[ 500 Years On ]

On 31st October 1517, a relatively unknown monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses for debate on the tower of Wittenberg castle. This act was not that spectacular, as it was the common act when calling for a theological debate on a subject. And whilst the 95 theses in of themselves are rather unspectacular, the events that followed that came to be The Reformation catapulted Luther onto the world stage and changed the course of history.

We would not agree with Luther and the other Reformers on every issue. They believed in infant baptism, the baptising of babies; we believe in baptism on profession of faith. We would not want to emulate his coarse language and attitudes of the day, such as those toward the Jews. There were issues the Reformers split on which we might struggle to get our heads round, such as the division between Luther and Zwingli (a Swiss Reformer) on the nature of what happens in Communion. But we owe a huge debt to these men and women of God, many of who died for the faith, so what did the Reformation achieve that is still significant for us today? I think there are three issues which flow out of one bigger area, although I could have included several others.

1. Justification by faith alone

If you ask people what the key issue of the Reformation was, many would point to this. Whilst vital, Luther said it was the article of faith on which the church stands or falls, it was probably not the key issue. That said, this along with the other solas (Latin for alone) are crucial to understanding the theological themes of the Reformation: saved by grace alone; through faith alone; by Christ alone; to the glory of God alone; with Scripture alone as the final and supreme source of authority.

Luther wrestled with the issue of how could a man be in the right with God? For him, the righteousness of God was a source of distress, not comfort. How could anyone stand before a holy God? The righteousness of God being revealed spelled bad news for him. As he preached through the Psalms and the book of Romans he began to see that the righteousness of God was given to the believer through faith in Jesus Christ, it was the act of God putting people in the right with himself. This comes through faith in Christ, and is ours through being united with him. It is not a declaration of one’s moral goodness or behaviour; but is a forensic, legal declaration that one is in the right with God. God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5) through the finished work of Christ on the cross accredited to us.
The church of the day did not have a defined position on justification but it was argued that justification was that which incorporates the whole of the salvation process – it is something imparted throughout the whole of the Christian life. By contrast, however, we would say that it is something that takes place at the start of the Christian walk. It is the future verdict that God will declare on the day of judgement, but that verdict is made known now in the present. Yes, there are works for a believer to do. Yes, those works are necessary for salvation as the proof of justification but the act of justification itself is by faith alone. As one of Luther’s colleagues, and close friend, Philip Melanchthon said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves does not remain alone.”

2. Assurance

In the medieval church, and indeed in some Christian circles today, assurance is something that is seen as encouraging lax behaviour and, indeed, is surely arrogant. How can one claim to know they are saved? But this flows from justification. Once the verdict has been given, sentence has been passed. God is true to His word and true to His promises. In Christ is salvation, outside is only death. If we are in Christ, then we know that He will preserve us as we persevere in our Christian walk.

3. The clarity of Scripture

In Luther’s mind, this was probably the key issue in the Reformation. This does not mean that every little detail in Scripture is clear but that its big picture message of how one can be in the right with God through repenting and having sins forgiven, and putting faith in Christ is something that could be understood by everyone. Biblical literacy was scarce then. Many could not read. If one wanted to know what to think then the teaching of the church was to be followed. If one did not understand, then the church was the commissioned interpreter of scripture and would tell you how it should be understood.

Today we hear “That’s just your interpretation” under the guise of humility, and sometimes that is so. Often, however, it is the bits of the Bible we do understand that trouble us and we use this as a smoke screen to avoid biblical teaching or living it out. Underneath it all, however, it is a denial that God has given us in His word a message that can be understood by all. The gospel is a simple message, albeit the most profound anyone can hear. If scripture is unclear then we need others to interpret it for us. If it clear, then whilst we still need help with many parts of it, the big picture message is plain and has helpfully been summarised in creeds (statements of faith).

All this, however, shows the supreme place of the word of God in the Reformation. For centuries, the translation used was the Vulgate, a fourth century Latin translation from a man named Jerome, but in the 15th/16th century scholars had been able to go back to the original Greek to get a more accurate translation. For instance, the Latin used the word penance when the Greek meant repent which raised questions about the whole system of penance.

The real issue, perhaps, was where does authority lie in the church? Does it lie with the institutional church of the day – who gets to interpret scripture; make pronouncements on scripture; and even add extra-biblical doctrines? OR does it lie with the word of God itself, the Bible. When reading scripture, we bring our experience, we bring our reason and we bring our traditions. These are all good and helpful things, but we submit them and let them be tested by Scripture, which has the final and supreme authority. Our reason can be misguided; our experiences warped and our traditions wrong. Scripture, however, is God’s gift to us – the word that cannot be broken (John 10:35); the word that is God breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) and the word that shows us the one who is the Word (John 1:1) himself, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. To honour the Reformers and to honour the Reformation, cherish the word of God and worship the one who is the Word of God, God in flesh, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

by Andrew Larkin, UCCF Staff Worker for Plymouth

Redeemer Church Office | St Barnabas Terrace | Plymouth PL1 5NN

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