Reformation Truths for the 21st Century

The Reformation was much more than one man or 95 theses, but neither should be underestimated in conjunction with the Gospel truth they conveyed. The remarkably simple and unbelievably scandalous grace proclaimed ushered in an era of transformation we still feel to this day. Yet if we Western evangelicals dare to engage in a little self-reflection, we may find that for all our talk of Reformation we could use a little reforming. Several tenets of the Reformation may need to be nailed to our online evangelical doors.

The Gospel

The Gospel is no mere project or coalition.It is an outrageous pronouncement of innocence despite guilt because of Christ’s dying and rising. It is a news so good, it’s unbelievable to our modern ears.The wretched, vile, and filthy, like myself, are offered redemption, transformation, and cleansing. What must I do to secure this deal? It is no deal. I put my faith in the son of God who suffered, bled and died on my behalf. Did he do this because of some hint of greatness or goodness already within me that needed to be awakened? No. He did this because of abounding steadfast love. So how does this contract continue? Will it need to be renegotiated annually to be certain I fulfill my end of the bargain? Absolutely not! The foundation and security of the soul rest in Christ’s resurrection. Look to Christ at first faith and forever. Sometimes I’m still amazed at just how permeated evangelicalism is by a works righteousness paradigm. We would never state it outright, but it creeps into our perspectives and practices ever so subtly. This is why we must proclaim the pure, undiluted, works shattering, Good News of Christ crucified for sinners constantly.

Scandalous Grace

The timeless truth and power of the Gospel radiates brilliantly and beautifully. Unfortunately, over time there is a tendency for the cobwebs of works and dust of religion to settle over it. It is still acknowledged, but not seen, embraced, and felt in all its splendor until something or someone comes along, sweeps aside the cobwebs and dust, and allows the scandal of grace to radiate once more. The particular danger in our time is in the religious language and familiarity of it all. The cobwebs of works are explained as holiness and sanctification while the dust of religion is rationalized as accountability and structure. And so time goes on and the layers accumulate until we end up with a stale representation of something that is glorious. We package the pearl of great price like IKEA furniture with some assembly required. Inevitably a catalyst does arrive and tries to sweep away the layers to give us a glimpse, but we protest. After all, you can’t be rid of holiness, sanctification, accountability, or structure. We forget our acceptance on the basis of God’s unmerited steadfast love and practically deny the sovereign working of God through the transforming power of the gospel and Spirit by insisting that our own efforts keep the whole apparatus moving. What a sad and arrogant paradox that in the name of grace we deny its true power. How? We deny grace through making the blessing of God’s favor contingent upon our goodness instead of his. We operate under the old paradigm that says, “If I do good, God will bless me and if I do bad, then God will curse me.” Grace, however, scandalizes our works-saturated hearts as we look on in unbelief and dare to believe.

Priesthood of Believers

Offering a theological nod to the priesthood of believers is not the same as holding the vocation of all who profess Christ in equal regard. Evangelicalism has created a spiritual hierarchy with all the rights, privileges, and authority ascribed to those at the top and expected submission for those who are not. Do we really believe that the man that drives the plow and the priest are on the same kingdom plane? Perhaps putting that in a modern context will drive the point home. Do we really believe that the divorcee who works as a greeter at the local superstore has just as much a spiritual mandate as the celebrity pastor with their para-church ministry, regular speaking circuit, and advanced seminary degrees?  Many pastors lead with humility and discernment, but the church climate in many of our circles is conducive to power structures of compliance more than a pastor-shepherd paradigm. Pastors are not celebrity spiritual CEOs, but rather humble under-shepherds tasked with caring for the flock and equipping the saints for the work of ministry. That equipping role is no more spiritual than being equipped and the mandate to carry the gospel was one to all believers, not merely a pastoral or seminary class of Christians.

Saint and Sinner

Simul Iustus et Peccator” is Latin for simultaneously righteous and sinner. The implications of this dual spiritual existence are not without irony and beauty. Ironically, we exist as the apostle Paul in the battle between the law of God and the law of sinful flesh (Romans 7:21-23). Yet, the beauty is in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ who delivers us from this body of death (Romans 7:24-25). All at once we are justified sinners. Practically, this means that pristine Christian lives are not the ultimate goal nor a product we peddle. Pristine Christian lives are illusory. Embattled Christian lives are reality. Undoubtedly, some will insist this minimizes holiness and sanctification; however, we’ve settled for a veneer of redemption for far too long. We must not presume upon the riches of God’s kindness, but neither can we deny the depths of our sinfulness. We must get back to proclaiming the Gospel instead of marketing the Christian life. One puts the “Saint” on display like a billboard ad and the other acknowledges that despite being sinners we have redemption because of Christ and are being transformed through a turbulent sanctification that He will bring to completion.

As the church today wrestles with seeker-sensitivity, post-modern philosophy, and the age-old impulse of works righteousness, we must take great care lest, in the name of Christ, we drift away from him. Such vigilance will require gospel faithfulness, grace saturation, great commission equipping and discipleship, and Christian living rooted in reality. It is easy to pay homage to the reformation and then go about our church business as usual. It is much more difficult, and incredibly needed, to consider where the truths of the Reformation need to reshape our thoughts and practices today.

Chris Dunn
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