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What Ever Happened to the Reformation?

Dr. Rick L. Holland


Pastor, College and Student Ministries

No discerning evangelical would question the fact that the church of our
generation suffers a debilitating case of spiritual anemia. The primary definition of
“anemia” concerns itself with blood cells deficient of hemoglobin. This absence causes
poor health in the individual and, left untreated, can cause weakness and ultimately death.
But the secondary definition reads, “a lack of vitality or courage.”

The church does indeed find herself unhealthy. And her weakness is manifest in a
lack of vitality and courage. Too many contemporary Christians are lethargic and
unenthused, confused and contaminated, compromising and tolerant. The Evangelical
Church has become the stuff of ridicule and novelty for the World. No longer are we the
nation’s conscience; instead we are passed off as an echo of a past time of idealism long
abandoned. Welcome to postmodernism, where religion is pluralistic, truth is subjective,
morality is relative, authority is suspect, and the power of the media reigns.

In this context, no honest pastor could possibly look at the effects of the Church
and conclude that she is making the difference she was designed to make. Evangelicalism
has been crippled by the contamination of the world and paralyzed by its own ignorance
of biblical truth. Instead of changing the world, the world has changed the church.
Christians today are so gullible and pliable that they don’t recognize their infection with
and corruption from paganism.

As shepherds who care for our flocks, we must take this generation’s symptoms
seriously. The epidemic sweeping evangelicalism can be simply diagnosed as a lethal
case of Reformational Amnesia. Western Christianity has been willingly hypnotized into
a pre-Reformational state where it is religiously ecumenical and morally bankrupt.
Simply put, we are in need of a new Reformation which recaptures the tenets of the
Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

What is an “Evangelical?”

The place to begin in any discussion of Reformational amnesia is with the term
“evangelical.” Its dilution is watermark of the current evangelical crisis. R.C. Sproul
observes:

Since the sixteenth century the term evangelical has undergone a significant
development so that today it is difficult to define. The term came into prominence
during the Reformation, when it was virtually a synonym for protestant. In the
twentieth century both the concept of biblical authority and the nature and
significance of justification by faith alone were challenged from within the
community of confessing evangelicals. So as we head into the twentieth-first
century, it is no longer safe to assume that if a person calls himself an evangelical
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that he is committed to the battle cries of the Protestant Reformers, either to sola
Scriptura or to sola fide. Signs everywhere indicate that evangelicals are
disowning the heritage bequeathed to them by their Reformation forebears. And
the church is none the better for it, prompting some to say we are entering a new
Dark Ages (R.C. Sproul, What Ever Happened to the Reformation?, xi).

Amazingly, many evangelicals (i.e., “protestants”) are making efforts to join hands with
Roman Catholics and heal the severance caused by the historical Reformation of the
1500’s. Why? Again, the two leading influences are the church’s confusion and
contamination. James Boice notes:

So what is wrong with evangelicals? The answer is that we have become worldly.
We have abandoned the truths of the Bible and the historic theology of the
church, which expresses those truths, and we are trying to do the work of God by
means of the world’s “theology,” wisdom, methods, and agenda instead (James
Montgomery Boice, Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals, 9).

In other words, the church’s confusion about doctrine and the authority of the Bible,
coupled with moral compass that points to the ways of the world, have created a climate
similar to pre-Reformation Europe.

But the saddest part of this tragedy is that the church has been willingly led down
this path by those who call themselves Evangelicals. The Ecumenical movement
represented in the World Council of Churches, the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”
movement, the “Cooperative Evangelism” movement encouraged by the Billy Graham
Association, and the advent of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, have publicly distanced
themselves from the Reformation. And as such have denied the distinctives that make a
protestant and “protestant.”

In order to fully perceive the magnitude of the problem, we need to first revisit the
prison that existed before the Reformation.

I. Revisiting the Prison

Religious and political historians agree that the sixteenth century produced the
most important event in Western Civilization. It was a series of regional and national
reforms that created unprecedented cultural, social, economic, and political changes, and
for obvious reasons, it has been called the Reformation.

The Reformation had been subject to a variety of interpretations over the last four
hundred years, but the most important insight to understand the Reformation is that is
was, at its core, a theological enterprise.

The theological significance of the Reformation was decisive. The Patristic period
of church history (i.e., the first couple of hundred years after the death and resurrection of
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Christ) was primarily concerned with the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. But the
Reformation was had a different concern.

• First, the Reformation dealt with theological authority.

• Second, the Reformation dealt with salvation.

• And third, the Reformation dealt with the Christian’s existence as a subject of the
state.

Why did the Reformation occur?

• The Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of salvation, religious authority, and


theology were found to be illegitimate when measured against the Scriptures.

• The Roman Catholic Church held captive the masses that desired a relationship
with Christ. They did so by combining the church with the political constructs, by
keeping the Word of God in untranslated Latin which made the priest and the
Church indispensable, by teaching that forgiveness of sins was related to giving
money to the church (e.g., the selling of indulgences), and by promoting a
salvation that was based on the work of man in effort rather than the work of
Christ on the Cross. This resulted in the shrouding of God in ceremony and ritual.

But today we face many of the same issues:

• The same Bible, which was fought for, has been relegated as superstitious
mythology of a bygone generation and, as such, has been taken from the people.

• Confusion about the forgiveness of sins abounds. There is little talk of the primary
doctrine that gave birth to the Reformation—Sola Fide: the doctrine of
justification by faith alone.

• Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) has attempted to link Protestants


back with Rome.

In short, we have forgotten the protest that makes us Protestants.

II. Remembering the Protest (“protestants”)

Interestingly, our amnesia of the greatest “protest” in religious history has led us to
compromise the most precious doctrines. The current trend toward ecumenism has made
it out of vogue to challenge anyone who holds a different belief system. Again,
postmodernism has raped the church’s doctrinal pillars and left them in a violated state of
inclusive relativism.
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The catalyst of the “protest” was a man who was shaken out of religious complacency
by a glimpse of the holiness of God. James R. White notes:

The monk of Wittenberg, the professor of theology who enjoyed discussing


spiritual topics over beer and pretzels, was forced into his life of Reformer by an
Isaiah-like conviction of his own sinfulness in the light of and unshakable
conviction of the utter holiness of God (James R. White, The Justification of God,
21).

The protest of the Reformation did not arise just because of the abuses of the Catholic
Church; it came first as a response to God’s holiness and that same God’s grace that stays
His own holiness. If we are to see a modern-day Reformation, it will have to come the
same way. It is not enough to be polemical about the current state of evangelicalism, we
must be renewed in our vision and understanding of a Holy God who justifies sinners by
grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.

III. Reclaiming the Pillars

As the Reformation gained momentum, it clarified itself with a fresh set of


convictions about the faith. Luther began developing a biblical theology on which other
Reformers would build. Out of this first generation of the Reformers came the sola’s
(meaning “alone”) that became the pillars of the Reformation. The modern day
Reformation that evangelicalism so desperately needs can only come if we reclaim these
exclusive theological moorings.

The Sola’s of the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation

A. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”)

Problem: Too many evangelicals have separated the Bible from its authoritative function.

Scripture alone is the inerrant standard and authority for the church’s life. It should be
no surprise that the world has balked and fought against the Scripture’s authority, but the
evangelical catastrophe is that the church has distanced herself from the authority of the
Bible.

The stepchildren of modernity are science and psychology. Since the Renaissance, the
wheels of science have been set in motion that rule to this day. From telescopes looking
up to microscopes looking down, information and technology have searched long and
hard to try to discover meaning and significance. But black holes and quarks have not
provided anything to satisfy the souls of men.

When the “hard” sciences failed to bear the weight of man’s depravity, the “soft”
science of psychology made an all-out effort to answer the call. For two hundred years
psychological “experts” purported to have solutions to man’s problems through
understanding the complex intricacies of the human psyche. Yet the DSM (Diagnostics
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and Statistics Manual—the “Bible” for psychological sciences) goes through an almost
annual revision to change the standard by which clients are evaluated.

The setting for the Reformation was a time when the Bible was kept from the people.
But our own setting is one in which we have kept ourselves from the Bible. Any new
movement of God will only come with a rediscovery of the Word of God. And the most
critical place for this rediscovery is in the pulpits through expository preaching.

Catholic Apologist Sam Carpenter writes: “God did not leave us with the Bible as the
sole authority in matters of faith. The doctrine of sola scriptura has led to chaos in the
Christian community.”

B. Sola Fide (“Faith Alone”)

Problem: Too many evangelicals have succumbed to a man-centered, man-generated


gospel.

Sola Fide is known as the “chief article of the Reformation.” Simply stated,
justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. This was the
doctrine that liberated Luther from his impotent attempts at salvation by works. Sola fide
has been called the material principle of the Reformation because it represents the very
nature of the gospel.

The purity of the gospel depends on this doctrine. All other schemes supply man’s
righteous and works as a supplement to salvation. The gospel is about believing what
God has done for us in Christ, not strategizing what we can do to get to God. The core of
sola fide is the recognition that salvation is all of God and none of man. The only and
best thing we can do is believe (exercise faith) in his work.

C. Sola Gratia (“Grace Alone”)

Problem: Too many evangelicals have put too much confidence in human ability as a
means of regeneration.

The doctrine of the total depravity of man has become, for many, a bygone relic of
pre-Enlightenment man. But sola gratia recognizes this as fact and solves the problem on
God’s side, not man’s. God owes mankind nothing but punishment for their sin. And yet
He saves some in spite of their sin because it pleases Him to do so.

There is a general sentiment that man is basically good these days and that God owes
everyone an opportunity to be saved. But nothing could be farther from the truth. If we
really believe that man is “dead in his trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1-3), then we must
conclude that only God’s gracious regeneration can waken the soul in faith.
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D. Solus Christus (“Christ Alone”)

Problem: Too many evangelicals are buying into the religious trend toward ecumenism
and leaving the exclusivity of Jesus Christ behind.

Salvation is by and through the Lord Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. No
man contributes any merit to his own salvation (and in Catholic context we might add
here or in purgatory). Boice writes:

As evangelical faith has become secularized, its interests have been blurred with
those of the culture. The result is a loss of absolute values, permissive
individualism, and a substitution of wholeness for holiness, recovery for
repentance, intuition for truth, feeling for belief, chance for providence, and
immediate gratification for enduring hope. Christ and his cross have moved from
the center of our vision (James Boice, Here We Stand, 16).

The cross has lost its offence because so many have relegated it to sentimentalism,
jewelry, and a level of importance that is second tier. For the church to recapture her
identity and reform her ministry, Paul’s confession must be regripped, “For I determined
to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

E. Soli Deo Gloria (“To God Alone be Glory”)

Problem: Too many evangelicals have forgotten that God is to be glorified above all else
and that He does not share His glory with anyone or anything (Is. 42:8).

The Hebrew word for “glory” (kaboth) means “weightiness.” So when we say that
the church has lost its passion for the glory of God, what is meant is that we have seen a
grotesque exchange of the God of infinite glory for “God-light.” This accounts for the
moral compromise, biblical ignorance, and loss of missionary zeal so prevalent.

Any time there is a lessoning of the glory of God in the mind, heresy is not far
behind. Open theism is a classic case of exchanging the glory of God championed by the
Reformers for a dumbed-down deity worthy of our sympathy and compassion. The
Reformers who bled and died over the glory of God would be horrified at some of the
things that are claimed by so-called evangelicals today.

We need a vision of a great and holy God to redirect the church back to her Master.
Only then will we give God the glory He deserves.

The tragedy of Reformational amnesia is manifested in the impotence and


ineffectiveness of the contemporary church to impact our culture and shepherd our
people. Our generation's ignorance and neglect of the convictions that forged the
Protestant Reformation are at the heart of our church's greatest problems and the
believer's greatest struggles. It is past time for a modern-day Reformation.