It's an oft-repeated question: Is the Reformation still necessary? During this commemoration of Luther’s protest, it’s proper to consider how the Reformation impulse of yesteryear applies to our present moment in history.
Central to the Reformation was the fact that God places us before his unbroken gaze. We who were once separated from Christ—strangers to the covenant or promise and without hope in the world—have been drawn into the loving embrace of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This happens, says the Apostle Paul, “by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). But how exactly it happens is a key tenet of the Reformation.
The fundamental difference
A basic distinction between Catholics and Protestants has concerned this question of how God embraces sinners. Divine acceptance, according to the Roman Church, is internally “infused” through her sacraments, a process that consists in moral virtues and good works as the necessary condition for humanity’s final absolution. The Protestant reformers, on the other hand, located the basis of one’s acceptance in the finished work of Christ upon the cross, a forgiveness that was attributed or imputed to sinners as a gift.
It’s at this point that the phrase “faith alone” (sola fide) is so important to the Protestant tradition. From the earliest days of the 16th century, sola fide was a slogan to describe how sinners receive the gift of acceptance. On the basis of Scripture, reformers recognized that God justifies men and women apart from meritorious works. In the words of Paul, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
All of this is pretty straightforward: We are accepted because of Christ, and not on account of our achievements. And yet, foundational as this doctrine may be, those of us with a modicum of self-awareness recognize our tendency toward self-justification. We succeed, we accomplish, we perceive ourselves to be significant, and this, we think, hastens our acceptance. It’s the normal pattern of life in the world. But such self-reliance is incompatible with life in Christ.
The reformers recognized in their historical moment this same challenge we see in our own: God embraces sinners, and we recoil from his presence. God establishes, feeds and fulfills his promises, and we regularly mistrust his motives. God pledges his love by providing his Spirit as an enduring bond, and we doubt his commitment. So long as this is the case, reformation will continue to be necessary.
Where ethics come into play
So what about moral virtues and good works? What role do they play in the Christian life? Some suggest that since divine acceptance is devoid of meritorious works, ethics should be of secondary concern. After all, isn’t salvation by faith alone apart from works? Unfortunately, this denigration of ethics is the other side of the horse from which we sometimes fall when considering our Reformation heritage.
Central to the Reformation was the fact that God places us before his unbroken gaze.
Yes, over and against advocates of Catholic renewal, such as Desiderius Erasmus, Protestant reformers refused to see Jesus as an ethical paradigm for Christianity. They insisted, first and foremost, upon spiritual union with the crucified and risen Christ as the priority and guiding impulse of faith. “Did we in our own strength confide,” wrote Luther, “our striving would be losing.” Thus, the “theologian of the cross” lives by this conviction, and it animates the cruciform shape of his or her life. In short, we come to the Savior full of weakness and find his grace to be sufficient.
But how do we find God’s empowering grace to be sufficient? This question leads us into ethics. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not by relegating the Christian life to forgiveness—a merely judicial or forensic faith. In Oswald Bayer’s words, “The new human is no grotesque caricature who spends his life in a darkened room, reciting with closed eyes, ‘I am justified by faith alone, I am justified by faith alone.’” While Reformation Protestants assert that we are justified by faith alone, this faith does not remain alone: “For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them,” said the Genevan reformer, John Calvin.
Such virtue is not extra credit for religious overachievers; it’s the natural unfolding of our life and calling as children of God. We may not agree with our Catholic friends in recognizing divine acceptance as a sacramental process that consists in moral virtues and good works, but we nevertheless insist that authentic faith issues forth in good works. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” said Paul, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Salvation may not be achieved by works, but it is certainly comprised of works.
Our Reformation calling today
Living in the unbroken gaze of God’s love, our calling is to distinguish faith and works without separating them. It’s easy to reach toward one of these extremes, but our calling is to uphold both. In biblical terms, it’s the need for Luke 18:9-14 and 14:25-33. In the first case, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector teaches us that it’s not the one who boasts about his works who is justified, but the one who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” At the same time, we must include the uncompromising reality that “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In Martin Luther’s words:
God will not judge by your name, whether you are called a Christian or have been baptized. But He will tell you: If you are a Christian, tell Me where the fruits are by which you can prove your faith.
As gospel-centered Christians, our Reformation calling is to proclaim the gift of divine acceptance by faith alone and to embody the moral transformation that such a gift produces.