As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Rev. Noble McNeely, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. This article also featured in the Belfast Telegraph.
In April 2017 I participated in a communion service in the Castle Church, Wittenberg, sitting near to a very significant doorway. It was there that the young monk Martin Luther pinned his famous 95 theses.
An initiative that historians may dispute but a story that has had enormous impact on the last 500 years of the Church. To have had the opportunity to visit the town where the Reformation had its beginnings, and to feel the sense of history, was surreal.
The quincentenary of the Reformation is catching the imagination of the well-informed, but for most people it means very little. It does, though, I believe, offer an opportunity for reformed churches to promote their message and convey the important tenets of the faith.
The spark which ignited the Reformation was Luther experiencing a lightning bolt of inspiration. He realised that personal salvation is a gift which God gives us; Christ's righteousness is given to us when we have faith in Him: "The righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17).
The memorable expression of his momentous discovery is found in The Heidelberg Disputation when he wrote: "The law says, 'Do this,' and it is never done. Grace says, 'Believe in this,' and everything is already done." Luther recognised that spending hours in the confessional and trying to achieve approval from God through good works was futile. The gospel of the scriptures was that Jesus Christ died and rose again, taking God's wrath upon himself and setting us free. The gospel announces through Christ's death and resurrection, we are justified by grace through faith, not by what we do, or even by who we are, but by what Christ has done and who He is.
It is to this Reformation tenet that the Presbyterian Church witnesses in the 21st century. It is this conviction that continues to motivate and inspire the Church to faithful missional service and is central to all the work of the General Assembly and local congregations.
The Presbyterian Church may have become more diverse in its congregational life but Luther's reformation principles of faith alone through Christ alone continues to hold it together in unity.
The other momentous influence of the Reformation was the emphasis on the scriptures. Sola Scriptura, 'Scripture alone', was one of the key mantras of the Reformation. The medieval Church held the position that truth and practise of the faith were contained in the written books of The Bible and in unwritten traditions. Luther and the subsequent reformers went back to The Bible and emphasised that scripture alone is our supreme authority.
The preaching of God's Word became central to the worship of the reformers and translation from the original languages subsequently led to various translations of the scriptures.
The Bible, resulting from the advances in printing, was being read by an increasing number of people. Luther said that merely reading the Word "is not as fruitful and powerful as it is through a public preacher whom God has ordained to say and preach".
The preaching of the Word remains fundamental to the worship of Presbyterians and the sermon continues to be the central element to all services of worship.
Today's Church is probably giving more opportunities to its members to be trained in preaching and there is a growing interest in Bible study and courses in Biblical theology.
The 16th century may have been the turning point for the European Church, and subsequent centuries recorded turbulent times and many atrocities. The Reformation, however, has not been restricted to a moment in history but the true reformation of the Church is the continuing nature of reform. The Church in obedience to the Holy Spirit must be a continually reforming Church; reformed and constantly being reformed.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has been experiencing change, and like many western Churches membership has been reducing. Old traditions have been declining, Sunday worship has been diversifying, new approaches have been introduced and change has been painful in some situations.
Society is rapidly changing and creating new challenges in the public square for the church in social, ethical and community issues. The Church, though, has to keep moving forward and when we discern the Spirit in the changes we recognise reform. The lesson we learn from the Reformation is that when the Church is faithful to the gospel and the counsel of the scripture, transformation is inevitable.