The Gifts of Luther’s Reformation
The church history professor R. Scott Clark has made an astute observation concerning America and its relation to the Protestant Reformation:
“Considered in historical and sociological terms the default religion of Americans since the late eighteenth century has been revivalism not Reformation Christianity. In other words, in order to minister well in this culture, proponents of Reformation Christianity need to understand that, in North America, they are not on native soil, they are aliens and strangers, missionaries to a foreign land.”
I resonate with Dr. Clark’s observation. As one who has served with (and benefited from) evangelical institutions for over thirty years, it is becoming increasingly clear that Luther’s Reformation has unique gifts to share with the world (though the other branches of Protestantism also have gifts to give). What are these gifts? How might they be a boon to Christ’s Church? The following is a partial list of six gifts, with a brief description of each.
First, Luther’s Reformation gives a consistent message of the freeness of the gospel. It does not give the gospel freely with one hand, only to take it away after someone is full of joy from believing. In faithful Reformation preaching, the “other shoe” of the Law never drops. Other traditions may tip their hat to the fact that Christ is the end (telos) of the Law (Rom. 10:4). Yet the Lutheran Reformation sincerely meant it: Christ is truly the end of the Law! We are never again under the holy Law of God. We are not meant to rattle the sword of Hebrews 12:14 in its scabbard, unsheathing it to threaten the child of God. Instead, Luther’s theology lets the believer in Christ dwell under the cerulean sky of God’s unchanging grace.
Second, Luther’s Reformation is consistent in keeping Jesus and the cross central. Solus Christus is all it desires. Clinging to Christ alone means Christ alone is all we have. Hence, from faithful Reformation pulpits, the simplicity of Christ is proclaimed. I am struck by the focus, clarity, and humility Solus Christus gives to the life of a local church. For example, when our daughter was less than two years of age, our pastor came back to her (she was the only child) during the children’s sermon and pointed to the cross at the front of the church. He then said, “Look, Heidi! There is the cross. Your Savior died on a cross for your sins. Amen.” In many traditions, the preached word and the sacraments are about what we do for God. Yet Luther’s Reformation reclaimed the truth that the preached word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are about God coming to us by pure grace. We do nothing.
Third, the Lutheran Reformation accurately affirms works, putting them in their proper place. As Martin Luther said many times in many places and in many ways, the justified believer simply produces genuinely good works (not the man-made, pseudo-works found in Colossians 2:16-23) that emanate from a genuinely clean conscience. But even works produced by the Spirit from a clean conscience cannot be trusted. They cannot justify, for they are riddled with impurity.
Luther often had “a burr under his saddle” regarding the Carthusians: a severe monastic order originating in eleventh-century France that had a history of being among the most austere and spiritually elite. Though they looked so holy and sacrificial, their works were worthless, for they did not spring from trust in the Savior. On the contrary, Luther noted that a person who was justified by faith alone and picked up a piece of straw to keep the street clean did more genuine good works than a lifetime of Carthusian sweat could manufacture. How blessed our American churches would be if they grasped the splendor and beauty of the Lutheran doctrines of good works, vocation, and Christian liberty—doctrines that bring forth the fruit of good works.
Fourth, the Lutheran Reformation consistently holds forth the truth that believers are at the same time justified and sinful. To both the sixteenth-century church and present-day revivalism, Luther’s simul iustus et peccator (“we are at the same time justified and sinner”) is the equivalent to doctrinal shock waves. Revivalism teaches various forms of perfectionism and victory. With such great expectations, one is not allowed to be weak. One is not free to face the hideous truth about each of us: though we have the Holy Spirit and though we are born again, we are still lawbreakers before the holiness of God’s Law. Luther’s simul iustus frees us from competing with one another and allows us to humbly fellowship with each other at the foot of the cross, with Christ alone as our only boast.
Fifth, Luther’s Reformation gives us brilliant pedagogy. How we teach the faith is incredibly important. Over and over, I am struck by the power and simplicity that comes from Luther’s teaching method. One paragraph from his Small Catechism, for example, says more to me than a hundred pages of Puritan writing ensconced in Ramist rhetorical method. Luther was concise and comprehensive. He thoroughly knew the Scriptures, yet left great margin to his teaching, allowing the student to breathe, to glean deeply from the Bible and the Gospel, and to grasp the core truths of the Christian message. Such pedagogy keeps us from getting lost in the weeds and enables us to treasure the rich truth of grace.
Finally, and perhaps by way of summarizing the above gifts, the Lutheran Reformation sees the forgiveness of sins and a clean conscience as the central issue of the Bible. Often, we may emphasize holiness and victorious living while at times minimizing forgiveness. To be sure, we assert the cross is necessary at the beginning of the Christian life, but then one moves on quickly to the pursuit of a transformed existence. In revivalism, forgiveness is a means to an end; yet the Reformation teaches us that forgiveness is the end.
This past summer, I had the honor of preaching in many different denominational settings. I was shocked how in every case, as I began to talk about having a genuinely clean conscience because Christ died once for all sin, each church got deadly quiet. Eyes were wide open, and people literally sat up straight. Some cried. Could it be? Could I actually be cleansed of my filth by sheer grace, by the once and for all death of Christ on a Friday afternoon? You see, like me, all people need to hear the word of Christ and His forgiveness. In this word, and only in this word, is there inexpressible joy. Luther’s Reformation gives us this word.