Does the Church Need Another Reformation?

luther.jpgDr. John Hannah gave a substantive and thought provoking presentation a couple of months ago (on Reformation Day) in a Dallas Theological Seminary chapel. He challenged us as heirs of the reformation to preserve the essence of what the reformation did, namely to restore the clarity and glories of the gospel. It was not simply a reaction to Late Medieval corruption in the church. But in recent times, we have been slowly but tragically redefining the gospel. We water it down when we reduce the Bible to a source of inspirational myths and stories lacking authority in our lives. We dilute it when we redefine sin as lacking the discipline to become all that we can be. We trivialize the gospel when we minimize the cross to a piece of jewelry or the end of a good man’s life. When the gospel is trivialized, Christ is dishonored. At the end of his talk, John said,

“My cry before you today is . . . to consider the possibility of a new reformation. Another, a second, joyous rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will set us from ourselves and turn us unto a zealous quest for the proclamation of the true gospel, for a new breed of followers who recognize that the cross always precedes the crown, that eternal glory follows momentary suffering, that a true follower of Christ should not be driven by a success motive but by a love-of-Christ-and-his-mission motive.”

Like John, I am concerned when I see churches moving away from the basics of God’s plan of redemption for us. I have copied the text of John’s entire talk below. It’s worth a read.


The Gospel Clarified: A Joyful Celebration, Something to Remember and Something to Perpetuate

Dallas Theological Seminary — Reformation Day, 2006

My thesis today is a simple one. Four hundred eighty nine years ago today the greatest event since Pentecost catapulted into visibility a most profound evidence of the grand, invisible reality of the great metanarratve that began at the dawn of time and will only be consummated at its end. While it is often right to celebrate great moments and heroic figures, to walk through meticulously arranged and manicured cemeteries with thousands of white crosses perpendicularly placed with the names, rank, and life-span of the young, it is only the outward arena of a far-more profound story. It is that deeper, invisible, yet truly real, story that we come to today.

You have every right to ask a question. What makes the action of a guilt-ridden monk whose fearful soul could but cry out to be heard when he attached a protest statement to a church door in a small university town on the Elbe River in Germany in 1517 a great glimpse into a rarely visible unfolding of the sacred narrative? Well, let me state a couple of the reasons.

First, it arises from the grand metanarrative itself. If the real story behind centuries of headlines, that rarely if ever takes top billing over sadistic acts of brutality, thrust against the human race with increasing technological precision, the greed of corporate magnets who have reached new lows of deception destroying their own companies, or devastation of the rapist or child molester who takes pleasure at the unimaginable toll of another’s pain, is the wonder of redeeming a lost, helpless race through His own, divine intervention. The real story is that of a crimson flow that makes us white as snow, of a Savior that thought it not a thing to be grasped to remain in the glorious presence of incessant praise, of angelic beings, the intratrinitarian love and delight of the divine being who is incomprehensively three, as well as joyous shouts and adoring worship of saints who have come to know the unsurpassing value of the riches that are in Christ Jesus. It is about the stunning truth that our thrice holy God covenanted together before creation to make a people of His own by indescribable heights of grace to join the angels for eternity to dwell in His presence granting to some the lavish benefit of redeeming grace while inexplicably passing over others of equal affront to divine justice that must be expressed in wrath. The angels stand in awl of the plan that Holy Trinitarian one is still unfolding, and will until it is complete. He choose out of a horribly fated humanity blighted, rebellious, troubled angry at their creator to unimaginably give them a reprieve expressed in titanic proportions: forgiveness as a fact, righteousness as a garment, adoption and heirship with Himself. The sin of mankind became the anvil of which His own son was beaten mercilessly to satisfy divine justice without which the Father could not be both just in His divine character and the justifier of mankind, The Spirit is that which Christ purchased for us in His death; it is the “parabone,” the gift of eternal life that not only is life itself, but the promise of a greater experience of the life infallibly unfolded to us beyond the grave, where the last enemy’s paralyzing grip functions as an allegorical “sword of Damocles” holds us in fear no longer. This is the “real” story; history is a great invisible play orchestrated on a visible stage where upon God alone in the centrifugal force of infinite secondary causation. There He is gathering a people for His Son, purchased by His Son, wherein the intratrinitarian love of God will shine on them and be reflected by them forever.

A second reason to pause and celebrate is not only that an invisible metanarrative irrupted to disclose something of the invisible mind of God, but because the consequences of that irruption, perhaps ignited by what psychoanalysts and social psychologists would today call a case of behavioral dysfunction, a bizarre psychic manifestation (one scholar called it “paranoia reformata,” others deprivation caused by a lack of parental bonding), caused a grotesque, debilitating and inordinate fear of God and of the devil. The root of Luther’s angst is now considered as originating in a series of deforming, crippling myths by our learned culture that promises to deliver us from ancient home-spun attempts to grapple with the great unknown. These superior insights, acquired at the altar of rationalism has created a world of frightening potential devoid of moral absolutes for its governance and empty of a nexus of ultimate meaning, into a dark hole leaving many with a fragile hope of at least a transitory moment of peace and happiness in the delusion of endless entertainment and material acquisitions. A movement was born on that day as a monk took from his cowl a piece of paper upon which he carefully stated his protest for what he felt was a church that had abandoned its true calling and in the process substituted the biblical gospel of grace and mercy for a grotesque promise of salvation through assiduous obedience that can only damn the soul to the arid wasteland of uncertainty, a road that can only take a traveler through a hell of disquiet to a destiny that is worst than hell on earth. We are part of movement, a gratuitously redeemed community that is called Protestantism today. It was born in a monk’s protest and became a movement that has brought peace and hope to millions of troubled consciences. It has produced the virility of martyrdom bearing witness that at the heart of our movement is such a compelling truth of a divine redemption that holding on to this life at the cost of silence is too great a price to pay. Death, we will face because we have been led to believe that an unseen metanarrative is more real, utterly consuming in its beauty, and more precious than the most valuable things in this world that now for us simply become a mere shadow, an empty shell, a pointer of a more profound reality beyond itself.

It, the Protestant movement, has produced a worldwide movement that extended its reaches beyond it rebirth in Europe to the ends of the earth. We are closer today to the fulfillment of our divine calling than ever before in the history of the church. The nations are hearing the gospel through word of mouth, the printed page, and advanced technologies in unimagined venues today. Lands long the object of missions are rapidly replacing the industrialized nations as the sending centers. Ironically the lands that birthed our movement nearly five hundred years ago are now a focus of mission endeavors. Missiologists suggest that the strength of the church in the not-to-distant future will be south of the equator, the Pacific rim nations, and China (the latter likely to emerge as the world power by 2030 as its economic grip on western economies leads to political and military advantage). The color of the churches will mutate to new majorities: black, brown, and oriental.

Every celebration of this kind has two perspectives. There is that look back to remember our rich past and draw strength and encouragement to cope with the uncertainties of today. It is also a time to think about our tomorrows, the future of our movement. On that score I have some bad news. Our movement shows signs of terminal illness; in fact, I believe that the Reformation influence has been interred. It is dead. Let me explain myself. The Christian faith will never falter within the framework of God’s holy design. I am assured of this from the promises of God recorded in the Bible. However, among the western nations, the cradle of the bursting forth into visibility of a divine, sacred invisible story line, the Gospel has ceased to be a determinative factor in public decision-making, heaven is thought to be the dreams of those who have missed the advances of the Enlighten assault on the possibility of truth (cultural misfits from a distant, dinosauric Cro-Magnon past), hell a synonym for “raisen fun, and Christ at best a symbol of stoic heroicism in adverse circumstances.

I believe that the problem is more serious than I explained above. You see it is explicable that a movement would be rejected by its proponents; it is quite another thing for it to be redefined by its friends. To explain my point let me first state as clearly as I can what the Reformation was about when it emerged. In essence, the point is missed if it is conceived as merely a reaction to Late Medieval ecclesiastical corruption. It was in the words of Alister McGrath, “a our rediscovery of the Gospel. Rediscovery of the Gospel led to the correction of the weaknesses we have been exploring…. the Reformation was this glorious rediscovery of what God had already done for his people and would continue to do for them.”

At the heart of the Reformation was the rediscovery and restoration of the glorious gospel. It was a gospel of grace that lifted the souls of men, women, boys, and girls from the chains of endless self-efforts to appease a holy God. They learned from the Holy Scriptures that God had been appeased; justice had been requited, in the atoning substitution of Jesus Christ. Righteousness was not something dolled out in return for obedience and when accumulated in sufficient quantities could purchase a right standing before God. Justification was not the end of an uncertain struggle to cleanse one’s hands by the accumulation of merit; it was the beginning of an assured end. Righteousness is not infused; it is imputed! The bondage of uncertainty has been abolished forever in the completed work of Jesus. Simply put, the reformers celebrated the truth that salvation is not a matter of our achievement; it was achieved for us with great finality and certainty. The shackles of fear and dread were burst asunder; light, peace flooded the soul.

If the reformation was the joyous rediscovery of what God did for us through Christ how is that to be explained. Though the most frequently way of describing the essence it is to focus on the word “alone” and define it in terms of Scripture, Christ, grace, faith, and the glory of God. I will resist the temptation on the theory that familiarity leads to facts but often without the concomitant of significance.

The Reformation from the perspective that I am seeking entailed the embrace of three interconnected ideas: the Bible, the sinfulness of mankind and the compensating provision of God in Christ. The Bible tells us what God wants us to know about sin and its remedy. It tells us that the divine judgment promised for disobedience has been exacted justly on the race without exception. Sin is at the rooted of all dysfunctional behavior; its fruit is the blighting of all social harmonies, the perversion of all human faculties, and the spiritual consequences of it are evidenced in the universality of death. It is beyond awful; it is indescribably horrific. The Bible also tells us of a cure that triumphs over that malady; it is the cross. In one great act of self-sacrifice our Lord voluntarily became our sin and bore the divine judgment we incurred; the Bible describes the accomplishment of Christ as that of the purchase of slaves, those purchased out of slavery to sin’s curse, and the setting of the objects of His purchase free.

Let me now get to the point. As I read the literature produced by our popular publishing houses, listen to pulpit fare in our churches, I find myself amazed. Could it be that the heirs of the reformers are becoming derelicts? What elicits my concern are the eerie parallel patterns of the state of the church in the late fifteenth century and in the early twentieth-first. Though there are contextual differences between the two centuries (one caused by a controlling church leadership that perverted gospel for greed and self-promotion, all in the name of truth; the other willing to define the gospel by its temporal benefits forgetting that Jesus promised us a crown of thorns before the crown of glory). Is the real point of Christ’s redemptive mission to create a body of people who grasp the insight that his sole reason for coming to us was to improve our social circumstance, put coins in our pockets, and a Lexus in our garages?

When sin is trivialized, Christ is dishonored. In Late Medievalism, sin was seen not as a nature-corrupting judgment, but as mere personal, voluntary actions. If that is the case, people needed to be instructed about proper or higher choices and given incentives for those choices. The incentive was the gaining of heaven by compliance to ecclesiastical mandates and sacramental obedience. We live in a culture where sin has more to do with chocolate cake than a serious affront to a just and righteous God. The incentive in our day often is not heaven, but a superior quality of pleasurable experiences now. The cross may have been replaced with a temporal crown.

If such is the case with sin, and if Christ’s mission related primarily to sin, then it is not a great stretch to see that when sin is not taken seriously, Christ is trivialized. In the Late Medieval Church Christ’s death secured the potential of the cooperative accumulation of grace; there was not security and certainty of a final and complete salvation. Today, self-help is often what is preached in our churches, etched with verses to suggest appropriateness, but the cross is often not the central content of preaching.

When sin is treated lightly and Christ’s work consequently redefined, if not refocused, the end result is a disregard for the centrality of the Scriptures in the life of the church. I do not think that there is a rampant denial of the integrity, even inerrancy of Scripture in the churches, but I do belief that we might be seeing something worse, the practical denial of the sufficiency of the Scriptures.

My cry before you today is not for a restoration of our churches to the theological ideals and commitments of the sixteenth century Reformation, it is a plea for you as God’s servant to consider the possibility of a new reformation. Another, a second, joyous rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will set us from ourselves and turn us unto a zealous quest for the proclamation of the true gospel, for a new breed of followers who recognize that the cross always precedes the crown, that eternal glory follows momentary suffering, that a true follower of Christ should not be driven by a success motive but by a love-of-Christ-and-his-mission motive.

I ask you to pray for the rediscovery of the joyous redemptive message of the gospel. That it will again grip our churches, fill our hearts with profound delight, shape our motives and morals, and turn us out into the world with a deep zeal to lift up the Christ, exalt the only redeemer from sin, and call folks to spiritual vitality and purpose.


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