The message read simply enough: “We invite you to address us, October 23 to 25, on the theme ‘Reformation Then and Now.’” But the origin of the request gave me pause. It came from Presbyterian churches in Singapore that trace their roots to conservative American Presbyterians, circa 1950. Beyond traveling halfway around the world, there stood a more daunting challenge. How could I draw lessons from the Reformation, for a body of churches living in an Asian, Westernized, prosperous, polyglot, polyethnic culture that I barely understood? What could I say about the Reformation to believers so far removed from Luther and Calvin?
The character of the Reformation is so distant, so alien to Singapore, an island state without German or Catholic roots. Their religious interlocutors are not a single, society-dominating, gospel-fuddling church, but an amalgamation of Taoists, Muslims, Hindus, and syncretistic, shape-shifting Buddhists.
Concerns of the Reformation
My meditation on the distance from Luther and Singapore led me to ask if the gap between Luther and America might be just as great. Luther was wracked by guilt and doubted his ability to lay hold of sufficient grace to satisfy God’s justice. The typical American feels no such burden. For Americans, guilt is not a problem, but a pseudo problem. Luther agonized over the wrath of God toward sin. Today, Christianity lite regards God as a genial Father, arms perpetually open to everyone, without mentioning repentance and atonement. Luther worried about demons bent on dragging his sinful soul to hell. Americans scoff; many Singaporeans share his concern. Here, Hindus flog and pierce themselves, hoping to atone for their sin. Their customs and rationale seem eerily similar to that of medieval flagellants. Here, Buddhists buy garden deities (for $88.88) that promise divine favor in terms that bear resemblance to the indulgences that stimulated Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.
So Singapore and Seattle might be equally distant from Luther. Later, as I witnessed the Singaporean Christians’ passion to spread the gospel to China, Nepal, Vietnam, and Malaysia, I wondered if conditions might make Singapore the source of a new Reformation.
Conditions of the Reformation
The specific conditions and results of the 16th-century Reformation are unrepeatable. That Reformation enjoyed (1) the world-changing invention of the printing press, (2) a rising interest in Bible translation, and (3) a growing German nationalism that allowed a “heretic” like Luther to survive. Above all, spiritual conditions invited internal renewal of the church. The church, which dominated the cultural landscape, had an orthodox doctrine of God, Christ, humanity, and sin. It also had a “close enough” concept of God’s righteousness and judgment to create an acute sense of need that the church’s “not close enough” doctrine of salvation could not relieve. When Luther denounced ecclesiastical corruption and the scandal of indulgences, it answered a social longing for justice. But when Luther described the happy exchange—Jesus takes our sin, he confers his righteousness—it satisfied a far greater spiritual hunger.
This specific set of conditions has passed, and Luther’s Reformation cannot be duplicated. Once the Reformers rediscovered the gospel, there could be no repetition of their Reformation, unless the gospel were completely lost again (in which case I would have no invitation to speak). Singapore and America can’t repeat the Reformation for the happiest of reasons—the gospel is widely proclaimed in both places. To ask for a similar Reformation is almost ingratitude.
By way of analogy, suppose that a long-lived church loses the gospel over a span of years. Suppose further that favorable social conditions allow the church to endure until it somehow hires an evangelical pastor and the church awakens. Decades later, the people may long for a renewal “like the one 30 years ago,” but the wish is misplaced, if the church has loved and proclaimed the gospel since that day.
A new Reformation will take a new form. We can see some conditions favorable to a renewal movement. A shift in communication precedes each era of rapid growth. Before the apostles took the gospel to the empire, Romans built roads and Greeks gave people a common language. The apostles used both. Before the Reformation came the printing press. For a time, Luther was perhaps the world’s best-known author. The Protestant mission movement followed improved naval transport. Evangelists hopped rides with commercial and colonial ships and translated the Bible into the mother tongues of the people they met. We enjoy an array of new communication media. May the Lord bless the labors of believers who work at this task!
Every Reformation, every gospel surge, begins with a love of the gospel and the cause of Christ. Luther never planned to start the Reformation. He never intended to start a new church. He was devoted to his church, but he had a problem. He had an acute sense of his sin and doubted that confession, penance, and a monk’s works could cover his iniquity. He dreaded the justice of God. He kept pondering Romans 1:17, which linked the justice (or righteousness) of God to the gospel. He described his agony and his discovery this way:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. . . .
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. [Then] I felt myself reborn. . . . This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.
Because the gospel was life to Luther, he stood by it, even though that stand placed him under a death sentence. He sought the gospel, then loved and proclaimed it. The Reformation that followed was, in human terms, an accident.
Calvin never intended to lead a movement either. Rather he planned to lead a quiet scholarly life in Strasbourg. But a local war closed the roads that led most directly to the city. He passed through Geneva, and Farel, the leader of a gospel-driven reform movement there, persuaded him to stay. After a few years, the leaders of Geneva rejected him, and he finally made it to Strasbourg. Before long, Geneva begged him to return. Calvin said he would rather “die a thousand deaths,” but he did return and reform the city on biblical principles. Geneva became a home for Protestant refugees. Its seminary trained a generation of pastors and scholars who radiated outward to Switzerland, France, England, and Scotland. From a human perspective, it was another accident.
Plan of God
The Reformation arose by the plan of God, not the plans of man. What then is our role? To know the gospel, to love Jesus, and to spread the gospel by the means at hand—for Luther, a printing press, for Calvin a seminary for men who streamed to his city. For my new friends in Singapore the means may be the prosperity of their city, the gift of a polyglot culture, and the reach of an airport that affords easy passage to India, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos.
I don’t know how another Reformation might touch America. But I believe the starting point will be a love of Jesus as we know him in the gospel and a commitment to spread his word by whatever means we find at hand.