Challenges to Christians Today from Luther’s Reformation ~ by B. Andrew Song

Two years ago, Christians across the globe celebrated the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation. While many cherished its achievements and legacy, others doubted its nature and argued that the Reformation divided the Church and led to endless schisms. How should we think about the Reformation? Since it happened five hundred years ago, what has it to do with me today?
First of all, what is the Reformation? For many, it happened when a German monk nailed his ninety-five theses on the cathedral’s door. With the help of the Guttenberg printing press, Europe was ablaze with a political revolution. However, such a popular view does not fully represent the Reformation. At its core, the sixteenth-century Reformation was a movement of doctrinal and spiritual renewal. In other words, the Reformation did not introduce foreign ideas to Christian faith; instead, the Reformers rediscovered “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saint.” Though the mediaeval period contributed much to the Western civilization, spiritually it was a dark period, as the Roman Church failed to teach the sufficient atonement of Jesus Christ and the authority of the inspired and infallible Word of God. Consequently, many struggled in religious matters: for those who were baptized as children but never experienced conversion, they committed grievous sins in the name of Christ; for those who sincerely believed in Christ’s atonement, they struggled for the lack of assurance; for those who loved the world, they saw the Church as a group of greedy politicians; for those who lost beloved relatives, they feared for the deceased’s spiritual condition. With the threat of the Islamic states in the east, one might wonder: Would the Christian Church have a future?
Centuries before Martin Luther (1483–1546), many pious men and women saw people’s struggles and the Roman Church’s corruption. Instead of seeking better political schemes, they searched the Scriptures. They were thrilled by God’s Words, which were sweeter than honey. For that reason, men like Pierre Vaudès (c. 1140–c. 1205) of France, John Wycliffe (1330–1384), Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415) of Czech, William Tyndale (c. 1494–c. 1536), and Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) of Florence began to preach the Bible and make it available for people to read. Like many early Christians, they were slaughtered for their faith. Though the attempts to reform was never ceased, it was not until Martin Luther’ time, where a worldwide Reformation took place. Luther, the Augustinian monk, did not invent the Reformation; instead, he preached the same message of Paul the apostle and the early church fathers.
In a recent study, Professor Johannes Zachhuber pointed out “at the bottom of Luther’s theological position lay a strong and uncompromising affirmation of the absolute centrality of the person of Jesus Christ for the Christian faith.” Thus, the often-well-known slogan of the Reformation theology, “Christ alone” (solus Christus) is the culmination of “Scripture alone” (sola scriptura), “by faith alone” (sola fide), and “by grace alone” (sola gratia). For Luther and the other Reformers, this conclusion did not come to them easily. In the case of Luther, he struggled as many did at his time over the nature of conversion and assurance. The Roman Church taught at the time that unless people could prove their faith, they could not be loved by God. Thus, for Luther and others, God was an angry deity, as it was impossible to repent all sins. It was reported that Luther confessed his sins to his mentor Johann von Staupitz (c. 1460–1524) for six hours! Even so, Luther was not sure if he confessed all he had sinned. It was not until when Luther lectured on Psalms at the University of Wittenberg in 1512 that he learned and experienced the biblical doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone. When he came to Psalm 71:2––“In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me!” (ESV)––he conducted a study and found Romans 1:16–17, where Paul wrote, “the righteous shall live by faith.” God spoke to Luther’s troubled heart by his own Words! God’s righteousness was a gift freely given to those who love God in Christ. As sinners, we can never please God by our own merits. Unless we see our inability and Christ’s full love and righteousness, we are Christians by name only, and we are worse than the Pharisees. We are like the disciples, who, though they were fishermen, still struggled much in the storm. Only by crying out to the Lord Jesus, the incarnated God, the suffered servant-King, we can be saved and restored. That is what grace is about, as the Reformers proclaimed:
We deserve but grief and shame,

Yet His words, rich grace revealing, Pardon, peace, and life proclaim; Here our ills have perfect healing. Firmly in these words believe: Jesus sinners doth receive.

(Erdmann Neumeister, Jesus nimmt die Sünder an [1653])
Here are two challenges for you.
First, don’t just believe, know what you believe. We challenge you to dive deeper into the Scripture by not only reading it, but also by studying, memorizing, meditating, and praying the Word of God. We need to experience Christ with his Words. Remember these words from Luther: “the highest of all God’s commands is this, that we should hold up before our eyes the image of his dear son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day he should be our excellent mirror wherein we behold how much God loves us and how well, in his infinite goodness, he has cared for us in that he gave his dear Son for us.”
Second, we challenge you to continue to love your neighbours by praying for fellow-sinners’ conversion. We need to look beyond the walls of our homes and church. Remember your Christian brothers and sisters everywhere! Pray that the gospel of grace may be made known to every person. Pray that your own life may bear a faithful witness to the Lord in every circumstance, and many may wonder and “ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).
[Written as a bulletin insert for Christie St. Baptist Church, Toronto, ON in October 2019.]