What does it mean that the church is always being reformed? This question is integrally related to other questions about sin and grace, and authority and Scripture. To reflect on these issues that are relevant to faith and spiritual life, we must consider the Protestant Reformation and its continuing ramifications.
Understanding the Reformation
What was the Reformation? Some would argue that it was a revolt by peasants against the landed aristocracy and the tax-hungry practices of Rome. Others claim that it was an example of the politically subservient masses shirking the authority of the papacy. Still others believe that it was an ecclesiastical rebirth of the Christian church that had been awash in heresy since the days of the apostles.
None of these proposals fits, however. The Protestant Reformation was primarily a moment when God led the church deeper into the truth of the gospel and further into the teaching of their need for the Bible. The Reformation was not primarily a political, economic, or social event (though it affected all of these arenas in various ways). First and foremost, the Reformation involved deeper illumination into the revelation of Scripture and the glorious news of what Jesus had done for his people, the church.
Historians of the Reformation talk about its two principles. Its material principle, meaning the substance or stuff of the Reformation, was the debate over the gospel in which the doctrine of justification sola fide (by faith alone) took center stage. Along with the importance of faith, the Reformers saw that this faith was a gift of God, namely, that it was sola gratia (by grace alone). Scholars then go on to say that the shape of the debate about the gospel was determined or outlined by the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone), sometimes also called the formal principle of the Reformation. We will examine each of these principles in order to explore how they are related. Along the way, we will see why a deep sense of living by grace always flows into a serious concern to live in God’s Word.
At the time of the Reformation, God showed more pointedly than ever before the radical nature of divine grace and Christian freedom. Primarily, this illumination came through the ministry of a German monk and professor named Martin Luther. Others had known the gospel throughout the ages, but the Reformation intensified the church’s grasp of the nature and articulation of the gospel. Luther had been raised to think that only faith shaped by love and consisting in rigorous adherence to a system of piety and religious activity would bring God’s pardon. Though he was a most impressive monk, he still trembled before God’s judgment. Eventually he gained insight into Paul’s Letter to the Romans and saw that Christ was given in his place, to be received by faith alone: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it 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'” (Rom. 1:16-17). His awareness of his own sinfulness and his delight in the gospel of Jesus were linked.
The gospel shows that God does not wait for us to clean up, but that he pursues us while we are yet sinners (Rom. 5:6). God does not expect us to ascend to his holy hill and to heaven itself, but descends into the agony of our world and on the cross suffers hell in our stead. God does not look for good works or meritorious pedigree, but unites us to Christ at the moment of our first trusting him. We will obey, but this follows from the gospel and does not function as a doorway to that promise. All that we need, Jesus gives. For ungodly people like us, justification sola fide is the best of news.
Very quickly, however, Luther and the other Reformers realized that even faith could be thought of as a work. If left to ourselves to generate such trust, we would be just as engulfed in a performance game as the Pharisees and Judaizers, as well as the late medieval Roman Catholics. We need not only a new context, but a new composition as well: we need hearts of flesh and not of stone.
Luther saw that God supplies what God demands. Faith itself is a gift of God. In 1525, Luther responded to Erasmus, penning his famous volume The Bondage of the Will.
He defended what is now called “biblical monergism,” which literally means that salvation is “a single work” or the “work of a single person.” Now, monergism can be misleading if we interpret it to mean that we don’t need to believe in Christ. At its best, however, monergism speaks of the single divine motion in initiating and sustaining all our salvation—outside of us in Christ and in us by his Spirit—by his grace alone. We do believe, but only because he grants us grace to do so. We do love, but only because he first loved us.
Grace alone is good news for those with bound wills. Because we are children of Adam, the need for resurrection is fundamental. Charles Matthews has said that “sin is a one way street”—once you are marred by it, you are incapable of managing or fixing it, and there are no U-turns to be made here. So sinners need new life. Christ blesses us with that new life and carries us with his ongoing grace. Like a shepherd he leads, like a priest he intercedes, like a Son he is grace incarnate. He provides everything for his people—even their faith—by his life-giving Spirit. As the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, “The Holy Spirit creates it [faith] in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments” (Q. 65).
The Bible Alone
Along with the gospel, the question of authority was also raised in this era. Historians speak of the sole and final authority of the Bible as the means by which everything we think and believe about Christianity is shaped.
In the days of the Reformation, God showed more pointedly than ever before the thoroughgoing nature of biblical authority. Again, Martin Luther served as an instrument for conveying this cherished belief. Others had professed this for centuries, but this era brought a newfound clarity and consistency to grasping and confessing this doctrine. Luther insisted that human reasoning and churchly powers could not determine his faith, famously declaring at the Diet of Worms that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. He did not teach a doctrine of Scripture as if there were no other authorities. For example, he served as an authority in his capacity as professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. But he viewed all human authorities—from the pope down to himself—as subservient to the Bible’s authority in faith and practice. Therefore, when their teaching was not rooted in its claims, he had to stand with the Word of God and do no other. If a seminary professor speaks contrary to the Word, the Bible trumps his opinions. When a pastor proposes a ministry method that runs against the principles of the Bible, the Bible should be heeded. The Bible is the only norm for theology that is not itself normed by anything else—it is the only final authority for faith and practice. This is what sola scriptura means in practice.
The Golden Thread
We trust the Bible alone as our final authority because we are sinners justified by faith alone and living by grace alone. The two claims are tied together: erosion of one will lead to the erosion of all, just as the defense of one should encourage a defense of all! Justification by faith alone says that we will never be perfect in this life and yet we are accepted by God; as Luther would say, we live a dual existence as simultaneously righteous in God’s sight, and yet still sinful and prone to sin. While in Christ we are seen as perfect by the Father and thus justified; in and of ourselves we remain a work in progress and quite flawed. Part of our indwelling sin is our failure to know God truly. Yes, even our minds need renewal, for sin plagues every aspect of our being (this is what we mean when we speak of total depravity). Remarkably, our minds are being renewed, as Romans 12:1-2 says, though it is an ongoing process and not yet complete. Part of Christian growth revolves around the smashing of our theological idols by working in the Word to form true beliefs about God. We need something and someone reliable and trustworthy to lead us further into the truth day by day—and only God’s Word and his Holy Spirit will do.
Grasping the gospel and our need for salvation in Christ, therefore, should point us to the Bible. The more we see our own inability and our failure, the more we realize we need a Word from above, a Word infallibly and inerrantly given by God. Nothing else will do, for our best thoughts remain the thoughts of sinners only gradually being changed. We err. We are misled and we mislead. We need God to provide guidance. We need God to speak by his Word and Spirit. Having a gospel-centered understanding of ourselves leads to firm reliance on the Bible alone to guide our practice.
We must remember that this is true both individually and corporately. The church is a communion of sinful saints. Pastors fail. Sessions stumble. Congregations misstep. Even our best successes are not perfect. Ministry is done east of Eden. Thus every church and denomination, if it understands that its identity is in Christ and its hope is only in the gospel, should look to God to provide guidance. A gospel-drenched church will become more and more reliant upon the Bible to shake it loose from its comfort zone and set it on a course of greater faithfulness.
Trusting the God Who Reforms Us
If we cherish the gospel and trust the Bible, we will expect to grow and to change. If we savor justification by faith alone and see our need for God’s Word as our final authority, we will pursue the reformation and renewal of our theology by this very Word. If we depend on grace as our spiritual oxygen, then we will turn to where it is delivered and dispensed with fervency and faith.
Most important to remember, though, is not our need to change. The most crucial news is the best: God is still in the business of reforming us, both as individuals and as communities. We not only have a need, we have great hope because God has given great promises. The Father will continue to shed light on his Word. The Son will continue to teach as our ascended prophet, priest, and king. The Spirit has been given to remind us of what Jesus taught, and he will dwell within the Christian and empower the body of Christ. (Those wishing to bolster their hope that God promises to illumine his people should read John 14-17 and 1 Corinthians 1-2.) The Bible makes plain that God will continue to work in applying our salvation, taking us deeper into the truths of his Word. All theology is by grace, a gift from our heavenly Father, so we can have tremendous hope and expectation.
Now, we must remember that God’s ongoing commitment to lead us further into his Word does not mean that every new idea is right. We cannot afford to buy into the modern idea of progress or the contemporary cult of youth. All reforms must be guided by the Word of God, and so we must discern the spirits. But it would be overreaction to oppose all change and insist that we have already arrived at perfection. Such a stance flows from fear rather than freedom in Christ. Not only is it an unbiblical stance, but it does not honestly follow the examples of those from our Christian past. When we study church history, we see the way in which leaders of the past navigated through change in their times, cognizant of the need for transformation that was rooted in God’s Word. Like many theologians of the past, we must seek ongoing faithfulness to minister the unchanging gospel and to be reformed continually by it. As Presbyterian theologian George Hunsinger has written in Disruptive Grace (Eerdmans, 2000):
Grace, strictly speaking, does not mean continuity but radical discontinuity, not reform but revolution, not violence but nonviolence, not the perfecting of virtues but the forgiveness of sins, not improvement but resurrection from the dead. It means repentance, judgment, and death as the portal to life. It means negation and the negation of the negation. The grace of God really comes to lost sinners, but in coming it disrupts them to the core. It slays to make alive and sets the captive free. (16-17)
So our final words must be those of praise and prayer fixed on his promises. We praise God for his work in the past, revealing truth through prophets and apostles. We celebrate his presence in the present, leading his church deeper into the gospel and further into Holy Scripture. We pray that his great work of reformation would continue within us, our churches, and to the ends of the earth, continuing to break our idols and give better understanding of who God is for us in Christ. We are not self-assured, but we are confident in what he has promised. Because God gives his people grace, we turn to his Word with expectancy. Because he is the God who reforms us, we trust that his church is always being reformed.
Michael Allen is assistant professor of systematic theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is the author of several books, including Reformed Theology (T&T Clark, 2010), and numerous articles.