Recently my wife and I watched a documentary which I had backed on Kickstarter. It was great. You should watch it. It’s a film that reflects back to me the story of my own faith journey over the last five years, a journey shared among many others in my generation who have sought to dig deep into the truth of God’s word and to live in light of the clear teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, with the Bible as our sole infallible authority. Today marks the 500th anniversary of a courageous act by a young Martin Luther who confronted the Roman Catholic church of his day by nailing 95 debate points to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It’s important to reflect on and thank God for the lives of faithful men and women who have gone before us, and who confronted the false teachers and corrupt leaders of their day for the sake of the true gospel which they worked hard to get into the hands of common people. That said, there’s more to Reformation Day than just remembering a bunch of dead guys and what they taught. The bigger picture is about paying attention to what the Reformation means, where it led and why the need for semper reformanda (to be constantly reforming) is as real today as it was in 1517.
Luther’s teaching and influence was significant then, as it is now. For me, his understanding of the bondage of the human will to sin as our default state on this side of the fall (thus requiring a work of God to change our hearts before we can come to Him), his commitment to the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (not by purchasing indulgences to cover one’s sins or somehow earning God’s favour, as if that was possible) and his belief in God’s sovereignty in salvation appear like a bright light in what was a dark time in church history, a time when the church controlled the people, with little accountability for its actions.
Around three or four years ago, primarily through Bible study and podcast materials, I came across what I now know as Reformed theology. A little while later, I came to understand the history of the Reformation, the characters who were involved and the significance of this moment in church history. Whereas before I suppose I thought people were somewhat good but not good enough (thus requiring God’s grace) and that each individual needed to have enough evidence presented to them to help them make a decision to believe of their own accord, I now understood afresh that our starting point is one of being dead in sin (or slaves to sin) and it is only by faith in the perfect son of God that we receive God’s grace and that even the faith itself is a gift from Him, not something we muster, earn or can take credit for (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…
It’s the “But God” bit that really stands out to me now. I wasn’t just down and needing God to help pick myself up. I was out. I was dead. But God, without me doing anything to earn it or become spiritually awakened enough to accept it or anything else, intervened in love and mercy, taking out my heart of stone and giving me a heart of flesh.
At the start of 2016 my wife and I felt an unmistakable call to move from our home church, full of people we loved, to a new church. We stepped down from the ministries we were involved in and found a local church that taught the same emphasis on God’s work in salvation that we’d come to see so clearly taught in scripture and experienced (although we didn’t understand it fully at the time we were converted all those years ago) in our own lives. A little while later, one of the guys I used to serve with was chatting to my wife and said that after we moved churches, he had been told by someone in the congregation at our previous church that the reason we’d moved was that we had ‘gone a bit weird’. I chuckle at that description, but I also find it sad that so many evangelicals are happy to tip their hat to the Protestant Reformation, but misunderstand the theology that came out of it, including the theology of Reformers like John Calvin who sought to get back to the original teaching of scripture rather than blending in bits of Roman Catholic doctrine and tradition.
I won’t go into full detail on every doctrinal distinctive that’s changed since I discovered Reformed theology a number of years ago, but hopefully the following short reflections will give an insight into why I’m celebrating this Reformation Day and thanking God that 500 years on, the theology of the Reformers is till breathing new life into believers today.
- I’m not a new Christian, but I’m a new kind of Christian with new affections and a new passion for God’s glory. Reformed theology has helped me to see God’s glory as the central purpose for my life. It’s so freeing to know that I have been created to seek the source of true life, joy and peace which is God himself. Since God is the source of truth, life and lasting joy, my role is to show him for who he is (to bring him glory) and to delight in who he is. As he is committed to making his glory known, so am I to participating in this mission with him.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!
- Knowing that importance God places on spreading a passion for his glory among his people and to the ends of the earth, I am committed, as the Reformers were, to seeking to understand and relate to God in a way that is true to his own revelation of himself to us in scripture.
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants[c] for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
- Likewise, as was the case during the Reformation, I am committed to a method of interpreting scripture that is faithful to the author’s intent and am committed to understanding it’s role in our lives as our only infallible rule of faith and practice. I believe such a high view of scripture (inerrancy) is true to what scripture itself teaches about its authority.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
- As important as we are to God, the story of the Bible is not primarily about us, it’s about Him. Importantly, this means that when reading the Old Testament, I take Jesus’ words in Luke 24 seriously and believe that the whole Old Testament points to Him.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
- The whole Bible speaks one message through many voices, climaxing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and pointing forward to the time when he will come again to usher in the new heavens and the new earth.
- The Five Solas (we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to scripture alone to the glory of God alone) and the doctrines of grace (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints) open my eyes and my heart to embrace God’s sovereignty as beautiful. God has a plan that he is bringing to bear in history. No one can come to Him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44) and yet those whom he does draw to himself he chose before the foundation of the world. That is an incredible thought – that even though we did nothing to deserve his love, God chose people to be his, people that he would redeem and pay the highest price for, through the death of his son, to show his love and mercy and to make his power known while being just and the justifier of the ungodly (Romans 3).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
- Calvinists are often misrepresented as being apathetic when it comes to evangelism, simply because we believe there are some who are elect and others who aren’t, but this charge of apathy is a misconception. True Calvinists marvel daily at the love, mercy and grace shown to them and desire to share the good news of God’s love with others. We don’t know who the elect are, but we understand that God uses means to achieve his purposes and we are privileged to therefore be able to participate in his work (Matthew 28:16-20). There is incredible freedom in evangelism from a Reformed/Calvinistic perspective, since it is God’s Spirit who works in the hearts of unbelievers to regenerate and turn them towards himself. Our job is just to preach the gospel and pray that the Spirit would grant people repentance and a knowledge of the truth.
There are plenty of other things I could say on this topic, but for now I am thankful for the Reformers. I’m thankful for the courage, determination, biblical literacy/insight and Christian wisdom of Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and those who followed in their footsteps, including those who herald the same truths today. To celebrate the Reformation is not to promote divisiveness for the sake of it, but to acknowledge the importance of allowing God’s word to speak for itself and to speak to people directly, without the chains of Catholic tradition and extra-biblical authority muddying the waters.
I believe the theology of the Reformers is true to scripture. It satisfies the soul and the mind in a way that man-centred theologies cannot. It points faithfully to God and his glory as our ultimate authority and source of joy. I pray that over the next 500 years, the Reformation would continue as we look forward to the day when Jesus returns and God’s purposes in human history are brought to their ultimate consummation. Until then, semper reformanda!
For a fascinating insight into the key characters of the Reformation, visit Here We Stand – a resource from Desiring God.