As the calendar flips to November, Protestants remember how the flames of Reformation were sparked by Martin Luther in 1517. With mallet in hand, the monk hit a nerve in Wittenberg and, along with a number of faithful friends, continued to press upon it for decades thereafter.
I enjoy reading and studying the history of the Reformation. Such reading is rich in so many ways: encouraging, convicting, informing, and inspiring me. It is natural to look around at the contemporary church and evaluate things in light of the lenses of the Reformation. When we do this we rejoice in the recovery of core Reformation conviction. The emphasis upon the solas for example encourages me that the flavor and hue of Reformation theology is present. The widespread recovery of the gospel and its centrality over the last generation is certainly something to praise God for. At the same time, when looking through the eyes of the Reformation, there are some concerns about the endurance of such a movement. Thinking in light of the Reformation, I’ve listed five course correctives that jump right out to me.
1. Pursue Something Old Instead of Always Something New
When reading about the Reformation it is striking that its leaders weren’t necessary looking to make something new but to reform something old. They loved the church, and they wanted to reform it. They loved doctrine (especially justification by faith alone) and wanted it recovered. If we are honest we have to admit that there seems to be less of this attitude today. Our natural reflex is: old is bad (or at least it needs an update) while new is generally good. Pastors and church leaders often talk about a vision for what God would want their church to be. Church members speak of what types of new things a church can do to be relevant. Even among those described as “Young, Restless, Reformed” there seems to be an itch to make or do something new. The Reformers were looking back to something old instead of something new, even amid the ashes and doctrinal perversion of 16th-century Roman Catholicism. It’s a good word to us.
2. Be Faithful Even at the Expense of Being Well-liked
When you read the stories of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and others you are struck by how little they concerned about being well-liked and how bent they were upon being faithful. You think of Calvin being expelled from Geneva or Luther before the Diet of Worms, these guys had spines of steel. Instead of working bargains, softening doctrine, or lowering their volume these guys turned it up. I am concerned about our generation. Amid cultural pressure upon the church to conform and evangelical pressure to not be divisive, there does seem to be a spirit of conformity. When people take a stand for doctrine they are often labeled mean or legalistic. It is a badge today to talk about what you are for instead of against. But at some point the preacher of God’s Word needs to be clear about what God is against. He has to be point out false doctrine. How many pastors today are willing to say that the gospel that the Roman Catholic Church teaches is a damning doctrine? It’s ironic: what we like about the Reformers, and what has lasted, is their faithfulness. But you only get that faithfulness when you count the cost and value faithfulness to God over the approval of men.
3. Be Prayerfully Dependent Instead of Self-Confident
I am certain that most, if not all today, want to see the gospel advance. The question comes down to how this happens. The same Bible that births our burden provides instruction for its realization. Whether you are reading Luther and his famous quip, “Today is a busy day, I better pray for three hours” or Calvin and his reflex of prayer, you realize the Reformation was sustained through the prayers of the saints. But today, why aren’t the prayer meetings full? (Or better, where are the prayer meetings?) Go into an average evangelical church service today and regrettably you won’t hear much praying. Where are the prayer meetings? Where are the spontaneous reflexes among believers to pray? Where are the burdened church members pleading with God for the preaching this Lord’s Day? 9Marks recently published a journal about the church praying, including an interview on “The Shocking, Abysmal, and Embarrassing Failure of Churches to Pray.” If we are not praying then we must ask why. If we have an air of self-confidence then we can expect any movement of reforming in our day to last about as long as our trends for flannel shirts and pour-over coffee. May we slay the dragon of self-confidence while clinging to the throne of grace.
4. Demand (and Love!) Doctrine Instead of Seeming So Allergic to It
I had a talk with a church leader that reflects dozens of conversations with other Christians. He told me that he does not preach doctrinal sermons. Instead, he added that he teaches in a practical way. Most people say this in such a way that shows that they are proud of this approach, like it’s a badge of honor. Aside from the obvious contradiction of such a statement (doctrine is teaching) it reeks of the type of biblical illiteracy that actually needs doctrine. What are we giving our people if we are not giving them doctrine? Many pastors and church members today seem to be as allergic to doctrine as they are to gluten. You can get away with gluten-free communion bread, but you certainly can’t get away with doctrine-free sermons (2 Tim. 4:2ff). If a movement of reformation is to grow and be sustained in our day it will be as a result of faithful, doctrinal preaching (and application). And just like your mom said about vegetables, “It is good for you. And soon you will like it.”
5. Love the Bible, Not just the Celebrities
Whether we are talking about Corinth (1 Cor. 3) or Calvin’s Geneva, every age has its challenges with hero worship. Obviously we love our leaders. We are thankful for how God has used them to teach us the Word. But, sometimes, we can go too far. (Little wonder why Calvin insisted on being buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown place.) Here’s my concern amid all of the glorious gospel-centered, reformational, missional, and theological chatter: have we gotten the text or just the books? Pastors are really good at reading Piper, Keller, MacArthur, Sproul, and Dever (praise God!), but are we truly being gripped by the same texts that so gripped them? As Christians desiring to see the Word of God speed ahead we must know the Word of God—not just what John Piper said. The Reformation was sparked out of the text and justification by faith was recovered. It’s better to see the leaders as a means to an end, not an end themselves. They are like chauffeurs driving us to the text so that we can see for ourselves. My great burden as a I look ahead is for a generation that not only loves the Reformation theologians but also the theology of the Reformation. To get this one must love the Word of God and the God of the Word.
To remember the Reformation is to remember what God has done in history. The declaration of Post Tenebras Lux (after darkness light) is something that God continues to do. May he strengthen our hands in this day to carry the torch of the Reformation ahead; and in so doing may we never forget what we’ve learned from the past.