October 31st marks the 503rd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Here are five reasons we should appreciate the Reformation:
“Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone)
How do we know about God, his actions, and his will for our lives? Scripture alone is our ultimate guide. Scripture is the God-breathed revelation of God’s grace in the Mediator. Scripture alone dictates our doctrine and practice: what we believe and how we live. Nothing else has the authority or right to bind our conscience – not papal bulls, encyclicals, church councils, nor other writings of men.
The dispute between our Reformers and Rome was not over the inspiration of Scripture. Rome affirmed this. The problem was that over the course of centuries Rome gradually adopted a view of the relation between the Church, Scripture and tradition which placed Scripture below both the Church and Tradition. Tradition was said to be a “second source” of revelation alongside Scripture, with the Pope and the Roman magisterium (the official teaching office of the Roman church) being the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.
The Reformers called the Church back to the view held by the early Church. This view, which both the early Church and the Reformers held to be taught by the Bible itself, affirms that Scripture is to be understood as the only source of Divine revelation. It alone is the only inspired, infallible, and authoritative rule of doctrine and practice. What the Bible says, God says (2 Timothy 3:16). The Church is to interpret the Bible within the context of the rule of faith (Acts 15).
“Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone)
In the early 5th century, a theological controversy erupted that forever changed the Church. Augustine of Hippo, wrote a prayer in his autobiographical Confessions, which read: “Give what Thou commandest and command what Thou will.”
A British monk Pelagius objected to this prayer claiming that it gave Christians an excuse for not obeying God. Pelagius taught that if God commanded something, the fact that God commanded it, necessarily implied that man – even apart from grace – had the ability to obey it perfectly. He claimed that all men were born in the exact same condition into which Adam was created. All men, claimed Pelagius, had the natural ability to obey God perfectly. If they obeyed, they would merit salvation.
Augustine taught that Adam’s sin had so corrupted mankind’s very nature so that no one was able, or even inclined, to love and obey God. By his Fall, Adam had destroyed both his own will and that of all his descendants. Augustine taught, in accordance with Scripture that since the Fall all human beings are born in this fallen state (called Original Sin) with their will in bondage to sin. Because of the Fall, we are born spiritually dead, unable to choose or will the good (Rom. 3:10–12; 5:6; Eph. 2:1).
The Reformed churches followed Augustine in their rejection of Pelagianism. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, has a clear explanation of the doctrine of original sin. By our first parents’ sin: “They fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions (Chapter VI.1–4).
Despite the fact that Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy at a number of church councils, it has surfaced over and over again in many forms. By the late 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church had officially adopted a semi-Pelagianism position in which the justification of the sinner was a co-operative work between God and the sinner. The doctrine of sola gratia was the Protestant response to this.
The doctrine of sola gratia is found in all of the major Reformed confessions. It is what undergirds everything the confessions say about state of the sinner, election, regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, and more. Our Reformers were reasserting Augustine’s doctrine that the sinner is not saved by cooperating with God’s grace. The sinner is not a drowning man who merely needs to do his part by reaching out to grab the life preserver tossed by God. This sinner is not merely drowning: he is stone-dead. If he is to be saved, God must graciously restore him to life. Just as a corpse cannot cooperate in his our resurrection, so the sinner cannot cooperate with God. His salvation will be an act of pure grace, and grace alone, on the part of God (Eph. 2:8).
“Sola Fide” (Faith Alone)
The doctrine of Justification by faith alone (sola fide), was the key point of debate between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. It has remained so ever since. The Reformer Martin Luther describer the doctrine of Justification by faith alone as “the article by which the church stands or falls.” To understand what is meant by this, we should see wherein lies the difference between Rome’s doctrine of justification and the Reformers’.
Rome’s doctrine of justification is most clearly expressed in the Decree Concerning Justification produced in the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent in 1547. This decree states that fallen human beings are “made just” through the “laver of regeneration.” In short, the instrumental cause of justification (being made just) is baptism. Justification is said to involve remission of sins and “also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man.” Justification is not by faith alone, according to the Council of Trent, because hope and charity (i.e. love) must be added.
The Reformers rejected the ideas that justification means “making just” by a faith that is not alone and that it is accomplished through the instrument of baptism. But why? In order to answer that question, we must have some understanding of the basic issues underlying the debate. The first point to observe is that God is absolutely just and righteous, and He will judge the world in righteousness. So, what is the problem with this? The problem is that although God is perfectly just and righteous, we are not. We are fallen, sinful, unjust, and unrighteous creatures (Rom. 3:9–18). This raises an infinitely serious question for each of us: How can I, an unjust sinner, stand before our infinitely righteous and holy God at the final judgment?
Rome’s answer was that in order for a person to be declared righteous by God, he or she had to first be made righteous by God. Justification for Rome means to be “made just.”
While a bit oversimplified, this explanation will do justice to the Roman view. At its heart, Rome’s doctrine of justification includes the idea of sanctification and renewal. The grounds of justification, the basis upon which the declaration of righteousness is made, therefore, is an infused righteousness. It is a grace that is infused, or poured, into our souls. If a person cooperates with this infused grace, then he or she is renewed and sanctified. The person cooperating with grace, therefore, has an inherent righteousness. That person can lose this state of grace through mortal sin. However, if or when this happens, the sacrament of penance is a means by which a person can be restored to a state of justification.
The Reformers saw many problems with the Roman doctrine. First of all, the standard of God’s judgment is absolutely perfect righteousness (Matt. 5:48). If He were to demand less than perfect righteousness, He would be denying Himself and His own holiness. Therefore, a person cannot be declared righteous on any other grounds than absolute perfection Since the Fall, no one has ever lived, or indeed is capable, of living a perfect life. Christ is the only one who has ever completely obeyed God’s Law perfectly. Therefore the Reformers argued for a doctrine of double imputation in opposition to Rome’s “infused righteousness.”
To impute something means to reckon it legally. The doctrine of double imputation means that our sin is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us (2 Cor. 5:21).
In Question 60, our Heidelberg Catechism teaches how we are “righteous before God.”
Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.
In similar fashion, the Westminster Larger Catechism defines Justification thus: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.”
“Solus Christus” (Christ Alone)
In whom do we find salvation? In Christ alone. In opposition to the Traditions of Rome, with treasuries of merit and intercession of Mary and the saints, our Reformers taught that Jesus alone is the Savior of God’s people. Question 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism gets right to the heart of the matter when it asks, “Do such then believe in Jesus the only Savior, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?”
“Answer: They do not; for though they boast of Him in words, yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior; for one of these two things must be true, either that Jesus is not a complete Savior, or that they who by a true faith receive this Savior must find all things in Him necessary to their salvation.”
This Reformation truth teaches us that salvation is not to be sought anywhere but in Christ and His perfect righteousness and substitutionary death. Jesus is the promised Savior. Acts 4:12 says, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” We ought not to seek, neither can find salvation in any other than in Jesus. Salvation is not in our works; it is not in the merit of the saints; it is not in the Church, but only in Christ alone.
As the only perfect person without any sin, Jesus bore the weight of our sin, and the burden of God’s wrath against it.
“Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory)
The Reformation reasserted the truth that God does all things for His own glory. It is He who gets the glory and the credit when a soul is saved, not the Church, and certainly not the sinner who apart from God’s sovereign regenerating work is dead in sin and by nature hates God.
The Bible abounds with testimonies to the truth that God does all things for His own glory.
We’re told that creation itself was for God’s glory (Col. 1:16). The created world declared God’s glory (Ps. 19:1-4). God pronounces His curse upon all who dishonor His name (Ex. 20:7), and His blessing upon those who bring honor to His name (Jer. 14:7, Ps. 25:11). God repeatedly rescued Israel so that His name would not be profaned among the heathen (Ezek. 20:9). He parted the sea for His own renown (Isa. 63:12-14). And he raised up Pharaoh and destroyed him to display His power and to glorify His name in all the earth (Ex. 9:16; Rom. 9:17). He regenerates His elect, promising a new heart, not for their sakes, but for the sake of His holy name (Ezek. 36:22-32). He guides His people in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (Ps. 23:3). He will not share His glory with another (Isa. 48:9-11). God rules over death for His glory (John 11:4). He rules over disease for His own glory (John 9:3). In loving gratitude for all His saving kindness, His people do even ordinary things, such as eating and drinking, to His glory (1 Cor. 10:31).
For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen (Rom 11:36).
God’s motivation for all that He does is His own glory. Whether the creation of the world, His rule over nature and over nations, His saving of His people, and His damning of His enemies, all things are done by God for His own glory. God does everything for His own glory because He is God. God never puts anything above Himself. To do so would be absurdity. It would undermine His claims that He deserves worship. If He placed anything above His own glory, He would be breaking His own First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
The Reformation doctrine of Sola Deo Gloria reminds us that the credit and the glory for the whole of our salvation belongs to God alone. “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).