An invitation to place ourselves anew beneath the Cross of Christ

Four hundred and forty-nine years ago, on October 31, hammer blows fell on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. These blows echoed quickly on the wings of the wind throughout all the Christian civilized world of that day. The Reformation became a cosmic event of the first magnitude and the threshold of a new Western era.

The World Congress on Evangelism here assembled does well to remember this birthday of the Reformation. In doing so let us consider three points: (1) the various ways of viewing the Reformation; (2) the inner meaning (Selbstverständnis) of the Reformation; and (3) the challenge of the Reformation for us today.

Various Views Of The Reformation

History is the teacher of life; that is, we learn about life from history. Beginning in 1517 the Reformation penetrated the decades and centuries that followed, making a strong impact even upon us in 1966. Unfortunately, the Reformation could not escape being subjected to dire misconceptions.

There are four different views of the Reformation.

1. There is the cultural-historical view. This was particularly popular around 1900. Here Luther is praised as the founder of the German language and as the herald of freedom of conscience. He is lauded as the pioneer of a humanistic view of man. Luther and Erasmus, the Reformation and humanism are drawn together. But it was this optimistic, rosy picture of man as given by Erasmus to which Luther objected sharply. Mankind should have learned from history that the Reformation gained its cause by its biblical and therefore sober and realistic view of man. The horrors of two world wars, the concentration, prison, and internment camps have decisively refuted humanism. Humanism is finished. For in humanism man becomes something harmless and inoffensive. Never dare we put the Reformation and humanism in one package. The cultural-historical view of the Reformation, therefore, is definitely false.

2. There is a nationalistic view. This is represented especially by Paul de Lagarde and by National Socialism. Here Martin Luther is seen as the great German who freed Germany from the bonds and tutelage of Rome. But this nationalistic interpretation of the Reformation is also false. It is true that Luther believed in his people and country, as every Christian ought to do. But something else was of central importance for him. “When Germany buries its last minister,” he said, “then it will be burying itself.” With these words Luther clealy pointed beyond that which is but national to that which truly abides. It was this that was Luther’s concern.

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3. There is the confessionalistic view. This appears in both Protestant and Catholic garb. Even today many inside the Catholic church interpret the Reformation as the great downfall of Western man. The Reformation brought about defection from the church. The Reformation, they say, is responsible for the fateful division of Christianity; it even supplies the root for later secularism and for the autonomous man of our times. This view of the Reformation subjects one to a distorted view of history, for the root of secularism and autonomy is not in the Reformation but in the Renaissance. Happily, a change is taking place in the Roman Catholic Church’s view of the Reformation.

But we find an erroneous understanding of the Reformation even among Protestants. There are those who lull themselves into confessional self-satisfaction, become exhausted in polemics against the Roman Catholic Church, and are no longer self-critical. This confessionalistic view of the Reformation is likewise false. Luther did not see himself as a confessionalist; very humbly he saw himself as a preacher of the Word in keeping with the admonition, “Preach the Word!,” given by the Apostle to the Gentiles to his pupil Timothy.

4. There is the view of the Reformation as related to the entire Church. This view has a great deal of truth. It says, for example, that Luther wanted, not a new church, but simply renewal of the existing church. He desired continuation, not inauguration of something new. For this reason the actual birthday of the Protestant church is not October 31, 1517, but rather the first Day of Pentecost, A.D. 33. This view also notes, and properly, that Luther was no revolutionary but rather a reformer. The Reformation was simply something that happened in the Church.

It is likewise correct to say that every one of Luther’s successors bears a responsibility to the entire Church. Even this World Congress is in no way exempt from this responsibility. Yes, we bear responsibility also toward the Roman Catholic Church, for everyone who takes seriously Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17, “Holy Father … may they be one as we are one,” considers the division a great, gaping, bleeding wound in the body of Christ, his Church. For just as there is but one God, so there is but one Church. A divided Christendom is a self-contradiction. Because the successors of the Reformation have a responsibility to the total Church, all of us both inside and outside this Congress Hall are called to confessionalistic cleansing.

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No matter how correct this is and remains, no matter how properly it is seen from the total church perspective of the Reformation, nonetheless the Reformation was concerned not about the Church as such but about something else. This brings us to the next point we must consider.

The Reformation’S Inner Meaning

If someone asked, What was the Reformation all about, the answer would include three things: (1) the absolute glory of God; (2) the all-sufficiency of the redemptive work of Christ; (3) the joyous Christian who has assurance of personal salvation. The inner meaning or core of the Reformation, therefore, is Theo- and Christo-centric.

Let us briefly ask ourselves: What is contained in this threefold inner concept of the Reformation?

In the first place, it stresses the absolute glory of God. The basic concern of the Reformation lies in consistently taking seriously the first commandment: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods beside me.” Luther’s opposition to the papal church derived from his recognition that it had indeed placed something “beside me.” Because the entire Reformation took very seriously God’s revelation in his Word, the Reformation movement became a movement of the Bible. Because it was concerned for the absolute glory of God, the Reformation was concerned, too, for the honor of God’s Word. This basic passion of the Reformation—to let nothing stand alongside the God revealed in his Word—helps us understand Luther’s revolutionary, and in his day heretical, comment: “Even councils can err!”

This basic concern of the Reformation helps us understand also its denial, not of tradition as such, but of an equal status for Scripture and tradition. The Reformers deeply revered the church fathers. But everything the fathers said was to be measured in the light of the Holy Scriptures. It was this concept of the Bible as the exclusive, determinative norm for all the teaching of the Church, that prompted the poet Konrad Ferdinand Meyer to say of Luther: “He senses the monstrous rupture of the times, and securely clasps his Bible.”

In the matter of God’s glory, the Reformation was concerned about a clear witness to what constitutes ultimate authority (Erstinstanz). And what is this ultimate authority? The triune God. The Reformation found the witness to this triune God in sola scripture, in Scripture alone.

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Second, the Reformation was concerned with the all-sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work. We are wrong if we think that the Reformers were opposed to good works and pious exercises; what they did deny was the meritorious nature of good works. The Reformers vehemently opposed any suggestion of synergism, the false teaching that man cooperates with Christ to bring about faith and does so in a manner that grants him personal merit. All of us somehow have a touch of synergism.

Why should there be this impassioned opposition to cooperatively gained merit? Simply because to the extent that man can help earn his salvation by good works, to that extent Christ’s merit is lessened and thus the all-sufficiency of his redemptive work is undermined. For this same reason we must also understand the Reformation’s total negation of invoking the saints. The Reformation takes seriously the words of Scripture: “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1b).

In the last analysis, this second principle of the Reformation is concerned with the glory of Jesus Christ, in that it stresses the all-sufficiency of his atoning work and of the objective redemptive facts.

Third, the Reformation is concerned with the joyous Christian who has personal assurance of salvation.

What does this mean?

Despite God’s greatness and incomprehensibility, man is called to the possibility of having the joyous certainty of being a child of God. This means nothing less than that personal assurance of salvation is a special concern of the Reformation. As Luther says: “It is idle talk to say man is uncertain whether or not he is a recipient of grace. Beware lest you ever be unsure; instead, be sure.” This assurance of personal salvation is possible because of the gracious and merciful gift of Christ’s redeeming work. We see, then, that the third concern of the Reformation is closely related to the second.

The Reformation discovers anew the words of Scripture: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver or gold … but with the precious blood of Christ …” (1 Pet. 1:18, 19); “we know that we have passed from death unto life …” (1 John 3:14).

It was this awareness of personal salvation that brought the joyful Christian into being, that created the freedom a Christian knows in his bondage to Christ. The Reformation proclaimed certitudo, certainty of salvation, over against securitas, security of salvation depending on the number of meritorious works.

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First we must note that the problems apparent on October 31, 1517, were different from those of October 31, 1966. The World Congress must take this fact into consideration. This change in problems has come about in two ways: (1) the concept of the world (Weltbild) has changed; (2) the view of man (Menschenbild) has changed.

The prescientific concept of the world still held at the time of the Reformation eventually had to succumb to the scientific view. For many people, this scientific concept of the world is that of natural science, a causal-mechanistic view. In this construct of natural science, this causal-mechanistic view, there is no longer any room for anything that would explode the causal-mechanistic theory. In other words, there is no room for anything miraculous, supernatural, or mystical, no room for anything that deals with wondrous and inexplicable things, no room for soteriology and eschatology.

Just as the concept of the world has changed, so has the concept of man. Today’s man has a different attitude toward life than did medieval man. Today’s man is the man of technology and science.

But I would ask, dear friends, have those two changes—in viewing the world and in attitude toward life—not also thrust the Reformation into the wheel of history, into the panta rhei, the flow of all things? Is it still possible to speak seriously of a challenge of the Reformation?

Paradoxically enough, the answer must be that the very fact of these changed concepts of the world and of man makes attention to the Reformation all the more necessary and the challenge of the Reformation all the more urgent. This we must see.

Challenges Of The Reformation For Us Today

The Reformation presents us with a threefold challenge: (1) that pertaining to supreme authority (Erstinstanz); (2) that pertaining to the correct view of man; and (3) that pertaining to fullness of spiritual power.

The first part of this challenge concerns the matter of supreme authority. It is true that man’s concept of the world has changed. But it is wrong to exalt this changing world view to the place of supreme authority (Erstinstanz). Even logic opposes this. That which changes cannot be norma normans. Only that which itself is removed from the cycle of changeability can be supreme authority. God is this ultimate authority, and not some construct of the world (Weltbild). God is unchangeable.

The Weltbild is even less justifiably enthroned as final authority now that the natural scientific concept of the world has once again been enthroned in our day, and that in fact by natural scientists. The time is past when it is considered possible to absolutize a causal-mechanistic view of the world, and to raise it almost to the status of a philosophy. Even if the existence of God cannot be scientifically proved, neither can it be scientifically denied.

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It follows then that if the question about ultimate authority is made clear, and if God and not some concept of the world, not some human rationalistic idea, is the ultimate authority, then the threefold concerns of the Reformation are still fully valid today. Today, therefore, we are still concerned with: the absolute glory of God, the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, and personal assurance of salvation.

We shall now consider the second challenge of the Reformation, the question of a valid concept of man.

It is true that many people today are influenced and impressed by science and technology. But it is wrong to capitulate to this fact, to make it a gauge for one’s proclamation of the Gospel. It is foolish to argue, for example, that because many people today no longer believe in miracles, we must tell them that there never were any miracles. Any theologian or Christian who does this is offering the white flag of surrender to the followers of science and technology. Such a one is not in a position to be of any real help to modern man.

We must clearly acknowledge that there are those who are indeed influenced by science and technology. In fact, all of us are influenced by these to some extent, and in some manner. But even those who are especially impressed in this way are aware of other and deeper levels of consciousness that are beyond the reach of technology and science. But it is here that the real and essential decisions of life are made.

Apart from technological persons, there are still many more persons whose thinking and emotions are not decisively influenced by technology and science. Against this background, we will see how totally wrong and absurd it is, even from a religious-psychological perspective, for Bishop Robinson (in his book, A New Reformation?) to deal with a concept of man that—although I won’t say it is totally unknown—is what one might at least say is practically non-existent. Moreover, it is the greatest of errors to make this obviously false view of man the yardstick for Christian proclamation.

Let me state the situation clearly: neither some view of the world nor some concept of man can be or can become the ultimate authority (Erstinstanz) for proclamation. While views of the world and of man are not overlooked in the right kind of proclamation, they are subject to correction in the light of the revealed Gospel. The Gospel helps secular man recognize his self-estrangement as, in fact, an estrangement from God.

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For these insights into the proper view of man we are indebted to the Reformation in its totality. Seen from this perspective, the Reformation of 1517 becomes real and imperative for us also. We are still concerned with justification of sinners by God and with personal assurance of salvation. Today, when a great deal is being done in depth psychology and when much is in danger of being dissolved in psychologizing, we must tell people in all clarity that assurance of salvation is not something measured by some kind of a barometer of the emotions. If this were so, man would be thrown back on his own resources. And that would be wrong. Assurance of salvation, though it has to do with persons, nevertheless comes from, derives its life from, the fact of salvation. Assurance of salvation comes about through the objective redeeming work of Christ. God imputes it to anyone who personally avails himself of it in an act of faith. Certainty of salvation therefore rests not in man’s psyche but in the redemptive work of Christ.

All that we have said thus far confronts us now in the Reformation’s third challenge for us today, the matter of fullness of power (Vollmacht). The reformation was accompanied by such fullness of spiritual power that it spread like a life-giving breath through much of Europe.

We, on the other hand, suffer because many of our churches are tongue-tied. Yet our many diverse churches and fellowships yearn for a word of authority.

Two questions are prominent, then, as we look back to 1517: (1) what is fullness of power?; and (2) how are we to preach, in order that proclamation may be accompanied by this fullness of power?

To experience fullness of power is to be filled with the power from on high, filled with the Holy Ghost. Fullness of power is total dependence upon Christ and independence of men. It is unconditional assent to Christ and denial of self.

In Jesus, fullness of power as dependence upon God, selflessness, and freedom toward men were coupled with seeking and sacrificial love. “For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

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Today we have only as much fullness of power as Jesus has power in us. For fullness of power is not a matter of determination. It comes, not by personal choice and of oneself, but from what is given.

All fullness of power in the lives of his Reformation servants is a reflection of Jesus’ indwelling power. Fullness of power is captivity of the conscience to the Lord. It was Luther’s total dependence on Christ and the captivity of his conscience to Christ that prompted him to declare before kaiser and kingdom: “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Fullness of power as dependence upon God gives an inner feeling of being able to rise above people and circumstances. This explains Luther’s letter to his sovereign in which he said: “I should rather protect your Highness than that you should protect me.”

Now we consider the second question (2), which concerns the relation between proclamation and fullness of power. First we must distinguish between fullness of power in regard to the message (Sache) and fullness of power in regard to the person. Fullness of power in regard to the message refers to the inescapable validity of the revealed fact of the triune God as given in his infallible Word. Bible criticism destroys fullness of power. Therefore we unhesitatingly say yes to the Holy Scriptures. Fullness of power in regard to the message and in regard to the person are inseparable.

And so, because the concerns of the Reformation are actually the basic concerns of Scripture, it follows that we can expect fullness of power in proclamation today only if we make the foundations of the Reformation in their entirety the basic concern of all our proclamation, teaching, and life.

Authoritative proclamation in preaching and evangelism, in written and spoken word, must have as its purpose the glory of God and the salvation of men.

Today one often hears it said that during the Reformation, man’s main concern was, How shall I apprehend a gracious God? But today, presumably, man’s concern is, How can I have good neighbors? In our response to this widespread attitude, we must make it very clear that certainly we are concerned about good neighbors, whoever they might be—whether American, Russian, Chinese, or even the neighbor on the street or at the office. But we will have gracious neighbors only when men find their way back to a gracious God. Even the anthropological problem of our day is a theological one.

Fullness of power as dependence upon Jesus Christ and independence of men and of theological ideas and trends has in it the courage to face unpopularity. It has also the courage to face the consequences. Such authoritative proclamation must trumpet forth the truth that the deepest reason for the spiritual illness of our feverish world is man’s proud self-glorification, which stops not even at the doors of the church. The constantly greater turning away from God is the basic evil of our times. The scourge of our age is autonomy and anthropocentrism. To the extent that autonomy and anthropocentrism gain room in the Church and in theology, to that extent will the church and theology become savorless, discarded salt; more than this, both will become traitors to the ultimate authority (Erstinstanz) and to the Reformation of 1517.

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On the other hand, to the degree that we take seriously the revelation of God as given in his Word and keep it untainted from secular philosophical questionings, inasmuch as the Bible is not at all interested in such, I say, to that degree we may hope God will open the gates of heaven and pour forth torrents of his power that will surge through the Church and theology, through our preaching and our evangelizing.

Authoritative preaching today in 1966 as in 1517 consists in the full, undiluted proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Fullness of power is total absence of compromise in both the message and in the messenger.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, who of us does not see the connection between the Reformation of 1517, this Reformation Memorial Day of 1966, and the World Congress on Evangelism? Is there anyone who does not recognize his personal responsibility?

The Reformation of 1517 shall and must under all circumstances live on, both today and in the future. Never must the Reformation chimes become a death knell. Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Reformation bells of Easter will ring out today also in each of our hearts if we, like our fathers, are filled with the honest determination that to God alone shall be the glory. Soli Deo gloria!

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