The commemoration of the Reformation this year, 500 years from its start, is a welcome reminder of the precious and refreshing truths that lie at the heart of the gospel. Nothing has changed in these truths in 500 years, since they are the truths of Scripture.
The Roman Catholic Church, however, has changed its strategy since it first tried to browbeat Luther and his associates into submission. Today it is a skilful marketer of its religious commodities, able to assume conciliatory tones when talking to its ‘separated brethren’. But it has not changed its core beliefs. Rather, it has increased the sum of its heresies, as shown by its more recent formulations on Mary and papal infallibility.
Rome’s so-called ‘ecumenical’ Council of Trent (1545-1563) remains on record as roundly anathematising justification by faith. And all rapprochements since then, including Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) and the Roman Catholic/Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), have been at the expense of biblical truth rather than Catholic error.
The ‘carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be’ (Romans 8:7). That ‘carnal’ mind is perfectly capable of being religious, which is why large sections of the mediaeval church, especially its hierarchy and papacy, vented their hostility on the Reformers for their rediscovery of Scripture.
Although the Reformers were not perfect, it was not ultimately for their mistakes that they were persecuted or martyred. Rather, it was for their robust, exultant emphasis on salvation by grace through faith; on the centrality of Christ’s once-for-all atonement, and the setting aside of God’s law when it comes to our personal justification.
The Reformers saw clearly the truths of Paul’s words that, ‘Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness’ (Romans 4:4-5). Justification for the ungodly can only be through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Their experience of opposition reminds us of the unpalatable truth that often the worst enemies of the gospel occupy positions of leadership within the visible church. Like Judas Iscariot, they have infiltrated into positions of power and influence. But Jesus warned us to ‘beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves’ (Matthew 7:15).
But the way that Christians should face either secular or religious opposition — now as then — is by preaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ in all its glorious fullness, holding nothing back. By Jesus alone are all that believe justified.
Such proclamation requires a gentle firmness rather than a strident belligerence. We should be like our Saviour, who ‘committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth, who when he was reviled, did not revile in return’ (1 Peter 2:22-23). Let us beware of betraying a good cause by a bad spirit!
One further thought: if those uncompromising sixteenth century persecutors of the Reformers could make a time-journey to us today, would they find anything in our evangelical churches to upset their sensibilities? Is it possible they wouldn’t!
Let us ask ourselves: are we playing politics or social services with our communities, or are we preaching Christ? Is our message a ‘pseudo-salvation’ achieved through a mixture of Christ and the moral law? Or is it salvation by Christ alone that permeates our witness?
Is there a delightful Augustinian contradistinction of grace and works in the feel of our worship services? Or is there a tired reiteration of ‘exciting’, man-centred ‘evangelical works-righteousness’, that offends few and ultimately satisfies no-one?
In this 500th year, may God allow us all, once more, to recapture the exuberance of being ‘Christ’s free men’ preaching Christ’s free gospel!