The closer one looks, the clearer it becomes: the Reformation was not, principally, a negative movement, about moving away from Rome; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel.
Pure negative reaction was a hallmark of certain radicals, but not the mainstream Reformation. Unfortunately for us moderns, obsessed with innovation, that means we can’t simply enroll the Reformation into the cause of “progress.” For, if anything, the Reformers weren’t after progress but regress. They were never mesmerized by novelty as we are, nor impatient of what was old, just because it was old; instead, their intent was to unearth original, old Christianity, a Christianity that had been buried under centuries of human tradition.
That intent, though, is precisely what preserves the validity of the Reformation for today. If the Reformation had been a mere reaction to a historical situation 500 years ago—if it were just a bit of 16th-century “progress”—one would expect it to be over. But as a program to move ever closer to the gospel, it can’t be.
The state of things today testifies, as loud as ever, to the need for reformation. The doctrine of justification is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrong-headed, or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the apostle Paul meant by justification have confused people, leaving the doctrine Luther said can’t be given up or compromised just that—given up or compromised. And it’s not just new readings of the Bible. A culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a 16th-century problem, and his solution of justification therefore unnecessary for us today.
But in fact it’s precisely into this context that Luther’s solution rings out as such happy and relevant news. For, having jettisoned the idea we might ever be guilty before God and therefore need his justification, our culture has succumbed to the old problem of guilt in subtler ways it has no means to answer. Today we’re all bombarded with the message that we’ll be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet it’s still a religion of works—and one that is deeply embedded.
For that mindset the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. As Luther put it: “Sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.” Only this message of Christ’s counterintuitive love offers a serious solution.
A profoundly relevant, beautiful, and sweet message, a joy-giving message, a death-defying message: it’s no wonder Richard Sibbes called the Reformation “that fire which all the world shall never be able to quench.”
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Michael Reeves’s book The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (B&H Academic, 2010). For a concise introduction to the Reformation, please see Reeves’ book Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation (10Publishing).