The Great Contribution of the Reformation

Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifies good, merry, glad, and joyful tidings, that makes a man’s heart glad and makes him sing, dance, and leap for joy.”

So wrote William Tyndale in the early years of the Reformation. For the fact that he, a failing sinner, was perfectly loved by a gracious God, and clothed with the very righteousness of Christ, gave Tyndale a dazzling happiness. And he wasn’t alone: just a few years earlier, Luther wrote of feeling “altogether born again,” as if he “had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

“The glory of God and enjoyment of him were guiding lights for the Reformation and were its great legacy.”

That was the effect of Reformation theology on those who embraced it: inexpressible joy. Through justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, God was glorified as utterly merciful and good, as both supremely holy and compassionate — and therefore people could find their comfort and delight in him. Through union with Christ, believers could enjoy a firm standing before God, gleefully knowing him as their “Abba” (Romans 8:15), confident that he was powerful to save and keep to the uttermost.

The glory of God and enjoyment of him — these inseparable, twin truths were guiding lights for the Reformation and were its great legacy. The Reformers held that, through all the doctrines they had fought for and upheld, God was glorified and people were given comfort and gladness. And through these truths, lives can still blossom and flourish under the joy-giving light of God’s glory.

Little Glory, Little Joy

The Reformation started in October 1517 with a skirmish concerning the idea of purgatory. Purgatory was the Roman Catholic solution to the problem that nobody would die righteous enough to have merited salvation fully. It was said to be the place where Christian souls would go after death to have all their sins slowly purged from them — to have that process of becoming just or righteous completed.

But to the Reformers, purgatory quickly came to symbolize all that was wrong with the Roman Catholic view of salvation. John Calvin wrote,

Purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead [themselves]? . . . But if it is perfectly clear . . . that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?

His logic is simple: purgatory strips Christ of his glory as a merciful and fully-sufficient Savior; it also destroys any confident joy in us. No joy for us, no glory for Christ. This went entirely against the grain of Reformation thought, which cared so passionately about those twin prizes.

Happy Theology of the Happy God

Luther himself knew all too well the effects of his pre-Reformation theology. The need to have personal merit before God had left him empty of joy and full of hate for God. Young Luther could not rejoice. It was the inevitable fallout of a theology where sin was something we can overcome ourselves, and therefore, where Christ was a small or only semi-savior.

“What the Reformers saw was the revelation of an exuberantly happy God who glories in sharing his happiness.”

And so it remains in other Christian traditions like Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism: God is not so glorified as he is in Reformational teaching. Sin is a smaller problem, and so Christ is a smaller savior. There is, quite simply, less glory in which to take joy. Without knowing the security of acceptance, you cannot have such joy in God.

Without knowing that in his pure pleasure God has sent his Son as our all-sufficient Savior to save us by grace alone, you cannot have such joy. You do not see such depths of glory in him. The depth of our problem and the magnitude of Christ’s grace and sacrifice display to us the beauty and the magnificence of God’s glory.

What the Reformers saw, especially through the message of justification by faith alone, was the revelation of an exuberantly happy God who glories in sharing his happiness. Not stingy or utilitarian, but a God who glories in being gracious. That is why dependent faith glorifies him (Romans 4:20). To steal from his glory by claiming any credit for ourselves would only steal our own joy in so marvelous a God.

Justification by faith alone was the matter of the Reformation. But it was the start of a breadcrumb trail of grace, leading us up from the forgiveness offered in the gospel to the Forgiver and Author of the gospel. And so the doctrines of the Reformation point beyond themselves. Christians not only thank God for his grace to us, but we also begin to praise him for how gracious he is, for how beautifully kind and merciful he reveals himself to be in the cross.

In the gospel, the Reformers not only saw good news of salvation for us; they saw a God who loves sinners first — not one who simply approves those who’ve sorted themselves out (Romans 5:6). The glory of this God became the root of true satisfaction and joy for believers — it became their guiding light and ultimate goal. Take, for example, how Luther — the man who once said he hated God — could come to speak of God in his glory and love:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. . . . The love of God loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore, sinners are “attractive” because they are loved; they are not loved because they are “attractive.”

Finding Happiness

The glory of God and the resulting joy of the saints was the concern of the Reformers. It got so into Protestant blood that the Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, when satisfied with his compositions, would write on them “S.D.G.” for Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Alone”). For through his music he wanted to sound out the beauty and glory of God, so pleasing both to God and people. The glory of God, Bach believed, gratuitously rings out throughout creation, bringing joy wherever it is appreciated. And that is worth living for and promoting.

In fact, wrote Calvin, that is the secret of happiness and the secret of life. “It is necessary,” he said, “for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness. The chief good of man is nothing else but union with God.”

Against everything we are told today, happiness is not found in ourselves, in appreciating our own beauty or convincing ourselves of it. Deep, lasting, satisfying happiness is found in the all-glorious God. All of which is really just another way of saying with the Reformation’s Westminster Shorter Catechism:

What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.