The Church's Present Need Earnest Contention for Reformed Tenets
It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.Jude 1:3b
October 31 must be thoroughly rejected in thought, word, and action as Halloween. With its pagan-rooted festivities, Halloween represents the veritable antithesis of Reformation Day (cf. Deut. 18:10-13 with Jude 1:3b). More than 300 witchcraft cults in the United States alone denominate October 31 as their annual climax in satanic worship, but we have much better grounds to commemoratively set October 31 aside, namely, to worship the living God who gloriously ushered in the Reformation era subsequent to Martin Luther's October 31, 1517 posting of ninety-five Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg. On Satan's special evening of darkness and superstition, God chose to providentially display His light, to unfurl His banner of truth once more, and to restore the truths of sovereign grace in the midst of His backslidden church.
We must divorce ourselves from the work of Satan on October 31 and seek grace to celebrate the work of the living, reforming God. We must seek grace to know the history, doctrine, and application of the Reformation in our own minds and hearts, so that we may become wrestlers at the throne of grace for personal, domestic, ecclesiastical, and national Spirit-wrought reformation.
Our purpose in celebrating Reformation heritage is fourfold:
- Appreciation. The commemoration of Reformation goes far beyond the church doors of Wittenberg. It is intended to appreciatively regard what God has done through the lives of the Reformation's forerunners (e.g. Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, John Huss, William Tyndale), the Reformers themselves (e.g. Luther and Melanchthon, Calvin and Beza, Zwingli and Bullinger), and Post-reformation worthies (e.g. from Diodati to Turretin in Geneva, from Teellinck to Comrie in Holland). Our pre- to post-Reformation forebears have left behind Word-based treasures in their Spirit-molded lives, writings, doctrines, and histories that we ignore only at our peril. Reformation Day attempts to redress our imbalance on this score.
- Direction. Based on Scripture and instilled by the Holy Spirit, Reformation principles and doctrines are eminently safe guidelines for today's roving church. Though Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, etc. were all Reformers of varied character and doctrinal emphases, they were united in major truths and scriptural foundations. Reformation Day reminds us of these and of our need to follow their biblical direction.
- Fortification. For defense purposes, the church needs to be re-entrenched continually in prime doctrines in order to do battle against many and mighty enemies. Reformation commemoration is an attempt to strengthen salvations bulwarks and doctrinal defenses in the church's consciousness.
- Supplication. Above all, Reformation Day is meant to be prayer day. "Lord, revive Thy truth. In wrath remember mercy. Regird Thy struggling church with Thy building sword and Thy defending trowel as Thou didst so powerfully in Reformation generations."
Great Shepherd, Who leadest Thy people in love, 'Mid cherubim dwelling, shine Thou from above; In might come and save us, Thy people restore, And we shall be saved when Thy face shines once more. Psalter 220, st. 1
May God grace us this Reformation day with appreciation, direction, fortification, and supplication. May He grant us to pray in our prayers for Reformation truth in every sphere of our lives. May He gift us with earnest contention "for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" – that faith which is so aptly summarized in the Reformation's four predominant watchwords: sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fida (faith alone), and sola Christus (Christ alone).
Sola scriptura (scripture alone) was the undergirding, regulating principle of the vast movement we subsume under the fitting appellative of Reformation (c. 1517-1650). The cry for a return to Scripture, however, did not commence with Luther. Sporadic voices for sola scriptura, particularly those of John Wycliffe and John Huss, began to multiply rapidly throughout the late Middle Ages. Huss foreshadowed Luther when he repeatedly answered his opponents: "Show me from Scripture, and I will repent and recant!" Indeed, Huss' sola scriptura cost him his life, for it was this undergirding principle that compelled him to attack both curialism (supreme authority resting in one highest prelate) and conciliarism (supreme authority resting in gatherings of prelates).
In Hussite fashion, Martin Luther also received grace to place the infallible Word above the fallible church. His renowned reply at the Diet of Worms under the threat of impending death grants ample proof of this assertion:
Since your lordships and majesty desire a simple reply I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
In one year Martin Luther translated the entire Bible into German, penned his renowned Small Catechism on scripture's basics, and confessed he had done so in order that an "average European ploughboy armed with a Bible in one hand and a catechism in the other, will be able to put to flight all the arguments of priests, prelates, and archbishops."
The Reformers believed Scripture to be the hub from which radiate law, doctrine, preaching, and guidance for every question of faith and morals. In all questions of faith and life, Scripture must be the preeminent touchstone and infallible norm.
Sola scriptura spread rapidly throughout Europe. It trumpeted no uncertain sound in the lives and writings of the Reformers. This Reformation tenet taught that all doctrinal explanations of church fathers, decrees of councils, and laws of churches should be in agreement with express statements or implications of Scripture; if not, such beliefs must be immediately abandoned as heretical. "All those stones that the Davids of God have flung at the Goliaths of error," wrote Luther, "have been taken out of the brook of Scriptures."
Scripture, the Reformers taught, is perfect, complete, clear, authoritative, and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, since the Holy Spirit is one with Christ, the truth of the Bible rests entirely upon the centrality of Christ Himself. Hence, Scripture is true ultimately because the revelation in and of Christ is true.
Does this watchword, sola scriptura, also reflect our lives? Is Scripture both our foundation and compass on a daily basis? Are our consciences held "captive to the Word of God"? Is the Bible our rule of faith and life? Is Scripture our mirror to dress by (James 1), our rule to work by (Gal. 6:16), our water to wash with (Ps. 119:9), our fire to warm us (Lk. 24), our food to nourish us (Job 23:12), our sword to fight with (Eph. 6), our counsellor to resolve our doubts and fears (Ps. 119:24), and our heritage to enrich us (Ps. 23:4)?
Luther and the entire range of subsequent Reformers were steeped experientially in exclusive free grace salvation. The great watershed that bespoke irreparable cleavage between Roman Catholicism and the Reformers hinged on this second great watchword, grace alone.
The issue was clear-cut for Luther: Does man initiate and assist in Divine forgiveness, or does God provide, initiate, effect, and complete the full-orbed salvation of lost sinners so that glory must be attributed solely to sovereign grace? In response to Erasmus's Diatribe, Luther's Bondage of the Will unequivocally sides for Divine grace. Luther, and in his wake followed all true Reformers, insisted that a sinner was both unable to provide a saving remedy and unable to take hold of one provided. Luther saw vividly that the only approach that could shrivel the ponderous Roman Catholic system of indulgences, pilgrimages, idol-kissings, penances, fastings, purgatory, Mariolatry, etc. was to strike at the root of the controversy: free grace versus free will. Indeed, even a responding Erasmus was compelled to confess: "You and you alone have seen the hinge on which all turns and aimed for the vital spot: free will versus the grace of God."
The church's present need is Reformation – reaffirmation of the supremacy and exclusiveness of Divine grace. Sovereign grace is far easier to mouth with our lips than to experience in our hearts and manifest in our lives. Have we learned experientially that grace must internally call us (Gal. 1:15), regenerate us (Rom. 9:16), justify us (Rom. 3:24), sanctify and preserve us (Tit. 3:7)? Have we learned that grace not only must do everything for us, but also must give everything to us? Have we been brought by the Spirit to need pardoning grace to forgive us, restoring grace to return us, consoling grace to heal our broken hearts, upholding grace to strengthen us in trouble and spiritual welfare, preventing grace to keep us from sin, accompanying grace to go with us every moment, and following grace to pursue us to the grave?
The third watchword of Reformation doctrine was faith alone. The Reformers taught clearly that the "just shall live by faith." After this simple text was unfolded for Luther in his hour of deliverance, he confessed: "Immediately I felt myself to have gone through open doors into paradise." Faith, the Reformers taught in conjunction with Luther, is the necessary gift of Christ. It is an instrument that unites with Christ, lives out of Christ, and causes the soul to partake of Him and all His benefits.
Under the Spirit's application, faith makes God's Word powerfully alive and brings Divine graces into exercise. Sola fida is so critical to experience because it springs out of the ruin of self, and looks outside of self to Jesus Christ as its only source of deliverance (Phil. 3:8). "Faith," Martin Luther confessed, "gives me Christ, and love from faith gives me to my neighbor." Faith motivates all other graces into action – repentance, joy, hope, patience, peace, love (Gal. 5:22-23) – confirming the quip of Flavel, "All other graces like birds in the nest depend upon what faith brings in to them." No wonder Matthew Henry commented, "Christ honors faith the most, because faith honors Christ the most."
This triple Reformation-watchword ultimately brought God in Christ to the foreground biblically, doctrinally, experientially, and practically. Our Reformed forebears unabashedly proclaimed: solus Christus (Christ alone). In Christ is life, outside of Christ is death. Without Him we can do nothing; through Him, everything. Outside of Christ, God cannot but be an everlasting fire and consuming burning; in Christ, He is a gracious Father. This is Reformation doctrine, for only in Christ can God's justice be satisfied. The very nerve center of Reformed Christology is an insistence on the necessity of Christ's mediation. And such Christology is inseparable from predestination, for John Calvin has rightly argued that the work of the Mediator is absolutely necessary if man is to be saved, but that the salvation of man rests entirely on the free will of God. Thus, Berkhof rightly comments: "Even as there is a Christological element in Calvin's doctrine of predestination, so is there a predestinarian element in Christology." Behind Christ, stands election, and behind election, sovereign good pleasure.
This is "the faith once delivered" also to us. May God grant us grace to appreciate, elucidate, and experience it. May we also learn to cry out: "Sola scripture, sola gratis, sola fida – solus Christus!"