The End of the Reformation?

by Rev. Nicholas J. Kersten

Director of Education and History

 

 

The Reformers were committed to taking the Bible as their only authority, and to the Gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.

These convictions changed the world forever.

is widely held and celebrated that Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to his church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, making this year the 500th anniversary of the history-altering act. Luther’s frustration with the Catholic Church boiled over as his conscience and the realities of the governance of the church reached critical mass, and he wrote down his 95 complaints with the church of his day.

Following Luther’s initial act of protest, the fledgling Reformers eventually settled on five core sentiments which framed their convictions. These five core convictions are commonly spoken of today as “Solas,”based on the Latin word for “only.” They are:

sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)

sola fide (through faith alone)

sola gracia (by grace alone)

solus Christus (through Christ alone)

soli Deo gloria (for the Glory of God alone)

To summarize these convictions, the Reformers were committed to taking the Bible as their only authority, and to the Gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. These convictions changed the world forever.

These convictions should sound familiar to us as Seventh Day Baptists — they are part of our theological tradition, and all appear in our Statement of Belief. Luther’s convictions, and those of other Reformers like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, became the foundation upon which Baptists, and later, Seventh Day Baptists, have built our faith. This Protestant Reformation gave birth to many Protestant denominations: Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others — but at our root, we all claim the Reformers.

Yet in some ways, Seventh Day Baptists represent the logical end of the historical event we call the Reformation. Our conviction that individuals should participate in “unhindered study and open discussion of Scripture” has led our people for generations to honor the Scriptures,

including keeping the seventh day Sabbath, which we derive directly from careful reading of the Word of God. This conviction to do as the Bible commands rather than bowing to the traditions of men, even longstanding church traditions, was one of the defining marks of the Reformers. They did not become convicted of Sabbath observance as we understand it — though without their convicted action, our freedom to consider the Scriptures and live from them by conscience under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we feel led would be impossible.

In his book A Choosing People, the History of Seventh Day Baptists, Don Sanford recounts part of Luther’s response to a Catholic council convened to hold him accountable for his actions, held at Worms in 1521, as proof of Luther’s convictions:

“…my conscience is taken captive by God’s word. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other, God help me. Amen.”

Luther’s stand demonstrates profound willingness to sacrifice and suffer personally because of his convictions. That willingness, because of conviction, changed the world. Because Protestants are committed to the Scripture as our only authority, we are prone to regular reassessments of our life and doctrine as a people. These reassessments frequently lead to both tension and revival — as conviction of sin naturally follows honest exploration of the Word of God, and as we submit to the Holy Spirit under the direction of the Scriptures — God frequently brings an outburst of growth and new life to His people. This growth can be painful, as those who are comfortable with “the old way” are left to decide how they will respond to changing times and a new work of the Spirit. We all know that change is never easy, personally or for a congregation. Karl Barth, referring to this long-standing Protestant tradition, repurposed and rearranged a saying of St. Augustine to suggest that Protestant churches “must always be reformed,” (ecclesia semper reformanda est) if they are going to live up to their convictions.

This same need to be constantly reforming is surely ours as Seventh Day Baptists as well. As we survey our history, we have been very consistent in our main theological distinctives. At the same time, we can see places where new expressions of those beliefs were necessary. In such times, God moved among our people, individually first and then corporately, to bring about the necessary reforms for us to reach a lost and broken world. The Gospel we preach — salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone through faith alone — is unchanging and unchangeable, but the ways in which we demonstrate the Gospel must necessarily change. This change, ultimately, must reflect our most closely held convictions while also reflecting an understanding of the era in which we live.

There is little debate among us at this point that we live in tumultuous times. No matter your views on the myriad issues which plague our culture, there is no question that the enmity and strife we see daily reflect the seismic changes that signal a change in era. What our world has been for nearly two centuries and the ways we have understood the world have been challenged and are crumbling. Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing, the challenge has been given, and the world as it was is giving way to something else.

Each of us, because of our individual experiences and knowledge, will have a different response to this time of upheaval. To be more specific, our response will likely be driven by what we think is most important. Our words, our actions, and our feelings will reflect what we rely on in times like these. For this reason, it is critical for us, as Kingdom-minded people in this tumultuous era, to sink new roots in Christ. It is time for us to reform…again. Our convictions have not changed, but our world has. We must find new ways to do and to be in this time of great change which will demonstrate our faith in Christ and our desire to see lost people come to faith. To do that, we must have a clear sense of our identity as a people. What is your identity in Christ? What is the identity of your church — our Conference?

The world is changing. But what it will change into and what role we will play in it depends very much on what you and your church do now. Will you close the doors against our broken culture, hunker down, and hope that it all goes away? Will you mortgage our heritage for the sake of keeping the doors open? Will you live from fear, or from faith? Will you be courageous to honor your convictions? If you were forced to choose between your comfort and your routine or the mission of God to seek and save the lost, what would you actually choose when it came time to support it with your life, energy, and finances? A broken world awaits your response, but choose carefully. You will be asked one day to give an account of your choice to our God. It’s time for us as a Conference of churches filled with convicted believers by the Word of God to reclaim our identity and decide how we will embody it to a lost world. If you need help with this conversation in your local church, I invite you to reach out to us for help. We would love to walk with you through this crucial conversation!

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