For a long time Protestant Christians have observed October 31 as “Reformation Day,” celebrating the anniversary of what began with Martin Luther’s nailing of the so-called 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517. Because of the prevalence in America of non-denominational Christianity, many Christians are unaware of what the Reformation was about. This Reformation Day 2020 I want to offer to what were the main “cries” of the Reformation, simplified for those who might be unfamiliar:
- Scripture is the Word of God before it is the Word of the church. That is, while the church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20) proclaiming Christ’s identity as Savior and Lord of all (Matt. 16:16-18), which is the essence of both Testaments (OT - Prophets, NT - Apostles), it is the Word of God that governs the church, not the church that governs the Word. The Reformation was fundamentally a shifting of authority away from the church and back to the God who, by His Word, builds the church and calls the nations to Himself. Jesus does give the church the kingdom keys (Matt. 16:19). But the church exercises them in proclaiming and living out life under Jesus’ authority as Lord and Christ.
- Salvation is less about what you can do for yourself and more about what God does for you. That is, salvation is God-centered, not man-centered. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God,” says the Apostle (1 Peter 3:18, emph. mine). Far from bringing to the table an unbiased will able to choose Jesus, we only bring our need for His saving grace. He brings the saving grace, redeeming the one who recognizes that they they’ve been, as it were, snake-bitten by sin (see Jn. 3:14-15) and are in need of the One who bore the penalty for their sin at the cross so that a just God can forgive an unjust sinner without compromising His justice (cf. Rom. 3:24-26). He and He alone - not our so-called “free will” - can bring us to God. Therefore, just like God spoke creation into existence by His Word, so, through the Word, He shines the light of the glory of His Son into our hearts so that with eyes of faith we see Christ's glory and come to Him (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Therefore Jesus says, “No one can come to unless the Father who sent me draws Him” (Jn. 6:44), and, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Mt. 11:27). Thus, He gets the glory, because He alone has done it (Ps. 52:9).
- Since sin has so ruined humanity that even their good works are “splendid vices” (Augustine), our only hope in the throne room of God must be the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. Why is it that, in that familiar Sermon on the Mount passage, Jesus tells people who did good works in His Name that He has never known them in the first place (Mt. 7:21-23)? It is because, by claiming their good works as the reason why He shouldn’t cast them out, they betray that they are trusting in those works instead of trusting in His redeeming work at the cross. Let's personalize: If you think you’re going to heaven and the New Heavens and New Earth because you’re a good person or better than anyone else, you’re not going. As I tell my 8th grade students, either Jesus takes your “F” at the cross and gives you His “A,” or, in Adam, you have an “F,” with no hope of an “A” (Rom. 5:12ff). But since Jesus offers you his "A," take it!
- Since it’s all about what God does for us, whether discussing Jesus’ perfect life leading to the cross or the Holy Spirit’s ability to help us believe, one can only receive the Gospel by faith. And “faith” is here defined as looking to Jesus as the only hope anyone has before God. Luther once said that whereas we are more sinful than we ever imagined, yet, since Jesus wants fellowship with us, we know that He also is more gracious than we ever imagined. The door into Christianity is the heart attitude that says, “Christ must clothe me with righteousness or I will be clothed with unrighteousness, no matter what I do.” The heart attitude that believes and confesses that is faith. And even believing that requires God’s help, for “It has been granted you to … believe in him” (Phil. 1:29). As the old hymn says, "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling." That is the attitude of faith.
- Finally, God is a missionary God, interested in drawing the nations to Himself for life transformation from the inside out. In other words, God’s message to the world is, “You must be born again, and I am open to you.” The pre-Reformation church didn’t not believe this. But from the 4th century onward, the missionary heart of God became, in many peoples’ view, more about colonizing and control. But since the reformers understood that God is about a new creation by faith in His Word (2 Cor. 5:17), recovered was the mission not to win wars (i.e., the Crusades, which admittedly has a complicated history), but to make disciples. Therefore Jesus tells the disciples that He (not they), by virtue of his resurrection, has ultimate authority over the whole of creation, and the disciples - and by extension, the church - are to go and teach obedience to His Word, sure of His presence, until He returns again (Matt. 28:18-20).
In short, the Reformation was a movement that recaptured things that history either lost or de-prioritized (I think the former). While many have rightly claimed that the Reformation is responsible for some problems in subsequent church history (and even world history),* one can not deny that the Reformation changed the world for the better. There are issues, yes, especially in the church. But the recapturing of, or, if you prefer, restating of the Gospel in the 16th century was a recapturing of the very idea necessary for said issues: God is at work, and God will orchestrate history to His decreed goals until the end. And until then He will help His church to sort things out as she fulfills her mission of disciple-making. And whether it be a worldwide pandemic or contentious political ordeals, all will in the end terminate to His glory. For, “from him, through him, and to him are all things. To him be glory forever!” (Romans 11:36).
Indeed, soli deo gloria!
*Kevin Vanhoozer surveys recent work criticizing the Reformation’s effect on the western world, even among Protestants, in Biblical Authority After Babel, 109-111 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016).