Why the Reformation was Too Glad to Be True

Happy Reformation Day! Like the Grinch, Stanley Hauerwas doesn’t celebrate because he doesn’t like to remember there are divisions in the church–to celebrate, he says, is to admit failure. But it’s not. To celebrate it in a way that invites all Christians to join is to celebrate the possibility of progress, the Holy Spirit’s sure and ongoing work in the church, and our unity in Christ. This is a holyday for all churches, just as justification by faith is a treasure for the whole church, even those confused on the subject. Christians are justified by faith, not by believing in justification by faith. The whole church is given the gift of the Reformation whether they complain about it or not.

What did the church actually recover at the Reformation? Too much to describe, but here are three big’uns: Gospel, Bible, Worship. One of the best things the reformers did was recognize the church must be always reforming, semper reformanda, so it’s a good exercise for churches and Christians to ask themselves if we’ve received these gifts or if we’ve forgotten them.


The experience is that of catastrophic conversion. The man who has passed through it feels like one who has waked from a nightmare into ecstasy. Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything, to deserve such astonishing happiness . . . . All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free, unbounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would be to achieve it in the first place. Fortunately they need not. Bliss is not for sale. Cannot be earned. ‘Works’ have no ‘merit’, though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once. He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang.” C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 33.

Many have had this experience, from suffocating religion to crisp grace, like leaving a reeking sauna and stepping out into spring sunshine. As Lewis describes it, imagine an entire generation stepping out of that fog together. We are accustomed to thinking of transformation as an individual phenomenon, and it is. But what happens when a horde of individuals transform at the same time? You have a Reformation.

This is what we need to long for again, adjusted for our time and our sins. But the freedom is the same. You don’t need to donate to the rebuilding fund of St. Peter’s to get your dead grandmother out of purgatory. You don’t do penance to atone for your sins. You don’t bow, honor, venerate, mutter or chirp before statues or icons. You are justified by faith alone, and as part of a holy priesthood, you come directly to the Father through the Son by the Spirit, no covetous clergy blocking your way. This is the heart of the Reformation, and every reformation, the free grace of God. From it everything follows necessarily. And this includes works. A living faith lives, as Lewis says, “inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once.” Churches that embrace this are active in the work of discipleship and evangelism, Christian education and mercy. As an individual, does the gospel get you up in the morning? Are you like Eric Liddell who when he ran, felt God’s pleasure? Or are you only happy when you hit a goal, pass a test, make a buck? Is the gospel, as it was for the Puritans, too glad to be true, except that it is?


The reformers translated the Bible into the vernacular. The argument that the Bible should be withheld from the commoner because he’ll misunderstand it is hilarious because the one making it is misunderstanding and misapplying in that very sentence.  William Tyndale once told a clergyman: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more scripture than thou doest.” And he did. The Reformation unleashed the Word on the world and that work continues in translation and Bible publishing. It continues in churches that center the Word, treating as the active, nourishing, piercing sword that it is. Read three and a third chapters a day and you polish it off in a year. And repeat. People who are gladly Bible-steeped are a reformational people.


When worship was in Latin, people couldn’t understand much if any of what was going on and they certainly didn’t sing. Worship was performed by professionals. Now who performs in our day? If the band or the choir or blaring organ was silent, missing this Sunday, could people in your church worship God with song? In other words, is there a musical performance happening for them to listen to, or are they being led and trained to sing to God? A lot of what passes for worship happens on what looks like a concert stage and is so loud and so performance-oriented that it’s hard to distinguish from a concert. And I’m not even addressing the songs that make Jesus sound like your girlfriend, although I could. The Reformation restored worship to the people so they could overflow, as the church had in the past, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Do you sing stuff that gets into your bones and comes out of your mouth at other times? Reformational people and churches sing.

Perhaps the Reformation is best known for restoring the pulpit. Expositional preaching was recovered and delivered in a way that touched everyone, and I don’t just mean emotionally. The Reformers were Magisterial Reformers which meant they connected the church to the society as a whole. The separation of church and state is a biblical concept, and they didn’t want them confused. But they knew Psalm 2 tells princes to kiss the Son lest he be angry and they perish in the way, that Jesus is the king of kings. The Bible separates church and government, not religion and government. The Constitution gives us freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, which incidentally is why the chaplain of US Senate is alway praying on the floor. John Knox prayed “Give me Scotland, or I’ll die!” And God did. He said it was like preachers fell from the sky. They preached the gospel and it changed everything. Are you connected to the preached word? Are you tuned in, or do you view is as a boring lecture? If it is a boring lecture, are you going to do something about it? In Scotland, at St. Giles Kirk on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, the church of England was trying to impose worship on the Scots via the Book of Common Prayer. The King was behind this, trying to make the church conform its worship, and on July 23, 1637, Jenny Geddes, a market trader, picked up her stool and threw it at the minister’s head. For us, it won’t be the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer but some coward caving to whims of our time. Is your stool handy?

Lastly, the reformers restored the bread and wine, the Lord’s Supper, to the people. Communion had often been offered yearly, and then only the bread. Calvin wanted weekly communion in Geneva though he didn’t get it. Reformation churches give the body of Christ to the body of Christ. Weekly communion is a great blessing, and monthly better than quarterly, a celebratory meal to encourage and strengthen God’s hungry saints. It is for all the baptized and should include the dangerous wine. Does your church serve it, and do you look forward to it?  

The gospel believed and proclaimed, the Bible devoured, the church singing, eating and drinking, these gifts and numerous others breathed life into God’s church in the Reformation. Calvin said “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Like the leaves of a tree turning flame-red, the gospel brought everything into the vivid life of God’s grace. It was too glad to be true, and still is. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *