Does The Reformation Still Matter? Part One
*In celebration of the 5ooth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: This is part one of a three-part series on why the Reformation still matters today.
By Ryan Welsh
The year 2017 is not just another year. Not for Protestant Christians. It’s no more just another year then it is just another year for a married couple to enter into their 40th year of marriage. Yes, it’s mathematically only one more year, but its significance is much larger. This year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, where Martin Luther famously nailed the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. His actions, his writings, and his complaints were decades, even centuries, in the making. The Church of Rome (the only Christian church at the time) had become increasingly corrupt. They had taken what was once a church dedicated to the Apostles’ teachings and created an institution that embodied a feeble semblance of anything that arose from the Apostles’ teaching.
The Church 500 Years Ago
The church had grown fond 0f addition. They added tradition to Scripture, faith to works and priests to Jesus. In doing so, they created doctrines that undercut the gospel of Jesus Christ. They stifled the gospel message and exchanged it for a man-powered, church-dominated, works-focused religion that is entirely foreign to good news. After Paul penned what we would call the first eleven chapters of his letter to the Romans— chapters that are deeply and doctrinally rich, he transitions, in his last five chapters, to focus on how these doctrines look in the life of the Christian and the church.
His opening to this final section reads: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Paul’s appeal is for the Christian, and by extension the church, to align their thinking to what they just read in the previous eleven chapters. Paul knows that the sin nature of mankind will continually attract the Christian back to their own manmade doctrines of God. Paul’s exhortation is for the Christian to resist conformity to a worldly way of thinking, and rather be transformed by the truth that God has revealed. It is here, at the most elementary level, that the church had failed. They routinely put their thoughts, ideas and desires atop God’s Word and therefore warped the church into a place of manufactured doctrines absent of the good news of Jesus Christ and His cross.
The heart of the Reformation was to bring the church back to the Bible and therefore back to the center of the Bible— The gospel. The best way to summarize the work of the Reformation is through the Five Solas: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone), Soli Deo Gloria (To The Glory of God Alone). The Roman Catholic Church had, either directly or functionally, denied each of these doctrines and therefore the work of the reformers was to bring the church back to these all-simple, yet all-important doctrines.
Is The Church Fixed?
It’s been 500 years. The church must be fixed. Right? Wrong. The message of the Reformation is still relevant, necessary and indispensable today. Actually, it is essential no less today then it was then. Looking at the Protestant church today (I use “Protestant” broadly, generously and liberally), it is clear that, like Rome of half a millennium ago, the church has subscribed to the world’s theology, the world’s agenda, and the world’s methods. It is because of the church’s failure to be transformed by the Word of God that the Five Solas of the Reformation are still fundamental today.
The reformers did not teach that Scripture was all that was needed for knowledge of everything under the sun. For example, the Bible doesn’t teach how to throw a baseball or give details on tax deductions. Sola Scripture means:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men (Westminster Confession of Faith).
In short, we don’t need anything but the Bible to know who God is, who we are, and how we are saved. There are many facets to Sola Scriptura, such as: clarity, authority, necessity and sufficiency. In today’s Protestant church, the sufficiency of God’s Word is most visibly under attack. This usually occurs in functionality. When the church doesn’t take the Word of God at face value, but feels the need to make excuses for, and add caveats to, then Sola Scriptura has been denied. It seems to me, when the sufficiency of Scripture is denied, even functionally, it’s a result of denying the other aspects of Sola Scriptura. When one rejects the clarity, authority and necessity of Scripture, they arrive at a place where the sufficiency of God’s Word is denied as a mater of logic.
Much of the church today functionally denies the sufficiency of Scripture on many matters. However, where the Bible’s sufficiency is most visibly rejected today is on matters related to homosexuality and homosexual marriage. It has become commonplace for Christians, and Christian churches alike, to rely on experience rather than on God’s Word for direction in matters related to the sexual and moral revolution. The Bible, however, is incredibly clear on the matter. Sola Scriptura has been rejected for “Sola Culture” or “Sola Feels.” This leads believers to doubt God’s Word in others areas. Once you add to Scripture in one area, what is to keep you from adding or taking away in other areas? This leads to a lack of confidence in Holy Scripture and naturally results in the doubting of many doctrines that are taught so plainly within.
To a large degree, the Protestant church today is filled with preaching that has the self-esteem of the believer in mind (if they have the believer in mind at all) at the expense of the glory of God as shown through His Amazing Grace toward ill-deserving sinners. The “Self Help” agenda that the church has so freely adopted today, inappropriately and egregiously, represents God’s ultimate objective to be the uplifting of the believer’s self-esteem and the advancement of their earthly happiness and effectiveness. Pulpits today are filled with a whole lot of “5 Ways To Be a Better Spouse,” “8 Ways To Succeed the Way God Intended,” and “Content or Discontent: Which Tent Are You In?” All self-help methods and approaches posses a vital error in common— the refusal to inform and remind the believer of their utter depravity and need for a Savior. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) directs us back to the Bible. It reminds us of what Romans 3 teaches— where Paul tells us that “none is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11). Sola Gratia reminds us that we are saved by grace ALONE, because in our utter depravity there is no way, but through His grace.
A Sola Gratia-less church fails to communicate the need for the gospel of grace because the teaching of sin is absent, where as Sola Fide-less church readily addresses the reality of sin, but fails to communicate the antidote. The Protestant church today is filled with gospel-deprived pulpits. People are beat over the head with the Law, but are told their effort, striving and works are the remedy. Sola Gratia and Sola Fide work together like a key and a car engine. The engine runs after the key is turned. The engine can only run because the key is turned. The engine cannot start on it’s own. The key’s action produces the running of the engine. In grace, and only by grace, God chooses to open our eyes to the beauty of His Son and desire His salvation. This drawing us to Himself is what produces faith. We will not and we cannot have faith in Jesus Christ as Savior without first being given the grace to see His goodness and to desire the gospel results.
The faith that follows is what leads to our justification, the act of being judged “not guilty.” We, of course, are guilty, but the perfect righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us as He takes on our sin and gives us His righteousness at the cross. Paul explains the process this way:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26).
The gospel has been misplaced in much of the Protestant church today. Far too many people attend church only to leave with the exhortation to fix the problem themselves— to do better, to try harder, to earn their salvation. This is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church believed and taught, and consequently why the reformers felt such a burden to highlight Sola Fide. Today, as 500 years ago, the church in is need of a reformation— a return to the gospel of grace.
The only one who could provide such a righteousness in us is Jesus Christ. He is the only one to ever live a sinless life. He is the only one to perfectly obey the Law’s legal demands. It has become commonplace today for the church to teach that Jesus has opened the door for salvation. This is, however, a very dangerous and heretical teaching. Jesus did not come to show us the way. He did not come to help us find the way. He didn’t come to give us a jump start. He came to completely fulfill and accomplish all that righteousness demands. He came to be the satisfaction— to appease the wrath of God that burned hot against us. He came to be the sacrifice—to be the unblemished Passover lamb who bore our sin. He came to be our substitution—to go in our place and exchange His place for ours. To take our sin and give us His righteousness.
The church today tends to minimize the work of Christ and maximize the believer’s potential to earn God’s favor. When the cross of Christ is preached to it’s full extent, the believer is overwhelmed by the love of Jesus and motivated to live for Him. The indicative of what Jesus did must come before the imperative to live a godly life. The imperative ought never be confused with the antidote for sin. The indicative is always the remedy. The imperative is always the response. The work of Christ on the cross is the ONLY work that saves us.
Soli Deo Gloria
“Felt need” preaching has become the norm. The preacher decides to preach on what he feels the biggest need is for the people to hear. This typically takes the form of steps to a better life, a happier life— a more complete life. The mistake in making humans the center of God’s motivation is in contradiction to what God has stated as the reason for His actions. Paul tells us in Romans 11:36 that God is the source of all things as well as the motivation for all His actions. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” As the result of God being the source and telos of His actions, Paul concludes: “To Him be glory forever. Amen.”
Soli Deo Gloria teaches that God does everything—blesses people, brings disaster, sends His Son, brings salvation— for His own glory. When the church, either intentionally or unintentionally, places man in the place of glory, it not only robs God of His due worship, but confuses man when seasons of trouble arrive. If God’s purpose is to make man happy and complete and fulfilled in this life, then why are our lives so often filled with hurt and pain. Doubt about God’s goodness and sovereignty inevitably creeps into the believer’s mind when He is replaced by man on the throne of glory. Soli Deo Gloria places God on His rightful throne and puts man in his rightful place of submission.
Are These Things Still Important?
Yes! It’s clear that the reformation is not over. The burden the reformers felt in their day is still felt, or at least ought to be felt, today. What a blessing for us to remember the Reformation 500 years later. May it not be a study of history only, but also a mirror to the church today. A mirror for the church to see its sin and a warning to not continue down the road the Church of Rome walked.
Praise God that we are saved by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, by the work of Christ Alone, for the Glory of God Alone, as found in Scripture Alone!