Thursday, October 31, 2013


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 Latin 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.

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 block for
planning the whole thing out and executing on it. How sad a course it
would be if we cooked up the whole thing out as we came of age and spent
the rest of our lives living out our boring and uncreative little

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).

October 31, 2013

More for Reformation Day from Desiring God:

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