I finished this book a couple years ago but it’s been in my “currently reading” list since then. No longer! I read it in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, and I figured I’d post a review today in preparation for Reformation Day tomorrow.
“The Reformation…was more a song or a symphony than a system, more lyric than lecture, more a leap of the imagination than one of those social restructurings we are so heartily sick of today. It certainly produced systems, lectures and structures as well, but they were secondary.” (loc. 215)
This is not a disparaging word against the solas, it’s just that justification by faith alone belonged with abundant life not only clarified doctrines, let alone liberation from self-serving religious authorities. The Reformation gave Protestants freedom to read God’s Word, freedom to share communion, freedom from traditionalism and from dualism. It was a freedom to imagine (not outside reality but new concepts of reality) that daily work and survival meant something to God and was a good given by God.
“the Reformation can be seen as an infinitely varied, but coherent and extended, metaphor for the bountifulness of God’s grace.” (loc. 99)
Should you read this? You should put it in your queue if you’ve already read a lot of Luther and Calvin first, and if you’re interested to see how preaching was (actually only) a part of how nations were turned upside down.
We owe some of our most cherished vocabulary to the Reformers. This is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday closest to October 31st when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences. It is good for us to be thankful for God’s use of faithful men.
William Tyndale was the first man to translate the New Testament into English from Greek. John Wycliffe hand-wrote copies from Latin into English, but Tyndale had access to the Greek New Testament thanks to Erasmus, and his printed English copies created a firestorm.
One of his most important word choices came in Acts 2:38. After Peter preached on Pentecost, the men asked what they could do to be saved. The Catholic Church taught that Peter replied, “Do penance.” It’s based on the Latin word, Pœnitentiam. Tyndale translated Peter’s reply, “Repent” (based on Μετανοήσατε).
There’s no need to remember Tyndale every time we repent. However, it is good for our humility and our gratitude to remember that we’ve been delivered from numerous gross errors and heavy religious burdens because of men who loved God and His Word more than their own lives.
Never once have you come to this part of our liturgy on Sunday morning and heard that you must confess your sins to a priest who takes your confession for you to God. You are exhorted to confess, and the heart may resist, but when you confess, it is directly to God through Christ. No man is in the middle, Christ alone is the mediator. And on no occasion have you heard that, due to your sin, you must punish yourself, or pay God money, or travel to see a religious site, or work off your penalty.
When you realize your sin, what should you do? Confess your sin, repent from it, trust in Christ, and your forgiveness is by grace alone.
Everybody admires Luther! Yes, yes; but you do not want anyone else to do the same today. When you go to the…gardens you all admire the bear; but how would you like a bear at home, or a bear wandering about loose in the street? You tell me that would be unbearable, and no doubt you are right.
So, we admire a man who was firm in the faith, say four hundred years ago; the past ages are sort of a bear-pit or iron cage for him, but such a man today is a nuisance, and must be put down. Call him a narrow-minded bigot, or give him a worse name if can think of one. Yet imagine that in those ages past, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and their (friends) had said, “The world is out of order; but if we try to set it right we shall only make a great (racket), and get ourselves in disgrace. Let us go to our chambers, put on our night caps, and sleep over the bad times, and perhaps when we wake things will have grown better.”
Such conduct on their part would have entailed upon us a heritage of error. Age after age would have gone down into the infernal deeps, and the pestiferous bogs of error would have swallowed all. These men loved the faith and the name of Jesus too well to see them trampled on. Note what we owe them, and let us pay to our sons the debt we owe our fathers.
It is today as it was in the Reformer’s days. Decision is needed. Here is the day for the man, where is the man for the day? We who have had the gospel passed to us by martyr hands dare not trifle with it, nor sit by and hear it denied by traitors, who pretend to love it, but inwardly abhor every line of it.
Look you sirs, there are ages yet to come. If the Lord does not speedily appear, there will come another generation, and another, and all these generations will be tainted and injured if we are not faithful to God and to His truth today.
… Stand fast, my beloved, in the name of God! I, your brother in Christ, entreat you to abide in the truth. Quit yourselves like men, be strong. The Lord sustain you for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
In Geneva, Switzerland, near the church where John Calvin taught on a daily basis, there is a city park. The park contains a memorial to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, a football field long wall adorned with statues of Calvin, John Knox, and other Reformers. Chiseled into the stone around these men is the Latin motto: Post Tenebras Lux, “After darkness, Light.”
The “darkness” refers to the spiritual darkness during the late Middle Ages, a time period also known in history as the Dark Ages. Darkness keeps men from seeing reality. Reality is there, just as the furniture is still in a room when the lights are off, it just isn’t seen. Throughout the Dark Ages there was an eclipsing of God, a hiding of the truth of the gospel that had an impact on virtually every part of society.
What was the spiritual condition of pre-reformation Europe? People were ignorant about God. They didn’t know what His Word said, largely due to the fact that they didn’t have their own copies of the Bible to read in their languages. People adopted their beliefs (more like superstitions) second-hand rather than from Scripture. Perhaps the darkest point of all was that doctrine of justification by faith alone, and therefore any hope of true salvation, was all but extinguished.
First generation reformers like William Tyndale and Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli realized that the cause of corruption in the Church was its corrupt teaching, and until the doctrine of the Church was corrected, the abuses would continue. We don’t get fussy because their are problems in the church; there are always problems. We get fussy when we can’t see God.
The Reformation recovered “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4), restoring the light of the truth and shining bright the Word of God. Jesus Himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). The Reformation returned the focus to Jesus Christ. “After darkness, light.”
This is where any reformation today must start as well–good theology centered on Christ. As the Reformation gained momentum it clarified itself with a fresh set of convictions about the faith, the Pillars of the Reformation, the Five Solas:
Sola Scriptura – Scripture is the only inerrant authority
Sola Fide – Faith is the only way to be reconciled to God
Sola Gratia – Grace is the only way we can come to God
Solus Christus – Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior
Soli Deo Gloria – God’s glory is the ultimate purpose of all things
God used men such as Tyndale in England and Luther in Germany and Calvin in Switzerland and Knox in Scotland to bring truth to light. We know that these men weren’t perfect. We don’t want to follow men instead of following Christ, but we do want to follow men as they followed Christ. We stand on their shoulders; we stand downstream from their influence. We dress like them and fight with foam swords to rejoice in Christ’s culture changing work through the gospel. Remembering the Reformation isn’t merely a counter-cultural act, it may change our culture today as we are faithful to the light.
The main reality of every square inch of the universe, of every second of every minute in history, of every word in every text in Scripture is God. Wherever God is present, He’s King. And wherever the King is, He’s to be worshipped. The point of the Reformation was to display and polish and shout and write about and love “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
The Reformation was one of the greatest corporate works of the Holy Spirit in all of church history. We are right to remember it. We are right to celebrate God’s work and the light He shined among His people. It was more than just a stop to abuses, it was a renewed vision of God Himself. We need the light of His Word to blaze and burn among us today as it did in the 16th century–post tenebras lux–after darkness, light.
October 31st is Reformation Day. We remember Martin Luther nailing his 95 Thesis to the Wittenburg church door and the recovery of the gospel of grace, the light after darkness. We celebrate sola fide, justification by faith alone. Against the Roman Catholic Church that taught the need for co-righteousness, some from Christ and some from men, Luther and the other Reformers fought against the heavy burdens of buying salvation through indulgences or earning God’s grace through good works or through penance and confession.
The Reformers are our people. We stand downstream from them. I wonder, though, if they would recognize us as their descendants if they watched us around the Lord’s table.
I’m not wondering as much if they would disagree with our understanding of Christ’s bodily presence in the elements. We know which ones of them taught a special presence, which ones taught the sacrament as symbol, and which ones tried to put a foot on both of the fence. We don’t wonder about those things because the printing presses made plenty of copies of their position pamphlets. What I wonder about is if they would think our glum faces and conscience beating is more penance-like than Protestant.
Put another way, why do you think you are allowed to eat and drink? Is it because you have recognized and confessed every sin you can remember? Is it because you make sure to feel badly, as woebegone as possible, about your sin that caused His death? Is it because you made sure to get everything right with those you’ve sinned against?
Thorough confession of sin, deep sorrow for sin, and even seeking forgiveness from someone you sinned against, are all necessary, but none of them qualify you or make you worthy to participate. What does? Fide, faith and faith alone.
We honor God’s work in the Reformation by feasting at His table, knowing that Christ alone is worthy and that He invites us to be nourished by grace alone when we receive it by faith alone. Eating a gospel supper like this upsets countries and continents.
Doug Wilson responded to Derek Thomas’ recent article in Tabletalk regarding where evangelism rates on the ladder of importance.
One of the glories of the Reformation was that it restored the glory of God as the foundation of all things. It is infinitely more important that God be glorified than that I be saved. Fortunately for us, He is glorified in the salvation of sinners, but for us to put evangelism front and center is one of the best and surest ways to dilute the gospel itself. We have seen this precise trajectory in the evangelical world over the last half century. To make the salvation of sinners “the most basic question of all” is a good way to lose the right answer to that very important question. This is the way to pragmatic evangelism. This is how we got all the technique-meisters. Very important question? Amen. The most basic question of all? Not at all. (Wilson, Eck Rises to Defend the Reformation)
Wilson is right. That said, there’s no way Thomas believes that the salvation of a sinner is more important than God’s glory. But the gospel-first rather than God’s-glory-first way of speaking has seeped into the church’s collective communication and some other really good subordinate ends have been smothered because of it. Glory-first:
explains suffering and the Christian pilgrimage better.
encourages vocations other than vocational ministry alone.
emboldens evangelism more.
Salvation is a subordinate end. It’s a fantastic end, but still subordinate to the ultimate end of God’s glory.
I know I have not posted anything substantial for over two weeks. This post won’t change that. But a number of things around the internet stood out to me here on Reformation Day/Halloween that are worth posting to the Void if for no other reason than so I can find them later myself.
Finally, though it is significantly less important than Luther’s 95 Thesis, if I were to nail something on a door today it would be the following rant: How can my local “Christian” radio justify playing Christmas songs already? On my drive home this afternoon I was almost asphyxiated when I heard “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” Are you kidding me? I thought Christmas music on Thanksgiving was early, but this is senseless. I don’t even think Johann Tetzel would approve.
I finished preaching through the Reformation solas again and wanted to put together a list of recommended resources for further study, similar to the online Edwards resources list I posted after this past Snow Retreat. Unlike that list, however, I’ve also included some books that are not available to read online.