Yesterday I quoted at length from Mike Reeves’ message on Justification (available on theologynetwork.org). Mike was addressing the intriguing question, “Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t?” The first part of his answer focused on the contrast between their views of Scripture. For Erasmus the Scripture was to be revered, but could be squeezed to fit his own vision of Christianity. For Luther the Scriptures were the only sure foundation for belief, the supreme authority allowed to contradict all other claims. Now for the second part of Mike’s answer to the question:
But it wasn’t just the authority of the Bible that made the difference, it was also what they saw as the content of the Bible. For Erasmus the Bible was little more than a collection of moral exhortations. The Bible is all about urging believers to be more like Christ the example. Luther said, that’s just turning the Gospel on its head. Our issue is sinners first and foremost don’t need to copy someone, sinners need a Saviour! Sinners need, first and foremost, a message of salvation! . . . Without the message of Christ’s free gift of righteousness, his free gift of himself and all that he has, there would be no Reformation. Justification by faith alone was what made the Reformation the Reformation. . . . It was this gracious message of a sweet Saviour’s free gift of righteousness that made life changing ministries life changing.
Reformation is not a moral spring clean. It’s not a revolution against the old ways, anything old fashioned and ritualistic. It’s not just about opening the Bible, but not finding the message fully. This is a profound challenge for the church today – what message do people hear?
Our attitude to Scripture is the foundational issue for our preaching. The message we preach from the Scripture is the more visible issue in our preaching. Do we stand, no matter how much contemporary culture, even church culture, not to mention the attacks of the enemy himself, are arrayed against us? Do we stand and preach the message of Scripture, because we are absolutely committed to Scripture, because we are absolutely committed to the God who gave us the Scripture? Do we preach in light of these simple yet profound lessons from history?
There could be no end to posts dealing with lessons for preachers from the Reformation. I’d like to focus in on one today, then another tomorrow. Both of them were brought out very clearly in a series of messages by Michael Reeves on Justification (available, and well worth listening to, on theologynetwork.org). In the final session of a great series of talks, Mike asks “Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t?” Let me quote the first part of Mike’s two-part answer to this question:
Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t? Because Erasmus is the one who unleashed the Greek New Testament onto Europe. He was getting the Bible out there, so why didn’t he start the Reformation? Well, even though Erasmus was a constant and deep student of the Scriptures, the Scriptures didn’t actually do a lot for him because of how he treated them. Erasmus kept banging on about how vague the Scriptures are (which is very convenient for his own theology), and so he gave them very little practical, let alone overruling, authority. So although he looked at Scripture, the message of Scripture could be tailored, squeezed, adjusted to fit his own vision of what Christianity is.
The only way to break out of that suffocating scheme and achieve any substantial reformation and change in the world – well, it took Luther’s attitude, that Scripture is the only sure foundation for belief. The Bible had to be acknowledged as the supreme authority. It had to be allowed to contradict and overrule all other claims, because if it couldn’t do that, it itself would be overruled and hijacked by another message, as it was with Erasmus. In other words a simple reverence for the Bible was never going to change the world, even quite a high view of the Bible was never going to do much. Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone was the indispensable key for change. Without acknowledging that the Bible has that supreme and foundational authority there would be no Reformation. No Reformation in peoples’ hearts, no Reformation in the world.
That final emboldened text is well worth a “selah” for preachers. On this matter are we an Erasmus, or a Luther?