What the Reformation can teach the Church Today
Next Monday is October 31. While this date is officially listed as “Halloween” on my wall calendar, as a Protestant Christian and pastor I prefer to recognize it by its other name – Reformation Day! This was the date back in 1517 when Martin Luther is believed to have posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany – an act which set in motion a series of events which eventually came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
What does the Reformation have to teach us today in the church? There are many things we may learn from the Reformation, but in this post I wish to focus on a number of lessons I believe the church today would do well to learn from the Reformers: (1) Lessons that we can learn from the Reformation principle of “Sola Scriptura” (“Scripture Alone”). (2) Lessons that we can learn from the Reformation principle of “Sola Fide” (Justification by “Faith Alone”). And, (3) Lessons that we can learn from the Reformers’ love of the visible, institutional church.
Let’s start with what we can learn today from the Reformation principle of “Sola Scriptura”, which is Latin for “Scripture alone”. This principle asserts that the Bible is the only infallible rule for Christian faith and practice in the church, the ultimate Norm that norms all lesser norms, for the Bible is the very inscripturated Word of God. While things such as church tradition, reason and religious experience can serve a subordinate role as secondary norms in the church, so long as they are subject to Scripture, the Bible alone is the ultimate and final Rule and Norm for faith and practice in Christ’s Church, for the Bible alone is the infallible Word of God.
(1) The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura can teach the contemporary church to avoid the errors of rationalism and mysticism.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9, ESV). This is not only true when it comes to the mundane realities of everyday life. It is also true when it comes to errors and heresies that arise among God’s people. Satan loves to recycle the same old basic heresies, just in different forms at different times and places and to different people groups. The Reformers in their day had to deal not only with an encrusted traditionalism in the church in the form of unbiblical and idolatrous doctrines, rites, ceremonies and practices. They also had to confront errors rooted in rationalism and mysticism.
Rationalism in general looks to human reason as the highest authority and seeks to find God in the human mind.
Mysticism, on the other hand, looks to human emotions and subjective religious experience as the highest authority and seeks to find God in the fluctuations of the human heart.
Both rationalism and mysticism are alive and well in the institutional church today, though they manifest themselves in different forms today than they did in the days of the Reformers.
For example, regarding mysticism, Luther was very critical of those who claimed to speak by the Holy Spirit without warrant from the written Word of God. For Reformers such as Luther and Calvin the Holy Spirit has freely chosen to bind Himself to the Word of God (both in its written and its preached form). They believed and confessed that today in our post-apostolic era the Spirit speaks exclusively by means of the Word. Luther sarcastically accused those mystics in his day who divorced the Spirit of God from the Word of God of being guilty of “swallowing the Holy Spirit, feathers and all”!
Today the teachings of many popular Christian teachers are drenched with such mysticism. “The Lord told me to do x….” “God spoke to my heart…” “I felt the Lord leading me to say y…” Such talk is very common in the church and among Christians today, showing the powerful sway that mysticism holds on the hearts of many believers. Sola Scriptura challenges us believers today to look for God’s speech and God’s Spirit, not in the ratiocinations of our minds or the fluctuations of our emotions, but in the objective, outside-of-us Word of God, which speaks powerfully to both mind and heart.
The next Reformation principle that the church today can learn from is that of “Sola Fide,” which is Latin for “Faith Alone.” This is the biblical teaching, rediscovered in its light and clarity by the Reformers, that we sinners are declared righteous (“justified”) before Almighty God by His grace alone, through God-given faith in Jesus Christ alone, and apart from our own supposed merits or good works. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (ESV)
(2) Sola Fide can teach the church to avoid the errors of both legalism and decisionalism.
As was the case in the days of the Reformers, so it is true today that the church is filled with many manifestations of legalism. For example, even in many professedly “Bible believing” churches believers are often given a steady diet of moralistic, “life principle” and “how to” sermons filled perhaps with some helpful everyday wisdom and ethical advice on how to live a better life in the present, but often devoid of any central reference to Jesus Christ and Him crucified as our only hope of eternal salvation.
As was the case with Christians in the days prior to the Reformation, Christians today get lots of “law” (and often mere human “laws” or principles instead of God’s Law), lots of emotional guilt-manipulation about how they need to do more and try harder and be better disciples, but very little “gospel” (i.e., the “good news”) about Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of their sins. But such moralistic, life-principle preaching is not really biblical preaching at all. A motivational pep talk sprinkled with personal testimonies, touching stories and a few Bible verses is not the same thing as the genuine preaching of God’s Word, for real biblical preaching explains and applies a passage of Scripture and points the listener to Jesus Christ and Christ alone, crucified for the forgiveness of our sins and risen again for our justification!
In addition, the evangelical churches in America today have been saturated by the Arminian, free-will, decisionalist heresy that proclaims our salvation to be ultimately up to our choice for Christ, rather than Christ’s work for us. But just as Scripture teaches us that salvation is not by what we do (our works), so it also teaches that we are not saved by what we will. As Scripture says in Romans 9:16, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (ESV) Apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (i.e., being “born again”) we sinners are spiritually dead, incapable and unwilling to respond to the gospel call of repentance and faith. It takes a miracle of sovereign grace to raise a sinner from the deadness of his sin to newness of life in Christ. Sola Fide helps to underscore this point that our salvation is purely by grace and by grace alone! We choose Him because He first chose us! We believe because He destined us to believe, and because His Spirit used the Word to work saving faith within our souls! This Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone can help teach the contemporary church to forsake its reliance upon artificial revivalistic techniques aimed at emotionally manipulating people into making a superficial “decision for Christ”, and instead rely upon the powerful word of the gospel to raise spiritually dead sinners to new life in Jesus Christ!
(3) Finally, the Reformers can teach us to love the church.
There was certainly much worthy of criticism in the medieval, pre-Reformation church. The Reformers such as Luther and Calvin were often scathing and unrelenting in their denunciations of the false teaching, false worship and unbiblical practices of the medieval church. But their ultimate aim was not to destroy the church by their rhetoric. They aimed not at the destruction of Christ’s visible, institutional church. Rather, they aimed at the church’s Reformation according to the Word of God. (Hence we call them the Reformers.)
Likewise, there is much in Christ’s visible church today that is worthy of criticism. Some professing believers, fed up with the shallowness and superficiality and emptiness of the contemporary church, have given up on the institutional church altogether, opting instead to be so-called “self-feeders.” But that is neither a biblical nor a reformational option, for Christ’s church is His Bride, however tainted she is in her current state. Where we see the need for change, for repentance, for renewal in the church, let us not abandon the visible Bride of Christ. Instead, like the Reformers, let us pray and work for her Reformation, that one day (as promised in the Word) she will be presented before her Savior in glory without spot or blemish, washed in the blood of the Lamb of God and clothed in His everlasting righteousness!
May you have a Happy Reformation Day!