Saturday, October 31, 2015 marks the 498th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg. Having set in motion the greatest movement since the days of the apostles, Luther–together with the other magisterial Reformers–would go on to write some of the most foundational systematic doctrinal formulations in all of church history. Secular historians have often tried to convince us that the Reformation was primarily a political, economic and media revolution. While it is certainly true that the Reformation had enormous impact on these three areas of society, it was first and foremost a Gospel revolution. Questions about how an individual could gain peace of conscience, reconciliation with God and assurance of salvation lay at the heart of Luther’s preaching and writing. Rome–having held the consciences of men and women in bondage to the terror of God’s law and the fear of hell–had severely perverted the Gospel.
Today there are many voices crying Semper Reformanda (i.e. always reforming). There are many who wish to move away from the principles of the Reformation —insisting that we must continue to seek Reform. But the question is “Unto what are we to be Reformed?” The statement Semper Reformanda can only be used properly if we understand the heart of the Reformation. Burk Parsons has put it well:
“The church is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” (Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei) Thus, the church is not “always reforming” but “always BEING reformed” by the Holy Spirit in accordance with God’s Word. If a church uses “semper reformanda” to move beyond the Word, they’re not reforming to the Word but deforming themselves against the Word.
The Reformers exalted the word of God because the word revealed Christ as complete and sufficient Savior. The core of the theology of the Reformers was a theology of salvation by the Scriptures alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. We see this manifestly in the sermons of the Reformers. In almost every one of Luther’s sermons, the preaching of Christ crucified and His saving benefits held a central place. It is for this fact alone that it is right for us to call the Reformation a Gospel movement. The beauty of Luther’s preaching was that it dealt with the consciences of men before God in order to help men see their need for Christ. Far from trying to bind the consciences of those who were weighed down under the weight of sin and guilt, Luther sought to hold forth Christ in order for believers to experience liberty of conscience. The Reformation was a defense of the Gospel as the only source of power over the devil, the world and the flesh. Luther constantly referenced the all-sufficiency of Christ in this regard.
Luther’s sermon on Colossians 1:3-14 is a fine example of the typical preaching of the Reformers. Note the way he deals with the conscience in light of the Gospel and the spiritual knowledge of Christ:
Since we have not done God’s will according to the first revelation and must be rejected and condemned by his eternal, unendurable wrath, in his divine wisdom and mercy he has determined, or willed, to permit his only Son to take upon himself our sin and wrath; to give Christ as a sacrifice for our ransom, whereby the unendurable wrath and condemnation might be turned from us; to grant us forgiveness of sins and to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts, thus enabling us to love God’s commandments and delight in them. This determination or will he reveals through the Son, and commands him to declare it to the world. And in Matthew 3:17 he directs us to Christ as the source of all these blessings, saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.”
Paul would gladly have a spiritual knowledge of these things increase in us until we are enriched and filled wholly assured of their truth. Sublime and glorious knowledge this, the experience of a human heart which, born in sins, boldly and confidently believes that God, in his unfathomable majesty, in his divine heart, has irrevocably purposed and wills for all men to accept and believe it that he will not impute sin, but will forgive it and be gracious, and grant eternal life, for the sake of his beloved Son.
This spiritual knowledge or confidence, is not so easily learned as are other things. It is not so readily apprehended as the knowledge of the law written in nature, which when duly recognized by the heart overpowers with the conviction of God’s wrath. Indeed, that more than anything else hinders Christians and saints from obtaining the knowledge of God’s will in Christ, for it compels heart and conscience to plead guilty in every respect and to confess having merited the wrath of God; therefore the soul naturally fears and flees from God. Then, too, the devil fans the flame of fear and sends his wicked, fiery arrows of dismay into the heart, presenting only frightful pictures and examples of God’s anger, filling the heart with this kind of knowledge to the exclusion of every other thought or perception. Thus recognition of God’s wrath is learned only too well, for it be comes bitterly hard for man to unlearn it, to forget it in the knowledge of Christ. Again, the wicked world eagerly contributes its share of hindrance, its bitter hatred and venomous outcry against Christians as people of the worst type, outcast, condemned enemies of God. Moreover, by its example it causes the weak to stumble. Our flesh and also is a drawback, being waywardly inclined, making much of its own wisdom and holiness and seeking thereby to gain honor and glory or to live in security a life of wealth, pleasure and covetousness. Hence on every side a Christian must be in severe conflict, and fight against the world and the devil, and against himself also, if he is to succeed in preserving the knowledge of God’s will.