First Prophets, Then Reformers

Sons and Daughters of the Reformation:

It was exactly 437 years ago that a young man stood near a church with a hammer in one hand, a parchment in the other, and it nail in his pocket. If we are to sense something of the vast significance of Martin Luther’s act we must look at more than the nail, the parchment, the hammer, and the north door of that castle church in Wittenberg. For that church and thousands like it paint a picture for us of the kind of world in which the Reformers lived.

It was a world which lived in the grasp of the cathedral and those who administered it. It was a time in which the church gave birth to society and nurtured it. The cathedral was as a colossus and all paid their tribute to the pope, his court and his representatives. This was as true of the poof peasant as it was of the rich ruler. Whatever men did was of interest to the church. Whether it was the universal pursuit of pleasure or the inspired ideal of an or the priestly service of love—all had to deal with the church, the cathedral and those who sat in their confessionals, prayed before their altars, and doled out the sacraments in the name of Christ. For the church of Rome had erected a vast structure which covered all of life. And Rome ruled with the power of man, money, and brains. It was such a structure of society, as seemingly indestructible as the vast, vaulted cathedrals which were its symbols, that our Reformers caused by their lives and their teachings to dissolve.

Martin Luther struck a first blow when he posted his theses on that north door. What he did was a very routine matter. After all, that north door of the castle church at Wittenberg was the bulletin board of the university. And the nailing of those 95 propositions was routine procedure for the usual Friday debate. Yet we know that the monk with that hammer was the world’s greatest knocker. For the truths of confessed in those theses spread, said Nyconius, “as if angels had been the messengers. No man will believe what talk they made.” Three years later this same man stood beside a bonfire and defied the pope, who was as god on earth, as he burned the papal bull of Leo X. What was it that made such action possible?

We ask the same bewildering question when we look at Huldreich Zwingli. He was not an extraordinary man. All he did was preach. And yet in his town at Einsiedelen unheard of things happened. The Lenten fast, a practice with more than 1000 years of precedent, was broken. Celibate priests and nuns broke their ill-taken vows and married. Fees for baptisms and burials, long established to increase the bank balances or the papal court in Rome, were abolished. Utterly impossible things happened and the chimera of the unattainable became crystal dear as they were achieved under the influence or Zwingli. What was it that enabled Zwingli to effect such matters?

The same question persists as we think of Calvin and Geneva. He didn’t want to be a Reformer. To change life at its very root was not his chosen purpose in life. In fact he was on his way to Strassburg and a secluded life or writing when he was accosted by Farel in July, 1536. Under the fiery imprecations of this man of God Calvin stayed on at that beautiful city on the south shores of Lake Geneva. But he didn’t stay to reform, nor did he consider himself a leader. He began by giving lectures on the Bible, and about a year passed before he became one of Geneva’s preachers. What happened in that city at the crossroads is a matter of record, written clear and clean for all to read. Out or the amorphous mass of indolence grew a model city of peace, order, and godliness. Again we ask, how come?

What was it about Luther, Zwingli and Calvin which broke through the social straight jacket woven by the medieval hierarchy? What made them Reformers? The answer is found in my theme for this Reformation Day address. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin were Reformers because they were first prophets or the Lord. Herein lies the secret of their power, the key to their genius. They were first prophets and then Reformers. If we are going to sense something of their lasting significance, if we are to understand their message to us as their spiritual children, we’ll have to ask ourselves, “What is a prophet?”

What is a Prophet?

Some tell us that a prophet is a seer. Peering into the shapeless mists of the future, the seer makes it clear outline of things to come. The prophet becomes a predictor with a percentage of predictions fulfilled far higher than the famous news analyst, Drew Pearson. The more of the future he sees the greater the seer is held to be. The better the prophet the more he predicts. But this is not necessarily true, and is not what I mean when I speak of a prophet. True, a prophet may be a seer, but a seer need not be a prophet, nor need a prophet be a predictor.

Perhaps you remember the story of Jesus and the question of paying the temple tax. It is found in Matthew 17:21ff. and clearly details what I have in mind. Jesus tells Peter to go to the shore of the sea of Galilee, to throw in his line, and in the mouth of the fish he catches he will find a shekel or stater. In predicting the discovery of this coin the fish’s mouth, Jesus the prophet was acting as seer. But we see Jesus doing more than mere prediction. He proceeds lo interpret this event. He tells His disciples that only strangers pay the temple tax and that sons are free. But, Jesus says, he and Peter will pay the temple tax lest he cause others to stumble. Here Jesus acts as a genuine prophet. He puts the event of the fish and the fisherman, the shekel and the tax payment in the light or his Word. In so doing he acts as prophet. The prophet places life, past, present and future in the light of the Word so that life is illumined and warmed by the God of the Word.



Others tell us that a prophet is a real speech-maker, an orator who speaks eloquently about holy things. He is thought of as a man with a special angle, a unique principle, a set of special ideas; the man on a soap box.

According to this view the prophet is a pusher, a plugger for his own principle. He’s the person who has a real program worked out, and now tries to influence the masses to accept his program. He knows the latest Dale Carnegie methods of winning friends and influencing people. Enthusiastic for his idea, principle, or program, he uses to communicate his enthusiasm to others.

But such a person isn’t necessarily a prophet. What we said may apply to a prophet. He may be an orator, a compelling speaker with a detailed program. But a prophet need not have such it program which he has argued out from some set of abstract principles. For this implies a measure or scientific awareness, a measure of technical know-how which belongs to the initiated. But a prophet need not be such it man of science.

When I speak about a prophet refer to a person who has been seized by the Word of God. A prophet is person upon whom God has laid his hand. God reaches down into the university classroom of Wittenburg and takes hold of a young monk named Luther. He visits the Sorborne in Paris and seizes another youth called Calvin. Or he goes to the priesthood in a Swiss canton and takes hold of a Zwingli. He requisitions them with his Word. God speaks and these men become captives of Christ and in their new captivity enjoy genuine freedom. God can take hold of anyone. He can go to a school of priests and seize a Jeremiah. Or he can go to a farm and lay hold of an Amos. He can go to a fishing business and take hold of James or John. Or he can visit a bureau of internal revenue and make a prophet out of a tax collector. A prophet is simply a person seized by the Word of the speaking God.

Once seized by the Word of God he remains sensitive to this Word. There is a sensitive rapport between the prophet’s ear and the Lord’s voice. The word captures him and now he makes the word his meat and drink night and day. The Word illumines life and sets it in the framework of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Life is seen in its detailed perspective as belonging to the Lord of Lord’s and King of Kings. And as the Word illumines all or life, it also consumes the decay of sin as it warms and enlivens those who believe. Light burns in order to heal. Just like the light of an x-ray burns away the sick cells of cancer as it restores other tissue to health, so the light of God’s Word burns to bless and heal our sinful world.

And so the prophet seized by the light of life in his word goes out to illumine and to warm the life of all those with whom he comes into contact. This kind of person stands next to his fellow men and the light and warming power of the Word begins to radiate from his life. The prophet is not some ecstatic eccentric who stands aloof from life. Nor is he a bigoted Pharisee who stands in self-exaltation as self-appointed judge of others. But the prophet is the neighbor, the man next to me, whom God sets afire by seizing him with the Word. In the light and warmth of a life born through the means of the Word of God the prophet lives out the Word of God as he lives in the God of the Word.

The Reformation Prophets – Luther

The Reformers were such prophets. The Lord took hold of Luther. Really the Reformation did not begin on October 31, 1517, when Martin the monk nailed his theses on the bulletin board of the University Church. It started before in a small tower room in a black cloister of Wittenberg. A young monk was searching for a merciful God. Luther sought him while he recited his “Our Father,” while he sobbed his “Hail Marys,” while he climbed the Scala Sancta, that is, Pilate’s staircase. He sought a God of Love while the accuser’s cry echoed in his soul—“Your sin—your sin—your sin.” While he was so wrestling on the edge of a great abyss, God seized that monk in his cloistered cell and made him a prophet. While reading Paul’s letter to the Roman church, the words of Habbakuk, quoLed by Paul, “The righteous shall live by faith,” leaped up from the page and took hold of his life. So the Lord seized him and Luther himself wrote, “I felt myself new-born and in Paradise.” This text of Paul became for Luther the very gates of heaven. He was seized by the Word!

And so captured by the Word he radiated its light and redeeming warmth. He lived out of the Word. Not only did he live according to the Scriptures as the sole principle or canon of authority. He lived out of it. He drew from its storehouse the grace, love, power, and presence of God. He lived according to the Word, but more important still, he lived out of this Word. It became his food and drink; the air he breathed; and the life he lived. He knew that this Word was the one and only bond between his life and the Christ whose life he needed.

For Luther the relation between Jesus Christ and the sinner was one of personal love. Love is fellowship, the bond created by self-impartation, the reaching hand across a chasm of separation, and the uniting of lover to the loved and the loved to the lover. This bond is the Word. It is the Word which carries the lover across a chasm of separation and joins together the lover and the loved. For the Word is not some static, timeless, lifeless set of principles, but the Word is the living speech of the Lover.

So we have experienced it in our lives which God has framed in the covenant of grace. At the heart of this covenant is the Word, a vital speech. Once long ago he came to us, to each one of us personally within the body of Christ, and said “I am thy God.” A Word o[ promise, a Word of life, yes more it was God himself coming to each one or us, calling us by name, speaking to us and saying “You are my son or daughter.” This Word echoed and re-echoed in our lives. We heard it in our churches, in our catechism classes, in our Sunday Schools, in our homes, in our Christian Schools. It was the Word of God, yes it was the Speaking God who in his boundless and measureless mercy kept saying “I am thy God.” And then one day we too spoke, and in our speech we came to this covenant God. We spoke and said “I am thy child thou art my God.” God came to us at our baptism and we came to God in our public profession. Now we live together as we speak together, and live out of each other’s word.

Luther too lived out of the Word though he may not have articulated a doctrine or the covenant to give it such simple and exalted expression. Luther was seized by the God of the Word by means of the Word of God. Yes, he put it so strongly once that he said: “Christ is not profitable for one and one cannot enjoy him except when Cod brings him the Word so that you can hear and know him.” Luther was so impressed with this fact that he said : “If Christ had died a thousand times it would be nought if the Word did not come and impart it to me so the bridge between Calvary and Wittenberg, the bond between the Savior and the sinner was the Word. It is the Word which makes the past present and the absent Christ a present Savior. That is why Luther lived am of the Word, for the Word was the ever present and ever living Christ.

At this point particularly Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the others broke with the Roman Catholic Church. According to Rome the grace and salvation of Christ came to the sinner via the sacraments as administered by the Church. Each one of the seven sacraments imparts a special type of grace uniquely applicable to the need of the person receiving the sacrament. It is the sacrament, the altar, which occupies the central plate in Roman Catholic thinking. But the prophetic Reformers broke through this rigid sacramentalism and placed the Word at the heart of Christianity.

Now we understand why l can speak of the Word as seizing, as illumining and as warming a person. It is the Speaking Savior who lays his hand upon the prophet and imparts himself as he gives the Word. Thus the Word lights lip a liI’ li fe for it is the Light of Life himself which comes in the Word. And so the Word radiates its healing, redeeming rays for the Savior comes to redeem and reconsecrate the lost.

Luther the prophet carried this Word out into lire and became Luther the Reformer. He carried it into the public debate at a University and set the world on fire. He brought it to the church, and made of an institution which crassly guaranteed “salvation” a body of Christ which lived in him; and he transformed a college of priests into a congregation of believers. He carried the Word out into life and life began to shine with dignity and destiny. For Luther carried it to the present, to the scullery maid. He saw their tasks as vocations to be accepted as from the hand of God himself. Thus the prophet. touches life with the Word, and life is refashioned, reshaped, reformed according to the Creator’s plan, purpose find destiny. Luther was first a prophet, then a Reformer.

The Reformation Prophets Calvin

This very thing applies to Calvin, our favorite Reformer. He too lived out of the Word. For he was a prophet, seized by the Word. Then in humble obedience he carried this Word into the marketplace of the world. There the Word illumined and warmed life unto the praise of God’s grace.

Calvin was first and foremost a preacher. He was a man of the Word. He preached as he wrote his pastoral letters, a preaching which throbbed with the life of the Spirit. He preached when as a theologian he constructed a lecture. He preached when he ascended the pulpit ill the cathedral of St. Pierre. Those who think of Calvin as an austere and abstract theologian or as an autocratic despot of the city of Geneva have never known this man of God.

He was a real prophet, seized by the Word of God and dedicated to the God of the Word.

Calvin carried the Word with him to his desk when he sat down to write those warm, heart-lifting, tear-stained letters to prince and peasant. Just read them and you will find yourself breathing the air of Scripture. He took the Word with him into the cathedral of St. Pierre and substituted the sermon for the sacrament. One of the greatest treasures he left us are his expositions of the Word. Calvin carried the Word into the lecture room and his theologic;d writings be called biblical theology in the highest and best sense of that term. It makes very little difference to which book of the Institutes you turn you will there live in the atmosphere of the Word. He tells us himself that the Institutes were only to serve as an introductory guide to find one’s way in to the Word of God. More than once or twice you read such ideas as this: “We should feel no reluctance to submit our understanding to the infinite wisdom of God, so far as to acquiesce in its many mysteries. To be ignorant of things which it is neither possible nor lawful to know, it is to be learned; an eagerness to know them is a species of madness” (III. 23, 8) . So we hear the voice of the prophet and the light of God’s Word illumines the classroom of the University of Geneva and makes it a model for the world. And he carried the Word into the marketplace, to the city council, and out into the world. For him there was no area reserved for men alone; all belonged to the God of the Word. As such it needed the light and warmth or the Word. This Calvin brought. Yes he carried it right into the throne room of the monarch. We hear the prophet Calvin speak to King Francis and say: “This consideration constitutes true royalty to acknowledge yourself in the government of your Kingdom to be minister of God. For where the Glory of God is not made the end of the government it is not a legitimate sovereignty, but a usurpation. And he is deceived who expects lasting prosperity in that Kingdom which is not ruled by the scepter or God, that is, his holy Word for that heavenly oracle cannot fail, which declares that ‘where there is no vision the people perish.’” Such words are as true for our country as they were for France.

Calvin’s contemporaries hurt him, maligned him, scorned him, even exiled him, but…and this is his glory…they could not silence him. He like Luther, Zwingli, Bela, Knox and countless others were first prophets and then Reformers.

Reformation Prophets – Today!

And this we must remember today. We are their sons, their daughters their children. As their children we are first of all prophets. This is our nature. This is what God’s Spirit makes us. Our confession tells us this very plainly in Lord’s Day XII, Question and Answer 32**—God took hold of us by means of the Word, Because of this blessed fact of grace I call all of you to live what you are! Live as Word-carriers, as prophets like those Reformers who bore us in their spiritual loins. This is the summons of this day which I want to bind upon you hearts, upon everyone.

Radiate the light and warmth of this Word in this our city. Let doctors do it in their hospitals, lawyers in their courtrooms, teachers in their classrooms, tradesmen in their trades! He what God made you Prophets of the Lord! Go out to light up this dark and somber world with the light or life. Let his healing rays bless and heal as they burn away the sick cells of sill from the body or our society. There is no precinct which does not need this Word. There is no sector or this community which can do without the light and warmth of this Word. After all, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein.” The God of the Word is not satisfied with the piety of the monk in his monastery, nor with that of the nun in her convent, nor with that or the preacher in his pulpit. God wants the world to be redeemed from Satan’s grasp. And he comes to claim it for himself as he rides upon the wings of the Word. He made us prophets to carry his Word to his world.

This is our nature! This is our task! To be sons and daughters of the Reformers is both a gift and a task. Let us rejoice then to first gather about his Word so that we may, come to see its light for life. Let professional men seek alit other professional men even beyond the confines of denominational lines as they gather to listen to the Word. Let tradesmen seek out tradesmen and as prophets listen to the speaking Savior, as this Lord moves on to resolve the tensions ill their trades. Let Christian parent seek out Christian parent that they may fecd the home and school with the Word, a diet sweeter than the honey of the honeycomb. This is our first great need today. We must take time to listen, to listen humbly, attentively, and searchingly. This is the beginning of our prophetic task.

Luther tells us that he spent one hour with the Word of God each day. This was his way of beginning his day of work. And when he had a particular heavy day of work, he got up two hours earlier to spend these hours with the God of the Word as he meditated upon the Word of his God. Luther not only memorized Psalm 1, but he lived it. For his delight was in the law of God and on his law he meditated day and night. May we his sons and daughters have the humble devotion to do the same.

Having so begun we can then carry this Word out into the marketplaces or our world. We will radiate the light and warmth of this Word, the Word of Christ who moves on with his Word to save the world he died for on the cross. Yes, I know full well that our post-Christian world does not want this Word, no more than the world of Calvin and Luther wanted it. But so much the more it needed the Word. We must move out into this world of God with the Word of God to light it up and warm it with the healing rays of divine grace and truth. For the prophet loves his neighbor as himself; he loves the neighbor whose sins he hates as intensively as he loves the person of the neighbor. Thus we must redeem the times for the days are evil.

“But,” you ask, “what will be the final issue of such prophetic action?” Will our world reform now as it did in the days or the Reformers? Call the modern prophet be a reformer? I cannot guarantee results in terms of an increasing Christianization of our communities. What will happen if we live like prophets, I cannot say. I cannot say because we’ve never realIy lived that way. And I say this to our shame, yours and mine. But one thing I do know. If we live out of the Word, draw from its treasures, radiate its light and warmth, we’ll be working with Christ and his is the victory. As Christ our chid prophet calls us to be prophets, I call you to join me in this prayer:

Lord speak to me that I may speak

In living echoes of thy tone:

As thou hast taught, so let me teach,

Thy erring world so lost and lone.

O teach me Lord, that I may teach

The precious things thou dost impart;

And wing our words that they reach,

The hidden depths of this world’s heart.

This is the prophet’s prayer…The prayer of him who is first prophet then a Reformer!

* Address delivered at Grand Rapids, Reformation Day 1954. ** “But why are you called a Christian? Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus a partaker of His anointing, that I may confess His name, present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him, and with a free and good conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with Him eternally over all creatures.” – Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12, Question and Answer 32.