This post was originally published on The Gospel Coalition
Our neighbor looked more than a bit puzzled at my daughter’s answer.
“I bet you’re looking forward to October 31, aren’t you?” she asked. My precocious 12-year-old didn’t bat an eyelash: “Of course. We love Reformation Day. We get to eat candy, sing hymns, and talk about Martin Luther.”
Okay, I’ll admit that vignette sounds a bit geeky in a theology nerd sort of way, as if I’m trying to raise Puritan children in an internet age. I’m not—at least not entirely (we enjoy our electricity). And this is not another article telling you how to lay an evangelical template over Halloween that involves dressing your kids as pint-sized popes and reformers.
Let’s call it supplementary education in the Ephesians 6:4 vein.
During October we take a couple of nights each week in family worship to study the major figures and core issues of the Reformation. We’ve looked at the lives of John Calvin and John Knox, the burr in Martin Luther’s saddle that drove him to nail his 95 theses, the five solas of the Reformation, even why I believe Baptists are heirs of the Reformation (and why some might beg to differ).
Previously I offered seven reasons to teach our children church history, but here are five reasons we should teach them specifically about the Reformation.
1. I want them to know about God’s faithfulness to his church.
We are not the first to preach the gospel and certainly not the first to follow Christ. We stand on the shoulders of other godly men and women. I want my kids to know the stories of courageous leaders such as Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli who risked life and limb to recover a gospel submerged beneath layers of religious superstition, false doctrine, and worldly living.
And, like the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11, the reformers and their heirs (including us) bear witness to God’s faithfulness to honor his Word and build his church. God was the hero of the Reformation, and it was one of the most important events in human history.
2. I want them to know reformation must continue.
I want my kids to know the reality of semper reformanda—always reforming according to Scripture. The Protestant Reformation refers to a particular historical movement. Yet the work of reformation will never be complete—neither in us nor in the church—until Jesus returns. We must keep asking the question “Is it biblical?” of everything we do in the church, asserting and reasserting the Reformation’s formal principle of sola Scriptura.
Every generation must fight for the Bible. My own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), dramatically illustrates this need. Beginning shortly after the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the 1920s, SBC seminaries drifted toward theological liberalism. By the 1960s the gospel, once assumed in the denomination, was lost among many of its leaders. In the 1980s God began a reformation often called the “conservative resurgence.” The authority and inerrancy of Scripture again became a secure foundation under our house.
The Bible and its gospel doctrines could again be eclipsed in evangelical churches. We’ve seen popular teachers who style themselves as evangelicals deny the Bible as the authoritative foundation for the church. We’ve seen them reject doctrines like original sin and eternal hell.
Every generation must battle for the Bible. Reformation continues, and I want my kids thinking about that now.
3. I want them to know defending the Bible is dangerous, but worth the risk.
The reformers and their theological heirs, the oft-lampooned Puritans, were well acquainted with the cost of discipleship. Luther hid from authorities for several years under threat of arrest and certain death. Calvin used fictitious names as he fled in exile across Europe from government officials. John Bunyan spent 12 years in jail, and Jonathan Edwards was fired from his church. Suffering isn’t unusual; it’s the calling of every Christian. Not since the days of Paul has there been a more compelling picture of suffering in the cause of truth than the leading exponents of the Reformation.
Yes, my kids need to know defending the Bible will cause them to clash with a culture that despises it, but it may also bring them into collision with many within the church. I want them to know that to be a Christian is to be a revolutionary, that good people disagree at key points, and that issues such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper—which many evangelicals regard as matters indifferent—are anything but matters indifferent. The Reformers certainly didn’t think so, and many of my Baptist forebears paid for dissenting opinions with their lives.
4. I want them to know God does extraordinary things through ordinary people.
Luther was a monk, Calvin a pastor, Bunyan a pot-fixer, and Carey a shoemaker. They were ordinary men from unimpressive backgrounds. And yet it pleased God to turn the world upside down through their teaching and suffering, just as he did through some ordinary fishermen in the first century.
Though my pride doesn’t like to admit it (we’re often sure our kids are the next Willie Mays or Ronald Reagan), they will probably become ordinary grown-ups just like their dad. An important Reformation teaching is the equality of all vocations. Pastor, programmer, professor, and plumber all are called to labor for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). His glory often shines brightest in the mundane (1 Cor. 1:26–29).
5. I want them to know the gospel is everything.
The Reformation boils down to a recovery of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We are justified by faith in the substitutionary death of Christ. That’s the gospel. Remove it and you derail the engine that propels the train of eternal salvation. Remove it and you leave the body of Christ without a beating heart. Remove it and the Christian faith evaporates like a summer mist. The gospel was the battleground of the Reformation. No wonder the seed of the serpent attacks it in every generation.
I want my children to know that without the gospel, they cannot make sense of life in a fallen world. Without the gospel, there’s no hope in this life or the next, no real purpose to our days and seasons. Calvin said justification is the hinge on which the door of salvation swings. I want them to keep a close watch on that door.
How We Do It
There’s no single correct way to do this, but here are some things our family has done:
- Read biographies of the major reformers: Luther, Calvin, Knox—even Augustine as a forerunner to the Reformation, or Edwards and Bunyan as its heirs.
- Study the five solas, covering one per week. We’ve helped our kids define them and then looked at pertinent Scripture passages that teach sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria, in that order.
- Study the book of Romans or Galatians. Focus on sin, grace, and justification by faith. We’ve covered pertinent parts of Romans and read Galatians in its entirety.
- Teach hymns that articulate the doctrines of grace. “A Mighty Fortress,” “And Can It Be,” and dozens similar offer opportunities to tell the writers’ stories or discuss the songs’ theology.
- Attend a Reformation party for children or a Reformation Day service at a local church.
- If you haven’t begun catechizing your children, this month is a good time to start. The various strands of the Reformation tradition have produced useful catechisms to fill little hearts and minds with the architecture of biblical truth, one question at a time.
Finally, there are many solid resources to help families in this endeavor. Below are a few titles our family has used:
- Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World by Paul L. Maier. Can be read to your family in one or two sittings and provides a lively account of the monk with whom it all began.
- Christian Biographies for Young Readers by Simonetta Carr. This series includes short biographies on Augustine, John Calvin, John Knox, and Jonathan Edwards, among others.
- Courage and Conviction: Chronicles of the Reformation Church by Brandon and Wendy Withrow. This is the third volume in a church history series for children titled History Lives.
- Reformation Heroes by Diane Kleyn and Joel Beeke. Provides meaty overview chapters of all the major figures of the Reformation.
- Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism by Starr Meade. A year-long, day-by-day study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I also heartily commend the New City Catechism.