As I write there is a major land war ongoing between Russia and Ukraine, Israel has suffered a horrific terrorist attack by Hamas and is facing a two-front war with Hamas to the South and Hezbollah to the North as she seeks to rescue Israeli and American hostages held (potentially underground) in Gaza. Meanwhile, pro-Hamas demonstrators across the USA and the world flood the streets to celebrate the carnage in Israel. Communist China is a growing threat globally. America seems to be a cultural and political free-fall. The American southern border is a turnstile as an incredible seven million people have entered the country illegally since the beginning of the Biden Administration. This is not only unsustainable politically, as the administration has reluctantly acknowledged in recent days, but a human trafficking and national security nightmare. Violent crime across the USA, and especially in blue states, is surging as voters have apparently decided to commit suicide by criminal (the FBI is re-configuring how they collect crime statistics, and several major metro areas are not included in some of the recent reports). The country is in a cold (as distinct from a hot, shooting) cultural-political war with itself. In blue cities across the USA (and particularly in the western states, in part because of a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals limiting the ability of cities to address the plague of drug-addicted and mentally ill citizens who refuse to get clean or get treatment), the streets are filled with addicts and the addled. On top of that, school district administrators and grammar school librarians across the country seem to be bent on introducing children to literature so prurient that it cannot be read aloud to the school boards governing the district. The list of woes could go on to include the financial and economic state of the US and the apparently resurgent threat of global Islamism—especially on the African continent.
In light of all these ailments, it might seem fantastic (in the old fashioned sense of the word) to talk about Reformation Day 2023. After all, what hath dressing up like Luther and Calvin (in lieu of Halloween) and speeches about 1517 to do with the great questions of the day? That is a fair question, but the answer is: much in every way (Rom 3:2). For one thing, as American Christians gave up the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation they plunged themselves and their congregations into a morass of subjectivism (QIRE), rationalism (QIRC)—on these see the chapters in Recovering the Reformed Confession. They plunged themselves into what the Reformation-era Protestants called “fanaticism” (e.g., the Anabaptists and other radical movements), and the enthusiasm (e.g., Pentecostalism, the Millerite movement, Mormonism, the Second Great Awakening) that characterized so much of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century American evangelical religion. Then, from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, the mainline denominations, the so-called Seven Sisters of the Mainline gradually gave up any vestige of historic Christianity in their desperate and failed attempt to remain relevant in American culture.1
As a result of the turn in American Christianity that began in the eighteenth century but hit turbo-boost in the early nineteenth century, American Christianity was transformed and the churches and Christians of the Reformation were orphaned in this country. The very short story is that Christians in the Reformation churches (Lutheran and Reformed) became strangers and aliens in country where the religion became dominated by what H. L. Mencken called “magic and noise.”
The claim of the Reformation churches was that they had recovered (or begun to recover) the Biblical and ancient Christianity. I believe they did so and to the degree that is true then the real question is, to borrow from Tertullian twice in one essay, what hath Christianity to do with the crises of our age? Again, the answer is everything. As the culture wobbles or perhaps collapses around us Christians need a place to stand. Augustine wrote On The City of God as the Rome Empire collapsed about them and the pagans blamed the Christians for the collapse. As the West continues to collapse we should not be surprised if the neo-pagans follow their spiritual forebears and blame the Christians. When the heat is on, where will Christians stand and where will they land? The heat, both figuratively and literally, was frequently on the Protestant Reformers. They too had to know what they were about, where they stood and why. Where did they stand?
The Reformation was, first of all, a call by faithful ministers and scholars in the church, to the church, to return to the Word of God as the final, and in that sense, unique authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. This is what is meant by the Latin slogan, sola scriptura. This slogan was never meant to signal what many American evangelicals understand by it, i.e., that we read only Scripture or we read the Bible as though no one has ever read it before. Rather, the Reformers understood and taught that we read the Bible with the church but that it is the Bible that forms and norms the church and not the reverse. The Reformers themselves were quite interested in what the church fathers (c. AD 100–500) and Medieval theologians (c. 500–1500) before them—Calvin, Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, et al. were more Medieval than Modern—had understood Scripture to teach. The Reformers and their orthodox successors were convinced that they were recovering the essence of the theology, piety, and practice of the early Christian fathers.
The insistence of the Reformers upon the unique and final authority of Scripture relative to church and religious experience (e.g., mysticism) is something American Christians need to appreciate and take up again for themselves. American Christianity is awash in moralism, Deism, therapeutic Narcissism, sentimentalism, subjectivism, and mysticism. Few medieval Christians were as superstitious as those who attend Benny Hinn (with Francis Chan) rallies. The Reformation return to Scripture was grounded in their supreme confidence in the reliability (truthfulness) of Scripture. They gave themselves over to the study and preaching of Scripture and to the study and teaching of doctrine derived from Scripture and informed by the ecumenical creeds of the church. These are not the marks of evangelical Christianity in 2023. In a time of moral and theological confusion Christians need a beacon of truth and light and holy Scripture is that beacon.
In the late-fourteenth century and through the fifteenth century, there was a rise of Pelagian ideas, i.e., the doctrine that we are not born sinners, that our wills are not captive to sin, that we have it within us to do what God requires. That provoked an Augustinian response. In his Augustinian monastery (meaning that they followed Augustine’s rule for monks, not that they were necessarily Augustinian in theology), Martin Luther (1483–1546) heard the superior of his monastery give a series of Augustinian sermons defending divine sovereignty, unconditional election, etc. It was after that he began lecturing through the Psalms in the University of Wittenberg. As he did so he was studying Augustine’s comments on the Psalms. As he gave those lectures he became an Augustinian in his view of sin and grace. He realized that we are saved (justified, sanctified, and glorified) by divine favor alone.
This too is something that American Christians need to re-learn. There are millions of American Christians who truly believe that they are saved by grace and works or grace and cooperation with grace. Be they Federal Visionists, or advocates of the so-called New Perspective on Paul, or just old-fashioned Wesleyan (or Nazarene) Arminians, there are so many American evangelicals who have rejected (or, more likely, never known) the Reformation doctrines of grace, that God loved his elect unconditionally, in Christ, from all eternity. This is so unknown to so many Modern Christians that when a fraction of them began to discover them (e.g., the Young, Restless, and Reformed) or even a facsimile of them it was front page news. American Christianity is in desperate need of the Augustinian-Reformation doctrine of salvation by divine favor alone.
Like the other slogans, this one too is misunderstood. After his lectures through the Psalms, Luther lectured through Romans and as he did, he realized that the story he has been told, that we are justified on the basis of the degree of sanctification wrought in us, was wrong. He realized that Paul was teaching something rather different, that Paul was teaching that the basis of our right standing before God is not what the Spirit does within us but what Christ has done for us (pro nobis), i.e., in our place, as our representative and substitute, and outside (extra nos) of us. To say Christ alone is to say that he alone is our righteousness, that his righteousness, his merit, his obedience, is imputed (credited) to us and we stand before the judgment bar on that basis: as though we ourselves did everything that he did for all of his elect.
After his lectures through Romans, Luther lectured through Galatians, Hebrews, and then the Psalms again. Near the end of his life (but still in possession of his faculties) he remembered that it was in this period that he really began to understand Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” He realized, in light of all he had learned since he began his lectures on the Psalms, that faith is not, first of all, a virtue wrought in us by the Spirit but a divine gift by which we lay hold of Christ and his righteousness for us.
The Reformers realized that true faith is not our sanctification but knowledge, assent, and trust in Christ for us. They realized that, contra the Medieval church, believers can know that they are right with God—not on the basis of anything we have done nor on the basis of anything that the Spirit has done in us. Faith looks away from oneself and to Christ.
How many Modern Christians are trapped in congregations and theological systems where assurance is not only not offered, but where it is actively discouraged or even denied? How many Christians are wracked by fear and anxiety that they have not done enough to satisfy a righteous God? Luther, Calvin, and their orthodox successors knew, as Turretin said, that standing before God is no game of words but a matter of the greatest possible significance.
Soli Deo Gloria
This is perhaps the most neglected of the Reformation-era slogans but it is a fitting capstone to our reflection on the significance of the Reformation in 2023. We live in what might be the most Narcissistic period in human history. Late-modern Westerners have redefined the self, the family, sex, marriage, and human life to suit themselves. We live in a Looney-Tunes cartoon or, as Mike Horton says, a Salvador Dali painting.
Our forebears, going back to Augustine, however, knew that a rightly ordered Christian life does not begin with the self, with expressive individualism (thank you Carl Trueman), but with God. God is the Creator and we are his analogues, his image bearers. We were created to know God, glorify him, and to enjoy him forever. As Augustine wrote, we use created things but we enjoy God.
We human beings were made to glorify God. We live in a deeply corrupt world and time in which God is forgotten and the self is glorified as though it were God. On Reformation Day we remember again that God the Son became incarnate to bear the curse that we deserve for our selfishness, and to deliver us sinners from it. Contrary to what you might hear or read, we cannot save ourselves. We cannot even cooperate sufficiently unto salvation. We are utterly dependent upon God alone for salvation and thus to him alone be the glory.
1. My friends in the PCA, where there is much obvious concern about remaining “relevant” to American culture should take note of the cost paid by the mainline in that same quest. PCAers regularly describe themselves as an “evangelical mainline” denomination and cite the desire of at least some of the founders to be such. That may be but it is difficult to see how the PCA can repeat the history of the PCUSA, insofar as the PCUSA sought to be influential in the culture, without repeating the same outcomes.
- Resources On The Reformation Solas
- Reformation Day 2022: The Antidote For A Fearful People
- Reformation Day Lecture 2022: Why The Reformation Matters For Ministry
- Reformation Day 2021: The Trinity, And The Culture War
- Just In Time For Reformation Day: The Return Of The Federal Visionists (And Their Allies)
- Audio: Reformation Day 2014
- What’s Wrong With Reformation Day? (UPDATED)
- Reformation Day 2013: A Convict, A Commentator, And A Catechism
- Today Should Be Reformation Day!
- What Reformation Day Really Is
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