Today is an important day. It’s Reformation Day, the day that sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe. In fact, it’s the 500th anniversary of the day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church, challenging several unbiblical doctrines and practices of the established Roman Catholic church in Europe.
The core issue of the Reformation, of course, was justification: how are people declared righteous before a perfect God? Luther argued it was by faith in Christ, as the Scriptures reveal, not our own works. The church needed this correction. We need to remember and embrace this today.
The Reformation has much to commend to it. But it also left much to be desired—at least from where I sit as a white, Western Christian man in a Protestant tradition. A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have said something like this. But my journey as a pastor of a Protestant community-type church who has transitioned into a missionary role has brought me, I think, more balance in my approach to church history, theology, and where we stand today as a movement. Not perfect. Just more balanced.
With that said, here are three reflections on the Reformation. These deserve a post all on their own. However, at the very least, I hope they serve as great conversation starters at your Halloween party tonight.
Justification is Not Everything
Justification is central to biblical Christianity, but it is not the whole of salvation. An unhealthy obsession with justification as the marquee doctrine can lead to a transactional faith where we simply see God as a judge who declares us righteous. He is that and he does that. But biblical salvation doesn’t end there. Perhaps a greater biblical theme (in both Old and New Testaments) than the need for justification is that we are alienated and orphaned because of sin. Therefore, what we need is not just for the Judge to declare us innocent, but for the Judge to become our Father and welcome us home. This is the biblical teaching of adoption which is a God-given grace that goes beyond justification.
We must remember that the Reformation happened in a Western, European, white, and heavily institutional context that dealt with a single doctrinal issue: justification. Furthermore, Luther’s context tended to emphasize the transactional nature of relationships (e.g. judge to defendant) rather than the familial nature of relationships (e.g. father to son). A Native American friend, speaking about a different topic, said something that applies here: “Most white people’s relationships are transactional [as opposed to familial].” Unfortunately, most of our Protestant traditions here in the States see our relationship with God, and others, this way, too. What’s more, our churches in 2017 look more like the church of Luther’s day than the church in the beginning of Acts.
The “Five Solas” of the Reformation attempted to summarize the biblical teaching on salvation: that we are justified by God’s grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, received through faith alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. This is glorious! However, is it enough? A friend once asked me, “I wonder what would have happened had the Reformers emphasized another sola: sola amare, love alone?” That is, we are justified so that we might do something: love God and love people.
The Reformation did not emphasize much about our post-conversion life. Of course, the Reformation dealt with a single issue (a doctrinal one at that). But the Bible isn’t an academic, theological textbook (or glossary) where one doctrine stands in isolation to others. The Bible is revelation. The Bible reveals a God who calls a people to himself, saves that people through his Son Jesus, and commissions that people to a life of love and service to a dark world. If justification by faith is true—and it is—then a necessary outflow is that we are enabled, by grace, to obey the Great Commandment. Now, we love God with everything we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. Be thankful for Luther’s course correction regarding justification. But we must remember, with deep sorrow, that he also despised the book of James, a love-in-action letter that takes justification to its practical outworking.
Always Be Reforming
There is a saying among the Reformed that goes something like this: “Reformed and always reforming.” I believe in that motto so long as we reform not to a certain theological camp’s standards but according to the word of God itself. And reform to the word of God does not simply mean assenting to theological platitudes. Sound doctrine, certainly according to Paul, always leads to a life life of worship and obedience to Jesus. So yes, let’s keep reforming and becoming more holistically biblical. But let’s not be reductionistic nor “reform” to the mindset or methodology of the church of the 16th century.
Today, remember Reformation Day and be thankful for what it was. A hearty “amen” to that! But let’s also keep in mind that it was not everything, nor was it ever meant to be.