Today is Reformation Day 2011. On this date 494 years ago a German monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses (statements) on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, calling for a public debate on the errors and abuses he was convinced the Roman Catholic Church was guilty of according to his study of the Word of God. That act is what is traditionally viewed as the spark that ignited the great Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, a church-changing and world-changing event.
Mathew Barrett at the Gospel Coalition wrote an excellent article last Friday (Oct.28) about the significance of the Reformation for the true gospel and its importance for the church today. He writes antithetically, defending the gospel against those modern heretics that downplay the Reformation and minimize the doctrine of justification by faith alone (such as “openness” theologian Clark Pinnock). Take the time to read this today; it will do your soul good. And as a true Protestant, reaffirm your faith commitment to this glorious gospel recovered by God’s grace in the 16th century.
After providing a wonderful summary of the history of Luther’s Protestant “progress”, Barrett wrote this:
Does Reformation theology matter today? Absolutely. It is tempting to think of the Reformation as a mere political or social movement. In reality, however, the Reformation was a fight over the gospel itself. The reformers argued that God’s free and gracious acceptance of guilty sinners on the basis of the work of Christ alone is at the heart of the gospel. While the political and social context has changed since the 16th century, nevertheless, this issue remains at the forefront. Much could be said as to why, but here are two reasons as to why the Reformation matters today.
First, for Luther justification by faith alone is the article by which the church stands or falls. Today, however, many question and outright reject the centrality of justification. Take the late Clark Pinnock, for example, who attributes Luther and subsequent Protestants’ hangup with justification to fear of a wrathful God. Consequently, Pinnock says, “the legal dimension has dominated our thinking about salvation” (Flame of Love, 155). While the legal dimension is important, it is “not necessarily the central motif.” Justification is just one step on the way to transformation. Therefore, it “is not the principal article of all Christian doctrine, as Luther claimed.”
What is Pinnock’s alternative proposal then? “Being saved is more like falling in love with God.” In fact, Pinnock says, “legal thinking and the doctrine of justification are not as prominent in the Bible as we have made them.” And here is the kicker: “Luther’s rediscovery of justification was important for himself and for 16th-century reforms, but it is not as central for us, and not even for an astute interpretation of Paul’s theology.”
But God’s justification of the ungodly is at the very center of Paul theology (Rom. 4:5). This is why the gospel is such good news! The news is so good because not only has Christ died and risen again (Acts 2:22-36), but now we have the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). No wonder Paul can say that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for “in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Therefore, Luther’s awakening after reading Romans 1:17 was essentially a gospel awakening. To divorce justification from the gospel is to ignore our basic human predicament: how are we, as guilty sinners, to find favor before a holy God? Clearly this was the question in Paul’s mind when he concluded, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
Second, there is a strong push in our present day either to return or join with Rome. The most notable example of returning in our present day is Francis J. Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, who resigned from his presidency in 2007. While stating that he hopes his Catholic brothers will resist triumphalism, he unequivocally stated, “I, of course, believe that Catholicism is in fact true in all its dogmatic theology, including its views of scripture, ethics, church authority, ecumenical councils, etc.” (Return to Rome, 12).
Others argue that evangelicals and Catholics, while remaining distinct, can now join together in light of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the Joint Declaration on Justification. Many believe the rift between Protestants and Catholics has been at least substantially resolved. Hence Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s book, Is the Reformation Over?. (See Scott M. Mantesch, “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations” Themelios, August 2011.)
But as Michael Horton has recently argued (and R. C. Sproul before him), the Reformation is far from over. “There has been no material change in the Roman Catholic position on the issues that led to the excommunication of the Reformers. Even the Joint Declaration overcame the central doctrine of controversy only by embracing a Roman Catholic definition of justification as forgiveness and actual transformation (i.e., sanctification).” Rome continues to reject the evangelical affirmation of justification by grace alone through faith alone. I agree with Horton when he states that it is not about Luther; it is about the gospel.
While many other challenges to Reformation theology could be identified, these two examples sufficiently demonstrate that Reformation theology continues to be at the center of discussion. Many younger evangelicals are embracing Reformation theology today. But the challenge we will face lies in how to defend Reformation theology to light of new ideologies that seek to undermine its credibility. I believe that the linchpin in the effort to defend and apply Reformation theology today can be found in the simple truth made so clear by Luther himself—namely, that the gospel itself is at stake, just as it was in the 16th century. To abandon Reformation theology is to abandon the gospel.