As the world commemorates the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Southern Baptist Convention seminary professors have highlighted what they say are among the most important Reformation insights for followers of Jesus today.
‘Great theological truths’
Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) said “the great theological truths of the Reformation” can be summarized under three main headings: sola scriptura (a Latin phrase meaning “by scripture alone”), “justification by grace through faith” and “the priesthood of all believers.”
First, the Reformers understood scripture as God’s gift to help them solve “the ever present problem of sliding into falsehood and error,” Yarnell, research professor of systematic theology at SWBTS, told BP.
“We are constantly needing Reformation, and [in scripture] God has given us what we constantly need to be reformed,” Yarnell said in written comments. “The question is whether we will listen to His Word in the power of His Spirit.”
The second great Reformation truth, Yarnell said, is that salvation is “entirely a divine work of grace.”
“Martin Luther followed all of the precepts of the medieval church and used continuously the sacraments she offered as means of grace. However, as he read and commented upon scripture to his students, Luther came to the conviction that he could never find true peace that way,” Yarnell said.
“It wasn’t until Luther reached the end of his efforts and in despair threw himself totally upon God’s mercy, expecting nothing from himself, that he received freedom from the debilitating fear of eternal damnation. His proper reading of Romans 1:16-17 brought him to see that the gospel of Jesus Christ is an entirely gracious gift that must be received by faith alone,” Yarnell said.
Third, a “great truth that we all need to hear from the Reformation is that the true church is the church of Jesus Christ and not the church of an elite clergy.” This doctrine – known as “the priesthood of all believers” – “undermines the tyrannical pretensions of any cleric or layperson (or of any group) who would usurp the sole lordship of Jesus Christ over His church,” Yarnell said.
“There is a hierarchy in the church composed of two levels: Jesus is the only Lord of the church, and everybody else is a servant of Jesus,” he said. “While there are different types of service in the church, there is only one Lord and King and Priest over the church, and that one isn’t you or me.”
‘A new paradigm’
For New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) professor Rex Butler, three historical vignettes from the Reformation recall three enduring principles.
– When Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, “he established a new paradigm for home life among evangelical clergy. All married pastors … owe Luther a debt of thanks,” said Butler, professor of church history and patristics at NOBTS.
At times, life with Martin and Katie, as Luther called her, “may seem like a TV sitcom,” Butler told BP in written comments. On one occasion, “Martin locked himself into his study for three days” to obtain quiet work time “in a house full of noisy children and a nagging wife.” Katie “finally took the hinges off the door and demanded that her husband come out and help her.”
Yet in the end, Butler said, the Luthers’ marriage exemplified Martin’s statement, “A wife is easily taken, but to have abiding love, that is the challenge. One who finds it in his marriage should thank the Lord God for it.”
– Anabaptist Kirk Willems should inspire believers to radical love of their neighbors.
“During the winter of 1569, a Dutch Anabaptist, Dirk Willems, was arrested by Catholic authorities and condemned to burn at the stake,” Butler said. “However, he managed to escape from prison by fashioning a rope from knotted rags and climbing over the wall. Dirk’s flight took him to a frozen stream, which he began to cross.
“His jailer followed after him but broke through the ice and cried for help to the only person available – the man he was pursuing. Remembering Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies,’ Dirk turned back and rescued his pursuer. When they reached the shore, Dirk was returned to prison, later to be burned at the stake,” Butler said.
– The spiritual devotion of Swiss Anabaptists – who “desired to reform the church all the way back to the New Testament,” including the practice of believer’s baptism – should provoke today’s believers to similar devotion.
“Hidden away in the rural hills several miles east of Zurich, Switzerland, is the Anabaptist Cave. The earliest Anabaptists were students of Ulrich Zwingli, founder of the Swiss Reformation in Zurich. When Zwingli and the Zurich City Council condemned his former students and began to persecute them by imprisonment and even death, the Anabaptists sought fellowship and worship in secret locations,” Butler said.
“The Anabaptist Cave necessarily is difficult to find but worth the effort. The cave is beneath an overhanging stone, and a waterfall flows over the opening. The waterfall muffled the sound of the Anabaptists as they sang, prayed and preached,” he said.
‘The doctrine at the center’
Matthew Barrett of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary said the Reformers’ chief legacy was recovery of “the gospel itself.”
“Luther’s primary motivation,” Barrett told BP in written comments, “was doctrinal first and foremost, and the doctrine at the center was the unmerited grace of God in the gospel of His Son.”
“Luther was convinced that this gospel had been lost thanks to the influence of certain types of medieval Catholicism,” said Barrett, associate professor of Christian theology. “As Luther came into conflict with Rome, [which] was repeatedly unwilling to listen to his case, it became more and more obvious to Luther that the abandonment of the gospel meant that justification sola gratia (by grace alone) sola fide (through faith alone) solus Christus (in Christ alone) had been lost as well. And this was no small matter for Luther. ‘If the doctrine of justification is lost,’ Luther lamented in his 1535 Galatians lectures, ‘the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.’”
In the 21st century, “a host of doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues” seem to necessitate “a modern reformation” that draws from the 16th-century Reformation’s legacy, Barrett said. Of particular concern is the denial of sola scriptura by some who claim the Protestant tradition.
“The church throughout history has faced repeated attacks on the Bible from skeptics, but only in the 19th and 20th centuries have the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God’s Word been questioned, criticized and abandoned by those within the body of Christ. To the Reformers, this would have been unthinkable, yet this is the day we live in. Not only do Bible critics pervade the culture, but now they have mounted the pulpit and sit comfortably in the pews,” Barrett said.
“One of the most significant needs in the 21st century is a call back to the Bible, to a posture that encourages reverence, acceptance and adherence to its authority and message,” Barrett said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)