By Dr. Herbert Samworth
One person has defined Church History as the story of the loss and recovery of the Gospel. In one sense it is impossible for the Gospel to be lost. The Gospel is God’s good news and He has promised that none of His words will be lost. The message of redemption is His message and He has promised that He will carry it out to a successful conclusion.
However, there is a sense in which the Gospel can be lost. History does not always advance directly, it can be cyclical in nature. For example, a study of the Book of Judges reveals a cycle of sin, chastening, the raising up of a judge, deliverance from the oppressor, and then a return to sin. This could be depressing reading but we can glean important lessons for our own day.
It was apparent that the Gospel was nearly lost during the times of the Middle Ages. There are a number of reasons for this: ignorance of the clergy, papal corruption, the Church becoming the mediator between God and man, and the teaching of non-biblical doctrines.
There was a universal cry for a correction of these abuses. Several groups and individuals arose who attempted to reform the Church. Included were persons and groups such as John Wyclif, John Hus, and the Brethren of the Common Life. Even the Humanists joined in the attempt to correct the abuses. However, they believed the key to the reformation of the Church was by education.
In discussing these things, we must never forget that God uses people to carry out His work. God often permitted the situation to come to a crisis point and then He prepared a person to combat that error. This can be illustrated from the Patristic Church when Arius attacked the deity of Christ in the fourth century. He claimed that Jesus was the first created being and not God. Athanasius was given the honor of defending the true deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus, thus preserving the Gospel itself. For if Christ were not God, then there could be no salvation.
There were a great number of doctrines that were not in dispute at the time of the Reformation. The Reformation did not debate the doctrines of the Trinity, the Person of Christ, man and his need of salvation, and the nature of the work of Christ. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds defined the nature of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. Augustine did a masterful job in showing that man was lost in sin and incapable of saving himself by his own efforts. In 1529, the Council of Orange made his teachings on man part of the orthodox belief thus preserving the great truth that salvation is of God’s grace. Even in the 12th Century, Anselm of Canterbury demonstrated that the nature of Christ’s death was a penal sacrifice offered to God. While there was an application of the atonement that cancelled the power of the devil over man, it was directed primarily to God.
The crucial question of the Middle Ages was how the benefits of Christ’s death were applied to the sinner who needed to be saved. Over the course of centuries, the Roman Church had appropriated that power to itself. This power was located in the seven sacraments that the Church administered to its adherents. Theologians taught that God had bestowed His grace to the Church. The Church, then, became the custodian of grace and had the authority to mediate it to the faithful by means of the sacraments. There could be no salvation apart from the Church. As a result, people were in bondage to the Church. The Gospel was distorted, if not actually lost, by this incorrect teaching.
Martin Luther demonstrated that the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice were applied differently than what the Church taught. Through his personal struggle with sin, Luther realized that salvation came through faith in Christ. When Luther became aware of the sale of indulgences to release souls from Purgatory, he was incensed. To Luther, this was nothing less than trafficking in the souls of men. The Pope rejected Luther’s appeal and determined to continue the practice that Luther proved was in direct contradiction to the Word of God. These historical events form the context of the Reformation.
The Reformation itself was the recovery of the Gospel. The Gospel, the power of God unto salvation, was liberated from its Medieval dross, and proclaimed once again to the world. The good news, that God in Christ had accomplished salvation for man and offered it to him as a free gift received by faith alone, thundered throughout Europe. This was the same Gospel that the Apostle Paul had proclaimed hundreds of years previously.
In this sense, the Reformation was an advance. It was not an advance in the Gospel itself because the Gospel is complete and perfect. The advance was in man’s understanding of the Gospel. The Reformation was primarily the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith. But the doctrine of justification by faith led to further teaching on the nature of the Christian life and how to live one’s life coram deo, or in the presence of God Himself.
While the Reformation was a recovery of the Gospel, it was also the clarification of the components of the Gospel. These clarifications are phrases that emphasize certain aspects of the Gospel. They are Latin phrases commonly used to describe the Reformation emphases. These five phrases are: by faith alone (sola fide); by grace alone (sola gratia); by Christ alone (solus christus); to God alone the glory (soli deo gloria); and by Scripture alone (sola scriptura).
These are not five individual phrases that can be held in isolation from one another. One is not more important than any other. To speak of one is to speak of the other four.
We will look at each of the five phrases in turn. There may be some overlap because it is not possible to speak of one apart from the others. Together they give us insight into the nature of the Gospel and the importance of the Reformation.
The teaching of faith alone (sola fide) demonstrated that the Church could not function as the mediator between God and man. Although Medieval theologians gave credence to the biblical statement that salvation was by faith, they spoke of a faith that was directed toward the Church and what the Church provided. They also assigned to faith a value that God would reward. They spoke of unformed and formed faith. They believed that faith could advance from one degree to another of higher value. However, the Reformers showed decisively that the nature of faith, while it included both knowledge and conviction, was primarily trust or commitment. That trust or commitment was directed toward the person of Christ Himself. He was the one Mediator between God and man.
Faith was not a work, but an emptying of the person’s confidence in his ability to save himself. The Reformers proved that faith was the instrumental means by which a person laid hold of Christ. What was important about saving faith was the object of faith, the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. They were intent in showing that genuine faith was shown in its fruits and resulted in a holy life.
By grace alone (sola gratia) spoke of the basis of salvation. Medieval theology spoke of merit or a right that a person had to approach God because of something in themselves or what they had done. The Reformers taught that the sole basis of salvation was God’s free grace. The Church taught that if a person did certain things; this would obligate God to reward them. Through use of the Scriptures, the Reformers removed this false prop. They taught if one were to be saved, it would be by God’s grace alone. There was no room for human merit in one’s salvation. Did this mean that one should not strive for the salvation of his soul? If one waited until God extended His grace, would this not leave man in a dangerous position? He could be indifferent and give the excuse that, because he could not save himself, there was no reason to do anything. He could wait until God had mercy on him.
However, indifference is a distortion of grace. While Medieval theology emphasized that a person should seek salvation, the means were not in agreement with God’s Word. He should go on a pilgrimage, pay money, or seek to do special works of merit. As a result, man became dependent on the Church and could never come to a place of settled assurance. On the other hand, the Reformers emphasized that God did extend His grace. Where was that grace offered? It was offered in the Gospel of His Son. God had demonstrated His grace and love to man in history by sending His Son. God now extended the Gospel invitation to all men to come to Him. When they came in response to the call of the Gospel, they would find that He was indeed a gracious God, willing to blot out their trespasses and sins. Should they remain obstinate and refuse to come, they would find to their sorrow they had refused the only offer of salvation.
Christ alone (solus christus) was the third element of the Gospel. Men were encouraged to look to Christ alone for salvation. The Scriptures declared that He was the only Mediator between God and man. The additions that the Church had placed on the Gospel distorted the part that Christ had in purchasing it on behalf of men. While the Church spoke of Christ and His work, the Mass emphasized the continual sacrifice of the Lord. However, the Scriptures emphasized its once for all nature and its efficacy to save men from the guilt and power of their sins. Reformation preaching sounded the note of Christ crucified as the answer to men’s needs. They not only proclaimed His death, they spoke of His glorious resurrection and His ascension into heaven. Christ was now at the right hand of the Father, interceding for His people. The Gospel of the Reformation portrayed a living Christ Who ministered to His people, rather than an unfortunate victim of the cross.
To God alone the glory (soli deo gloria) emphasized the purpose of man’s salvation. In reality, assurance of one’s salvation was nearly impossible within the teaching of the Church. Rather than teaching justification as a legal change from condemnation to righteousness, Rome defined it as a moral change continually in process As a result, one could never come to the place where they could be certain they had done enough to please God. Rome combined sanctification, the progressive growth in holiness, with justification to the complete confusion of salvation itself.
The Reformers were explicit in their teaching on the Christian life. They avoided the extremes of no assurance of salvation and antinomianism or lawlessness that comes from the presumption of salvation. They taught a realistic view of man; that because he still lives in the world, he must battle against indwelling sin, he must oppose the world system, and he has a real spiritual enemy in the devil.
The Reformers also taught that it was possible to live victoriously and serve God in the world. This is the meaning of soli deo gloria. God receives all the praise for one’s salvation and, out of thankfulness, one dedicates their entire life to the service of God. That service of God might consist in different types of work but was united in the Person Who was served. In contrast, the Roman Church taught that the clerical life was the only life that truly could please God. Thus one had to withdraw from the world in order to live for God. The Reformers, while stressing that salvation was entirely of God, were equally determined to show that one honored God by living for Him.
What was the key to these doctrines being proclaimed? How was the Gospel liberated from its chains? It was the recovery of the Scriptures themselves. For that reason one of the key statements of the Reformation was sola scriptura, the Scriptures alone. The Scriptures were the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The Reformers did not cast off what the church had taught previously. They taught that the clear teaching of the Scriptures had been obscured by the additions of the Church.
The Scriptures were made available again in their original languages and the Reformers returned to a close study of them. In the view of the Reformers, all teachings were to be brought to the bar of the Scriptures to determine if they were correct. The final authority was not to be what the Church taught but what the Word of God said. The Church had replaced the Scriptures as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. The Reformers stressed clearly that ultimate authority was found in the Word of God alone and not in the Church.
What was the Reformation? It was the recovery of the Gospel. What is the Gospel? It is the good news of what God has done in Christ to save man from his sin. It is a Gospel that has its origin in the grace (sola gratia) of God through the work of Christ (solus christus) and received by faith (sola fide). Where is the Gospel to be found? It is found on the pages of the Scriptures (sola scriptura) so that not only may I come to a personal salvation in Christ, I will also be instructed in how to live a life that is to the glory and praise of God (soli deo gloria).
But there is the need to add a word of caution. The story of the Reformation teaches us that the Gospel was recovered in its glory. But subsequent events in history also teach us that this Gospel can also be lost again. We learn from the Reformation the need for constant reformation of the Church. How grateful we should be that the Gospel was recovered at that time. But how foolish to be deceived into thinking that it could not be lost again. How important it is that we make a personal appropriation of the Gospel and live for the Lord today. Today is the only opportunity we will have to serve the Lord. Let us live out the reality of the Gospel through our lives today.