As the current teaching of history emphasizes, secular factors—indeed, an extraordinary conjunction of mundane circumstances—played a great part in bringing about the Reformation. But all these together fall short of being its principal cause. That event of enormous enlightment, liberation, renewal, cleansing, revivification, and empowering was primarily a spiritual one. And, since it surely is a valid transposition of Christ’s words to say that what is spirit is born of the Spirit, as primarily a spiritual event, the Reformation must have had primarily spiritual causes.
The critical breakthrough of the Reformation lay in its reassertion of the conditions in God and in man that lead to salvation and in its location of the supreme authority for doctrine. God’s part in salvation, the Reformation declared, is on account of grace alone; man’s is through faith alone. The certainty of this, as well as of all other doctrine, it declared to be on the basis of Scripture alone. These classic three sola’s (sola gratia, sola fide sola scriptura) are primarily spiritual assertions. They were addressed to the souls of the age, and in those souls they accomplished the Reformation.
These souls were almost incredibly benighted about evangelical truth, considering that they had the Word and the sacraments. For despite recourse to these, there was virtually no vision of the real Christ. And since the Word was active in Christendom but there was no perception of the real Christ, there was profound distress, deepening in the more serious spirits of the age into an agony of despair. Upon this darkness of unrelieved guilt-consciousness, the proclamation of by grace alone and through faith alone broke as unmitigated high-noon gospel splendor in a way unmatched in any other period of church history. The Apostle Paul said the same things, with originality, full clarity, and the authority of apostleship and inspiration; but apparently the Galatians, when he addressed to them the Epistle that Luther came to love and to expound so well, were so unaware of the hardness of the yoke of legalism that he had to threaten them and almost cajole them into stepping out from under it. While much of the work of the Reformers as well was to persuade men to accept freedom from the Law through Christ, nevertheless in land upon land and in thousands upon thousands of hearts, the effect of the first proclamation of the three sola’s was exactly what Charles Wesley suggests in his exuberant verse,
Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy.
What power to move the souls of men, including those who trace their ecclesiastical lineage through this very movement, does the great message of the Reformation have in our time? Let me put the question another way, though I am aware of the inherent illogic of the formulation: How much Reformation would the three sola’s bring about in 1968?
With the exhaustive use of all the mass media at our command, how much stir would the proclamation of by grace alone make in this our day? Very little, I fear. Who nowadays misses the grace of God? We still have some interest in his “blessing,” in whatever he can do to help us escape frustration and acquire a comfortable security (to use some high-frequency terms of our day). But grace as God’s yearning to forgive sins—how could that possibly be of interest when sin is not a concern? In Reformation and biblical theology, grace stands over against God’s judgment and wrath over sin (and sinners, Psalm 5:5; let’s be done with impunity by abstraction; it is the rebellious will that is the primary evil) and over against eternal destruction, inevitable but for that grace. Only when the sentence is crushing can grace be exciting.
Then how about through faith alone? In the current use of the great terms of the Reformation and of Scripture, faith has almost become, of all things, a work of supererogation. It is a work since it is part of that good management of one’s case whereby one merits success, and it is supererogatory because, according to the universalism of the times, practically all things will in the end work out to the good of absolutely everybody, faith or no faith. But though damnation is out of the question, faith as a dogged confidence in God’s over-arching benevolence, and the basic humanitarianism of the universe is awfully useful in helping one to come calmly and nobly through the rough spots.
In Reformation and biblical theology, salvation on account of grace and salvation through faith imply each other. God’s grace is boundless, and through his giving up of his Son to a God-atoning death on the cross he offers free salvation to all men; but this grace does not effect its end without an appropriate response in man. That response is faith. When the Reformers and Scripture say through faith alone, they say “On pain of death and damnation don’t mix the merit of works with your faith.” But they also say, “On pain of death and damnation, don’t leave out the faith! However beaten and robbed the devil may leave you, don’t let him snatch from you the confidence in God’s promise whereby you lay hold upon forgiveness, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and full acceptance with the Father! If you draw back, his soul will take no pleasure in you!”
Obviously in any other intention there can be no urgency about getting men to believe, no jealous concern lest, after the acquisition of all the accouterments of Christian virtue, service, and worship, there might still be secretly “an evil heart of unbelief.” “O Galatians, I am afraid of you (lest you trust in the merit of observing a divine ordinance)!” How incomprehensible is this fear to our age! In any other context than the apostolic, by faith alone becomes just another partisan idiosyncrasy by which Christendom is plagued and bored, another of the cantankerous shibboleths that impede the easy run of ecumenism.
If, because of biblical disorientation and the universalism of the age, by grace alone strikes our times as an outcry of an excess of both enthusiasm and modesty, and if by faith alone seems an esoteric specialty of denominational exclusivism, then to assert the third sola, according to Scripture alone, must be like rolling out the equipage of Charles V. Nor is that all. If the other sola’s seem to be of very obscure relevance, this one must seem preposterously inhibiting, and a return to superstition and magic.
A striking indication of the radical shift in religious thought that has occurred since the Reformation is the change in meaning of the phrase according to Scripture alone. Curiously, for the Reformers and for their age, as indeed for virtually the whole of Christendom until a century ago, the phrase could mean no absolute elevation of the Scriptures, for by their universal acceptance as the true and infallible Word of God, they were incapable of further elevation. The phrase denoted rather, in keeping with the proper meaning of the words, the ascription of supreme authority to Scripture exclusively, and that by denigration of all other authority, most immediately that of the doctors and councils of the Church quoted in opposition to the evangelical truth. For this third sola, though logically prior to that of grace and that of faith—since questions of individual doctrines must be settled by the answer to the question of authority for all doctrine—was in point of adoption actually subsequent to the other two. To be sure, as always it was the entrance of the Word that gave light, and the Word that gave light in Luther’s case was particularly that of Habakkuk cited by Paul in Romans 1:17. But the Reformers were as yet unaware of the weight or wideness of divergence of the Church’s interpreting tradition from the evangelical truth. When confronted by this in the course of the debate, notably at Leipzig, Luther, pushed to the edge, took the incredibly courageous leap and came out unequivocally for the scriptural sola.
In our times Scripture and tradition have met together again, only this time they meet not on the level proper to Scripture but on the level proper to tradition, the latter rightly regarded as the fallible human thing that it is. In this situation, the Reformation and scriptural canon, according to the Scriptures alone, can no longer mean the denigration of anything—everything has already been denigrated except men’s thought about God and his Word! What it must now mean is the elevation of Scripture to the position of supreme authority proper to it alone as the true and infallible Word of God.
What a task that is! Luther’s denial of the right of tradition to override the plain and evangelical sense of Scripture and so to appear virtually superior to the very Word of God, his insistence that even the doctors and councils of the Church bow to Scripture—this was an act of gigantic courage, fortitude, and faithfulness. Now how equally great must be the courage and commitment of those who would stand against the glacier-like pressures of our age and contend for an end to that denigration of Scripture which is palpably the key to the uncontemporaneity of Reformation in the Church?
Consider also the degree of revolution that must take place in the modern mind if by grace alone and through faith alone are to be avidly seized again by a whole generation of men as the key to life in God. However dark the pre-Reformation night, what a magnificent capacity for Reformation the times possessed, as the event itself proves. This capacity was derived from a greatly biblical (albeit unevangelical) orientation of the mind, an orientation clearly derived from an extensive hearing of the Scriptures, not as fallible human testimony to God’s revelatory acts, but as God’s very words, written by men under his error-eliminating guidance. Having heard God speak his Law, they were terrified. When in the Reformation God spoke to them of salvation by grace alone and through faith alone, they believed and lived. The irrelevance of the Gospel to the modern mind is evidence of the absence of the preparatory action of the Word in modern hearts.
In deploring this absence of Scripture action upon the hearts of modern men, one must think of how little of God’s Word modern men ever hear, particularly as God’s Word. Nowadays one can travel a whole year visiting the churches and scarcely hear a single word about the sinfulness of sin as rebellion against a God that exacts absolute holiness, or the unforgivableness of unending unrepentance, or atonement by the God-propitiating death of the only-begotten Son. Even when we get orotund, celebrating the “mighty acts of God,” we are awfully weak on specifics. Did Noah ever live? Were the waters of the Red Sea ever separated miraculously? Did a look at the brazen serpent heal anything somatic? No, or we can’t be certain, but God surely acted mightily! We speak a lot about the cross. What did Christ do on the cross? Essentially, but on a grand scale, what you do when you get down into the ghetto. What’s that? You bear a burden. What burden? The burden of inability to live a full humanity. Was it also a substitutionary bearing of the guilt of the whole world, and so the ground for God’s being both just and the justifier of the ungodly man who turns to him in faith? That’s no longer meaningful! Did Christ rise from the dead? He rose again in the realms of faith, but not necessarily in the realm in which he was crucified. A camera might have caught his corpse lying in the tomb on Easter Day, but he rose for you if you believe the Easter story! But don’t you by making the truth of the Gospel dependent on faith invert the Gospel and common-sense order of valid faith—that it comes by hearing true news of great acts? What of it, for this is the new understanding of the Gospel!
We have a long way to go to catch up with pre-Reformation Europe. How lucky Luther was. He fought his battles before the days of trench warfare, when positions were clear and comprehensible.
We may not be inordinately hard on preachers. They reflect their theological training. The bulk of academic theology these days denies that Scripture is in any supernatural sense the Word of God. God could not speak anything unreservedly true through fallible men; or if he could, we cannot know when he succeeded. Pity the limp product of this eisagogical brainwashing and mourn the homiletics it entails! The graduate emerges less inclined and less equipped to say “Thus saith the Lord” than when he was enrolled. Having exchanged the truths of the Bible for the enfeebling and detheologizing theologies of the day, what does he have to say in the pulpits of God? What wonder that the public cannot without much biblical groundwork take in the significance of such words as “grace,” “faith,” and “salvation” in the radically biblical conception?
Again, what a long way we have to go even to acquire a capacity for Reformation!
If, then, our preaching must be biblical, where shall we begin?
Since the age is unresponsive to the pre-eminently evangelical note of the Reformation, it must be readied for the Gospel. The biblical prescription for such preparation is Law. “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). “If it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin” (Rom. 7:7). To preach the Law biblically is, among other things, to represent it as spiritual and unrelenting, as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount. I have wondered why Northern and Western ecclesiastics happily involved in one way or another in the conversion of Africa do not get up on a chair in Stockholm, New York, or Chicago and denounce the pagan morals of the times. Certainly it takes no unusual acuteness to relate the sixth, the fourth, the seventh, indeed any of the Commandments, including the first, to our society. We know our society; don’t we know the Word? When sin is known for what it is, the issue of salvation or damnation becomes a burning reality, and the Gospel will get a hearing.
Now obviously one’s acceptance of the truths of the Bible is conditioned by one’s estimate of the nature of the Bible. There is therefore an unprecedented scope and need in our day for a vigorous and scholarly apologetic for Scripture. But one’s acceptance of the truths of Scripture is not absolutely conditioned by one’s prior estimate of the nature of Scripture. Scripture has an extraordinary power of self-authentication, and its authority is wonderfully self-assertive. Here in East Africa hunters don’t consult the lion and buffalo to know their estimate of the guns they carry. They just shoot, and they get their game. The Law faithfully proclaimed as God’s Word exerts an unlimited power to break the pride of man and to put him in that distress in which the Gospel becomes the sweetest news in the universe.
In all this, we on the mission fields of the world have, despite the weaknesses of our work, a distinct advantage. On the whole our national preachers believe that what the Bible says is true. This is reflected in their preaching. I have seen national preachers in central China lead scores of their hearers to mourn over their sins, many of them with tears. Now in Tanzania I witness preaching of the same order. In a recent preaching crusade in the Arusha football stadium I heard speaker after speaker—Ugandans, Kenyans, and Tanzanians—preach with fascinating freshness and power, out of the Word and Word-related experience. Assuredly, some of them have great forensic powers. But to a man they accepted the whole of the Bible at face value as unequivocally the Word of God. And the movement in which they are involved is powerful to bring conviction of sin and to effect glorious deliverance by the message of by grace alone and through faith alone.
The spirit of the Reformation is not absent from our planet. Oh, that the wind of 1517 might blow with power in 1968!
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