Today is one of my favorite holidays, and I’m not talking about Halloween as I do not celebrate it. Rather, I am referring to Reformation Day—a day in which we celebrate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and its resurrection of the truth that “the just shall live by faith.”
On this day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famed Ninety-five Thesis to the door of All Saints’ Church in the city of Wittenberg, Germany, exposing Roman Catholic abuses and starting a brush fire that would change the world momentously.
The theological implications that followed Luther’s actions on that day are vast and dear to my heart as well as to the heart of anyone who holds a high view of God’s grace and his salvation of sinners. However, this being a primarily political blog, I will spare you that part of the story. Instead, I would urge each of us to take note of the Protestant Reformation’s influence on liberty and modern society as we know it.
I would argue that the modern material comforts we enjoy (which have come by way of economic freedom and innovation) and the very freedom one enjoys as part of a Western democracy owe a massive debt to the work of God in the lives of the protestant reformers.
Our modern beliefs in freedom of conscience, limited government, separation of Church and State, and countless other convictions we now hold dear are actually products of Reformation thought. This is not to say that Luther and the other Reformers were classical liberals, reveling in capitalism, espousing unadulterated political liberty for the individual, or demanding republicanism as we now know it. But I would argue that each of these things came as products of the revolutionary reformation Luther began.
Divorcing society from the Roman Catholic church-state itself allowed for a breakdown in hierarchical structure in society and allowed for democratization in the public square. Coupled with this hierarchal breakdown, the Reformation’s emphasis on Man’s depravity led our Founder’s to be weary of powerful, centralized government and adopt a system of checks and balances.
Moreover, the Reformation belief that faith came not through the Church, but rather, through the work of the Triune God in the heart of the individual paved way for our modern views regarding freedom of conscience. The Reformers realized that the law cannot make converts; God himself is the only agent who can mold men’s hearts.
The list of Reformation influence could go on and on. However, my intent is not to systematically trace Protestantism’s effects on our modern liberties. Rather, I would like us all to give thanks on this day to God for what he has given us through his work in the hearts of the Protestant Reformers by the sovereignty of His hand.
However, if you are interested in the effects of the Reformation on Western Society and classical liberalism in particular, I could not more highly recommend the first essay contained in John W. Robbin’s Freedom and Capitalism. The book itself is well worth reading and will profit all—Christian or not.
In honor of Reformation Day, I will leave you with a passage on civil government from Martin Luther’s own hand. In it we see the very revolutionary nature of his thought, which was grounded in Scripture but lost for centuries on a massive scale. Read, reflect, and see how we can trace these ideas to those of our Founding and how we should apply them today.
“Certainly it is true that Christians, so far as they themselves are concerned, are subject neither to law nor sword, and have need of neither. But take heed and first fill the world with real Christians before you attempt to rule it in a Christian and evangelical manner. This you will never accomplish; for the world and the masses are and always will be unchristian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name. Christians are few and far between (as the saying is). Therefore, it is out of the question that there should be a common Christian government over the whole world, or indeed over a single country or any considerable body of people, for the wicked always outnumber the good. Hence, a man who would venture to govern an entire country or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should put together in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep, and let them mingle freely with one another, saying, ‘Help yourselves, and be good and peaceful toward one another. The fold is open, there is plenty of food. You need have no fear of dogs and clubs.’ The sheep would doubtless keep the peace and allow themselves to be fed and governed peacefully, but they would not live long, nor would one beast survive another.
For this reason one must carefully distinguish between these two governments. Both must be permitted to remain; the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds.” –Martin Luther