Welcome back to the podcast. Tomorrow marks the 506th celebration of Reformation Day, commemorating the October 31st when Martin Luther fearlessly published his Ninety-Five Theses, mailing one copy to the archbishop and posting another copy on a prominent church door. Whether it was dramatically nailed to that door with a hammer, or more likely glued to the door with a paste brush, Luther’s document set in motion a wave of reformation that we honor half a millennium later.
But given how much time has elapsed since this event, we can find ourselves questioning what exactly we’re celebrating. Is it the profound recovery of the truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone? Is it the liberation of the Bible into the language of the people? Is it the end of indulgences? The rejection of papal authority? The dismantling of the priest class as mediators between God and man? Or perhaps is it all of these things, all combined? Pastor John, as you honor the enduring legacy of the Reformation, what’s your primary cause for celebration?
Let me fudge on the word primarily. I’d like to replace it with five other words, but I couldn’t think of five other words. I did think of five other questions; I just couldn’t think of words to go with them. I thought of two, but I gave up on five words. So I’m going to replace your question with five, but I will — at the end I think — answer exactly what you’re asking. So here we go.
1. Ultimate Celebration
First, what am I celebrating ultimately? That is, what’s at the top as the goal of all things when I celebrate the Reformation?
“What am I celebrating ultimately? The answer is the glory of Jesus Christ.”
The answer is the glory of Jesus Christ. In Calvin’s response to the Roman Catholic Sadoleto, he said, “You . . . touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. . . . Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished” (John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 95). I think the same point could be made on issue after issue in the disputes of the Reformation. So ultimately, we celebrate the exaltation of the glory of Christ.
2. Foundational Celebration
Second, what am I celebrating most foundationally? So the first one was most ultimately; the second one is most foundationally. That is, what’s at the bottom, as the ground of all things, when I celebrate the Reformation?
The answer is the free and sovereign grace of God. When Martin Luther came to the end of his life, he regarded his book The Bondage of the Will as his most important work. And the reason is that he regarded the issue of human autonomy versus sovereign grace as the key underlying issue of the Reformation. He said,
I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrines which exalt our “free will” as being directly opposed to this mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. For since, apart from Christ, sin and death are our masters and the devil is our god and prince, there can be no strength or power, no wit or wisdom, by which we can fit or fashion ourselves for righteousness and life. (What Luther Says, 3:1376–77)
Which means that as long as someone insists on ultimate human self-determination, they fail to grasp the depth of our need, and they obscure the greatness of the free and sovereign grace of God, which alone can give life and faith. So I’m going to celebrate that as bottom. That’s the bottom.
3. Celebrated Achievement
Third, between the glory of Christ at the top and the free and sovereign grace of God at the bottom, what am I celebrating in between as the greatest achievement of God — flowing from grace, leading to glory?
The answer is the decisive achievement of the cross of Christ in providing peace with God for guilty sinners. Four times in the book of Hebrews, the author underlines and emphasizes the work of Christ in the forgiveness of sins as “once for all.” I love this phrase and the way he uses it in Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10.
This is the first one: “[Christ] has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27). So I will be celebrating that the finished and complete work of Christ — in providing imputed punishment for our sins and imputed perfection for our righteousness — was once for all and cannot be reenacted in the Roman Catholic mass so as to become a necessary point of transfer of that decisive grace. It was purchased once for all for us and given to us through faith in Christ alone.
4. Celebrated Scripture
Fourth, between the glory of Christ at the top and the free and sovereign grace of God at the bottom, what am I celebrating in between as the decisive means of my enjoyment of peace with God that Christ achieved?
Answer: the inspired word of God in Scripture — read and known by every Christian. The church of the Middle Ages cut people off from the word of God. They had done so intentionally. It was a capital crime in the 1400s in Britain to translate the Scriptures into English so people could read them. They burned people alive for reading fragments of the English Bible — even children.
They believed that God did not offer his fellowship to be enjoyed through a personal encounter with him in his word, but rather through the ministry of priests and sacraments. This was evil, and the chasm created between Scripture and the people of God has not been closed to this very day.
I’ve mentioned before my experience in Europe where a nun was converted at eighty years old and had never read the Gospel of John. A Roman Catholic professional religious woman never had read the Gospel of John. That is symptomatic of a deep evil in cutting people off, historically and today, doing things that subtly discourage the personal encounter with God through Christ in his word. So, I will be celebrating the personal preciousness and access to the word of God for my daily means of enjoying personal fellowship with my Father in heaven.
5. Celebrated Truth and Experience
And the last question: What great Reformation truth will I be celebrating concerning how I experience the living Christ through his word?
“Faith is the decisive, primary way I enjoy what Christ purchased and what the word makes possible.”
Answer: I will be celebrating the truth that faith — acted directly on Christ through his word, not mediated by priestly sacraments — is the decisive, primary way I enjoy what Christ purchased and what the word makes possible. Here’s what I read this morning in my devotions that made my heart sing. I was reading in Ephesians 3 that unspeakably great prayer, where Paul says, “[I pray] that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:16–17). That’s amazing. Christ dwells.
Now, this is a prayer for Christians. This is not a prayer for conversion. We think, “Oh, that means Christ knocks on the door and then comes in.” That’s not it. He’s in; we are Christians. He’s praying for saints in Ephesus, that Christ would dwell — that is, consciously, alive, present, at home, experienced. How? Through faith: “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” He’s praying for Christians who already have Christ. This is a prayer for real, authentic experience of the living Christ.
So, when I embrace the crucified and risen Christ as my supreme treasure — alive, present, at home in me — that very faith, that embrace, is the sufficient instrument for the enjoyment of his fellowship. That will be my primary, daily celebration.