Is the Reformation still necessary?

October 31, 2017

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.’”[1] 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.[2]

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.


  1. ^ Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27.
  2. ^ Martin Luther. What Luther Says, An Anthology, vol. 3, ed. Ewald M. Plass. St. Louis: (Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1510.

Chris Castaldo

Chris Castaldo is lead pastor of New Covenant Church, Naperville. He is author of Talking with Catholics About the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years. Chris blogs at www.chriscastaldo.com. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24