Today is October 31, Reformation Sunday, a far more important date to note than the one being celebrated by the world, to be sure. Though no one who awoke on November 1, 1517 had any idea at all that anything of moment had taken place the day before, hindsight is powerful. I will not in this article address the issue of the content of Luther’s theses (I touched on these topics on Thursday’s Dividing Line broadcast). Instead, I wish to speak to the heart of the Reformation.
A few years ago a book appeared titled, “Is the Reformation Over?” For many, it is, there is no question about it. A large swath of those who call themselves “Protestants” today are far more comfortable with Rome’s view of grace, Rome’s view of man, Rome’s view of law and revelation, and entire sections of Rome’s soteriology. They may, for reasons of taste, reject the Papacy or various of the Marian dogmas, but in essence, they are Roman Catholics in absentia, nothing more. Rome’s salving man-centeredness, summed up in the treadmill of sacramental penances, absolutions, and ceremonies, all designed to channel and control the grace of God (as if such divine power could be controlled by puny man!), appeals to the natural man, and Protestantism is home to a great deal of false profession, especially when it divorces itself from the passionate commitment to the gospel that gave it birth. I have described these not-quite-Catholics as paddling about in the Tiber river, sometimes coming close to the eastern shore, sometimes stopping long enough to listen to those of us who preach from there, proclaiming good news of a perfect Savior, a gospel that brings true peace, to the throngs on the far side, only to shake their head at our “extremism” and paddle back toward Rome. Sadly, this describes many who teach in seminary classrooms and hold denominational positions. They lack a passion for the gospel, exhibited most clearly in their inability to see that Rome’s “gospel” is anything but.
Today Roman Catholics, and their confused sympathizers, will lament the great “divorce” of Christendom that was the Protestant Reformation. The great benefit of unity, they will mourn, was lost in a fit of misunderstanding and self-centeredness. The fact that the Apostles of Jesus Christ had provided the example long before, in such books as Galatians, and 1 John, showing that a unity based upon the suppression, perversion, and denial of the gospel is a unity in self-destruction, not a godly unity of truth, will be lost to them. For those who are not-quite-Catholics, something as minor as “differences of interpretation in the gospel” cannot be allowed to stand in the way of “Mere Christianity,” that nebulous scarecrow of theology erected in our day that affirms just enough truth to look good while by-passing the only message that can ever change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One such not-quite-Catholic who decided to dock his boat on the far side of the Tiber and at least be consistent with his own beliefs about the gospel, grace, man’s nature, etc., is Frank Beckwith. He posted an article this past week on the subject of Reformation Day and Schism. It once again validates the thesis I presented in August of this year on this blog, that being that Frank Beckwith never professed a saving gospel of grace that was consciously and purposefully different than that of Rome.
Though Beckwith claims he once “stood on the other side of the Tiber” in this article, we have argued, and documented, that he most assuredly did not. He may have stood on the Island of Confusion out in the middle somewhere, but he never docked his boat on the other side, dismantled it (“I shall never return!”) and turned it into a pulpit from which to thunder forth the truths of God’s perfect salvation and true peace in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The second paragraph of his essay bears this out:
Since returning to the Catholic Church in late April 2007, I find Reformation Day has taken on a different meaning than when I stood on the other side of the Tiber. Nevertheless, even as a Protestant, my enthusiasm for October 31 never rose higher than modest appreciation for what I thought were Luther’s, and later Calvin’s, significant contributions in helping Western Christians to retrieve what had been lost. I say “modest appreciation,” since it always seemed to me rather unseemly to get too excited about schism and mutual charges of apostasy and heresy. It would be like celebrating the tenth anniversary of your divorce. You may think that the divorce was a good idea, but not because you think divorce itself is the proper end of a marriage.
Notice the clear confession: even as a not-quite-Catholic, Beckwith found nothing in Reformation Sunday that spoke of freedom, redemption, the gospel, etc. Instead, his “enthusiasm…never rose higher than modest appreciation for what I thought were Luther’s, and later Calvin’s, significant contributions in helping Western Christians to retrieve what had been lost.” And what had been lost? Well, nothing overly significant, I guess, just this “gospel” thing. As long as Beckwith saw the Reformation as merely something relevant to “contributions” relating to “Western Christians,” we do not have to wonder long at whether he ever passionately embraced the freedom of the gospel of grace, or even saw its necessity. Repetitious sacrifices that never perfect? Sacramental priests doling out penance and forgiveness? Infallible popes binding man-made doctrines on men’s souls? Eh, no worries!
But I wish to focus upon the charge of “unseemliness.” Beckwith is quite right if all the Reformation amounted to was “schism and mutual charges of apostasy and heresy.” What a silly thing to celebrate! But, of course, this only proves our point: when God in His sovereign mercy and grace brought together all the mighty streams of history at a particular point, in a particular place, to ignite a fire that brought the light of God’s grace, the power of God’s Word, back into the hearts and homes of His hungry people, freeing so many from slavery to a dead corpse of religious tradition, He was not creating mere “schism,” He was providing freedom to the people of God! Only by assuming both sides were, in fact, heirs of the one faith can one think this was “schism.” But once one realizes that a gospel that shackles you to a grinding wheel of constant human works, penances, and indulgences, denying you access to the finished work of Christ, is no gospel at all, the Reformation becomes something to be celebrated indeed! There is everything good in thanking God for the gracious outpouring of His Spirit that led men and women to bow in humble adoration not before statues or Popes, but at the feet of the resurrected Christ, shouting out, “To God alone be the glory! By Christ alone I am saved! To scripture alone I look for God’s truth! By God’s grace alone I am saved! By faith alone I embrace the perfect Savior!” This is why we celebrate Reformation Sunday.
There is much more in Beckwith’s article that calls for comment, but my duties for this coming Lord’s Day (two sermons, one Bible study) and the next day (flying to Peru to do pastoral training for the week) preclude further comment. For now, let me express my hope that for those who know their need of a perfect Savior, a finished work of atonement, a sovereign God who saves His elect people, and a Spirit who can raise to spiritual life without the aid and assistance of the dead(!), this day of remembrance of what God did through the ministries of imperfect men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, etc. will confirm you, and encourage you, in your own ministry to Christ and His people.