The Internet Monk
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
Throwing Luther From The Train
Will we save the Reformation?
by Michael Spencer
I was going to write about how no one even remembers the Reformation anymore and what a shame that is, but in all honesty, I don't really care if churches have some kids nail a piece of paper on a door during the children's sermon. I don't care if Reformation Day ever appears on the church calendar. I know that a lot of reformed types like me seem to have a Luther/Calvin fetish, but I really am not like that. What concerns me is more important than the details of church history.
I want the world to know that evangelicals are determined to end the Reformation.
Luther never intended to start a franchise called "the Reformation." He never wanted to start a church or be the Godfather of the Lutherans and the Reformed. Luther was a teacher, and above all, a man living out the faith. He was a man who knew there was something wrong with the visible church of his times, its leaders and its message. He studied the Bible, he asked hard questions and he prayed. He was a pain and a bit of a bull, but he got something right. He recovered the heart of the Gospel- justification by faith alone.
Now Luther knew the Roman Church and its hierarchy would oppose him, because, in the process of coming to his great insight, he also condemned the church and its leaders for their arrogance and corruption. He made real enemies and kept them throughout his life. He never doubted that there were men who hated the truth, and who would forever insist that the Bible be silenced by the opinions of fallible men. Skewering these blasphemers occupied many a rowdy late night beer-fest at the German version of the Boar's Head Tavern, and many a page in Luther's writings.
But Luther knew there were other enemies of the Gospel. Because his own dealings with them were deeply flawed, they are often overlooked. Luther called them the "fanatics." He meant those who refused to come under the authority of the Word, but claimed for themselves the direct, unmediated authority of the Spirit. Now many of these were Anabaptists whom Luther was very wrong to persecute, and we can't ever excuse the use of the sword in the cause of Reformation, no matter what the circumstances or reasons. Yet, we need to understand what Luther saw in the "spiritual fanatics" that caused such distress, for it has turned out that from this radical wing of evangelicalism, not from Roman Catholicism, has come the defeat of the Reformation in our time.
Christianity has always contained within itself the seeds of a battle between the advocates of a "Word" centered faith, and those drawn to a direct experience of the Spirit. The Protestant Reformation was an achievement of remarkable balance in this struggle, for all of the Reformers placed great emphasis on the work and experience of the Spirit. But the balance was achieved in the central place given to the Word in the church, and the resulting order and authority that shaped the churches of the Reformation.
For the Reformers, the Spirit worked through and in and with the Word. A sovereign God was free to work beyond the Word, but He had bound himself to the Word, and so should we. The result was a theology of Word and Spirit that allowed men like John Wesley to demonstrate the remarkable balance of Word and Spirit that Jesus intended the church to enjoy.
The radical reformers emphasized the Word as well, occasionally in ways more faithful than the mainline Reformation. Yet, the radical reformers were not as successful as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin in achieving a harmony of Word and Spirit in the visible church. While the Reformation rolled across Europe and into America, the Word-ordered churches prospered, often while persecuting other churches or simply making their existence difficult. But even in the mid 1800's, the average evangelical in America would have seen remarkable centrality of the Word, clarity of the Gospel and connection to the Reformation in almost any church. It would seem bizarre to say that in just over a century, evangelicals would cast off their Reformation moorings and sail into a sea of spiritual anarchy with no anchor and few regrets.
The Reformation contained a brilliant affirmation: Reformed, and always reforming. Luther and Calvin knew that the historical reformation of the church would be an ongoing process, with the constant need for the Holy Spirit to renew the church, raise up leaders, recover the Gospel and revive the people of God. So Reformed people should never be opposed to the winds of the Spirit blowing upon the church. The visible church would be in constant need of powerful preaching, fresh confessions, refocused mission, covenant renewal and personal revival. It is unfortunate, that, with this understanding, the "spiritual fanatics" were able to so thoroughly vanquish the achievements of the Reformation.
Starting with the Second Great Awakening (Finney) and the beginnings of Pentecostalism (Azusa Street) in the early twentieth century, the Reformation came under attack from those quarters of Christianity that ostensibly placed the direct experience of the Spirit above the Word. Though some Reformation churches have managed to miss the battle almost entirely, the results are now in. With very few exceptions, the Reformation has been drowned in an ocean of Gnostic-oriented, experience-centered, unmediated, individualistic, pragmatic spiritualism operating under the guise of Christianity. And the tide is increasing, day by day. Soon, Reformation Christianity may be a historical footnote.
Here is the evidence:
1. The rejection of confessions, creeds or any meaningful statements of faith for churches or their members.
2. The rejection of covenantal understandings of church membership, if not the concept of church membership entirely.
3. The abandonment of church discipline. In some cases, the actual opposing of discipline as un-Christian.
4. The widespread abandonment of constitutional church government, and in many cases the modeling of the church after business models.
5. Increasing opposition to accountability relationships and structures, whether through denominations or regional/local oversight.
6. The distressing proliferation of the self-credentialed ministers claiming direct authority and communication from God ("anointing") and accountability to no one.
7. The overt and hostile rejection of the theology of the Reformation in favor of any number of sub-Biblical, and in some cases, apostate replacements.
8. The steady decline of the place and quality of preaching and the increasing place of entertainment in worship, especially through music, drama and technology driven visuals.
9. The decline of the Bible in every aspect of worship and church life, and the increase in the place of secular worldviews or direct spiritual experiences as authoritative.
10. The demeaning and corruption of the church at the expense of religious commercialism.
11. The dividing of the congregation into segments based on demographics, "felt needs," and the resulting loss of congregational identity.
12. The development of a leadership class within the church dedicated to the eradication of the Reformation, and the promotion of anti-reformational paradigms and theologies, and the triumph of pragmatism.
And all of this perpetuated on the heirs of the Reformation, by the heirs of the Reformation. We have allowed the fire of Luther's Reformation to be doused from enemies within the house of God. The pearls of the Reformation have been trampled by the swine of modern theological betrayal.
What can be done?
We must pull the alarm in our churches. Men who love the Word and the Spirit must come before the people of God with the urgency of those speaking in desperate times. The great themes of the Reformation must be thundered, not whispered, but thundered from pulpits by men gripped with the urgency that without a clear Gospel the souls of men are eternally lost.
Those who do not believe in hell, in the sovereignty of God, in the Trinity, in the foreknowledge of God, in the uniqueness of Christ and the authority of scripture must be called out and clearly defined as wolves in sheep's clothing. The pain of this process is considerable, for such rascals hide behind every conceivable kind of dignified pretense. But what fellowship has light with darkness? Jesus' words to false teachers in Revelation 2 and 3 must be the model for our own identification of those who are not part of the true church of God.
Churches must define themselves in times that despise definition. They must confess their faith and covenant together explicitly. They must restore church discipline and give church membership the depth of meaning it deserves. They must value the truths of the faith more than the cultural acceptance of the faith. They must value church health more than church growth.
Godly Christian laypersons must call to account those men who attempt to tie a congregation's life to their own experience of the Spirit, and they must value men who tie their own life to the Word of God and faithful preaching.
Churches of like mind and heart must find one another, despite differences and labels, and encourage one another.. The Gospel of Grace recovered in the Reformation is now like a few glowing embers in a fire than has been abandoned as long put out. Those who love that fire must get down on their knees and blow the winds of prayer on those embers and shelter them until they burn bright again. They must believe that Luther's fire can burn again, and light times that are growing every bit as spiritually dark as Luther's time.
Voices that question the prevailing wisdom must speak and write and shout and preach and pray and publish and question until an alarm is sounded in Zion. There is yet a remnant, and there is a generation that longs for the Word of God rather than the manipulations of pragmatism and unanchored fanaticism. I meet them every time I preach on these things. I hear from them when I write. They must be stirred and they can be stirred.
Luther and Calvin were pastors. They were not conference speakers or radio personalities. They stood before congregations week by week, day by day, and talked of these things in the light of the Word of God. It is often discouraging to live in these post-modern times of evangelical apostasy, but I take inspiration from knowing that God has done His work, and brought great good into the world, through faithful pastors, standing and speaking, then living, before their people with passion for the Gospel.
"The Word did it all," he said. He sat in a tavern drinking his beer and talking theology and the Word did it all. Luther was no hero. He was a man who knew the power of the unleashed Word. We must once again become people who are willing to live and die for that proposition, and to use our remaining days in its service.