The following blog is the text of a Public Lecture delivered at Covenant Reformed Church on October 29, 2017, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
PowerPoint Slides – Why the Reformation Still Matters
Video available here
Why the Reformation Still Matters
© Jared Hiebert 2017
On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk in a small German province far from Rome, walked up to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, Germany and without drama or fanfare nailed his 95 Theses to it. Formally known as the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” Martin Luther’s intention was simply articulated at the head of his document — “Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”
A brief word is necessary on why Luther was so concerned about indulgences. The pope had enlisted the help of the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel who sold indulgences in Luther’s area. Luther understood indulgences to be OK if they were used to show genuine penitence for sin, as it demonstrates a change of heart and is a representation of how acutely you feel the guilt of sin. But, this was not what Tetzel was doing. He was rather presenting indulgences as that which could ‘buy God’s silence’; no penitence or change of heart was necessary. Thus the indulgence was good for forgiveness ex opere operato – from the work done. Tetzel was not permitted to sell indulgences in Luther’s territory, but his parishioners were buying them in a nearby area. This impacts Luther significantly because he has a pastoral responsibility toward these people. Imagine his crisis: during the years previous as he lectured on the Psalms and Romans, and as he preached, and reflected on the sacraments, he has been his theological thought has been developing along very different lines than the current Catholic milieu. Then along comes this sleazy salesman telling people his indulgences can square away all of their problems – if they were only to put a coin in his coffer. Luther’s issue is not with indulgences, per se, but in the way he feels they cheapen the grace of God.
It is important to understand that in nailing his theses to the door of the Church, Luther was not doing anything particularly radical. It was like putting up a flyer. It was an invitation to a public disputation, the likes of which were normal practice at the university in which he was a Lecturer in Theology. As one church historian remarks, Luther doesn’t want to drive a nail in the Catholic church and doesn’t envisage splitting the church down the middle. He is almost overstating the case, almost for a laugh. He is not trying to insult the Pope, but to demonstrate how absurd the claims are: he is expecting the church to swing in behind him.
Most of the “95 Theses”, as they quickly came to be known, are rather unspectacular. But as a whole, they make two major points. First, if the pope truly has such control over purgatory and can reduce the length of time there through indulgences, then why doesn’t he just release everyone from the wretched place? Second and more importantly for Luther, remorse for sins is not a bad thing, and one should not seek to escape it by gathering indulgences. In fact, it is precisely this contrition that leads one to trust in Christ. To us, these things don’t sound like that big of a deal, but in that context they were a significant attack on the very foundations of the Church.
The 95 Theses provoked an immediate and dramatic response. All of Germany became enveloped by the controversy. With the help of the printing press, Luther’s 95 Theses were circulated throughout Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire, and a copy even made its way to the inner chamber of Pope Leo X.
In almost every way, Luther’s actions brought about a Reformation which was truly unexpected. Remember Luther was a good Catholic at this point in time. In 1517, when he gets upset about indulgences, he expects the pope to get upset as well, and straighten out the corruption. It is devastating to Luther when he realizes that the pope will hang them out to dry on this issue. After a disputation in Heidelberg in April 1518, a Diet in Augsburg in the same year, a debate between Luther’s colleague Andreas von Karlstadt and the Catholic John Eck in 1519 in which Luther took over for his overmatched friend, and three tracts written by Luther in 1520, it was clear that he and his thought would not go quietly into the night. It took three years from the initial events in 1517 for the Pope and Rome to articulate its true and final intentions regarding Luther and his Reformation. In a Papal Bull entitled, Exsurge Domine, on December 10, 1520, the Pope laid down his verdict. The declaration began,
Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter, as the head and your vicar and his successors. The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.
The Bull gave Luther sixty days to submit to the Pope or be excommunicated. On the sixtieth and final day set by the Bull, Luther celebrated the expiration of the deadline by setting it aflame along with a set of writings that supported papal claims.
It was abundantly clear that excommunication did not work, Luther was not going to quiet down, and the budding Reformation was a serious threat to Roman religion. Fearing for the health of his Empire and its relationship to Rome, The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V entered the controversy. He summoned Luther to appear before a Diet at Worms in mid-April 1521, a location conveniently located in Germany masterfully negotiated by Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise. Upon arriving, Luther was presented with a pile of his books and was commanded to renounce them. After asking for some time to consider the matter, Luther reappeared before the Diet and gave his famous reply:
Since Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will give an answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
As Mark Noll has said, “with these words, Protestantism was born.”
Though today marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s public unveiling of the 95 theses, the Reformation as a movement is much bigger than Martin Luther and his Disputation, although it is true that one cannot understand the Reformation or Protestantism as a whole without understanding Luther and his theology. The Reformation begun by these events had roots in the theology and protest of earlier Christian thinkers. It included the previous reforming attempts by the Englishman John Wycliffe, the Bohemian Jan Hus, a number of Catholic humanist thinkers and even Popes, as well as Luther’s contemporary the Swiss pastor Ulrich Zwingli. It was carried on within Lutheranism by the Geneseo-Lutherans and Philip Melancthon, and flourished under the Reformed umbrella by the great pastor-theologian John Calvin; as well as many, many others. The Reformation quickly spread across northern Europe – Switzerland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, parts of France and England and Scotland. The Reformation also unleashed movements beyond its control and beyond the imagining of the original Reformers, as groups like the Anabaptists took certain Reformation insights even further and often to excess, separating from society and often from each other. By the time of Calvin’s death in 1564, it had become clear that the Reformation was no mere passing fancy or local disturbance. It was a monumental era on several fronts, as a social upheaval, a political revolution, a scholarly renaissance, and most of all, a recovery of the gospel within the Church.
The Reformation was a complex movement. The corruption and moral laxity of the church had been a problem for many years, burgeoning nationalism made the German states wary of Rome, the invention of the printing press allowed for the mass dissemination of Luther’s ideas, and other economic, social and political factors contributed to its success. None of these, however, can explain the occurrence of the Reformation. They were all contributing factors, creating a perfect storm scenario but, as Matthew Barrett identifies, the Reformation was fundamentally a theological movement, caused by doctrinal concerns. (Reformation Theology, 44) Euan Cameron expands, “The point of greatest risk for the church was its own special, spiritual status which made it the one means of grace and salvation. If someone were to come along who could persuade a significant portion of priests and people that they did not depend upon the ministrations of ‘the Church’ to save their souls, then the ‘reforming’ challenges could be allowed free rein, unchecked by the principled respect which had so far restrained them within the limits of Church law and belief.” (Cameron, The European Reformation)
This is exactly what the Reformers did. They focused on the doctrines of salvation and how it is accomplished and applied. The results of this discussion touched on the doctrine of Scripture as the sole foundation for true doctrine and practice, the doctrine of the Church and the doctrine of the sacraments. The themes of the Reformation are often summarized, in the Five Solas which you can see hanging behind me:
Sola Gratia – Grace alone
Sola Fides – Faith alone
Sola Christus – Christ alone
Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
Sola Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone
Let me quickly overview the theological issues regarding the nature of salvation and scripture that the Reformers objected to and sought to reform. In doing so I must admit my significant indebtedness to the works of Carter Lindberg, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Euan Cameron, Carl Trueman, Matthew Barrett and David Calhoun.
As Euan Cameron identifies, late medieval religion was, at least officially, about saving souls. Individual souls were saved, not in a once-for-all act of redemption, but by a lifelong course through a cycle of sin, absolution, and penance, which you can see at the bottom of the circle on the screen. This cycle was determined by the two great facts of medieval religious life – human sin, that is, repeated breaking of the moral law of God, and the forgiveness of sins, offered by the Church through contrition, confession and penance. If you lived in medieval times, most of your life was supposed to pass around the cycle in the lower part of the diagram, from grace to sin, from sin to confession and absolution, and thus back to grace again. If any sins were left to be paid for upon death, they would be taken care of in the painful, corrective sufferings of purgatory. As one scholar observes, people could find all sorts of offers from the church to ease their burdens, if only they would believe in them. The point was not for people to despair of their sin – it was for them to depend on, and trust in, the status and powers of the church and the sacraments they doled out on behalf of God so that they would be granted forgiveness. As Gabriel Biel, the medieval Catholic nominalist, articulated, “To those who do what is within them, God will not deny.” Just use the sacraments the church gives you in the best way you can, with as much faith as you can, and God will not deny you salvation. The repetitive nature of the sacraments and the necessity to keep doing them, combined with the constant threat of death and looming time in purgatory made people feel uncomfortable with their ability to do enough. Salvation was graciously offered by God through the church, but a person was faced with a life-long struggle to maintain their place within the right section of the penitential circle for fear that salvation may be lost. The nagging question of every medieval Christian was simple – how do I know that I have done enough to be saved?
Martin Luther was racked with exactly this kind of crippling fear even though he was “a monks monk” engaging in penitential activities that would cause him lifelong physical issues. His overseer, Johann von Staupitz had encouraged Luther to study God’s word and to look to Christ, which Luther undertook with tenacity. What he, and other Reformers like him, discovered in Scripture caused them to challenge, redefine, and rearrange every building block of medieval religious belief – sin, law, faith, justification, the church, the sacraments. The Reformers strove to convince people that the saving of fallen souls was not a process of lapses into sin and engaging in the necessary rituals to correct the sin, as the penitential cycle demonstrated. Rather, as one church historian observes, it was a question of real sin, of a massive, all-corrupting inability to do right, which only God, by utterly gratuitous, self-sacrificing mercy, first covered with his grace, and then gradually, step by step, replaced with his own goodness in the Christian, in a process completed only in death. This vast act of mercy made the ‘good works’ performed by men, or by the Church for men, seem not only hopelessly inadequate, but treacherously deceptive and blasphemously distracting from the real point. It is from their understanding of salvation that arise the dictums of sola Christo, sola gratia, sola fides and sola deo gloria.
The Reformer’s attacked the understanding of the medieval church regarding salvation, sin, grace, faith and the nature of Christ’s atonement by returning to biblical sources. Whenever Luther was attacked by the Church, he defended himself stubbornly with appeals Scripture. In doing so, he and the Reformers challenged the Catholic concept of authority. The Church protected a ‘tradition’ of belief and practice, which was either derived from Scripture, or originated separately from it. This tradition determined how Scripture should be interpreted. From the Reformers perspective, the Church had never allowed Scripture to become a witness against itself and its beliefs and practices; the latter always was invoked to understand the former. The practically was that the Church and its traditions were more authoritative than the Word of God.
In appealing to Scripture as the only and final authority for faith and practice, the Reformers had found a source of authority more impressive, more credible, and more venerable than the church had been perceived. The Reformers set up Scripture against the words of the Church, where were mere inventions of men. As the Word of God Scripture must be the rule by which to judge the church. All doctrines, then, had to be tested in the light of Scripture, and rejected if they were inconsistent with it. The Bible was God’s revelation and it is only through Scripture that we hear God. Their understanding of Scripture is described as sola scriptura.
It is sad to say that, though bearing the name Protestant, a great many of our churches have sorely neglected or jettisoned from their faith and practice much of what the Reformers believed and taught. I hate making ‘State of the Union’ declarations, because I can think of exceptions as soon as I do, but I believe the Reformation still matters because we have either marginalized or forgotten completely the major tenets of the Reformation and that we have done so to our own peril. We have marginalized or forgotten the gospel as the center of our faith and the word of God as the foundation of our faith. As these have disappeared so has biblical preaching as necessary for our faith and practice as well as the importance of seeking to reform our churches biblically rather than culturally.
Let me articulate 5 specifics ways in which, I believe, the Reformation still matters. They are presented in no particular order.
First, I believe the Reformation still matters… because the Reformation is part of our family history and we ignore it to our own demise.
When we study church history in general or a specific part of church history, such as the Reformation, we need to realize that we do not study “those” people or “them” in the past as though we were completely disconnected from that group. We are studying “our” people, our extended church family. It is not “them” in the past and “us” in the present it is just “us”. Those of us who consider ourselves Protestants have a family history that goes back to this date 500 years ago and includes all of the ups and downs, good and bad, successes and failures that have been a part of the half millennium leading to this time and this place. (Cf. Calhoun)
When the ancient Creeds and Confessions spoke about the nature of the church, they used the words – “one, holy and catholic”. The word catholic, in this context, means simply that we are united in a visible community of the redeemed. As the Westminster Catechism states in Q&A 64, “The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.” This means that we are connected to the past, to people long dead and gone, as much as we are connected to people yet to come. As Michael Horton observes, “we are connected to dead people, to borrow from a popular movie from the 1980s, ours is “the dead believer’s society.” This was Jesus’ perspective when he prayed for us in his High Priestly Prayer in John 17:20-23,
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (ESV)
Notice how easily Jesus moves from the immediate group of disciples to “those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one” (vv. 20-21). He recognized, from the other side of the cross, the intimate connection that would exist between his work, the immediate 12 disciples and the church, including all of us, that would be built upon his work and theirs.
The writer to the Hebrews in chapter 12 speaks about the same connection. In doing so he invokes the image of a crowded stadium, filled with our brothers and sisters throughout history, cheering and guiding us as our team takes its turn on the field of history. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”.
What this means, as Horton continues to describe, is “our church today is answerable to the church of Pentecost, to the church of the Nicene Fathers, to the church of the Reformation, and to the church of our children and grandchildren.” (Horton, We Believe, 193) We stand on the shoulders of giants as many have said. We are able to see more only on account of those who carry us high and raise us up on account of their giant size. Unfortunately very few of us stand on the shoulders of those giants because we are ignorant of who they are and what they have done to bring us to our current place. I think a great deal of our struggles, issues and errors are a result of not knowing the past. Sadly, I think James Montgomery Boice is correct when he wrote in the mid-90’s that today “we barely have [a Reformation] to carry on, and many have even forgotten what that great spiritual revolution was all about.” We “need to go back and start again at the very beginning. We need another Reformation.” There is no better time that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation than to look back at our family history and to learn from it, for the benefit of the Church.
Remembering the Reformation reminds us that the Reformation is part of our family history and we ignore it to our own demise.
Second, I believe the Reformation still matters… because it reminds us of the theology we need in order to protest much of what has become acceptable within Protestantism.
The question of the day seems to be – do we need another Reformation? Probably, yes, but given the vast differences between the 21st Century and the 16th I don’t think it would be possible. What we need, I think is a Reformational revival of theology. As we just overviewed, the Reformation was the result of theological fuzziness on behalf of the church regarding many doctrines that are foundational to the Christian faith and to the health of churches and individual Christians. The resulting effect this had on the people in the pews and on those who had to minister to them brought about Luther’s questions and were really the impetus behind the Reformation. In this way I think out time is somewhat similar to the 17th century. As one pastor has noted, much like the 16th Century the contemporary church is increasingly blurring the lines of the gospel through the mouths of its preachers. Today we all too often find that doctrine is often replaced by drama, spiritual needs are neglected while felt needs are attended; and ministers of the gospel are occupied with the business of amusing the goats rather than feeding the sheep…and it shows! (Erik Raymond) When our theology lags, so do our churches and the Christians who attend them. The result is, well what we have in modern Christianity – a church that is looks no different from the world and is ripe for picking off by the Evil one who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those to devour.
Sadly, this problem is nothing new to the North American church. In 1930 Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to New York to take on a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. In a letter dated December 19 he gives his take on his presence in the Seminary,
There is no theology here. Although I am basically taking classes and lectures in dogmatics and philosophy of religion, the impression is overwhelmingly negative. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students… are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level. . . These things are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. . . One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity, and where the criterion for such might be found. There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se?
Notice the progression of what Bonhoeffer saw – a lack of historical theological knowledge, what Bonhoeffer calls dogmatics, leads to an acceptance of just about anything because there is an inability to discern between that which is true and false. This results in people being tolerant of things they should reject and accepting of things that are dangerous to their faith all the while jettisoning that which is good and right and true. But the problem that Bonhoeffer recognizes is one that does not occur only in the isolated Seminary class, in the white towers of the intellectual elite, it touches on everybody and everything in the church – the preacher and those in the pews who listen to him.
Outside of the references to liberal theology and fundamentalism, I think Bonhoeffer could just as easily be speaking about our time. There is little knowledge of theology in our time, especially dogmatics, which is theology with a history. As a result, our churches are willing to discuss and accept ideas and beliefs which the Reformation would have held to be questionable at best or more than likely completely unacceptable. Beliefs that should be protested against – semi-pelagian understandings of salvation, open theism, the emergent church, listening prayer, denial of penal substitutionary atonement, post-conservative denials of biblical authority – are not only accepted within many churches, but have actually become a part of the foundations of those churches. Throw in the culture of tolerance in which we live, and it seems as though protesting anything, even that which is clearly unbiblical, is not possible. But protest we must. If we do not object and stand against beliefs which are clearly in error the question Bonhoeffer asks remains for us – what becomes of Christianity per se?
Remembering the Reformation reminds us of the theology that is needed because protest is still needed against much of what has become acceptable within Protestantism itself.
Third, I believe the Reformation still matters… because the Word of God needs to be reclaimed as the sole foundation for the life of the believer and the church.
Martin Luther famously quipped in the early days of the Reformation,
I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and Amsdorf…, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.
So convinced was Luther of the sole, final, infallible and inerrant authority of the Scriptures that at Worms, when face to face with the Emperor and all the might he could bring to bear on him, he stood upon Scripture alone. Zwingli would align himself with Luther regarding the authority of Scripture which he articulated in a confession to Emperor Charles V which the Emperor refused to receive. In it Zwingli wrote,
The above I firmly believe, teach and maintain, not from my own oracles, but from those of the Divine Word; and, God willing, I promise to do this as long as life controls these members, unless someone from the declarations of Holy Scripture, properly understood, explain and establish the reverse as clearly and plainly as we have established above.
Heinrich Bullinger, the author of the Second Helvetic Confession wrote,
[We believe] in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has all things fully expounded which belong to a saving faith and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from the same.
Keith Mathison summarizes this teaching of the Reformation regarding the Word of God, which became known as sola Scriptura (The Shape of Sola Scriptura),
…Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; andit is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith.
In 1539 Calvin complained of being assailed by “two sects”; these being the Anabaptists and the Pope as it pertained to sola Scriptura. He believed that both the Catholics and the Anabaptists “boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods.” He saw within the traditionalism of Catholics and the subjectiveness of the Anabaptists the desire to separate the Spirit from the Word by affirming that the living voice of God can speak with the inner speech of the church or of the pious individual. The Reformers “called this “enthusiasm” because it made the external Word of Scripture subservient to the inner word supposedly spoken by the Spirit… within the individual or the church” and they rejected it as a certain and dangerous error. (https://www.monergism.com/john-calvins-letter-cardinal-sadoleto-1539; cf. Horton, Reformation Theology)
Times, it seems, have not changed. Today there are two exceedingly popular threats to the doctrine of sola scriptura within Evangelicalism; both of which are present in our immediate context. The first is a belief in solo scriptura or nuda scriptura. This perspective begins with an understanding of the priesthood of all believers which is distinctly non-Reformational. It is taken to mean that the farmer, the stay-at-home-mom and the Seminary educated pastor are equally suited to interpret Scripture since each one has the Holy Spirit within them. The text is interpreted with little or no regard to how it has been handled in the past within the 2000 year history of the church. Interpretation done in this manner becomes highly individualistic – whether it be an single person, congregation or denomination. This uninformed interpretation is then deemed right or wrong by our immediate peers, in our immediate context, and not by appeal to the authority of previous or other church interpretation. Thus, past interpretations of Scripture are mute to today’s discussion. This particular way of thinking about Scripture creates an impasse. As Kevin Vanhoozer notes, “one cannot arbitrate the conflict of interpretations simply by offering one more individual’s opinion about what the Bible means.” To put it in layman’s terms, the solo Scriptura perspective leads to conflicting interpreters repeating the phrase “that’s just your interpretation” to each other ad nauseam.
The second threat to sola scriptura is what I call Subjective Evangelicalism, the idea that God speaks authoritatively outside of Scripture in various ways. This perspective believes in another authoritative word of God; a word that comes from God directly to an individual believer through thoughts, moments, images, words, etc., after times of meditation and/or prayer. The idea is that God ‘speaks’ directly to us at certain moments in our lives and that those words, thoughts or images are his direct speech to us; God’s revelation to us as individuals. Advocates of this view will say that this ‘speaking’ needs to be evaluated against the standard of Scripture. They articulate that God would not contradict the Bible and thus we need to check his ‘word’ against Scripture to ensure that it is truly God speaking. This may sound acceptable and even spiritual, but in reality it merely creates two authoritative utterances to which the believer must submit. Since it affirms two revelations of God – the Bible, and whatever it is I am thinking or feeling that Scripture does not deny. This kind of thinking leads to some pretty crazy ideas. We are asked to “Look and Listen: God is nearby”, or to imagine Jesus sitting in a chair opposite us speaking favour to us. These things may sound spiritual, but when you think about it what do they even mean? This way of thinking also creates an impasse of sorts. While many Christians would pay lip service to the Bible as their authority, functionally it is experience that steers the ship. Thus when they live out the Christian life, the way decisions are made or God’s will is discerned it is a mystical experience or a spiritual feeling or a word from the Lord that takes priority over the Bible and serves as the controlling aspect of a person’s life. (Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 368) The Scriptures become a check and balance sheet for a subjective ‘revelation’ rather than the sufficient and infallible rule of faith.
Both solo scriptura and Subjective Evangelicalism are denials of the authority of Scripture the way the Reformers understood it, and are forms of the two-source authority problem that was rejected as they saw it within Catholicism.
It is time we reclaim the foundational doctrine of sola scriptura within the church in order to save the message of the gospel. The consequences of not doing so are dire as Michael Horton outlines, ““Enthusiasm” — the tendency to assimilate God’s external Word to the inner word — is inseparable from the Pelagian tendency to assimilate God’s saving gospel to our own efforts.” It is exactly these kinds of inner words, inner feelings, inner thoughts, inner experiences, that are supposed to guide us that are part of our sinful autonomous self which needs to be put to be crucified and buried with Christ. “Conversely,” Horton continues, “sola Scriptura (the sufficiency of Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice) is inseparably bound to solo Christo, sola gratia, and sola fide (the gospel of Christ alone by grace alone received through faith alone). (Horton, Reformation Theology)
Remembering the Reformation reminds us that the Word of God needs to be reclaimed as the sole foundation for the life of the believer and the church.
Fourth, I believe the Reformation still matters… because the gospel needs to be reclaimed as the most important aspect of our personal and corporate life.
Earlier it was mentioned that the Reformation was fundamentally a theological movement, caused by doctrinal concerns. Yet it was one doctrine in particular that gave it the power to challenge the church in ways that previous religious movements or attempted ‘reformations’ had failed to enact real change for any length of time. What distinguished the Reformation is “that its deepest theological concern was the gospel itself.” (Barrett, Reformation Theology, 45) In other words the “crux of genuine reform” (Lindberg, The European Reformations, 10) had to do with the recovery of the gospel. In Luther’s mind the gospel is the only thing that truly matters in Christian faith and practice, something which all Reformers would echo. Luther writes,
There is one article and one basic principle in theology, and he who does not hold to this article and this basic truth, to wit, true faith and trust in Christ, is not a theologian. All other articles flow into and out of this one, and without it the other articles are nothing. The devil has tried from the beginning to nullify this article and to establish his own wisdom in its place. The disturbed, the afflicted, the troubled, and the tempted relish this article; they are the ones who understand the Gospel. (cf. http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/preusdoctrineofjustification.pdf)
John Calvin would agree with Luther. In his short treatise, The Necessity of Reforming the Church written in 1543 to outline the distinctives of the Reforming movement, Calvin writes the following:
We maintain, that of what description so ever any man’s works may be, he is regarded as righteous before God, simply on the footing of gratuitous mercy; because God, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him, as if it were his own. This we call the righteousness of faith, viz., when a man, made void and empty of all confidence of works, feels convinced that the only ground of his acceptance with God is a righteousness which is wanting to himself, and is borrowed from Christ. The point on which the world always goes astray, (for this error has prevailed in almost every age,) is in imagining that man, however partially defective he may be, still in some degree merits the favor of God by works.
So sad it is, that the gospel, so clearly articulated by Calvin, continues to be murky for many in the church – both leaders and laypeople. For many people the gospel that is heard is not really the Christian gospel at all. The present gospel could very easily be described with the words of H. Richard Niebuhr – “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Or to put it differently given our context, God is not angry with us he is just disappointed; our response, then is to try to do a bit better next time by following the example of Christ as the Holy Spirit helps us. This is not the Christian gospel.
In so many churches the gospel has been reduced to what Christopher Smith calls, moral therapeutic deism. We have redefined so much of what makes the gospel the gospel. We have made it all about me and how important I am to God. God loves me and really wants to save me, but unless I decide to come to him, I will not be saved. God becomes an anxious lover awaiting the answer to his middle school style note – ‘I love you; Do you love me: Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’’. Sin has been reduced to waywardness, or to a weakness or sickness that we need to fight to overcome. Grace then becomes mere divine assistance. Faith becomes the means by which I tap into God’s power to help me become better. Christ is reduced to a personal experience, one that I have had in the past, but have now moved on from although I am always in personal relationship with him. The Holy Spirit is the real star of the salvation story since it is through the aid of his power that I become all that Christ wants me to be and it is through him that God reveals to me all of his hidden knowledge about my life if only I listen intently to him. The gospel is thus riddled with semi-Pelagianism and gnosticism and has become merely an encouragement to do better, to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, to do the best you can and God will not deny you, or it is a word that we attach to anything and everything that we think serves the common good. As Michael Horton concludes (Christless Christianity, 63),
The bad news no longer stands in sharp contrast with the good news; we become content with so-so news that eventually fails to bring conviction or genuine comfort but keeps us on the treadmill of anxiety, craving the next revival, technique, or movement to lift our spirits and catapult us to heavenly glory.
We need to reclaim the gospel in our churches. Why? Because sola gratia, sola fides, sola Christo and sola deo gloria are not mere slogans. They articulate biblical realities that define salvation; issues that are a matter of eternal life and death to our people. As Michael Horton continues,
A church that is deeply aware of its misery and nakedness before a holy God will cling tenaciously to an all-sufficient Savior, while one that is self-confident and relatively unaware of its inherent sinfulness will reach for religion and morality whenever it seems convenient.
The gospel is so simple that it takes just four words to articulate – creation, fall, christ, faith – yet so profound that should permeate everything we do as a church. It alone is the good news of Jesus Christ that saves and sanctifies. Remembering the Reformation reminds us that we need to reclaim the true gospel as the most important aspect of our personal and corporate life.
Last, I believe the Reformation still matters… because biblical preaching needs to be reclaimed as the center of the life of our churches.
In the minds of the Reformers, the importance of the Word of God and the nature of the gospel has one significant consequence for the church – preaching must be central. Luther’s thinking on the matter was unabashed (cf. Barrett, Reformed Theology). He warned in his pamphlet The Babylonian Captivity of the Church that “Whoever does not preach the Word is no priest at all,” because this is his primary calling.” He also notes that the “The ears alone are the organs of the Christian” (Lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews) while “The lips are the public reservoirs of the church… In them alone is kept the Word of God. You see, unless the word is preached publicly, it slips away. The more it is preached, the more firmly it is retained. Reading is not as profitable as hearing it, for the live voice teaches, exhorts, defends, and resists the spirit of error.” (Lectures on Malachi) He also remarks that “Satan does not care a hoot for the written Word of God, but he flees at the speaking of the Word.” (Luther’s quotes cited in Barrett, Reformation Theology)
John Calvin would agree. In his commentary on Isaiah, he remarks regarding misinterpretations of Isaiah 14:12, “when passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes… frequently arise.” As Timothy George notes in his fantastic book, Reading Scripture with the Reformers,
the Reformation was about the Word of God, which was to be proclaimed faithfully and conscientiously to the people of God. Calvin held himself to a high standard and demanded no less of others called to the office of preaching. The true pastor, he said, must be marked by “ruthless persistence”. Pastors are not granted the luxury of choosing their own times of service, or siting their ministry to their own convenience or preaching “sugar stick” sermons removed from biblical context.”
What passes for preaching on many Sunday mornings is, in a word, abhorrent. If Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were alive today and had to suffer through what is labelled as ‘preaching’ in most churches I think their words would be more scathing than they were in their own day. In fact much of what happens in our so-called ‘worship’ services would be unrecognizable to the Reformers and would bring about their blistering rebuke. As Robert Godfrey notes, “For Calvin, worship was not a means to evangelize or entertain or even educate. Worship was an end in itself. Worship was not to be arranged by pragmatic considerations but was rather to be determined by theological principles derived from the Scriptures. The most basic realities of the Christian life were involved. In worship God meets with his people.” For Calvin the Word of God is to be both the center and the content of our worship for it is through the Word of God preached that people commune with God. (John Calvin, 80; cf. Barrett, Reformation Theology)
If this is true, how little does the average parishioner in most of our churches meet God in their week? Most Sunday morning services are not actually worship services. They are structured to get people in and out as quickly as possible, to have them sing as much as possible and to have them ‘endure’ a sermon for as short a time as possible. 25 minute pep-talks in a service of an hour and a half have sadly become the norm rather than the exception. The stroke of noon, or the arrival of another church within a church, or the necessity to fit in announcements and kids programs, often preempt the most fundamental activity of church life – the preaching God’s word. In contrast, John Calvin spent much of his time preaching: twice on Sunday’s from the New Testament and, on alternate weeks, every weekday as well from the Old Testament, each sermon lasting about an hour. How sad would he find the current state of preaching in our churches.
But merely preaching longer would not satisfy Luther and Calvin. In a lot of ways it is probably a good thing that most preachers preach only for a short time, it limits the amount of damage that is done to their people each Sunday. ““Sugar stick sermons” removed from biblical context” – what an apt description of the bulk of today’s preaching. Topical preaching, which sadly has become the norm, would be outlawed from the church if we follow the Reformers. Much of what preachers claim to be ‘expository’ preaching would be considered anathema to the Reformers as well. Far too often ‘preaching from the text’ degenerates into merely a fluffy talk akin to the Daily Bread or Chicken Soup for the Soul where the text becomes more like a launchpad for the preacher to go wherever he likes, rather than a mine to be dug for its riches. A text is often used, yes, but what is really happening is the preacher uses the text to launch himself into other things – a hobby horse, a contemporary issue or the avoidance thereof, etc.. Couple this with the fact that most people don’t carry a Bible to church because it will be on the screen, and it is the perfect recipe for a gigantic disaster. As pastors we should not bemoan biblical illiteracy among our people, when our sermons and our methods of delivery encourage that very thing!
Michael Reeves correctly observes, “The expository preaching of God’s Word was the real engine room of the Reformation. And therein lies both challenge and encouragement for all today who see themselves as heirs of the Reformation.” We need to realize, as Calvin told Cardinal Sadoleto in his defense of the Reformation, that “There is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.” It is deplorable, that so many pastors today put so many of their people in peril in a place where they should receive salve for their wounds, protection from the evil one and encouragement in the gospel on account of the centrality of God’s word and its faithful exposition. To put the sermon at the center is to put Scripture at the center, and to put Scripture at the center is to put God at the center with his gospel of free grace for all who come to his Son in faith. To put it negatively, to put the sermon at the periphery is to put Scripture on the periphery and to put Scripture on the periphery is to put God and the gospel on the periphery. “The Reformers preached thousands of sermons because they were convinced that the Word proclaimed was “indispensable” as a “means of grace.” The Reformation is a reminder that spiritual decline and biblical apathy is not inevitable. But to reverse these things, expository preaching needs to be reclaimed. (Barrett, Reformation Theology; cf. George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, 234; Reeves, “What Role Did Expositional Preaching Play in the Reformation” https://www.9marks.org/article/what-role-did-expositional-preaching-play-in-the-reformation/)
Remembering the Reformation reminds us that we need to reclaim the importance of biblically faithful, exegetically driven, gospel centered, expositional sermons.
Conclusion – Should we be always reforming?
In Reformed circles a bit of a saying has been affirmed among its churches – ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. This Latin phrase means ‘the church reformed, always reforming.’ This phrase, and variances of it, was a favorite of Karl Barth, the 20th century neo-orthodox theologian, and cannot be traced to the Reformation or Reformed churches anywhere. But as a catchy mantra, it has become popular, not only in Reformed circles, but from time-to-time in Protestantism at large. This phrase has been used to suggest that we need to keep reforming, keep pushing for another Reformation of the church, to keep bringing about change in the church, to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the past and to move into a better future. But is this true? Should we always be reforming? Should we seek a Reformation for our time and place akin to what happened 500 years ago? I’m not really sure, but I don’t think so. The first Reformation was so unexpected, the perfect storm of political, economic, ecclesiastical, theological, and technological factors, not to mention the perfect personas involved, that we could never bring about a Reformation no matter how hard we tried. The next Reformation, if it ever comes, would be entirely of God’s doing, just as the first one was.
I do believe that we need to always engage in theology for our time even though our theology itself does not change as it is based on the objective word of God. We should desire to deliver the theology of the church which has been passed on to us by faithful men and women in new and fresh ways to meet the challenges of our time. But we should never seek to kill the giants upon which we stand. If this is what we mean by the phrase, I am all for it. As new challenges and new threats to our faith arise we need to speak anew and afresh to them, but we should not change our theology in any way. Since the word of God stands forever our theology, when it mirrors Scripture, stands strong as well. I do not think we need a new Reformation, but I do think we need a better memory of the past so that we are not too quick to forget the areas the Church erred necessitating the Reformation, as well as those things that were a part of the Reformation proper. Knowledge of the past, should give us the wisdom we need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Church, and make us more likely to repeat its successes.
Our goal as the Church is to be faithful to God’s word, yet we recognize that on account of our inherent sinfulness, we are always in danger of falling away from the truth in both faith and practice. As R. Scott Clark has observed, “we should understand and use [the phrase semper reformanda] as a reminder of our proclivity to wander from that theology, piety, and practice taught in Scripture and confessed by the church.” We may not need or get a Reformation as dramatic as the one that occurred 500 years ago, but we do need a re-adjustment of what has characterised our faith and practice in the 21st century, much of which the Reformers would be ashamed. On account of this, and many other reasons the Reformation still matters.
Soli Deo Gloria
The European Reformation by Euan Cameron
The European Reformations by Carter Lindberg
Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 volumes, by John Calvin, edited by John T. MacNeill
John Calvin: Selections from his Writings. Edited by John Dillenberger
The Necessity of the Reformation by John Calvin, translator unknown
Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther, translated by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnson
Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther, translated by Erasmus Middleton
Luther’s Works, 55 volumes
The Legacy of Luther edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols
Luther and the Christian Life by Carl Trueman
Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary edited by Matthew Barrett
God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture by Michael Barrett
Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton
We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostles’ Creed by Michael Horton
Thy Word is Still Truth: Essential Writings on the Doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to Today edited by Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin
The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures edited by D.A. Carson
“Always Abusing Semper Reformanda”, https://heidelblog.net/tag/semper-reformanda/ by R. Scott Clark
“Do We Need Another Reformation” by Erik Raymond https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/erikraymond/2006/04/30/do-we-need-another-reformation/
Michael Reeves, “What Role Did Expositional Preaching Play in the Reformation” https://www.9marks.org/article/what-role-did-expositional-preaching-play-in-the-reformation/