500 Years Later: The Need for a New Reformation

Today marks 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, and so (as that was a notable and dateable event) it’s the day on which the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is being celebrated around the world. And the Reformation is a good thing to celebrate and be thankful for, for the Lord used it to restore the clear preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Michael Reeves puts it, ‘five hundred years ago a discovery was made that would change the world, unleashing happiness wherever it went. Still today it is transforming lives and cultures.’ (Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation, p.5). Since its beginning, Pentecostalism has been part of that Reformation happiness, and Pentecostals have always sought to bring that Reformation happiness to men and women, boys and girls all over the world, by telling them of God’s free gift of salvation, found in Christ alone, received by grace alone, through faith alone, as revealed in Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.

So this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a good way-marker reminding us of how much we have to be thankful to God for. I’m glad some of our assemblies in this part of the country have been making the most of the opportunity to make sure people know the Biblical message of God’s free grace in Jesus. (In Leeds, by God’s good providence, we arrived at Philippians 3:9 this last Lord’s Day, where we found 4 of the Reformation Solas in that verse of Scripture – so that was the 5th Sola as well. In Bradford they’ve purposely been having a sermon series on Sundays through Galatians and the 5 Solas, as well as looking at them in their mid-week Bible studies.)

It’s a very good thing to remember, rejoice in, and loudly proclaim these Reformation truths. Yet, at the same time, we must hold onto the Reformation gains. And perhaps after 500 years that means it’s time in some quarters for another Reformation to regain what we’ve lost.

1. Like 500 years ago, we need to clear away the things that crowd out the Lord Jesus.

The late-medieval church believed in Jesus. If you asked anyone, in the abstract I’m sure they’d say that Jesus was at the centre of everything they did. It’s just that what we think is true in the abstract is sometimes a bit different from what’s actually the case on the ground. Yes, Jesus was there. But there was so much else there too that He was often in danger of being hidden from view. Yes, Jesus was the only way to heaven, but you could also buy indulgences for the living and the dead. Yes, Jesus was the One Mediator between God and man, but you could also turn to the intercession of the saints. Yes, Jesus was King of Kings and Lord of Lords, as well as Head of the Church, but you didn’t dare forget that the Roman Pontiff was Christ’s Vicar on earth with temporal authority over all the kings of the earth, as well as his ecclesial power.

And once you make room for ‘Jesus, plus…’, then it’s not long before, instead of fixing our gaze on Jesus, we start looking intently at the ‘plus’. Today that might not be indulgences, the intercession of the saints, or the power of the Pope (at least, one should hope not among Evangelicals and Pentecostals!), but our ‘plus’ might be something altogether more respectably Protestant.

So, we could be looking to ‘Jesus, plus our faith,’ which sounds nice and Protestant, but really isn’t. Because ‘faith’ isn’t a thing: faith is simply the empty hand which receives Christ. So we can’t be looking to how much faith we have, or how strong our faith is, or anything like that. Anytime we Pentecostals hear someone being told that, because they haven’t been healed, they mustn’t have enough faith, we are in the presence of a false teacher who is leading people away from the gospel recovery of the Reformation! Jesus corrected such a false idea from his disciples (John 9:1-3 – remember that other Reformation insight that sin is fundamentally the opposite of faith!), and we must correct it clearly and openly today. In the words of one early Pentecostal pioneer: ‘It is not our faith that heals us, but it is Christ that heals’ (Frank Hodges).

Or perhaps, for those who’ve been watching too much “Christian” TV, it’s ‘Jesus plus financial giving.’ Again and again the “preachers” of prosperity proclaim, or at the very least, strongly imply, that God will provide healing and answers to prayer, if we just contribute x number of pounds to their “ministry.” But this is no more than the 21st century equivalent of the ditties of Luther’s opponents that ‘when a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.’ Our response to such attempts to deny God’s free grace and pretend to sell His favour should be like that of Luther:

They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest [God answers prayer]. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone. (95 Theses, Nos. 27 & 28)

Or like that of Peter:

Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. (Acts 8:20-22)

But sometimes the ‘plus’ that gets added onto Jesus is a bit more subtle than the crass heresies of the prosperity movement. Sometimes it’s our Christian living or our efforts to serve Christ that get subtly added onto Jesus’ finished work in our eyes. It’s not Jesus plus our prayer and Bible reading, or Jesus plus how many people we’ve led to the Lord, or Jesus plus having the right ministry philosophy, or Jesus plus the latest worship music, or Jesus plus the gifts of the Spirit, or Jesus plus Vision, or Jesus plus our fervency that saves. It’s Jesus alone who saves. And Jesus alone who should fill our gaze.

2. Like 500 years ago, God’s People need to preach, confess, and believe that we are justified by grace alone.

We need much more about what Christ has done, and much less about what we do. Instead of talking so much about effective leadership, let’s talk about the efficacy of Christ’s finished work. The only way to proclaim the message of justification by faith alone is to lift up and proclaim Christ alone, and trust His promise that, ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself’ (Jn 12:32).

So, don’t lift up ‘community’, or ‘vision’, or ‘missional church’, or ‘transformational leadership’, or anything else; lift up Jesus Christ and Him alone. And trust in the justifying power of the blood of Jesus.

3. Like 500 years ago, God’s People need to hear the very Word of God in their own language.

One of the great gains of the Reformation was giving people widespread access to the Bible in their own languages. (Even in Roman Catholic countries like Ireland, it was the Protestant Reformers who translated the Bible into the language of the people often centuries before a Roman Catholic translation was made: the Protestant translations of the New Testament and Old Testament into Irish were published in 1602 and 1685 respectively, whereas a Roman Catholic translation of the Scriptures into Irish wasn’t finally published until 1981.) Right from the start, the Reformers sought to give people access to the Scriptures in their own language. Luther translated the Bible into German, and William Tyndale sought through the work of Bible translation to make sure that ‘the boy that driveth the plough’ could know the Scriptures better than the Pope and his bishops.

And the reason for such fervent desire – and even martyrdom – for accurate translations of the Bible, was because they trusted in the power of God’s Word to do its work. As Luther explained the Reformation:

The Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners. In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have … indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.
What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For [the Word] is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself. (Luther’s Second Invocavit Sermon on the True Way of Reform, 10th March, 1522)

Now, of course, Bible translation is still a hugely important missionary task of the church, for there are still thousands of languages without the Scriptures. In the English-speaking world we are spoilt for the number of translations we have. And yet, therein lies our problem. For being so spoilt, we take access to the Word of God in our language for granted, and then all too often exchange the very words of God for a substitute.

More and more I hear people reading from The Message in Pentecostal churches. But The Message is not the Bible. It is a paraphrase of the Bible. And so, instead of people hearing the very Word of God, they are hearing an interpretive summary of God’s Word. Now, there may be a place and a use for paraphrases, but it is not to replace the Word of God itself. And when sermons are preached on a paraphrase instead of on the Scriptures, then there are all sorts of ways that we can end up with an unbiblical message altogether.

When The Message is read in church instead of the Bible, then we end up masking God’s own Word in a similar way to how it was masked in church before the Reformation. Then it was obscured by being filtered through a language few people could understand. Now it’s being obscured by being filtered through one particular individual’s interpretative paraphrase.

[By the way, although this may well have been widely forgotten, the only translations of Scripture authorised by Council to be read in the services of the UK Apostolic Church are the Authorised Version (i.e. King James), the New King James Version, and the New International Version. And the reason for that is so that the Bible is read in a clear, accurate, and trustworthy translation, so that God’s Word isn’t obscured from the people.]

[P.S. Another dangerous practice that must be chased out of the churches, is the frequent prefacing of a reading from The Message with words along the lines of ‘I prefer how The Message puts this.’ To say that is to say one prefers the paraphrase/interpretation to God’s own Word! And to say that in church, furthermore, is to undermine the authority of Scripture and elevate subjective preferences above the Word of the Lord.]

And not only must the Word be read in a true translation, but the Word must be preached in our churches. A verse from the Bible is not a jumping-off point for the ideas of the preacher. Nor are Bible verses there simply to illustrate our messages. The calling of the preacher is to expound the Scriptures, and so proclaim Christ biblically. As Martin Luther put it 500 years ago today:

Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to [something else] than to the Word. (95 Theses, Thesis 54).

So let’s preach the Word with confidence and let the Word do its work!

4. Like 500 years ago, God’s People need to be regularly fed with the Sacrament in both kinds.

Before the Reformation, the average church-goer would only receive the Sacrament once a year, and even then they’d only get the bread. The ritual which had grown up around the Sacrament would be carried out multiple times every day, but it had become a spectacle to be watched, not a meal in which to participate.

The Reformation abolished private masses, restored the cup to the laity, and so ensured the God’s people were regularly fed with the Sacrament in both kinds (body and blood).

Today we’d never dream of withholding the cup from the laity. Yet, in many places, although God’s people might receive both bread and wine in church, they aren’t receiving Holy Communion in both kinds. The late-medieval church left out the distribution, but all too often we are now leaving out the consecration. And without the consecration, there is no Sacrament: only bread and wine. (Which might explain why, in one Pentecostal church, the only words I heard from the pastor at the Table were: ‘Now we’re just going to have something to eat and drink together’! He wasn’t lying, because with no consecration, we were indeed ‘just’ having something to eat and drink.)

It is Christ’s Words which make a sacrament. So we can no more leave out ‘This is my body which is broken for you … This is my blood of the new testament shed for many for the remission of sins’ than we could leave out ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ We all know that without those words, it wouldn’t be a real baptism. So never forget that without those other words, it wouldn’t really be a Lord’s Supper.

5. Like 500 years ago, we need a biblical reform of worship, so that the truth we proclaim isn’t hidden and obscured by what we do in our services.

The Reformation gave a great deal of attention to worship. Why? Because how we worship demonstrates what we believe, and how we worship teaches the faith. If we say we believe in justification by faith alone, but our prayers and songs are full of works righteousness, then justification is no more than a theoretical point on a piece of paper.

The genius of Cranmer’s Communion liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer is, as Dom Gregory Dix put it, that it is ‘the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone’ (The Shape of the Liturgy, p.672). A classical Apostolic Breaking of Bread, although externally looking rather different to Cranmer’s rite, essentially retains the shape of Cranmer’s liturgy, with one tweak to add to clarity of the message proclaimed: the bringing of our tithes and offerings to the Table is moved to the end of the service, after all have received the Supper to make clear that we do not purchase God’s grace with our gifts, but rather that we give to the Lord in thankful response for His grace freely given to us in Jesus, through faith alone.

But the shape of the liturgy has been drastically changing among Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Pentecostals in the last two decades or so. In many cases, we’ve moved from a liturgy of Word and Sacrament to a liturgy of Music and Exhorting. The Scripture readings (other than whatever’s necessary for the sermon) have been disappearing, as have many of the prayers. Where once the focus was on the Pulpit and the Table (both of which speak Christ to us), the attention has now been shifted to the stage. And, as many commentators have been increasingly lamenting, congregational song, supported by music to help us sing the words, is more and more being replaced by elaborate concert-music, which many congregations find difficult to sing, and which many have abandoned even trying to sing altogether. And so, we end up back in the position of the late-medieval church, where the liturgy has become a show to be watched by the faithful, rather than something in which all of God’s people take part, as they unite their voices to bring their sacrifice of praise.

When God’s people can’t join in the singing, then a new mediatorial priesthood is established. Rather than bringing our praise and worship through Jesus, the One True Mediator and our heavenly worship leader (Heb. 8:2 – leitourgos), we settle for a position where a band mediates our praise, by singing for us, in our place.

As Keith Getty puts it, if we want to learn from the Reformers when it comes to our sung worship, then ‘we should begin with the holy act of God’s people singing as the centre of the musical experience, and then work out from there.’ The concern of Luther and the Reformers when it came to the musical aspect of worship was to get the whole church singing biblical truth together, to the praise and glory of the Triune God.

6. Like 500 years ago, God’s people need to be freed from “papacies” which have accrued to themselves unbiblical power.

Christ did not appoint an apostle, but apostles to care for and govern His Church. Both locally, and extra-locally, biblical church government is collegial, in presbyteries and councils. It is not an elder, but elders who govern the local assembly. It is not an apostle, but apostles, prophets, pastors/elders, evangelists, and teachers who govern the wider church. As the Reformers pointed out from Luke 22:24-27:

Christ expressly prohibits lordship among the apostles, that no apostle should have any supremacy over the rest. For this was the very question, namely, that when Christ spake of His passion, they were disputing who should be at the head, and as it were the vicar of the absent Christ. There Christ reproves this error of the apostles and teaches that there shall not be lordship or superiority among them, but that the apostles should be sent forth as equals to the common ministry of the Gospel. Accordingly, He says: The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors, but ye shall not be so; but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. The antithesis here shows (by holding these matters against one another, one sees) that lordship among the apostles is disapproved. … Christ sends forth His disciples on an equality, without any distinction, so that no one of them was to have more or less power than any other, when He says: As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you [John 20:21]. These words are clear and plain: He says that He sends them individually in the same manner as He Himself was sent; hence He grants to no one a prerogative or lordship above the rest. (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 8-9)

Christ is the only sole bishop, and the only Head of the Church. And He exercises His Headship not through one Vicar (i.e. a Pope), but through the collegial ministry of His apostles, prophets, teachers, elders/pastors, and evangelists, as they minister by His Word. The authority of the ministry is found only in Christ and in His Word, and so it is only as the ministers of the church govern under the authority and direction of Christ in His Word that they exercise legitimate governing authority in the church. The opinion of an apostle has no claim to ecclesial authority; it is only as the apostleship (together and collegially) can point to the Scriptures and so say ‘thus saith the Lord’ that governing authority is truly exercised in Christ’s church.

When men take to themselves unbiblical authority, and when individuals wield power over multiple congregations, then new papacies are being set up. And these new papacies must be torn down as contrary to the rule of Christ the Head in His Church just as surely as the Reformation threw off the shackles of the old papacy. Yes, an apostle has care for several assemblies; but never sole care. He is always an apostle among the apostles, and must exercise his authority collegially. We must never allow the establishment of an untouchable authority; all ecclesial authority must be scrutinised by and subject to the Word of God.

But many of the papacies we allow to be set up in the Evangelical and Pentecostal world today are not legal and jurisdictional papacies, but rather the structurally invisible papacies of influence. When the word of a celebrated preacher, pastor, or leader is held as the pinnacle of wisdom, when we turn to the opinions of a particular man rather than to the Holy Scriptures to settle a matter, when an influential leader is seen as capable of doing or speaking no wrong, then we are well on our way to establishing a dangerous new papacy.

7. Like 500 years ago, we need to recover the practice of catechesis, so that the hearts of all God’s people will be saturated with His glorious gospel truth.

The Reformation could have ended up being a short-term revival, lasting only a generation. But it didn’t, because the leading Reformers realised the great need to pass the Scriptural truths behind the Reformation on to the next generation, and the generation after that. And to do so, they saw the need for catechesis. As Calvin put it, ‘the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis!’ Luther wrote his catechisms because of the terrible lack of the knowledge of basic Christian doctrine among not only congregations, but also many of their pastors. After visiting the Saxon churches, he started his catechism writing, because, he said:

The common people … have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incompetent to teach. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians … Yet they cannot recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live like dumb brutes and irrational swine.

So, through Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, the biblical doctrines of the Reformation have been passed on in the churches from generation to generation.

In the early days of British Pentecostalism, the early Apostolics also saw the great need for careful biblical catechesis to pass the faith on to the next generation and the ones to come after that. And so, like the Reformers, they wrote catechisms to help, in both Welsh and English. D.P. Williams introduced the Apostolic Church’s first catechism (in Welsh) by writing, ‘to the Pastors of the Apostolic Church and the flock under their care,’ that:

Our prayer is that God will bless the contents of this catechism to everyone, young and old. For although it has been set out chiefly for the children, we hope that the saints more generally will know the benefit of it … Our hope is that every assembly will take to the catechism, so that the powerful truths contained in it will saturate the hearts of the young, so that they might be giants in the Lord in the future.

If we still want to see our young people and new believers grow up into giants in the Lord, then we need to recover the art of catechesis. Yes, the way we go about it might not be identical to how the Reformers or the early Apostolics catechised, but the truths still need to be taught in such a way that they saturate hearts and minds.

So, let’s celebrate 500 years of the Reformation with a new reformation to recapture what we’ve lost. Let’s trust in Christ alone, proclaim Christ clearly and biblically, unleash the Word of God, hear and trust Christ’s words at His Table, throw out the stange fire from our worship, topple new popes, and catechise in such a way as to saturate our hearts and minds with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Of course, that’s the sort of Reformation celebration that might take a bit more than one day!