Is the Reformation dead? It may be a surprising question to us, especially since we’re commemorating Reformation Day this morning. But it’s a question worth asking. When we assess Protestantism honestly, we find that there are good reasons to wonder.
Over the past couple of centuries, many of the Protestant churches in Europe and the US have abandoned the Reformation faith in favor of a modernized form of Christianity, a heresy known as liberalism. Liberalism turns theology into anthropology, treats the events of the gospel as symbols of religious experience or human aspiration. Liberalism’s ethos is shaped more by the ethos of modern pluralism and tolerance than by adherence to Scripture or the Reformation confessions. H. Richard Niebuhr summarized liberal theology this way: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Even if the Reformation slogans continue to be mouthed, there is no room for the real Reformation gospel to be preached within liberalism.
More recently, evangelical Protestants have been asking the question. Evangelicals and Catholics have been talking to each other and rubbing shoulders more often in the past 50 years than ever before, and in some contexts finding that they have more in common than they thought. Some have wondered if it’s still necessary to stay out of Rome. Some have gone further than mutual respect; the list of prominent Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism seems to grow every other month.
When we take a wider look at the church when we look not just at our situation in North America but at the world as a whole then we also wonder about the prospects of the Reformation. There are growing and vibrant Anglican churches in Africa, and churches in the Reformation tradition in other parts of the world, but much of the explosive growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere has come not from Lutherans or Presbyterians but from Pentecostals and indigenous movements that don’t really fit into traditional Western post-Reformation categories.
Is the Reformation dead?
We don’t believe so. We believe that the achievements of the Reformation are still worth defending, that the work of the Reformation is still worth preserving. The Reformation recovered biblical truths that had either been rejected or buried in late medieval Catholicism. In themselves, the Reformation slogans are just slogans, but they get at central biblical truth.
But there is another side to that question that is equally important. If defending the Reformation means nothing more than repeating the Reformation slogans or assenting to (or claiming to assent to) the Reformation confessions; if defending the Reformation means we carry on with business as usual, carry on in the way the Reformation churches have always carried on; if being Protestant means we stay still then the Reformation has become a kind of tribalism.
If that is what being Protestant means, then the Reformation has been turned upside down and inside out. It began as a protest against fossilized and distorted tradition, and it will cease to be genuinely Protestant if it becomes another kind of traditionalism. The Reformers called for a reform of the church according to the word of God, but the Reformers knew that the work of reforming the church would not end in their generation, or ever.
If being Protestant means simply trying to preserve or recapture the sixteenth century, then the Reformation is already dead and deserved to die. It that is what Protestantism means, then for all its past glories, may it rest in peace.
God is the Creator, and as Creator does new things. He didn’t create a world and release it to carry on as she would. He comes to the world again and again, tears old things down and makes something new. And the new things were often disruptive, highly disruptive. When the world was full of violence, He sent a flood, wiped the world clean, and started over with a new Adam. When the nations fell at Babel, God called Abram and began a new race in him. When Israel was in Egypt, Yahweh reached in and plucked Israel from Egypt, something that Moses said had never been done before. Never before had any God taken one nation from within another nation by trials, signs, and wonders, by war and a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and by great terrors. When Eli’s sons committed abominations at the tabernacle, Yahweh desolated the tabernacle, and it was never rebuilt. When the temple became a den of thieves, Yahweh tore it down too and sent Judah off into exile. That was just preparation for another great new thing, the return from exile. Isaiah told Israel to forget about the exodus, forget about Egypt, forget about the defining moment of her national life. It would be like telling Americans to forget the Revolutionary war. Why? Because Yahweh is going to do something so new, so spectacular, that it will make the exodus look like nothing.
“Of old Thou didst found the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed.” That is the way of the Creator.
Every time God does something new, there are people who want to stay with the old ways. At the exodus, there are people who want to go back to Egypt. When Yahweh sent Nebuchadnezzar to capture Judah, there were people who wanted to fight to protect the temple, even though the Lord said it was doomed. Simply preserving the past was rebellion against God who was tearing down the old to make the new.
We are in such an age today. The Lord is tearing down the old, and is building something new. Does this mean that we just abandon the past? No. But it means that if we simply hold on to the past, we are resisting the God makes all things new. We have to do both. We don’t abandon the gains and insights of the past. But we also have to pursue reform in the church in the twenty-first century, and the reform in our day may have very different emphases and contours than the reform of the sixteenth century. We have to pursue reform even in those churches that were born from the Reformation especially there.
We do both by clinging to whatever is true and good and lovely in the Reformation, but not just clinging to it like an heirloom. We cling to it in order to grasp it more and more deeply, more and more fully. Meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century doesn’t mean we abandon the key Reformation emphasis on justification by grace through faith. Rather, we hold on to it and proclaim all of it in all of its breadth and height and depth.
When we do that, we find that Paul’s teaching on justification is fuller and richer and bigger than we realized. Protestants have generally thought that justification was about restoring individual sinners to right relation with God; it is that, but it’s much more. It’s not only a vertical truth, about the relationship between God and us sinners; it’s a horizontal truth that reshapes our relations with others and the world.
Protestants have often treated the doctrine of justification separately from questions of justice. For English-speakers, it’s a fluke of language. In Hebrew and Greek, justification, justice, and righteousness are the same root word in different forms. For Paul, justification is not separable from questions about justice between people and among nations. Justification for Paul is all about the church, and the nations, and the Abrahamic promise of righteousness.
Protestants have generally, unconsciously, taught justification as an act of God, but mainly an act of the Father and the Son. The Spirit plays a role, but the subordinate one of creating faith so that we can grasp the righteousness of the Son and be judged righteous by the Father. When we look again at Paul’s teaching on justification, we might be surprised to find just how central the Spirit is. For Paul, justification is not only a work of God but a work of all of God, a seamless work of the Father, Son and Spirit, like all God’s works.
When we do that, we find that justification by faith includes or implies everything that we want to say about a twenty-first century Reformation.
Justification means being made right with God through Christ, through the faithful death of Christ.
Justification by faith means that righteousness is given to us, not through the law but through the cross, which we receive by faith.
Justification means that Christ lives in me, and I no longer live and the life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God.
Justification means that God has created a community of the justified, a community united without division of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Lutheran or Methodist, Baptist or Catholic.
Justification means that righteousness has come, the righteousness by which God will restore the world.
Justification means that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, and that we are swept up in that fulfillment.
Justification means that God is blessing the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham.
Justification means that the Spirit has been given to those who hear with faith, the Spirit that fulfills the promise to Abraham, the Spirit of righteousness and justice, the Spirit of life and renewal.
Justification, finally, means that this is all God’s work, and that all of God has done all this. The Father sent the Son whose death brought righteousness, which is the gift of the Spirit. The Father counts as righteous those who are in the Son, and shows His acceptance of us by giving us the Abrahamic promise, the Spirit. Justification means that the Triune God is God, Just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.
Justification means that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Triune God has revealed His righteousness, the undying commitment of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to their own eternal communion, the eternal, undying, triumphant commitment to incorporate us, the seed of Abraham, into that communion.