The Reformation and its Effects
By J.P. Thackway
Readers will not need to be reminded that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. According to where one stands, this event is one of “the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14), a notorious disaster (“one of the greatest tragedies that ever happened to the Church”1) – or anything in between. The archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement fudging the whole issue, with what Dr. Peter Masters called “stunning ecumenical cunning.”2
The Roman Catholic church, of course, is less equivocal. It sometimes concedes that Luther may have been right to protest about some excesses, but then went too far.3 On the other hand, more usually its verdict is summed up by the words of one typical writer, “Luther was a raving heretic who was driven by the devil to tear the Faith asunder in Europe.”
But we who are true heirs of the Reformation glory in this world-shaking and history-shaping revival of true religion. We have loved hearing about it. It has been a welcome opportunity to learn more fully about how God used obscure men, from mostly poor backgrounds, to storm the seemingly impregnable edifice of Medieval darkness and superstition, and bring it down like the walls of Jericho. The Reformation dealt the satanic system of Rome such blows from which it has never recovered, and which we trust, will continue to weaken it until the Lord returns and “shall consume (it) with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy (it) with the brightness of his coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
No one date pinpoints the start of the Reformation. John Huss (1369–1415) in Bohemia and John Wickliffe (c.1325–1384) in England were forerunners, Wycliffe being called “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” We could also include the Italian friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498), who made his protests against the church’s corruption and exploitation. But streams become a river, and one main stream was the man the Lord especially used in his time: Martin Luther (1483–1546).
In October of 1517, 34-year old Martin Luther produced his 95 Theses – or “Propositions” – in Wittenberg, Germany. He used the castle church door as a notice board, and nailed on it that document written in Latin, but afterwards translated into German and which spread like wildfire. His longer title for it was a “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”
“Indulgences” were certificates for which you could pay money to lessen the amount of penance you needed to do for your sins. And – for those (supposedly) in Purgatory – to reduce the time they needed in that place of suffering before entering heaven. In the Theses, he called for a public debate on this scandal of selling indulgences.
However, the wording of the Theses show how the Lord was opening Luther’s understanding to other vital truths. One was the question of the authority for what we believe. In Thesis 18 he wrote, “ … it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture.” Already here is evidence of Scripture rather than the Roman church being the authority. Another was how we are saved. Is Thesis 94, “Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head.” Here is faith in Christ rather than in good works.
Important to the Reformation as the 95 Theses were, another event was equally so: Luther’s conversion in around 1516. This, and his scriptural understanding of it, highlighted the role of faith for him, in the reformation teaching that followed, and for all of us today.
As a zealous monk, Luther had struggled with the problem of a holy God who is “angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11) – including him. How is it possible for Luther to have peace with God? He understood Romans 1:17 “the righteousness of God revealed” to mean the righteousness that God demands of us.
All Luther’s zealous and punishing attempts to please God were his trying to produce that righteousness. He failed miserably. Despite his efforts, he had no peace. His exertions only made him pale, thin, and despairing. However, the Lord was leading Him into the truth. Writing about the same Romans 1:17,
At last, by the mercy of God, … I began to understand that … this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
He came to understand that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 does not mean what God demands of us, or else – but God’s righteousness that He gives to us. It is His provision of righteousness to justify sinners. And we receive this justification through trusting in Christ. It is Christ’s righteousness, which God imputes to every believer. This is justification by faith, alone. That word alone is crucial.
It is true that the Bible does not have the expression, “faith alone.” However, it certainly has the principle, for instance, Romans 3:28 “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” This is because of the unique and exclusive place scripture assigns to faith. And it is this that is especially important and profitable to consider.
Now, Romanism has a place for faith in how we are saved. But here is the difference: “Will Faith alone save us?” “Faith alone will not save us without good works; we must also have Hope and Charity.”4
For Roman Catholicism, we are saved through faith plus good works. And in practice, faith plus everything that the Roman system teaches and prescribes. This is not so much faith as credulity. It is even called “faith in Christ” – but it is not faith in Christ alone.
This, of course, is not new. Paul in the Galatians letter combats the heresy of Christ plus Jewishness for Gentile Converts. The danger is always that “as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).
Let us, therefore, consider this precious and unique grace: faith. It became a mighty watchword at the Reformation because its role is always central and vital in Christianity. So much, that Scripture calls us in Acts 5:14 “believers,” and the truths of Christianity it summarises in 13:8 as “the faith.” And it calls us to “walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
What are the properties that belong to scriptural and saving faith?
1] Faith is a divine gift.
It is the fruit of the new birth, 1 John 5:1 “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Remember Luther when he joyously wrote, “‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Therefore Ephesians 2:8,9 insists that the faith through which saving grace comes is “not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” To simply believe in a God-given Saviour is alien to our human nature, that always wants to do something. To humbly and simply receive Christ is the glory of the gospel – but it takes the supernatural change the new birth gives to understand it, rejoice in it, and act upon it by believing.
2] Faith has a definite Object.
And He is Jesus Christ. However, not the Christ of someone’s imagination but Christ as taught and proclaimed in the gospel. Tyndale wrote, “God gives His Son to us in the word – to be received.”
In this, our understanding and will are not in abeyance. Faith is always based upon knowledge. How can we believe on someone we do not know? – “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14). It was through the Scriptures Timothy was made “wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). The Scripture must come first, then can faith be exercised upon the One whom Scripture reveals to us. As Thomas Watson put it, “Faith is seated in the understanding, as well as the will. It has an eye to see Christ, as well as a wing to fly to Christ.”
3] Faith saves instrumentally.
“By grace are ye saved through faith.” It is not faith itself that saves us, but Christ. However, in believing we cast ourselves upon Christ. Or, to use another metaphor, to receive Him with empty hands, as Toplady wrote,
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
Even if it is a feeble hand, the Saviour does all the saving. A weak hand can receive a strong Christ. Some people mistakenly say something like, “my faith is a great comfort to me” – but that is to have faith in faith! We must have faith in Christ. Then we lay hold upon the Son of God, and He becomes ours, along with all His saving benefits.
4] Faith is different from assurance.
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). These are ringing words of blessed assurance. Paul’s confidence can be ours, since His Saviour is ours.
However, some struggle with uncertainty here, and can echo John Newton’s lines,
‘Tis a point I long to know,
Oft it causes anxious thought,
Do I love the Lord or no?
Am I his, or am I not?
If I love, why am I thus?
Why this dull and lifeless frame?
Hardly, sure, can they be worse,
Who have never heard his name!5
This has not been helped by the notion that assurance is an essential part of faith. John Wesley wrote in 1740, “I never yet knew one soul thus saved, without what you call, ‘The faith of assurance:’ I mean a sure confidence, that by the merits of Christ he was reconciled to God.” However, it is one thing to make an observation, it is another to build a doctrine on it.
Scripture makes clear that assurance is not of the essence of faith. If that were so, how could the one who “feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant” be nonetheless walking “in darkness, and hath no light”? (Isaiah 50:10). And why does the apostle John write his epistle “unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life” (1 John 5:13) – if they already knew this? If assurance is integral to faith, John could have been spared the trouble!
It is not the nature of faith to necessarily possess the certainty of having it. One Puritan writer has well-expressed it,
If faith were assurance, then a man’s sins would be pardoned before he believes, for he must necessarily be pardoned before he can know he is pardoned. The candle must be lighted before I can see it is lighted. The child must be born before I can be assured it is born. The object must be before the act. Assurance is rather the fruit of faith, than faith itself. It is in faith as the flower is in the root, faith in time, after much communion with God acquaintance with the Word, and experience of His dealings with the soul, may flourish into assurance. But as the root truly lives before the flower appears, and continues when that hath shed its beautiful leaves, and is gone again: so doth true justifying faith live before assurance comes and after it disappears.6
It is clearly possible to saving faith without assurance, and be no less saved. Gresham Machen reminds us, “Our salvation does not depend upon the strength of our faith; saving faith is a channel not a force. If you are once really committed to Christ, then despite your subsequent doubts and fears, you are His forever.”7
Assurance is based upon the Word of God, and we should not take much notice of doubts or hopes. As Luther himself wrote,
Feelings come and feelings go,
And feelings are deceiving;
My warrant is the Word of God –
Naught else is worth believing.
Though all my heart should feel condemned
For want of some sweet token,
There is One greater than my heart
Whose Word cannot be broken.
I’ll trust in God’s unchanging Word
Till soul and body sever,
For, though all things shall pass away,
HIS WORD SHALL STAND FOREVER!”
We can illustrate it like this. Often, I travel from Flint station to London Euston. Suppose I just in time reach the train, rush onto it, sit down, and the train pulls away. Then I think to myself, “Is this the London train?” Assurance and comfort flee, and I imagine myself on a train going north instead! However, if the little window on the side of the carriages says, “London Euston,” all my fretting makes no difference: I am going to London! So it is that all our personal doubts and fears make no difference: if I have cast myself upon Christ promised me in the gospel, I am in Him, I am going to heaven, despite all my misgivings.
Continuing the illustration. Suppose the train manager appears, and I ask if this is the London Euston train, and he says, “Yes, sir.” Then I am relieved and comforted – but no more on my way to London than without that assurance! So assurance that I am saved is a comfort but not a condition of salvation. “Faith cometh by hearing …” (Romans 10:17) and God’s word can bring me assurance and comfort as well. But without these, if I have Christ, all is well.
5] Faith always produces good works.
Faith is apart from, and opposed to, works as it brings us salvation in Christ. But good works will always result from it, to show it is living and real. James strongly teaches this, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” … “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (1:17,24). As it has rightly been said, we are justified by faith alone – but justifying faith does not remain alone: it leads its possessor to be busy in good works.
Some have seen a contradiction between James’ teaching, and Paul’s teaching in Romans and Galatians where faith alone is just as strongly taught. Even Luther himself had problems with James’ epistle to begin with. However, the two inspired apostles are not contradicting each other but complementing each other. When Paul teaches “faith alone,” he is referring to how we are justified before God. When James teaches “by works as well,” he is referring to how we are justified before men. Our good works are the visible evidence of saving faith, a faith that expresses itself in grateful deeds of love for Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.
The Puritans put things in crisp and vivid terms. Here is the testimony of the following heirs of the Reformation about faith and good works.
“Faith justifies the person, and works justify his faith” (Elisha Coles).
“As the apple is not the cause of the apple tree, but a fruit of it: even so good works are not the cause of our salvation, but a sign and a fruit of the same” (Daniel Cawdray).
“We are not justified by doing good works, but being justified we then do good” (William Jenkyn).
“Good deeds are such things that no man is saved for them, nor without them” (Thomas Adams).
“The saints of God are sealed inwardly with faith, but outwardly with good works” (John Boys).
This is why believing people, right with God, are good people and do good in their lives. Christians make the best citizens, the best spouses, parents, employers and employees, friends, supporters of good causes. In a word, they fulfil the end for which their Lord came into this world: “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14).
What great effects God bestowed on the church and the world by the Reformation! May we continue to rejoice in them, contend for them, and live them out all our days until faith is turned to sight in a glorious world to come!
1. David Watson, spoken at the Nottingham Evangelical Anglican Conference in 1977.
2. See the link to it at: http://www.metropolitantabernacle.org/Met-Tab-School-of-Theology-2017-500-years-reformation
3. “As a series of confrontations between him and the Catholic hierarchy developed, the issues became more centred in the question of Church authority and – from Luther’s perspective – whether or not the teaching of the Catholic Church was a legitimate rule of faith for Christians … he more and more came to believe that the Bible, as interpreted by the individual believer, was the only true religious authority. Scripture Alone? 21 Reasons why not.
4. Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Q.135. Catholic Truth Society
5. The Christian’s duty, exhibited in a series of hymns, 1791. See https://hymnary.org/text/tis_a_point_i_long_to_know
6. The Christian in Complete Armour, Volume 3, page 4. London, Seeley, 1821. Or modern reprints.
7. What is faith? Macmillan, 1925, page 251.