The Reformation was not a clean-up project. We are not commemorating and celebrating a call to do better. Many historians today insist that there were many “reformations” and that to label the events documented here as “The Reformation” is an unfair representation of history. This sadly misses the very heart of the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church didn’t need a shower and new clothes, she needed a new heart. The Reformation was not another one of the many campaigns for moral improvement.
It is true that many, before and during Martin Luther’s time, voiced a serious desire to “reform” the church. The grand and vital distinction, however, was that their voices and efforts were largely man-centered aims for the church to look and do better.
While all were looking to put new paint on an old pump, the Reformation was God’s work to change the source from the stale dead waters of self-merit to the living waters of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Reformation’s revolutionary idea is justification by faith alone.
For centuries, the Church had been teaching that a sinner is brought into an acceptable (“right”) standing before God through the impartation of righteousness. That through the sacraments a sinner may progressively become more and more righteous and thereby become more and more justified. It was another way of saying that you need religious works to make you a good person—you need to merit God’s acceptance in order to avoid His judgment against your sins. But this is not “good news” to be embraced by faith through hearing, it is justification by works of the law. The Scriptures plainly state, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). This biblical principle is what the Reformation unleased on the heavy-laden hearts of weary souls trying to work their way to God.
Essentially, this biblical principle is a forensic one, meaning that it has to do with one’s legal status, not one’s behavior chart. It is best realized in the concept of the imputation of righteousness, not impartation. This is also plainly described in Scripture, where the Apostle Paul argues that the manifest work of the Holy Spirit is not the result of our “works of the law” but rather He regenerates us and works in us “by hearing with faith—just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Galatians 3:5-6). The key here is that on the account of faith alone was God’s righteousness counted—(imputed, credited, reckoned, charged, allotted)—to Abraham.
Grace is not grace if it is dependent on us. Sacraments were the tangible means for the church to channel God’s grace to the people. But grace was then conceived in the likes of a substance rather than a personal, relational expression of love. The whole economy of salvation was thought of in measures of goodness imparted through sacraments. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church had seven sacraments, serving as the levers by which sinners could obtain tokens of grace needed to save their souls. Sacraments were representative of the medieval means of a justification. But with the rediscovery of justification by faith alone, the whole economy of church controlled merit distribution via sacraments collapsed. The Reformation transformed the church’s understanding of grace and the purpose of Christ’s ordinances. It also transformed the people’s view of Christ’s church and her roles and responsibilities.
Minimize the importance of the Scriptures and you will soon have no need of preaching. Make salvation about religious duty and there will be no place for the pulpit. Dead religion can only survive where the living Word is not proclaimed. Christ affords no room in His church for competing voices. There is either the Word of God or the word of man, and in terms of ultimate realities these are mutually exclusive—the one must serve the other. No one can listen to two master voices, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. No man can serve the master voice of God and man.
Preaching is but a voice put to the written Word of God, heralded by a heart that has been captivated by the meaning of that Word in the power of God the Spirit. Preaching is the mouthpiece of God. It threatens the authority and power of man and unleashes the power of God for salvation. Remove the good news and you have nothing to preach. Obscure the Gospel and preaching loses its substance. Lives are changed and souls are sanctified through the hearing and believing of the Gospel preached, not by ritual, sacrament, or deed. Martin Luther stressed this point by insisting that the Gospel is received by a “hearing faith” that corresponds to the preaching of the Word.
Luther said that it was the very nature of the Word to be preached. In each of the Reformed creeds, though variation of number and emphasis exists, all insist that the first mark of the church is the preaching of God’s Word. The Reformation brought the Word of God back to the people, esteeming the Word above all else as God’s ordained means of revealing Himself, His will, and His promises to His people.
Preaching in the church was nearly lost for roughly one thousand years. It was in the Reformation that God brought about two interrelated transformations that revived the importance of preaching: (a) the rediscovery of the voice of God in the Scriptures and (b) the rediscovery of the principle of the Gospel in justification by faith alone. These two tremendous gifts of God to humanity are unleashed and enlivened through true preaching—a distinctive recovery of the Gospel in the Reformation. It is no wonder why biblical Christianity is the only religion in the world that prioritizes regular, public preaching of Scripture—it is the only religion in the world that has good news. News requires announcers; good news requires heralds of joy! The Reformation has revived in the church of Christ, and for the good of the world, exegetically-based, Scripture-driven, Christ-centered, impassioned, joyful, sanctifying preaching.
While the Reformation was not based on moral reform, as other reforms were, it nevertheless addressed the heart corruption and sin of the people. The key difference is that it lit the light of God’s Word on the matter and proclaimed the Gospel of God’s grace as the means of true purity. The glory of God broke through in new and beautiful brilliance such that a personal relationship with God became the driving desire behind purity. Later Reformers would summarize the whole goal of salvation as glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. Therefore, purity became an interest of unencumbered fellowship with our gracious and loving Creator and Savior, and not a matter of merit or acceptance. Love and pleasure compelled praise and purity.