Is Reformation theology still relevant today? Absolutely! It reminds us that we have a big God, and that salvation is found in Him alone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and for God’s glory alone. And we know this because Scripture alone is our highest standard for truth. We don’t determine what is good and true about God. God does.
I would argue that the biggest problem in the church today is that many of us have too small a view of who God is. We have shrunk an infinite being. We have diminished His glory and put Him into small, manageable boxes. This ignores the objectively there God altogether to the point that He becomes (to us) just a projection of what we think He is like, what we feel He should be like.
We need a new reformation—a re-reformation.
As the church in the 21st century, we need to recapture a sense of the grandeur of God—how vast and awesome He is. We need a biblical view of His glory. We need a biblical view of His sovereignty. We need a biblical view of what it means to say He’s both transcendently holy and imminently relational. We need a biblical vision of His love, mercy, justice, and grace. If we start there, awestruck by the infinite God at the center of our worldview, then many other issues in our church world will sort of self-fix. As true worship happens, our marriages will get better, our churches will have fewer scandals, and our joy will be maximized in Jesus Christ.
Allow me to give a few historical examples of this.
Way back in the first century, we find Jesus Christ championing a big view of God. Meanwhile, there are these Pharisees who had shrunk their view of God by essentially saying, “At the end of the day, our rule-keeping and our mile-long lists of dos and don’ts, that is where we get our righteousness.” Jesus confronts this man-centered view of salvation (which, by the way, is no good news at all). He reminds the Pharisees that they are not the point. The glory of God is!
The same debate breaks out later in the first century. Only this time, you have the apostle Paul on one side and the Judaizers on the other. The Judaizers were a group of Jews who were telling all the Gentiles (non-Jews) that if you wanted to get saved, you got to supplement God’s grace with circumcision and adherence to all kinds of rituals within the Jewish culture. The apostle Paul boldly rose to the challenge, confronted the Judaizers, and revealed that their message of salvation was a different gospel altogether. Paul contended for a radically God-centered view of reality. After all, if salvation is a man-centered endeavor that comes down to us jumping through religious hoops, then what’s so good about that news?
Moving forward in church history to the fourth century, we find the same scenario: same question, new century. Pelagius was a monk who said that man had the power in and of himself to choose salvation. Augustine contended against him, claiming that Pelagius had strayed off a biblical course and down the dead-end road of works-based salvation. Augustine fought to bring the popular theology of the day back to the Bible alone—back to a God who does the saving. Interestingly, at this point, the fourth-century Roman Catholic Church actually sides with Augustine and deems Pelagianism heretical.
In the 16th century, however, the Roman Catholic Church had slid from a God-centered view back into a man-centered view of salvation. Under their teachings, one could buy a plenary indulgence—a little sheet of paper that was a sure-shot passport to heaven. One could also visit a number of sacred sites and gaze upon the relics of Saint Peter and others. It was a man-centered movement about trying to reach God through the power of human volition. Then, Martin Luther shows up on the scene standing in Augustine’s same shoes in the 4th century, the same shoes that Paul stood in during the 1st century. Luther contended for a biblical view of salvation in which all credit goes to God’s amazing grace. Thus, Luther helped start the Protestant Reformation: protesting what had become a man-centered institution.
Now, here we are in the 21st century.
A recent survey asked a large number of professing Christians how we get to heaven: Is it by good works or as an act of grace? An alarming 73% of Protestants in mainline denominations said that God lets us into heaven based on our good works. Many of today’s Protestants have embraced the very anti-gospel doctrine that Protestantism originated to protest! It is the same pattern we’ve seen throughout history. We get pulled downward into our self-powered salvation attempts with an almost gravitational force.
So, this raises the question: Who are the Luther’s, the Augustine’s, and the Paul’s of the 21st century? Where are the people willing to stand in those shoes? In other words, who are the people willing to stand up for the good news that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone?
How desperately we need God at the center!
God is salvation’s author.
He alone gets the glory.
This is reformation thinking, and we will need it always.
Dr. Thaddeus Williams is an author, a pastor, and professor in Southern California. He earned his Ph.D. in Theology at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, and holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Williams has lectured in seminaries and churches throughout Nepal, Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri Fellowships in Holland and Switzerland, along with churches and conferences throughout the United States.