The Reformation was not born on a particular day in a given month and year, It did not come into history as a finished act: it will not be completed until the end of time. It had its historical background and its crucial events, and has had a continuing influence.

The Reformation was not the millennium. Not everything done in its name can claim our wholehearted approval; it reflected the original sin of its chief proponents. Yet when it is viewed in its totality, and through the transformations to which it led and the continuing vitality and influence it has had, none can deny that the Reformation was the greatest movement in Christian history since the days of the apostles. Whatever its shortcomings, it bequeathed to all ages an imperishable heritage of which we need to be reminded again and again. It is true that this heritage has, at times, been squandered and impoverished by the unfaithfulness of Protestant churches to Reformation principles. Sometimes there has even been a repudiation of what the Reformation stood for. Yet this neither detracts from the heritage nor invalidates the principles undergirding it.

What, then, are the imperishable principles that were rediscovered in the Reformation and passed on to succeeding ages?

1. The uniqueness of the Bible, the Word of God, as the only rule of faith and practice. Church and tradition were subordinated to Scripture, which was looked upon as the court of final appeal for all questions. Moreover, the Bible could not be a useful criterion for men unless it was available to them in their own tongues. Thus the principle of translating the Word of God into the languages of the people has been a Reformation constant.

2. The justification of the believer by faith alone, without works or anything else. In one stroke this principle cut through all the accretions of the centuries: priestcraft, indulgences, penances, auricular confession, and the like. The Reformers enunciated afresh the biblical norm that men are justified by the merits of Christ through his vicarious atoning sacrifice. This justification is granted to the believer only by faith.

3. The universal priesthood of all believers. No man, hierarchy, or intermediary of any kind stands between the individual and Almighty God. This principle swept away, as Preserved Smith says, “the vast hierarchy of angels and canonized persons that made Catholicism quasi-polytheistic” and represented a return to pure monotheism.

4. Religious liberty. The Reformers insisted that human conscience can never be coerced, that a man has more than the right to religious toleration—he has the right to full liberty to embrace or to reject the Christian faith. And he must have this freedom of choice without being subjected to outside restraints, threats, inquisitions, or authorities. Today the Vatican Council is wrestling with the principle of religious liberty, one that the Roman Catholic Church has resisted for many centuries.

5. The strengthening of the state and its deliverance from subservience to Rome. It was in the name of this principle that post-Reformation developments reached the ideal of the separation of church and state. It has found its most extensive expression in America, where religious authority and political control have been divorced.

6. The ethical value of this life and the sanctity of daily labor and of marriage, children, and the home. This contravened the monastic ideal of celibacy, solitude, and mortification of the flesh. Preserved Smith wrote: “The man at the plough, the maid with the broom, said Luther, are doing God better service than does the praying, self-tormenting monk.”

7. The sanctity of human vocation, whether clerical or lay. Some men are called to mend shoes; others are called to preach and teach. One vocation is in itself no more spiritual than another, for all are sacred before God. Every man in his vocation belongs to the Lord God and must fulfill the obligations of his stewardship within the vocation to which he has been called.

8. The virtues of thrift and industry. Success and prosperity are not in themselves right or wrong. God has ordained thrift and industry, and any consequent success or prosperity must be used for the glory of God.

Some of these essential elements of the Reformation are discussed in the following essays.

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