Why Do We Celebrate the Protestant Reformation?
Today is Reformation Day, October 31, 2016 — the 499th anniversary of Luther writing out his Ninety-Five Theses and sending them to the Archbishop. And that means, of course, next year marks the 500th anniversary of the letter that ignited the Protestant Reformation, and there will be a lot of celebrating. And there will be a lot of debate about what exactly we’re celebrating: is it justification by faith alone, is it the Bible made freely available in the language of the people, is it the end of indulgences, the rejection of papal authority, or rejecting the priest class, etc. When you think of celebrating the enduring legacy of the Reformation, Pastor John, what are you celebrating primarily?
Let me fudge on the word primarily. I would like to replace it with five other words, but I couldn’t think of five other words. But 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 am going to replace your question with five, but I will at the end, I think, answer exactly what you are asking. Here we go.
“When we celebrate the Reformation, ultimately we celebrate the exaltation of the glory of Christ.”
1) What am I celebrating ultimately? That is, what is at the top as the goal of all things when I celebrate the Reformation? And the answer is, the glory of Jesus Christ. In Calvin’s response to the Roman Catholic Sadolet, 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.” 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) What am I celebrating most foundationally? The first one was ultimately and the second is most foundationally. That is, what is at the bottom as the ground of all things when I celebrate the Reformation? And 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.
“The greatness of the free and sovereign grace of God alone gives us life and faith.”
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 of power, no wit or wisdom, by which we can fit or fashion ourselves for righteousness and life.” 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 am going to celebrate that as bottom. That is the bottom.
3) 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? And 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 (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). “He [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).
“The cross of Christ is the greatest, decisive achievement of providing peace with God for guilty sinners.”
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 purchased once for all for us and given to us through faith in Christ alone.
4) 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 that people could read it. 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.
“The inspired word of God read and known by every Christian is the decisive means of enjoying peace.”
The chasm created between Scripture and the people of God has not been closed to this very day. I have mentioned before in this podcast just last summer’s experience in Europe where a nun was converted at eighty years old and had never read the Gospel of John. So, 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 from my daily means of enjoying personal fellowship with my Father in heaven.
5) Lastly, what great Reformation truth will I be celebrating concerning how I experience the living Christ through his word? 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.
“Faith acted directly on Christ — not mediated by priestly sacraments — is the way I enjoy what Christ purchased.”
Here is what I read this morning, Tony, in my devotions that made my heart sing. I was reading in Ephesians 3 and 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 is 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 comes in.” That is not the case. He is in. We are Christians. He is praying for saints in Ephesus “that Christ may dwell” — that is, consciously alive, present, at home, experienced, how? — “through faith.” “So that Christ may dwell in yours heart through faith.” He is praying for Christians who already have Christ. This is a prayer for a 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, that faith is the sufficient instrument for the enjoyment of his fellowship. That will be my primary daily celebration.