The Reformation 500 Years Later: Three Lessons for Today

Today, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. There are countless celebrations taking place around the world. I thought I would dedicate space on my blog today to reflect on a few key lessons from the Reformation which might help us in our own struggles today.

First, complaining about abuses in the church does not a Reformation make.

It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed (and also mailed) his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. If you take time to Google the 95 theses you will quickly see that they are more of a laundry list of complaints than they were a positive statement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not difficult to complain about the church. This is not the genius or source of the power of the Reformation, even though we are known as the “protestors” (Protestants). The real spark which lit the Reformation was when Luther took time to read the New Testament in Greek and he re-discovered the gospel in that famous quotation from Habakkuk which Paul quotes in Romans 1:17—“the just shall live by faith.”

The lesson for us today is that it is not enough to complain about all the ways the church has erred and lost its way. The real source of an awakening is found when the gospel itself is rediscovered in the life of the church. Today, the crisis in the church today is not, fundamentally, a programmatic problem (i.e., the need for better church programs); nor is the crisis fundamentally a budget problem, or even a membership problem. Our problem is the loss of the gospel itself. When the gospel is re-discovered, then we will not be able to contain the vibrancy and life which will emerge. The re-discovery of Romans 1:17 and the centrality of Christ was the spark which led to hundreds of thousands of new Christians, as well as millions of baptized church-going Christians who gloriously heard the gospel for the first time.

Second, the Reformation was the church’s greatest act of catholicity.

If you lived in the 16th century, you would have heard a fairly constant refrain that the Reformers were schismatic and were a threat to the unity of the church. In 1555 three godly Anglican bishops, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake—all for being schismatic. Thomas Cranmer is probably best known today for being the author, editor in chief, and compiler of the Book of Common Prayer, the most influential prayer guide ever published. It is now evident that those men died because of the gospel itself.

In addition to the charge of being schismatic, the transcripts of their church trials reveals that they were also burned at the stake for the following: (1) Belief that the Bible should be rendered in English, the language of the people; (2) Belief that the laity should be able to receive the cup at communion, not just the bread; (3) That salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the works of the law. These are not schismatic beliefs. These are the rediscovery of the deeper catholicity which binds all true Christians together, regardless of denomination. Today, we must remember that our unity is found in the historic church which stretches back through time and around the world. The basis for our unity is in Jesus Christ and the gospel, not in any kind of organizational unity. Denominations come and go, the gospel is eternal.

Third, the Reformation brought about the rebirth of catechesis.

One of the signs of a church in the throes of death is the loss of catechesis. The young are not trained in the faith. The great doctrinal truths of the gospel are not taught to a new generation. People grow up in the church with no real clarity about the distinctiveness of the Christian message and the essence of the gospel. The Reformation brought on a whole new wave of gospel training and equipping of the young and newly baptized Christians. The basic introductions to the Christian faith were everywhere: Larger, Shorter, Genevan, Heidelberg, and Westminster Catechisms were among the most famous and have been used by millions of new believers all over the world. Today, we would use the word “discipleship.” A renewed church is a church committed to discipleship and the equipping of all believers for the work of ministry. The wonderful phrase from the Reformation which captured this was “the priesthood of all believers.”

Praise God for the Protestant Reformation! There was, of course, much more work to be done. Wesley extended the Reformation to new areas which had been neglected by the 16th century reformers. Today, we need renewal in many more areas. My fervent prayer this day is that the church would, once again, experience a profound awakening and renewal. For the gospel of Jesus Christ remains the power of God for every generation.

On the Need to Be Prophetically Irenic

The call to be irenic is an important and valuable one in today’s climate of divisive and destructive engages between people in an increasingly divided society. Saint Peter, for example, calls us to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). This text provides the perfect balance for our calling. On the one hand, we are called to defend the historic gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to joyfully affirm the biblical teaching, even if the cultural winds are blowing strongly in our face. But, we are to do it with a posture of humility and grace. As Christians we have not always been effective at this balance. Sometimes, we can express truth in ways which are harsh and destructive and tragically disconnected from the larger vision of God’s redemptive work in the world. At other times, we have been guilty of a cowardly passivity where we have not joyfully defended the clear teaching of Scripture.

Today, it is particularly vital that Christians understand the difference between a “position” and a “posture.” A theological position is, in itself, not necessarily irenic or non-irenic. How that position is expressed can certainly be done in a way which is irenic or not. However, being irenic is a posture, not a position. Peter’s use of words like “gentleness” and “respect” bear this point out. It is not unusual today for positions themselves to be regarded as non-irenic, thereby confusing a “position” with a “posture.” This is a categorical error.

There are many Christian “positions” which the world, and even some in the church, find inherently offensive. Let me give a few examples. To say, Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) is a position which is offensive to many people. Likewise, positions on God’s final judgment, the emphasis on the blood of Jesus, or the teaching of Scripture that marriage is a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman all fall in the category of difficult positions in today’s cultural climate. However, it is a categorical error to identify these positions as inherently non-irenic. They are positions, not postures. Each of these biblical truths, and dozens like it, can be expressed in ways which are compelling and beautifully integrated into the beautiful tapestry of the biblical vision. However, we must boldly reject the notion that we are not “irenic” simply because we hold scriptural positions which are at odds with the culture around us.

Most of us who are reading this blog have belonged to churches long lulled into the sleepfulness of Christendom which, over many centuries, gradually sanded down all the sharp edges of the gospel. We gradually began to mistake western, cultural civic religion as the actual gospel proclaimed in the New Testament. We gradually began to believe that the “no cost” gospel of “easy believism” was actually the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now that we are clearly emerging into a post-Christian culture, it is a new challenge for many of us to re-discover the prophetic, radical message of the gospel. However, this is not an easy transition. The mainline solution to this problem has been, broadly speaking, to make fairly predictable concessions to the surrounding cultural milieu in the hope that the new generation will, once again, fill our churches because the church will retain its “historic” role as being in the cultural center. We have long enjoyed the fact that Christians have positions of political power, since the vast majority of our Presidents, Senators and congress members were also members of the church. But, we are clearly seeing the sunset of that long cherished assumption. Indeed, this has always been the besetting sin of civil religion and has never been true to the gospel. The more difficult, and, frankly, more painful, task is to re-read the Scriptures and allow it to take root fully within our lives and in our churches. We desperately need a return to a robust, scriptural Christianity embodied by Christians who are holy and who deeply engage (not retreat) in ways which demonstrate not how much we are really like culture, but rather the stunning alternative to which the rule and reign of God calls us to. We must boldly proclaim the gospel, but do it with an irenic posture. It is not irenic for the church to become just another cultural echo chamber. It is not irenic to refer to unbiblical beliefs and practices embraced by Christians as merely “different perspectives.” We are called to be a prophetic witness to the saving work of the Triune God in the midst of a depraved and lost generation. This is precisely what the Apostle Paul calls us to when he says that we are to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life . . . ” (Phil. 2:15, 16).