The Reformation’s Recovery of the Gospel
By Todd Miles –
Growing up, I knew almost nothing about the Reformation. I had a vague awareness of something that some people somewhere in the church celebrated about the same time of year that I was obsessing over Halloween costumes. I had little concern to learn more, being content to let others do the commemorating – especially if it did not interfere with trick-or-treating. My wife’s story is pretty much the same, but now we know better. The result is that when my children were younger, they bore the indignity of having to host Reformation parties (Recipe: Gather the church for soup, pie, and hot cider, ask the children to dress up in medieval costumes, sprinkle in some anecdotes about Martin Luther, and top it off with a rousing rendition of “A Mighty Fortress” and viola! You have a Reformation party. If you want to go the extra mile, struggle through the song in German. We even “encouraged” our two oldest boys to dress up like Martin Luther and John Calvin one year. Four years later, they are finally able to laugh about it.)
My wife and I truly do know better. As evangelical Christians, we are children of the Reformation. Its marks are all over us. In fact, I live today in Christ, even in my 21st century Pacific Northwest context, because the gospel was rediscovered some 500 years ago in Europe. The reason is simple: At its heart, the Reformation was about the recovery of the gospel. And it is worth remembering. Here are some reasons why:
The Reformation reminds us that the church is built upon the gospel, not vice-versa.
History will testify that Luther’s original intention was to call the Roman Catholic Church back to gospel fidelity, not to start a counter-Catholic church revolution that resulted in the division of that church. But the result was the Protestant Reformation, a stark reminder that no single church or denomination is greater than the gospel. We would do well to remember this today. The Reformation teaches us from experience what Revelation 2-3 makes explicitly clear: The Lord does not promise perpetuity or “success” to any particular local church or denomination – particularly if it is not faithful.
The Reformation reminds us that the gospel can be lost.
I often read the story of Josiah’s discovery of the Law of God (2 Kings 22:8-20) with some incredulity. How is it possible that God’s chosen people could lose the Book of the Law? How is it possible for there to be so much neglect of God’s word amongst his people that the very Law of God has to be rediscovered? I then often (smugly) dismiss them as being not like me, never actually praying the prayer of the self-justifying Pharisee, but sharing more in common with him than the humble tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Reformation warns us against such smugness and teaches us that the church, with all of its New Covenant advantages, must be vigilant because the very gospel of grace can be effectively lost to the church through distortion and neglect. This could happen in any number of ways (e.g., doctrinal distortion, lack of faith, giving priority to something other than the proclamation of the gospel in missions, etc.). The Reformation teaches us that unless we are vigilant, we will lose the very thing that matters most.
The Reformation reminds us that confusion over the gospel will ultimately manifest itself in abusive practices.
The gospel is always primary. The church is built upon the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The church’s mission is to proclaim that good news to the nations. Because the gospel is vital to the Church’s essence and mission, distortion of the gospel will inevitably result in distortion of the church and its practices – even those practices ordained by the Lord for the maintenance of his body. In the case of the Reformation, the practices of church discipline, baptism, and Lord’s Supper had lost their gospel moorings, resulting in their actually becoming instruments of abuse, rather than instruments of grace. This is evident in Luther’s earliest protest of the Roman Catholic sale of indulgences. The practice of selling pardons for sin did not spring up in ex nihilo fashion, but was accepted within the Roman Catholic hierarchy because it had long since abandoned the gospel. False prophets of our day are questioning the reality of the wrath of God, the coherence of substitutionary atonement, and the need for conscious faith in Christ. The Reformation reminds us that maintaining the purity of the gospel matters. Compromising on these essential matters will not only lead to destruction, but will lead us down a path that will hurt every step of the way.
The Reformation reminds us that the gospel is worth defending, even at great cost.
The Reformers were convinced that if the properly-translated Word of God could be placed in the hands of the people, the power of the gospel would be unleashed in the land and reformation and revival would be the result. But as we all know their work did not come easy. I wake on Sunday mornings, enjoy my morning reading of the Word of God and then gather with my local Church to pray the Word, see the Word in the ordinances, sing the Word, and hear the preaching of God’s Word. Assembling with my brothers and sisters in Christ every Sunday, where my largest concern is usually nothing more than arriving on time and finding a parking spot, is a tremendous blessing that has not been uniformly shared across Church history. For most of the sixteenth century, simply possessing an English Translation of the Bible was punishable by death. During Reformation week, I am caused to remember the convictions and sacrifices of such godly men as William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and Martin Bucer. They testified through their faithful lives, hardships and even deaths that the gospel is worth defending, at any cost. I am encouraged by their example in a day and society that cares so little for the things of God and that seeks to vilify faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord. The gate of religious pluralism is wide and the way is easy for those who bow to the spirit of the age and preach a message that is governed more by tolerance and political correctness than biblical fidelity. The gate is narrow and the way is hard that preaches and lives the gospel. The Reformers faithfully walked that difficult path before us, and point us to the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The Reformation reminds us of Christ’s faithfulness to preserve his church.
The Reformers were raised up during one of the most spiritually bleak periods in the history of the church. Even many who claimed to shepherd the people of God could not perceive the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Yet in the midst of that dark time, Jesus Christ was faithful to his promise to build his church. Through the Protestant Reformation, the gospel spread across Europe. We live today in an equally dark world, one that shamefully glories in grotesque behaviors that ought to make even the hardest sinner blush. But God is able to make light shine in the darkest places. The Reformation reminds me of this, and encourages me to be faithful.
Todd Miles (B.S., M.S. in Nuclear Engineering at Oregon State University; M.Div., Western Seminary; PhD in Systematic Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Miles was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Miles teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Miles is married to Camille and they have six children, Natalie, Ethan, Levi, Julius, Vicente, and Marcos. Miles serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland. Miles is the author of A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions (Nashville: B&H, 2010).