Why the Reformation Still Matters

by Michael Reeves

 

Last year, on October 31, Pope Francis announced that after five hundred years, Protestants and Catholics now “have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” From that, it sounds as if the Reformation was an unfortunate and unnecessary squabble over trifles, a childish outburst that we can all put behind us now that we have grown up.

But tell that to Martin Luther, who felt such liberation and joy at his rediscovery of justification by faith alone that he wrote, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Tell that to William Tyndale, who found it such “merry, glad and joyful tidings” that it made him “sing, dance, and leap for joy.” Tell it to Thomas Bilney, who found it gave him “a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.” Clearly, those first Reformers didn’t think they were picking a juvenile fight; as they saw it, they had discovered glad tidings of great joy.

Good News in 1517

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe had been without a Bible the people could read for something like a thousand years. Thomas Bilney had thus never encountered the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Instead of the Word of God, they were left to the understanding that God is a God who enables people to earn their own salvation. As one of the teachers of the day liked to put it, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” Yet what were meant as cheering words left a very sour taste for everyone who took them seriously. How could you be sure you really had done your best? How could you tell if you had become the sort of just person who merited salvation?

Martin Luther certainly tried. “I was a good monk,” he wrote, “and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in.” And yet, he found:

My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.

According to Roman Catholicism, Luther was quite right to be unsure of heaven. Confidence of a place in heaven was considered errant presumption and was one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed,

This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of . . . glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.

That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the system: if we can only enter heaven because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, then of course no one can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness.

That was exactly why the young Martin Luther screamed with fear when as a student he was nearly struck by lightning in a thunderstorm. He was terrified of death, for without knowledge of Christ’s sufficient and gracious salvation—without knowledge of justification by faith alone—he had no hope of heaven.

And that was why his rediscovery in Scripture of justification by faith alone felt like entering paradise through open gates. It meant that, instead of all his angst and terror, he could now write:

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”

And that was why the Reformation gave people such a taste for sermons and Bible reading. For, to be able to read God’s words and to see in them such good news that God saves sinners, not on the basis of how well they repent but entirely by His own grace, was like a burst of Mediterranean sunshine into the gray world of religious guilt.

Good News in 2017

None of the goodness or relevance of the Reformation’s insights have faded over the last five hundred years. The answers to the same key questions still make all the difference between human hopelessness and happiness. What will happen to me when I die? How can I know? Is justification the gift of a righteous status (as the Reformers argued), or a process of becoming more holy (as Rome asserts)? Can I confidently rely for my salvation on Christ alone, or does my salvation also rest on my own efforts toward and success in achieving holiness?

Almost certainly, what confuses people into thinking that the Reformation is a bit of history we can move beyond is the idea that it was just a reaction to some problem of the day. But the closer one looks, the clearer it becomes: the Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel. And that is precisely what preserves the validity of the Reformation for today. If the Reformation had been a mere reaction to a historical situation five hundred years ago, one would expect it to be over. But as a program to move ever closer to the gospel, it cannot be over.

Another objection is that today’s culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. Not many today find themselves wearing hair-shirts and enduring all-night prayer vigils in the freezing cold to earn God’s favor. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a sixteenth-century problem, and his solution of justification by faith alone is therefore dismissed as unnecessary for us today.

But it is in fact precisely into this context that Luther’s solution rings out as such happy and relevant news. For, having jettisoned the idea that we might ever be guilty before God and therefore in need of His justification, our culture has succumbed to the old problem of guilt in subtler ways and with no means to answer. Today, we are all bombarded with the message that we will be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet it is  still a religion of works, and one that is deeply embedded. For that, the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. Luther speaks words that cut through the gloom like a glorious and utterly unexpected sunbeam:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. . . . Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore, sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.

Once Again, the Time Is Ripe

Five hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church has still not been reformed. For all the warm ecumenical language used by so many Protestants and Roman Catholics, Rome still repudiates justification by faith alone. It feels it can do so because Scripture is not regarded as the supreme authority to which popes, councils, and doctrine must conform. And because Scripture is so relegated, biblical literacy is not encouraged, and thus millions of poor Roman Catholics are still kept from the light of God’s Word.

Outside Roman Catholicism, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrongheaded, or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the Apostle Paul meant by justification, especially when they have tended to shift the emphasis away from any need for personal conversion, have, as much as anything, confused people, leaving the article that Luther said cannot be given up or compromised as just that—given up or compromised.

Now is not a time to be shy about justification or the supreme authority of the Scriptures that proclaim it. Justification by faith alone is no relic of the history books; it remains today as the only message of ultimate liberation, the message with the deepest power to make humans unfurl and flourish. It gives assurance before our holy God and turns sinners who attempt to buy God off into saints who love and fear Him.

And oh what opportunities we have today for spreading this good news! Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press meant that the light of the gospel could spread at a speed never before witnessed. Tyndale’s Bibles and Luther’s tracts could go out by the thousands. Today, digital technology has given us another Gutenberg moment, and the same message can now be spread at speeds Luther could never have imagined.

Both the needs and the opportunities are as great as they were five hundred years ago—in fact, they are greater. Let us then take courage from the faithfulness of the Reformers and hold the same wonderful gospel high, for it has lost none of its glory or its power to dispel our darkness.

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Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. He is author of several books, including Rejoicing in Christ. He is the featured teacher on the Ligonier teaching series The English Reformation and the Puritans.

How the Reformers Rediscovered the Holy Spirit and True Conversion

by Sinclair Ferguson

 

Luther’s story is well known; Calvin’s less so. Luther was wrestling with the concept of the righteousness of God, and had come to hate it; Calvin had an immense thirst for a secure knowledge of God, but had not found it. While not the whole truth, there is something in the notion that Luther was looking for a gracious God while Calvin was seeking for a true and assured knowledge of him.

In Luther’s case, the ordinances of late medieval Catholicism could not “give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain.” In Calvin’s case, neither the Church nor the immense intellectual discipline he had displayed in his teens and early twenties, and certainly not all his acquisition of the skills of a post-medieval humanist scholar, could bring him to an assured knowledge of God.

ROMANS 1:16

For all the differences in their backgrounds, educations, dispositions, and personalities, a good case can be made for thinking that Romans 1:16ff played a crucial role in the conversion narratives of both these reformers. We know that Luther wrestled hard with the meaning of Romans 1:16–17. He came to hate the words, finding in them an insoluble conundrum. How can “the righteousness of God” be constitutive of the good news of which Paul was so unashamed? Luther felt keenly that all it did was to damn him.

But then, as he later wrote, his eyes were opened. He had, as it were, been blind while reading the text; he had seen the words, he had not grasped their meaning. Now he saw that this righteousness was the righteousness of God by which the sinner is justified. The gates of paradise swung open; he felt himself to be born again.

Calvin seems to have been deeply affected by the verses that follow in Romans 1:18ff on the knowledge of God revealed, possessed, repressed, exchanged for idolatry, and ultimately abandoned by humanity—with faith in Jesus Christ as the alone path back to knowing God. Certainly, Ford Lewis Battles, the translator of the final Latin edition (1559) of Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion thought so. I am inclined to agree, given the tenor of Calvin’s theology and its constant focus on knowing God the Father through the Son and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

WHAT WAS THE REFORMATION ABOUT?

If asked, most of us might instinctively say that the Reformation was about justification or about (the later coined) sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria. But in fact, it was about much more.

For none of these five solas exists in isolation from the others or more especially in isolation from the Holy Spirit. He is the sine qua non of each. Thus, the Reformation was a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit. Calvin, as B.B. Warfield famously remarked, was “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” Faith is not born in us apart from the Spirit. Grace saves and keeps, but it is not a substance received by us but the disposition of God toward us that is made known to us only through the Spirit. The Scriptures come to us from the mouth of God, as the Spirit breathes out the Word of God through human authors. Furthermore, as Calvin stressed, all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us unless we are united to him—and this takes place through the Spirit. He thus brings glory to the Father and the Son.

What then did the Reformers discover? Luther’s references to the Spirit, like most of his theology, are not found tidily packed in their own separate compartment. Calvin comes nearer to a systematic presentation in The Institutes. But both made a simple but monumental discovery.

A REDISCOVERY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

Increasingly over the centuries, the Church had usurped the role of the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. The most obvious indication of that emerged in the way—indeed quasi-physical way—grace and salvation were mediated to the individual through the sacraments. In a sense, for all practical purposes, salvation was locked up in the sacraments—with the keys kept safely in the pockets of the priests and prelates of the Church.

The consequences of this were theologically and existentially disastrous. The role of the Spirit had been usurped; his authority was sequestered by the priesthood. Consequently, instead of experiencing assurance of forgiveness and personal knowledge of God, both of which are the birth right of every true child of God, members of the Church were kept in doubt and suspense about their salvation. As Luther saw, they were being urged to build up righteousness with the aid of the sacraments, so that, perhaps, they just might develop a faith so suffused with perfect love that they would have become justifiable.

This was the medieval doctrine of “heaven helps those who help themselves,” the justification of those who have been made just, the justification of the righteous-by-sacramental cooperation. While the system enabled the Church to claim this justification was “by grace,” this grace was never “alone.” It required co-operation and progress. But how could people be sure they had “done enough”? No one could be sanguine about his or her salvation. How could they be?

It was just here, for Luther and Calvin, that the Holy Spirit entered, opening eyes to the fact that all our salvation and every part of it is found in Christ alone (as Calvin loved to say); here the Holy Spirit entered, opening blind eyes, melting hardened affections, and drawing forth the response of saving faith.

No wonder Luther felt himself born again, and that “the Gates of Paradise had been flung open.”

No wonder, if Calvin experienced his “sudden” or “unexpected” conversion when he realized the Church had taught him “knowledge falsely so-called.” She had wrongly interposed herself between the believer and Christ. But then the Spirit came and Calvin discovered that every part of salvation is found in Christ alone.

No wonder then, that John Knox said the explanation for the Reformation was that God gave the Holy Spirit to ordinary men in great abundance.

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Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.