The Word that Sparked the Reformation

I’ve heard it said that one spark from a campfire can travel over a mile before burning out. But there is one spark that has managed to travel thousands of miles, even across oceans, and through five centuries of time and has spread a blaze across the world; this spark is the reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The word that sparked this Reformation is the word ‘sola’ or ‘alone’ in English.

In his book Faith Alone:The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, R.C. Sproul remarks, “It was the sola of sola fide that was the central point of dispute…Martin Luther and the Reformers insisted that justification is by faith alone. Rome affirms that justification is “by faith,” but not “by faith alone”’ (page 36, 122).

How could such a small word carry so much weight and cause so much controversy? Because the word sola differentiated not between two different ways of understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ, but two totally different gospels altogether: the true gospel and a false gospel. In the Roman Catholic view, which hasn’t changed since, our good works contribute to our salvation. In the Reformers’ view, which also hasn’t changed since, we are totally depraved sinners who cannot contribute anything to our salvation except the sin that reveals its necessity.

When you really boil it down, the Roman Catholic understanding of justification is a false gospel that teaches we are not as sinful as the Scriptures reveals us to be, God is not as holy as the Scriptures reveal Him to be, and the cross is not as essential as the Scriptures reveal them to be.

The current leaders of the Church of England have called for Protestants to “repent of the sins of the Reformation.” Some may agree with them and see the Reformation as an unnecessary division in the one body of Christ. Many in our Western age of tolerance consider any divisions, whether doctrinal or anything else, to be from a lack of love. But it would be foolish for us to repent of the sins of the Reformation not only because we weren’t there to do them, but also because it wasn’t a division of the one body of Christ at all. Rather, the Reformation marked a differentiation between those in the true body of Christ and those in a heretical body claiming Christ. As far as the unloving claim, it was love and unity for the protection and preservation of the true body of Christ that drove the Reformers to take the stand they did. Rather than repent of the Reformation, we ought to rejoice in it. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and their fellow Reformers fought for the purity of the gospel and for the purity of the church and we owe them a great debt.

Some have argued that the Reformers held to a view of justification that allowed for sin. They claim that the constant use of the word alone or sola actually implies a salvation that doesn’t have any connection to good works or righteous living. The Reformers were not teaching, however, the unbiblical notion that our justification and our sanctification are not related. Rather, they were teaching that our sanctification flows out of our justification, not vice versa. John Calvin himself noted that while we are saved by faith alone, it is not by a faith that is alone. Justification produces the fruit of sanctification. Where Rome went wrong was that they confused the fruit with the root. If, according to Rome, our salvation is through faith and works, then we have something to boast about and this would turn heaven into a big merit party (“Look at how much I did with my life”). But, aligning themselves with Scripture, the Reformers taught the full and free gospel of God’s grace to guilty sinners who would repent and believe. This is the salvation that consumes the attention of the worship of heaven.

We have so much to be thankful for when we think of the Reformers. They refused to offer to the world a checklist and say, “Here is how to get saved.” Instead they heralded the true gospel of grace and so extended to the world a crucified and resurrected Savior who said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

May we never cave to the voices around us that call for an end to our resolve to stand on the gospel of grace. These voices are more than five hundred years old, going back to the garden of Eden where the serpent questioned, “Did God really say?”

May we stand with the Reformers in our own day, no matter what the culture thinks of us and say, “Yes, God did say that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

Then, may we extend the only true gospel to all types of sinners, while calling them to repent and believe in Christ.

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