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Happy Reformation Day?
What we need now more than ever is a recovery of the very same barrel of doctrine that set the medieval world ablaze.
R. Scott Clark posted a Reformation Day reflection on the Heidelberg yesterday, in which he posed a very poignant question — namely, What’s the benefit of celebrating the ongoing triumph of the Protestant Reformation given our current geo-political moment? If you didn’t know, or if you’re Patrick Star, there are a lot of “wars and rumors of wars” going on right now in a certain sector of the world that often heightens the senses of our apocalyptic radar. As the crisis in Gaza increases, so, too, does the number of sermon series on Revelation. That isn’t meant to be a glib remark about the tragedy that has befallen those who’ve been caught in the crossfire in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli catastrophe at the hands of Hamas is one that undoubtedly warrants all the prayers the church has. However, seeing as I have little to offer in terms of geo-political commentary, I cordially submit that no matter how things turn out over there, the message of the church ought not to change in the slightest.
What we don’t need right now is another preacher examining the leaves of Scripture against the backdrop of our seething global unrest in order to tell us where we are on the “End Times Timeline.” We are given to pine for that, though, in moments like this, but all that does is distract the church from that to which she has been tasked to give witness (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). The church’s God-given assignment is the steadfast announcement of the world’s God-given Redeemer, Christ alone. This is why we have the Scriptures at all. The Bible’s message and reason for existence is the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus for the glory of the Father. What we need now more than ever is a recovery of the very same barrel of doctrine that was recovered and, dare I say, rediscovered during the Reformation era — namely, God’s gospel of “pure distillate” grace, to imbibe the words of the late Episcopal priest and theologian Robert F. Capon:
The Reformation was a time when men went blind-staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, 200-proof grace — of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture that would convince anyone that God saves us single-handed. The Word of the Gospel, after all those centuries of believers trying to lift themselves into heaven by worrying about the perfection of their own bootstraps, suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home free even before they started . . . Grace was to be drunk neat: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super-spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case. (109–10)
Though yours truly is still a teetotaling Baptist, the “straight-no-chaser” analogy Capon applies to the gospel of grace isn’t ineffectual. In fact, it’s almost too “on the nose” considering Martin Luther’s own estimation of what led to the Reformation movement that spread across Europe like a warm blanket:
I have opposed the indulgences and all the papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and with Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy, that never a prince or emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing; the Word did it all. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon German. Yea, I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? A fool’s play. I did nothing; I left it to the Word. What do you suppose is Satan’s thought, when an effort is made to do things by violence? He sits back in hell and thinks: How fine a game these fools will make for me! But it brings him distress when we only spread the Word, and let it alone do the work. For the it is almighty and takes captive the hearts, and if the hearts are captured the evil work will fall of itself. (399–400)
From Luther’s perspective, the Protestant Reformation was little more than a “happy accident” that followed in the wake of an Augustinian friar actually reading the words of God. The medieval world was set ablaze not merely because of a German monk’s stubbornness but because God’s Word and Spirit never return empty, but always accomplish his purposes (Isa. 55:11). As is always the case, God alone gets the credit for the whole thing. The notable 20th-century Lutheran pastor, professor, and theologian W. H. T. Dau would later say in reference to the Reformation: “This is not a mere man’s doing: this is the finger of the Almighty” (vi). The pulsating reverberations of the Reformation are not the result of Luther’s fervor or Calvin’s assertions or Wycliffe’s gusto or Hus’s sweat alone. Rather, it is the divine Word and the God of it that are responsible for it all and, furthermore, that deserve all of our trust.
This brings me back to today since the Almighty finger that superintended the days of the Reformation is affixed to the same hand that is even still governing our days. In case you were wondering, God hasn’t lost a single minuscule ounce of his sovereignty. Though it might feel as though society’s walls are buckling, it is his Word and his alone that stands forever. “The grass withers, the flower fades,” the prophet Isaiah attests, “but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). When the apostle Peter cites that same prophetic Scripture, he goes on to say, “And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:25). The Word of the Gospel, the God-ordained announcement that the ungodly are justified by grace through faith because of what his only Son has “once for all” accomplished on the cross, is the word that stands eternally indefatigable against the onslaught of eras and eons of chaos, calamity, and confusion.
As the world teeters on critical mass, may the church abide as the perpetual purveyor of “strong encouragement” and certain hope by delivering over and over again the good news of every sinner’s “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” as found nowhere else but in Jesus Christ alone (Heb. 6:19–20). What anchors souls isn’t the propagation of theories and forecasts on future events but the persistent and unabating proclamation of Christ for sinners. He is the assurance and the answer for which the world is longing.
Grace and peace to you, friends, and Happy Reformation Day!
Robert Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
W. H. T. Dau, editor, Four Hundred Years: Commemorative Essays on the Reformation of Dr. Martin Luther and Its Blessed Results, in the Year of the Four-Hundredth Anniversary of the Reformation (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1916).
Martin Luther, Works, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Co., 1915).