Two Johns, two wills, two versions of salvation.

Our first John is John Marston. He was a chaplain of the chantry of St. Mary in the parish Church of Aldborough, near where I live in North Yorkshire, England. In 1474, he made a will in which he “gave his soul to God Almighty, St. Mary, and all saints in heaven.”

Our second John is John Waddington, a clerk who was buried in the same church a century and half later. In 1628, John Waddington made a will in which he “commended his soul to God Almighty, his Creator and to Jesus Christ his Redeemer, trusting Him for salvation.”

John Marston died before the Reformation. Indeed, he was a chantry priest, employed in one of the church’s three chantry chapels to say repeated Masses on behalf of the dead. The hope was that this would speed their passage through purgatorial torment. He spent his life amassing merit on behalf of others. He died commending his soul to Mary and the saints. In his mind, salvation was earned through the observances of the individual, the services of the church, and the intercessions of the saints.

John Waddington died after the Reformation, and he commended his soul to Christ. He died “trusting in Him for salvation.”

These two wills neatly capture the glory of the Reformation. The Reformation, whose five-hundredth anniversary we mark this year, represents the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. It is a gospel that focuses on the finished work of Christ. It is therefore a gospel that brings assurance. My hope rests not on the shaky foundation of my merits but on the rock-solid ground of Christ’s righteousness. We can face death with confidence, as John Waddington did, “trusting in Him for salvation.” It is a gospel that makes Christ big and us small. It is a gospel worth celebrating. Tell the story. Have a party.

But let me suggest two other ways in which we should celebrate the Reformation.

Renewing Our Commitment to God’s Word

Underlying the Reformation was a rediscovery of the Bible and a commitment to its authority. Martin Luther came to his understanding of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone through his study of the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians. At first, he assumed the medieval Roman church would agree with his message. After all, it was plainly taught in the pages of God’s Word. Instead, the church opposed him, forcing him to choose between the authority of the Bible and the authority of the Roman church. He chose the Bible. Scripture alone would be the ultimate authority of Reformation churches.

The true spirit of the Reformation includes a commitment to being bounded by God’s Word.

That meant the Reformation was always intended to be an ongoing project. It is a commitment encapsulated in the Latin phrase semper reformanda. It is usually translated as “always reforming,” but a better translation is “always being reformed.” We are not the ones doing the reforming. We are being reformed by God’s Word. God’s Word is the reformer of the church. Or rather, it is Christ who renews His church through His Word. Semper reformanda does not describe a movement forward to some uncharted horizon but a continual movement back to God’s Word.

So, the Reformation is not a mandate for boundless innovation. That is how many liberals, theologically and politically, have chosen to view it. For them, the Reformation is a symbol of individual freedom and self-determination. But the true spirit of the Reformation includes a commitment to being bounded by God’s Word.

But neither is the Reformation a mandate for complacency. Yes, the Reformers saw the Bible as the touchstone of orthodoxy. But they saw it as much more than this. It is a life-giving Word. And this is how we should celebrate the Reformation—by committing ourselves to constant renewal through the life-giving Word of God.

Renewing Our Commitment to God’s People

None of the first Reformers set out to leave the Roman church, let alone start a new one. They learned from Augustine that schism was a terrible sin. Yet here they were, waving goodbye to the Roman church.

The problem with the Roman Catholic Church was not only that it failed to preach the gospel but also that it actually opposed it. In doing so, the Roman church proved itself not to be a true church. The marks of the church are, the Reformers argued, the gospel Word and the gospel sacraments (including gospel discipline). That meant the Reformers were not really breaking away from the church, since the Roman Catholic Church could no longer be regarded as a true church. Instead, the Reformers were “re-forming” the church around the gospel. The Reformers remained passionate about the church and its unity. John Calvin wrote, “For those whom he is Father the Church may also be Mother” (Institutes 4.1.1).

All too often, however, their successors have not shared this passion. The right to the private interpretation of Scripture has been abused to justify separation and division. One great way to celebrate the Reformation would be for the heirs of the Reformation to rediscover the Reformers’ passion for the unity of body of Christ.

The Reformers turned to the two marks of the church—Word and sacrament—to provide a way of recognizing the true church. Calvin said, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a Church of God exists” (Institutes 4.1.9). But these marks also help explain why the Reformers were hesitant to break from the visible Roman church. The Reformers broke from the Roman church only when it became indisputably clear that the Roman church was not interested in the true gospel or the right administration of the sacraments.

Lest we regard church unity a light matter, let us end with Calvin calling down thunderbolts:

For the Lord esteems the communion of his Church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the Church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished . . . Separation from the Church is the denial of God and Christ. Hence, we must even more avoid so wicked a separation. For when with all our might we are attempting the overthrow of God’s truth, we deserve to have him hurl the whole thunderbolt of his wrath to crush us. Nor can any more atrocious crime be conceived than for us by sacrilegious disloyalty to violate the marriage that the only-begotten Son of God deigned to contract with us. (Institutes 4.1.10)

Writing for Tabletalk

The Continuing Reformation