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The Editorial

Time for Luther

Does the Reformation matter?

John Benton, Editor

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It’s a question which is going to become increasingly crucial for evangelical churches in the coming year or so as the 500th anniversary in 2017 of Luther’s nailing his radical ideas to the Wittenberg church door draws ever closer. The church is under terrific pressure both from militant/political Islam and militant/political secularism and forgetting the Reformation, sinking our differences and standing together with anyone who calls themselves a Christian seems a good option to many.

Who are we?

Separatism simply looks seedy to many ordinary Christians. Recently, Sir Ranulph Fiennes was interviewed in Christianity magazine and, with a deft misinterpretation of standard Anglican liturgy, stated: ‘to me there wasn’t any difference between Protestant and Catholic, because the Protestants every Sunday said “I believe in the holy catholic Church” and the “virgin Mary.” You’re either a Christian or you’re not. When we came to England we went to the local church and didn’t mind what it was.’ All very cosy, just the way many church folk like it.

And you can bet your life that, as we approach the Reformation anniversary, the BBC and others will find plenty of academics to front TV documentaries explaining that the Reformation was a mistake brought about by bigoted religionists and the political opportunists of the time. We will be told that certainly what it was not was a mighty move of God and the rediscovery of divine, regenerating and liberating truth.

Now is the time for evangelical leaders to teach congregations just how crucial the Reformation was and still is. It defines who we are and what we stand for.

The bell of freedom

The Reformation sounded out freedom as it brought believers back to be ruled by Scripture alone.

The Pharisees preferred the tradition of the elders (Mark 7.5). Catholicism preferred the tradition of Mother Church. Today tradition is out of fashion. But there are other usurpers which would replace God’s Word, even in evangelical churches. One is the voice of ‘the experts’. For example, the experts of popular psychology say that children must never be chastised. But the Word of God tells us that sadly they do need chastising from time to time, and if we fail to do that we will let them down as parents (Proverbs 13.24). But many Christians would rather listen to ‘the expert’. Another example of an authority which functionally replaces the Bible is popular opinion; another is science (which usually isn’t science at all); another is untested charismatic experience; another is pragmatism – does it seem to work, does it get people in? But each of these, unless subject to Scripture, brings the church into a new slavery to merely human ideas.

The deceived dog

Most of all the Reformation brought freedom as it proclaimed justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Martin Luther’s words recollecting his discovery of God’s free gift of righteousness to sinners through faith are unforgettable: ‘When I realised this I felt myself absolutely born again; the gates of paradise had been flung open and I had entered.’ But his telling parable about falling back into relying on our works bears repeating: ‘Should the Christian grow so foolish… as to presume to become righteous, free, saved… by means of some good works he would instantly lose faith and all its benefits, a foolishness aptly illustrated in the fable of the dog who runs by a river with a piece of meat in his mouth and deceived by the reflection of the meat in the water, opens his mouth to snap at it and loses both the meat and the reflection.’