was the Reformation?
Dr. Herbert Samworth
has defined Church History as the story of the loss and recovery
of the Gospel. In one sense it is impossible for the Gospel to be
lost. The Gospel is God’s good news and He has promised that
none of His words will be lost. The message of redemption is His
message and He has promised that He will carry it out to a successful
there is a sense in which the Gospel can be lost. History does not
always advance directly, it can be cyclical in nature. For example,
a study of the Book of Judges reveals a cycle of sin, chastening,
the raising up of a judge, deliverance from the oppressor, and then
a return to sin. This could be depressing reading but we can glean
important lessons for our own day.
It was apparent
that the Gospel was nearly lost during the times of the Middle Ages.
There are a number of reasons for this: ignorance of the clergy,
papal corruption, the Church becoming the mediator between God and
man, and the teaching of non-biblical doctrines.
a universal cry for a correction of these abuses. Several groups
and individuals arose who attempted to reform the Church. Included
were persons and groups such as John Wyclif, John Hus, and the Brethren
of the Common Life. Even the Humanists joined in the attempt to
correct the abuses. However, they believed the key to the reformation
of the Church was by education.
these things, we must never forget that God uses people to carry
out His work. God often permitted the situation to come to a crisis
point and then He prepared a person to combat that error. This can
be illustrated from the Patristic Church when Arius attacked the
deity of Christ in the fourth century. He claimed that Jesus was
the first created being and not God. Athanasius was given the honor
of defending the true deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus, thus
preserving the Gospel itself. For if Christ were not God, then there
could be no salvation.
a great number of doctrines that were not in dispute at the time
of the Reformation. The Reformation did not debate the doctrines
of the Trinity, the Person of Christ, man and his need of salvation,
and the nature of the work of Christ. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan
Creeds defined the nature of the Trinity and the Person of Christ.
Augustine did a masterful job in showing that man was lost in sin
and incapable of saving himself by his own efforts. In 1529, the
Council of Orange made his teachings on man part of the orthodox
belief thus preserving the great truth that salvation is of God’s
grace. Even in the 12th Century, Anselm of Canterbury demonstrated
that the nature of Christ’s death was a penal sacrifice offered
to God. While there was an application of the atonement that cancelled
the power of the devil over man, it was directed primarily to God.
question of the Middle Ages was how the benefits of Christ’s
death were applied to the sinner who needed to be saved. Over the
course of centuries, the Roman Church had appropriated that power
to itself. This power was located in the seven sacraments that the
Church administered to its adherents. Theologians taught that God
had bestowed His grace to the Church. The Church, then, became the
custodian of grace and had the authority to mediate it to the faithful
by means of the sacraments. There could be no salvation apart from
the Church. As a result, people were in bondage to the Church. The
Gospel was distorted, if not actually lost, by this incorrect teaching.
demonstrated that the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice were
applied differently than what the Church taught. Through his personal
struggle with sin, Luther realized that salvation came through faith
in Christ. When Luther became aware of the sale of indulgences to
release souls from Purgatory, he was incensed. To Luther, this was
nothing less than trafficking in the souls of men. The Pope rejected
Luther's appeal and determined to continue the practice that Luther
proved was in direct contradiction to the Word of God. These historical
events form the context of the Reformation.
itself was the recovery of the Gospel. The Gospel, the power of
God unto salvation, was liberated from its Medieval dross, and proclaimed
once again to the world. The good news, that God in Christ had accomplished
salvation for man and offered it to him as a free gift received
by faith alone, thundered throughout Europe. This was the same Gospel
that the Apostle Paul had proclaimed hundreds of years previously.
sense, the Reformation was an advance. It was not an advance in
the Gospel itself because the Gospel is complete and perfect. The
advance was in man's understanding of the Gospel. The Reformation
was primarily the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith.
But the doctrine of justification by faith led to further teaching
on the nature of the Christian life and how to live one's life coram
deo, or in the presence of God Himself.
Reformation was a recovery of the Gospel, it was also the clarification
of the components of the Gospel. These clarifications are phrases
that emphasize certain aspects of the Gospel. They are Latin phrases
commonly used to describe the Reformation emphases. These five phrases
are: by faith alone (sola fide); by grace alone (sola
gratia); by Christ alone (solus christus); to God
alone the glory (soli deo gloria); and by Scripture alone
not five individual phrases that can be held in isolation from one
another. One is not more important than any other. To speak of one
is to speak of the other four.
look at each of the five phrases in turn. There may be some overlap
because it is not possible to speak of one apart from the others.
Together they give us insight into the nature of the Gospel and
the importance of the Reformation.
of faith alone (sola fide) demonstrated that the Church
could not function as the mediator between God and man. Although
Medieval theologians gave credence to the biblical statement that
salvation was by faith, they spoke of a faith that was directed
toward the Church and what the Church provided. They also assigned
to faith a value that God would reward. They spoke of unformed and
formed faith. They believed that faith could advance from one degree
to another of higher value. However, the Reformers showed decisively
that the nature of faith, while it included both knowledge and conviction,
was primarily trust or commitment. That trust or commitment was
directed toward the person of Christ Himself. He was the one Mediator
between God and man.
not a work, but an emptying of the person's confidence in his ability
to save himself. The Reformers proved that faith was the instrumental
means by which a person laid hold of Christ. What was important
about saving faith was the object of faith, the Person of the Lord
Jesus Christ. They were intent in showing that genuine faith was
shown in its fruits and resulted in a holy life.
alone (sola gratia) spoke of the basis of salvation. Medieval
theology spoke of merit or a right that a person had to approach
God because of something in themselves or what they had done. The
Reformers taught that the sole basis of salvation was God's free
grace. The Church taught that if a person did certain things; this
would obligate God to reward them. Through use of the Scriptures,
the Reformers removed this false prop. They taught if one were to
be saved, it would be by God's grace alone. There was no room for
human merit in one's salvation. Did this mean that one should not
strive for the salvation of his soul? If one waited until God extended
His grace, would this not leave man in a dangerous position? He
could be indifferent and give the excuse that, because he could
not save himself, there was no reason to do anything. He could wait
until God had mercy on him.
indifference is a distortion of grace. While Medieval theology emphasized
that a person should seek salvation, the means were not in agreement
with God's Word. He should go on a pilgrimage, pay money, or seek
to do special works of merit. As a result, man became dependent
on the Church and could never come to a place of settled assurance.
On the other hand, the Reformers emphasized that God did extend
His grace. Where was that grace offered? It was offered in the Gospel
of His Son. God had demonstrated His grace and love to man in history
by sending His Son. God now extended the Gospel invitation to all
men to come to Him. When they came in response to the call of the
Gospel, they would find that He was indeed a gracious God, willing
to blot out their trespasses and sins. Should they remain obstinate
and refuse to come, they would find to their sorrow they had refused
the only offer of salvation.
(solus christus) was the third element of the Gospel. Men
were encouraged to look to Christ alone for salvation. The Scriptures
declared that He was the only Mediator between God and man. The
additions that the Church had placed on the Gospel distorted the
part that Christ had in purchasing it on behalf of men. While the
Church spoke of Christ and His work, the Mass emphasized the continual
sacrifice of the Lord. However, the Scriptures emphasized its once
for all nature and its efficacy to save men from the guilt and power
of their sins. Reformation preaching sounded the note of Christ
crucified as the answer to men's needs. They not only proclaimed
His death, they spoke of His glorious resurrection and His ascension
into heaven. Christ was now at the right hand of the Father, interceding
for His people. The Gospel of the Reformation portrayed a living
Christ Who ministered to His people, rather than an unfortunate
victim of the cross.
To God alone
the glory (soli deo gloria) emphasized the purpose of man's
salvation. In reality, assurance of one's salvation was nearly impossible
within the teaching of the Church. Rather than teaching justification
as a legal change from condemnation to righteousness, Rome defined
it as a moral change continually in process As a result, one could
never come to the place where they could be certain they had done
enough to please God. Rome combined sanctification, the progressive
growth in holiness, with justification to the complete confusion
of salvation itself.
were explicit in their teaching on the Christian life. They avoided
the extremes of no assurance of salvation and antinomianism or lawlessness
that comes from the presumption of salvation. They taught a realistic
view of man; that because he still lives in the world, he must battle
against indwelling sin, he must oppose the world system, and he
has a real spiritual enemy in the devil.
also taught that it was possible to live victoriously and serve
God in the world. This is the meaning of soli deo gloria.
God receives all the praise for one's salvation and, out of thankfulness,
one dedicates their entire life to the service of God. That service
of God might consist in different types of work but was united in
the Person Who was served. In contrast, the Roman Church taught
that the clerical life was the only life that truly could please
God. Thus one had to withdraw from the world in order to live for
God. The Reformers, while stressing that salvation was entirely
of God, were equally determined to show that one honored God by
living for Him.
the key to these doctrines being proclaimed? How was the Gospel
liberated from its chains? It was the recovery of the Scriptures
themselves. For that reason one of the key statements of the Reformation
was sola scriptura, the Scriptures alone. The Scriptures
were the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The
Reformers did not cast off what the church had taught previously.
They taught that the clear teaching of the Scriptures had been obscured
by the additions of the Church.
were made available again in their original languages and the Reformers
returned to a close study of them. In the view of the Reformers,
all teachings were to be brought to the bar of the Scriptures to
determine if they were correct. The final authority was not to be
what the Church taught but what the Word of God said. The Church
had replaced the Scriptures as the final authority in matters of
faith and practice. The Reformers stressed clearly that ultimate
authority was found in the Word of God alone and not in the Church.
the Reformation? It was the recovery of the Gospel. What is the
Gospel? It is the good news of what God has done in Christ to save
man from his sin. It is a Gospel that has its origin in the grace
(sola gratia) of God through the work of Christ (solus
christus) and received by faith (sola fide). Where
is the Gospel to be found? It is found on the pages of the Scriptures
(sola scriptura) so that not only may I come to a personal
salvation in Christ, I will also be instructed in how to live a
life that is to the glory and praise of God (soli deo gloria).
is the need to add a word of caution. The story of the Reformation
teaches us that the Gospel was recovered in its glory. But subsequent
events in history also teach us that this Gospel can also be lost
again. We learn from the Reformation the need for constant reformation
of the Church. How grateful we should be that the Gospel was recovered
at that time. But how foolish to be deceived into thinking that
it could not be lost again. How important it is that we make a personal
appropriation of the Gospel and live for the Lord today. Today is
the only opportunity we will have to serve the Lord. Let us live
out the reality of the Gospel through our lives today.