Always Reforming: The Ongoing Significance of the Protestant Reformation

During this week’s conference, we have been looking into the past at the lives and contributions of some of the leaders during the Protestant Reformation. We have looked at the Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. We have seen how they have helped us to understand that we are saved by grace through faith, what it means when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and a vision for the effective working of the church.

We have told many old stories this week, some of which may have been familiar to you, but I hope that at least a few were new.

The quest for the usable past

But in all of this discussion of our past, one ever-pressing question is, “what does this all mean for my life today?” We cannot dismiss this question. In fact, whether we think about it or not, we constantly answer this question in even the relatively mundane affairs of our lives. For instance, any time that we consider something in the news (or our own experience) to be “unprecedented” or any time we think that something represents some kind of significant turning point, we are making an historical evaluation based on our own knowledge of the past. The question of relevance, then, comes from our innate and commendable desire to obtain a “usable past” for our own lives.

This quest for the “usable past” ought to drive our inquiries into the history of doctrine. Whether we realize it or not, we actually engage in critical historical analysis when we study the Bible or theology.

We do not read Scripture in a vacuum. We stand on the shoulders of past believers, whose careful heed to themselves and to the doctrine can help us as we seek truth. Church historian Philip Schaff has said,

If exegesis is the root, church history is the main trunk. We are connected with the Bible through the intervening links of the past and all its educational influences, and cannot safely disregard the wisdom and experience of ages.1

Not only do past saints serve as a great cloud of witnesses who challenge us by example, but they also serve as a rich well of insight. In our conference this week, we have pursued wisdom for today in the story of the Protestant Reformation.

Our family history

But in order to answer the question of significance, we need to place the Protestant Reformation in context. It’s all well and good for me to just assert that we stand on the shoulders of giants (and to even back it up by quoting another dead authority)—but really, since when do all these dead white men really have any impact on your ability to read the Bible and have a relationship with God?

What advantage then has the reader of Calvin’s Institutes, or what is the profit of the Ninety-five Theses? Much every way: chiefly, because to them was given the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and thus we can be right with God.

It is right here that we find the key, then. Some day when we stand before our Redeemer, we will look around and see countless thousands of the redeemed praising God and magnifying his glorious grace, and in that tremendous company we’ll find men and women from the churches of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. In fact, we might even bump into those men too. And when we do, we will ask them to tell us their stories, and we might be surprised to find them just as interested in ours. Because you see, these people are part of Christ’s church like us. This is our story; our family history.2

The significance of the Protestant Reformation

One enduring way that we’ve tried to sum up the significance of the Reformation has been through a set of five Latin phrases called the five “Solas.” The word sola means “alone,” and these phrases are helpful when we try to succinctly capture what it is that was gained overall in the doctrinal and practical reforms of this period. The phrases are as follows:

  1. Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.”
  2. Sola Gratia, “Grace alone.”
  3. Sola Fide, “Faith alone.”
  4. Solus Christus, “Christ alone.”
  5. Soli Deo Gloria, “the glory of God alone.”

These phrases are helpful, and they do capture the spirit of the Reformation. The genius of the Reformation was that rather than focusing on imposing external moral reform, instead the Reformers focused on addressing the source of righteous living—good theology. Unlike previous attempts at church reform that focused simply on external behavior and imposed moral standards, the Reformation focused on teaching. Simply put, the Reformation was successful because right doctrine leads to right living.

Is the Reformation over?

There is one very real controversy going on these days about the significance of the Reformation. I have neither the time nor the desire to wade into it in detail here today, but we need to consider it briefly because it relates directly to our question about whether (and how) the Reformation is part of the usable past.

In 2005, respected evangelical historian Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom published a book entitled, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. As you might imagine, the question in the title provoked a stormy controversy. Of course, it builds upon recent ecumenical efforts to establish a baseline of agreement between Protestants and Catholics. This book reflects on the significance of efforts at warming Protestant-Catholic relations like “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” a statement produced in 1994.3 Another significant document that addresses this question appeared in 1999, when the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”

In one sense, this controversy is not new. Attempts to reconcile Protestant and Catholic differences even occurred during the Reformation period itself. The most significant of these was the Regensburg Colloquy in 1541. Michael Reeves tells that story well for us:

in 1541, a conference was arranged to meet at Regensburg, where, it was hoped, Catholics and evangelicals could end the schism. To [the Catholic organizer’s] great delight, they did actually manage to come up with an agreed statement on justification. An amazing achievement! Sinners are justified by faith, the statement held. That satisfied the evangelicals present. However, it explained, that faith must be active in love. That satisfied the Catholics.

However, it wasn’t clear: did the statement mean that only with works of love would faith attain Christ’s righteousness? While Luther and Calvin were emphatic that true saving faith would always produce such works of love, they were equally emphatic that such works were the consequence, and not the cause, of justification. Making that distinction was the heart of what they fought for, and yet this statement remained ambiguous, allowing Catholics and evangelicals to read it in entirely contrary ways. The Catholic could read it as meaning that being loving is necessary for getting justified; the evangelical could read it as meaning that love is the necessary fruit of a faith which alone saves. Despite the agreed wording, then, each side meant different things by it, and thus it never amounted to a real agreement. Luther, who was not able to be present, rejected the statement as a messy patchwork of theologies (as did the pope), and snorted his frustration at its slippery language: ‘The Holy Scriptures and God’s commandment are by nature not ambiguous.’4

As things turned out, the Regensburg formula was completely forgotten a few years later. Beginning in 1545, the Catholic church held the Council of Trent, which would eventually reject all Protestantism as heretical and issue various anathemas against those who held to justification by faith alone. And these anathemas were not ambiguous. For example:

Canon 9: If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone… let him be anathema [eternally condemned].

Canon 12: If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake… let him be anathema.5

The Council of Trent would go on to repudiate everything that the Protestant Reformers stood for. In many ways, it is at Trent that the modern Catholic church emerges into what we have known for so long. And in even these newer attempts at finding common ground between Catholics and Protestants, we find the same kind of ambiguous language. Although the Roman church has changed quite a bit since Vatican II in the 1960s, it continues to uphold Trent as official church doctrine. And as long as it does that, then the Reformation is not over.6

We are Debtors, that’s the Truth

So if the Reformation is not over, what does that mean for you and me? How, and in what way, should we live in accordance with our faith in the God who justifies us, not on the basis of our own acts, but purely by virtue of his superabundant grace?

Perhaps we can find some help here in one last cue from Luther. Mark Noll directs us to a stunning quote at the end of Luther’s published works:

The very last words that Luther wrote summed up the essence of his vision of God. At the end of a brief essay he lapsed from Latin into German: “Wir sind Bettler. Das ist wahr.” We are beggars. That’s the truth. But for Luther such acknowledgment was not despairing, for he had come to see that, because of the cross, God now heard the beggar’s cry.7

With these words, Luther brilliantly captures an essential element of Paul’s argument in the book of Romans.

NASB Rom. 8:12-13 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

In these two verses, Paul is preparing to conclude a massive study of the implications of our justification by faith. He has been exploring this topic throughout Romans 6–8, and these chapters in turn build on top of the foundation that he has laid in Romans 1–5 where he explains precisely what it means to be justified.

And here he says that we are debtors, not to the flesh, but to the Spirit. Because the Spirit has filled us with life and with all the rich privileges that accrue to God’s sons, Paul insists that we ought to constantly mortify sin in our lives. And as we do that, we will discover that we are alive as we live in union with Christ, submission to the Father, and with the filling of the Spirit. Justified forever by the grace of almighty God, we are ever reforming as we walk in newness of life.

  1. Philip Schaff, Theological Propaedeutic: A General Introduction to the Study of Theology, Exegetical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical, Including Encyclopaedia, Methodology, and Bibliography; a Manual for Students (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893), 234–235.

  2. I’m grateful to Steve Nichols’ brilliant podcast Five Minutes in Church History for this pithy phrase.

  3. For a helpful response to ECT, see R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995).

  4. Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010), 180.

  5. Trent quoted in ibid., , 182.

  6. ibid., , 183–186.

  7. Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd ed. (Baker Academic, 2012), 162.