years, even from the days of Solomon. With an unwavering zeal, Josiah killed all of the priests to these false gods. With an unbroken piety, Josiah restored the Passover, celebrating it in a way that even David had not done. In all these things, there had been no king like Josiah. Nothing short of a complete and violent reformation would be sufficient. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3).
“Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of His great wrath, by which His anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked Him. And the Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there’” (2 Kings 23:26-27). But why? Was the reformation not complete? Didn’t he purify the worship of the temple? Didn’t he use lawful and legitimate means? Didn’t he condemn those who needed to be condemned and confess that which needed to be confessed? Why, then, does God send Judah away into exile in the days of Josiah’s sons?
Josiah had done what was right and good and holy. The Lord praised Josiah for his zeal, and the punishment was delayed past his days (2 Chronicles 34:28). Yet it was not the Lord’s will that this reformation should endure. “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Josiah had done what needed to be done, but Manasseh his grandfather brought the inescapable judgment. A perfect reformation means nothing if we still walk in sin.
This, then, is our instruction as we remember our own Reformation. The Reformation has not persisted except by the will of God. There have been other reformers whose work made only a small impact. Their work was not in vain nor was it useless. God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God will never abandon His Church, and 7,000 have not yet bowed the knee to Baal, but Israel also had to be sent away into exile. Only by His will do we have the blessings which we enjoy, and not from ourselves.
And will we call ourselves the sons of the Reformation while walking in darkness? Will we boast in a purified liturgy while neglecting the weightier matters of the law? Will we believe, teach, and confess the orthodox faith while setting our minds on the things of man? Will we reject and condemn all of the heresies which fight against this faith while we have not love? “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-6)!
My brothers, these things ought not to be so. I, too, give thanks for the many blessings which the Lord has shown to His Church through the Reformation. But if we want to walk in the footsteps of men like Martin Luther, let us also imitate their faith. Luther himself expressed a desire on more than one occasion that nearly all of his works should perish in a fire. I do not think that he was exaggerating. He did not want his writings to become the very thing he fought against. Luther is frequently depicted pointing to the Word of God; may we do the same!
Let us give thanks to God that this Reformation has endured according to His holy will. Let us give thanks to God for men like Luther and the other reformers, for God produced a mighty work through their labors. Let us also give thanks to God for the good confession which they made and which we now also make our own. But let us remember to imitate their faith and piety, exalting the Word of God above all else, no matter what the cost.