What Was the Reformation?
Was it Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, and thereby protesting that the relationship between God and man could not be reduced to a financial transaction?
Or was it Luther in November 1520, burning the papal bull which condemned his “errors?” This action showed decisively that he was breaking with the authority of the Church of Rome.
Was it a dramatic event, like Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms in 1521, when, in the presence of the emperor, princes, and rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and the official representatives of the Roman Catholic church, he based his case completely on the Word of God and refused to recant of his writings?
Or was it, perhaps, something much quieter and less dramatic—Luther sitting in his study poring over Scripture and translating it, or writing hymns like “A Mighty Fortress” or (500 years ago this year) perhaps writing The Small Catechism?
Sure, we might argue over which of these elements was the most important. But integral as each of these was, and is, the deeper point is that the Reformation was about Christ––and particularly in His dying! The university historian-makers of the 1953 black-and-white movie “Martin Luther” knew what the key and defining line in it was (most, including me, would guess Luther’s confession before all the powers of church and state at Worms––but not so). The defining scene occurred early in the film: Frederick displaying all of his newly-purchased icons to people, and each kneeling before them, one icon after the other. (Luther stood away in the room, near a wall.) The defining line of the movie was the exchange between Staupitz, Luther’s beloved confessor, and Luther afterwards: “But Luther, if you take away all of these things [Frederick’s newly purchased icons] from the people, what will you put in their place?” Luther’s response: “Christ, Father. I will put Christ in the place of every one of them.” That was, according to all the 16th century historians responsible for creating the film, the defining line.
Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide. Scripture only, grace only, faith in Christ only—the great Biblical columns of Reformation Christianity. But there was really another great and overarching theme: Solus Christus. Not “Christ as our great example,” but Christ the Lamb—the Great Substitute for sinners whose death (and life!) satisfied divine justice in our stead. Christ, the sole hope of those who think they are beyond hope. Christ, who is the one real subject of Christianity (vs. “Christianity” as health, wealth, success, “spirituality,” recipe for successful families, paradigm for economic liberation, key to drug-free kids, or any of a hundred more counterfeits).
What is it to be an heir of the Reformation? It is to look outward to Christ bleeding and dying on the cross as Great Rescuer of sinners—of me. This as opposed to any “looking within” for supposed virtues or “spirituality.” Not only do I deserve nothing from God (I forfeited that in Adam), I have nothing I can offer to Him to regain His smile. Before Him, I stand not only truly guilty, but as bankrupt beggar. But Scripture is true and it offers me Christ, Christ Who relates to me by standing next to me before God’s holiness, Christ who says “I have paid your debt for you,” Christ who says to me, “I give you faith that I am your Deliverer from sin, death, the devil and the Law.”
To be heir of the Reformation in twentieth-century America may be more than this, but it is surely not less. A Reformation congregation will focus on the Bible as both true and sufficient, on God’s graciousness to rebellious haters of Him (you, me!), on faith in Christ gifted to such dead but still God-haters (me!). And throughout, such a congregation will placard, preach and teach Christ before people—Christ the Great Lamb Who was enough and is enough, God’s only adequate Solution for sinners, that is, for you and for me.
Dr. Rod Rosenbladt (Ph.D., University of Strasbourg), now retired, was a professor of theology at Concordia University in Irvine, California for over 30 years, and has contributed to numerous books and recorded presentations. He is also an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS).
In our postmodern, pluralistic world, there are plenty of genuinely spiritual people who consider Christ a way to heaven, or even their way to heaven, but who refuse to acknowledge Him as the only way for everyone.