Modern Reformation Anyone?

Paul & Susan Dunk   -  

On October 31, 1517, Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther’s pen unleashed cultural ramifications that today’s bloggers could only dream of.

He nailed his theses to the door, a few people read it, translated it from Latin into German and thanks to the technological wonder of a relatively new piece of technology called the Gutenberg Press – his 95 theses went 16th century viral.

After 4 years of debate on justification by grace & faith alone, Luther was brought before the church assembly in 1521. They demanded Luther retract his teaching and his famous response was,

“… my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.” [1]

A year later, Luther reflected on the ensuing reformation in the church in a sermon he preached on March 10, 1522:

“I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank beer with my friends Philip and Nicholas the Word of God so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word of God did everything.” [2]

The poor teaching in the medieval church wasn’t cooked up overnight. It was the product of a bad combination: religious agendas in the pulpit and Scriptural illiteracy in the pews. Even if they had Bibles, the only ones hot off the Gutenberg press were in Latin, which was of no use to to the laymen in German and Slavic countries in Luther’s day.

There are two terms theologians use to describe the methods for faithful and unfaithful interpretation. Faithful interpretation is the result of what is called a ministerial use of reason. Unfaithful interpretation is the result of what is called a magisterial use of reason.

A ministerial use of reason seeks to understand the Scriptures, a magisterial use of reason stands over them.

A ministerial use of reason utilizes all the tools at its disposal such as context, history and the original languages in an effort to allow the Scripture to interpret the Scripture.

A magisterial use of reason comes armed with an agenda and then shoehorns it into the text. The justification for the interpretation that ensues is not confirmed with other Scriptures that agree clearly and contextually, but with a hefty dollop of confirmation bias.

It would be wrong to reduce the reformation to be about the sale of indulgences because theologically, it was about much more, but the indulgences are like a hard-to-miss heretical piñata that serves as a great object lesson for how far we are willing to go to justify our agendas and stand over the Scriptures when deploying a magisterial use of reason.

The papacy had an agenda to build St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican. Driven by this massive building campaign, Johann Tetzel and others had no difficulty justifying the invention of the indulgence, saying to the church: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” [4].

The bulk of the 95 theses was dedicated to exposing this corruption of the Scriptures. “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” [5]

A significant reason for the wayward teaching in the medieval church was that the church in Rome did not consider the Scriptures the sole source for final authority – they had two. The Scriptures and apostolic tradition. The church in Rome believed (and still does) that the popes are in a successive apostolic line from the apostles and therefore, the final authority for the church was the Scriptures and the popes because they “sat in the seat of Peter”. The reformers appealed that the final authority for faith and practice was “Sola Scriptura” , latin for Scripture alone. This was not to say that the God-given offices of pastors and teachers who were trained to preach did not have authority in the church, it was to say that the pastors and teachers bent their knee to the Scriptures, which was the final authority for the church.

The gospel message that was once intended to ‘fish for men‘ had turned into a message that ‘fished for the riches of men‘. [6] Sadly, we don’t need to look far today to find churches fishing for the riches of men. The church in 1517 was selling the forgiveness of God, but many churches in 2017 are selling the blessing of God. North Americans aren’t interested in how to secure early parole from purgatory … but we’re very interested in how we can secure financial prosperity. Today, prosperity churches misappropriate texts from the Old Covenant, disregard our New Covenant, and teach that God will curse you if you don’t give 10% to the church. [7]

I’m not advocating that we puff out our chests and start waving denominational flags. In fact, I’m advocating for the opposite: that as the 500th anniversary of the reformation approaches, those of us in reformational circles to humbly consider how we are in continual need of Spirit-wrought reform. I’ve only been in the reformational camp for seven years, but that’s been long enough to notice a few things as the new kid.

[These criticisms are not offered glibly because I am in need of, and desire, constant reform as a husband, preacher, father, friend.]

Some of us exalt our confessions, catechisms and liturgical forms to be equal to Scripture, which they aren’t. They bend their knee to the Scripture. Some of us preachers are very good at calling the church to the obedience of Christ and very poor at inviting the church to marvel at Christ. Some of us have forgotten that the bread and the cup are a foretaste of a celebration that’s coming, so our churches receive the sacraments with all the joy of a funeral processional. Some of us relate to evangelism like it’s not a very reformed thing to do. I think we would all do well to humbly consider that all of our churches are in need of the Spirit to continue to do his reforming work in all of our hearts. I know that’s true for us at KW Redeemer.

I pray that us preachers would recover the joy of the gospel and preach it into the heart of our churches like oxygen. I pray that our parents we would recover the joy of the gospel and preach it into the hearts of our children like oxygen.

When Paul called Timothy to minister to the church, He described the power of God’s Word this way:

“…the sacred writings are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” ~ II Timothy 3:15-16

The word for “able” is dunamena which means “powerful”. The phrase “To make you wise” is sophazai” which could also be translated, “carefully and cleverly imagined“.

God’s word is breathed out by Him powerfully. He has carefully and cleverly imagined it so that it will make our hearts see our need for His saving grace.

In other words, the Scriptures are not static they are dynamic.

When we think about spiritual reformation we can be encouraged. We have not been called into a gruelling Sola-Bootstrapsa way of relating to God’s Word. Paul’s carefully chosen words reveal that when we come to the Scriptures, it’s not primarily us who are doing something – God is doing something.

The phrase “Breathed out by God” provokes us to recall the other significant time in Scripture when God breathed. At creation, God breathed and created life and now, through His Scripture, God breathes on our hearts and gives them new life. Reform.

God’s Word is not simply a set of instructions that calls us to do certain things – God’s Word is living and active, causing our heart to want different things. It “trains us in righteousness”. Being “Righteous” isn’t something that we gradually become – it is a position before God than united to Christ we already have. The Spirit and the Word are now working together to train us to live out the implications of our union with Christ. This is why Paul also wrote, “He who knew no sin, became sin for us, so that in Him we would be the righteousness of God.” – II Corinthians 5:21

God’s word is not merely telling us what to do – it unleashes the reforming power of grace in our hearts by telling us who we are.

Being reformed by God’s grace is not like being given a new menu, it’s being given new tastebuds.

Being a child of God is not a lifelong duty of trying to choose different things – but a lifelong reformation of increasingly wanting different things. The Spirit and the Word do this reformational work together.

The reason we say “Sola Scriptura” and say that the Scripture is enough is because the work of Christ is enough. He is the fulfillment of everything God has ever said and the final word on everything God means to say. We are an imperfect people bound to a perfect Word about our perfect Saviour.

We live our lives to glorify the God of creation who is also the God of our continual reformation.

We are made & remade in Him.

May His reformational work continue in us all.

Press on,


[1] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand; A life of Martin Luther. New York: mentor, 1950

[2] The sermons of Martin Luther, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit

[4] Alister McGrath; article in Comment Magazine, Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford and Professor of Divinity, Gresham College.

The Council of Trent (1545), the church of Rome’s response to the Reformation, stated that it “condemns with curses those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them” The Catholic church continues to hold to this. (Session 25, Decree on Indulgences)

[5] Luther’s 95 Theses #86

[6] Luther’s 95 Theses, #65, #66

[7] Old Covenant: Malachi 3:8-10 states that if Israel did not tithe, they would invoke God’s curse. New covenant: Galatians 3:13 states that Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us on the cross. Today, the church gives to further the gospel freely & generously. The tithe serves as a guide for our giving, and is not required.