Highlights from a Reformation tour, October 2017
From four eastern states of Australia, 26 people – previously strangers to one another – were thrown together in a bus to be the inaugural PCA Reformation Tour group. Three weeks of living, travelling and dining together meant wonderful, long-lasting friendships emerged. Stirring sights and life-changing encounters are briefly and inadequately summarised by the following five highlights.
1. Hearts were strangely warmed as we gathered in the town square of an historic German city, Worms. The late afternoon autumn sun provided majestic shadows from the huge castle church with its twin spires. There used to be an historic building right beside this church – now crumbled by war and weather. But still, there’s a beautiful garden … and the spot is clearly marked.
So we stood where Luther stood. Martin Luther was brought here in 1521 into the fearsome presence of the Emperor and before powerful and eloquent Catholic theologians of the day. They spread out all Luther’s books on a table in front of the court and demanded he recant. After asking for time to consider his position, Luther returned the next day and said: “I am bound by the Scriptures. My conscience is captive to the Word of God … I will not recant.” Yes, in Worms, our hearts were warmed as we paused to pray together, because we too loved Luther’s Reformation principle, Scripture alone.
2. We were thrilled to stay awhile in the beautiful Swiss city of Geneva, and to visit St Peter’s Cathedral. It was in this church, for a quarter of a century, that John Calvin captivated his congregation with his preaching – teaching that affected the whole city of Geneva. In front of others in the old town square that day, we were pleased to line up for a photo opportunity on the steps of Calvin’s church in Geneva, and to remember what Calvin stood for. Except for the façade, this building and the surrounding streets and alleyways are as they were in Calvin’s day and we imagined him bustling about each day from home, to church, to academy.
We stood beside a replica pulpit in St Peter’s where he convincingly preached the grace of God. His preaching actually covered many different things as he preached through the Bible, but his pulpit theme was clear: the grace of God in the Gospel of Christ. Where is salvation found? In Calvin’s day, salvation was offered by the priests and made available little-by-little through attendance on the work of the priesthood. It was commonly taught by the church that in taking the sacraments you are moving closer to salvation. Calvin’s preaching made it clear that we are made right with God because of the grace of God. We stood in Geneva where Calvin preached that justification was awarded by grace alone.
3. The third highlight was a lowlight. I was angry this day. Angry enough to weep. I refer to our visit to Rome and, in particular, to the Holy Steps (Scala Sancta). This is the very place Luther came in 1510 – he wanted to know what he had to do to receive God’s favour. Luther wasn’t convinced he had enough faith to be right with God. And whatever faith he had, he needed some good works to get God’s attention. So, the church sent him to Rome to run some errands and, during this visit, he did what thousands of other pilgrims were doing: crawling on his knees up the Holy Steps, repeating the Lord’s Prayer on each one. Never mind arthritic pain on hard marble steps … just do the work … ’til you reach the top. Of course, it didn’t help him one bit – it only made Luther more anxious.
We peered in and saw a dozen or so people on their knees. What these pilgrims needed to hear was that the grace of Christ is extended to us without works of any kind, even religious works, even works of prayer! How does the grace of God reach us? What do you have to do to get God’s attention? Say prayers on every step? No, by faith alone in Christ alone. I felt sorrowful anger because this is such a popular Roman tourist spot … and because people do not know that God’s grace reaches us and fills us through faith alone.
4. I was happy in bonnie Scotland, and my favourite city, St Andrews. Here, I rejoiced – and thought of the bold Scottish reformer John Knox, who preached inside the Archbishop’s Castle at St Andrews. We spent a wonderful day exploring the ruins and tunnels of the castle and then, gazing out over those threatening waters of the ocean, to imagine the terrible hardship these reformers faced.
While he was preaching to Protestant refugees barricaded in this castle, the French attacked and captured them, and put them all to sea. The French, being Catholic, were dependent on approaching God through Mary and the saints. So it’s no surprise that one
day the master of Knox’s ship insisted that all galley slaves kiss a carved image of the Virgin Mary and pray for safe keeping in the storm. When it came to his turn, Knox refused, picked up the idol and threw it out to sea saying: “Let Our Lady now save herself. Let her learn to swim!”
Knox knew how to approach God in prayer; he wrote a wonderful book on the subject that is still readable today. We don’t come closer to God through Mary or the saints or the apostles or prophets or getting other famous Christians to pray for us, but we can go straight to God, by-passing priests, skipping Mary. God’s blessing is found in Christ alone.
5. The beautiful German city of Wittenberg is where Martin Luther lived for 35 years, raised his family and taught as a professor of theology at the university. Famously, 500 years ago, he had had enough of the greed of church leaders accumulating wealth and glory to themselves at the expense of the poor.
We were moved to stand at the door of the castle church where Luther first publically protested against the church’s errors. Luther exclaimed: “Why buy an Indulgence and make St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican look more glorious? Why pay for a certificate that makes the Pope look glorious? Where is true treasure to be found?” Luther had had enough of men of the church gathering gold to itself, so on October 1517 he hammered his 95 theses to the door of the Castle church. No. 62 says: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” We chorused together that it’s all for the Glory of God Alone.
Finally, we joined the annual conference of the World Reformed Fellowship in Wittenberg. We listened to Don Carson speaking on Sola Scriptura and Mike Horton on Justification. We had dinner with world leaders, met wonderful people and witnessed the installation of the new International Director of WRF, Rev. Dr Davi Gomes of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil. Being welcomed to take part in the WRF conference was a reminder that the Presbyterian Church of Australia has a supportive and yet vital role to play in the world reformed faith.
John P Wilson is Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.