Do We Need Another Reformation?

By Thaddeus Williams Oct. 31, 2017 12:20 p.m. Church Life, Culture, Evangelism, Missions, Theology, Historical Theology

October 31st has arrived—a sacred day for costume stores trying to justify their ongoing existence and dads looking to raid our kids’ plastic pumpkins for a sugar fix. It is also a very special day for those of us who love the Gospel. Why? Because October 31st is Reformation Day.

500 years ago today, the 95 Theses of a young theology professor named Martin Luther were posted on the wooden door of the Wittenberg Church. With no Facebook or blog posts to get people thinking about life’s big questions, Luther, like many professors in his day, posted on the next best thing—a church door (Al Gore would not invent the internet for another 470 years!). Rather than opening an app and refreshing their News Feed, people would congregate around Europe’s church doors to read and discuss the latest posts. Luther’s post got Wittenberg and (with help from the newly invented printing press) most of Europe buzzing with questions about where the 16th century church had veered off biblical course. The Reformation was in motion. Here are some samples from Luther’s world-altering post:

“Thesis 27: There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest…” (In response to John Tetzel selling indulgences with the catchphrase ‘”As soon as the coin in the coffer rings the soul from purgatory springs”).

“Thesis 36: Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys plenary remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given him without letters of indulgence…” (Signaling Luther’s shift from understanding salvation as something that could be purchased to a free gift from a gracious God).

“Thesis 62: The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God…” (Luther’s response to the Roman Catholic notion of a “Treasury of Merits,” a treasure chest in heaven full of the surplus good deeds performed by Jesus, Mary, and the Saints that the pope could allegedly reach into and credit to your spiritual account if you paid him).

The 16th century church was in dire need of a Reformation. What about today, a half millennium later? Is the 21st century church due for another Reformation, a Re-Reformation?

Dr. Williams shares his thoughts in a special Reformation Day interview courtesy of the Gospel Coalition's Orange County Chapter. 



  • Tim Nov. 2, 2015 at 8:48 PM

    Yes. The American church has an addiction to consuming 84% of it's "giving" to benefit mostly those who "give". This giving is really pooling. It starts with a severely twisted view of 1Tim. 5:17,18 and 1 Cor. 9:1 - 14. These 2 texts are used to nullify, ignore, explain away many others - Acts 20; 1Cor 9:15-27; 1 Cor 4; 2Cor 11;2Cor 12, and others where Paul teaches with both words and example the combining of marketplace work and ministry leadership. He teaches this ministry "pattern" or "type" with the greatest passion both warning of severe sin for being paid and great benefits to the gospel when leadership is self supporting.

    When the American church exports this system to poorer countries, the hired leaders barely survive. Many small villages are left thinking they will never get a "pastor" because they can't get enough people in one room to pay one at even 100% of the "giving". American hired preachers can go to these small villages and not see the systemic failure in these poor remote communities and be clueless at the disfunction. These poor nations are unable to send any missionaries or perhaps a tiny few compared to thousands of churches.

    The depth of this 1500 year old tradition in the hearts of every hired expert in America should not be a barrier to a fresh 1 Thes 5:21 "test everything, hold on to that which is good". The Spirit is being "quenched". Prophecies are being despised. Forms of "evil" are being championed.

    The American church can do EVERYTHING God has asked it to do, and do it even better when it sends 100% of the giving beyond the givers, not a meager 16% on average. This simple dynamic is all in the Word but being trumped by a deep perpetual dependency on hired Bible experts to lecture the Word. This single addiction is what drives the consuming of the 84% of "giving".

    If you have trouble opening the door on this test, get up some heart courage and give a specific objection. Don't hide in silence. Let's start a reformation to make giving 100% giving. This one change fixes so many corruptions and man centered habit patterns called God's will. .

  • Mark Nov. 1, 2017 at 5:35 PM

    If by 'reformation' one means confronting the idols of the age, then ok. Otherwise, I’d say no. Perhaps the Reformation itself has become an idol when Pelagius and Calvinism are seen as problems/solutions today in many conservative seminaries in ways that seem divorced from and out of proportion to a reasonable understandings of their historical merit. There is a timelessness in Augustine, but seeing the Pelagian dispute through the lens of the classic Calvinist terms I think is a mistake.

    Now we idolize our own images of what a new grand reformation would look like. We chase visions spun by Alasdair Macintyre, Wendell Berry, or any of the innumerable armchair communitarians among us. Luther was taken completely by surprise that what to him seemed relatively insignificant actions had the effect they did.

    So not really clear characterizing what Jesus, Paul, or Martin Luther did means in terms of such things as “big God” vs “small God” or “man-centered” vs “God-centered”. I don’t see anything specific there, and it sounds like a list of symptoms rather than problems. The pharisees thought they were "God centered", as do both secular and Christian armchair communitarians today. Amateurs talk strategy while pros talk logistics. When our minds are clouded by idols we can’t see God for who he is and we chase false visions of Him.

    I can’t see how repeating such terms illuminates any current problems. However I do think that many idols can only do their work when unexposed. Expose the idols of the age individually on a case-by-case basis. That’s all we can do; that’s all we need to do and what Jesus and Paul did as I see it. That’s the only thing that will work, and it’s the most unpopular and difficult thing to do. Which means it will rarely happen. The same as it ever was.

  • Mark Nov. 5, 2017 at 12:54 PM

    The Pharisees didn’t forget about God or replace God with “rule keeping” per se. People have been taught to think of legalism having to do with rules and lists, but that reduction highly distorts. The Bible makes clear the fundamental sin is idolatry; seeing things other than God as a rival to him. Despite how destructive is sin and how prone is man to being corrupted, I doubt any can become so depraved that they would actually think God can be rivaled by rules or lists. That isn’t depraved; it’s just so stupid as to be beneath man’s mental capacities at his most foolish. To be sure, we can can and have proposed God eliminating theories–say naturalism or physicalism–but that isn’t a matter of practice nor replacement per se. Such things can and are used to rationalize idolatry, but that’s entirely different from problems within the church. The topic at hand is about reformation of the church of believers.

    I think I’ve heard of a book called “Accidental Pharisees”. I find the title quite amusing since to me it seems there could be no other kind. I don’t think the Pharisees were any more prone to rules/lists than the rest, or us. They were idealists; they had a grand vision. A view of what a better world looked like. The rules we think we see and anything else they did were in service of this grand vision, not the other way around as we like to think. The grand dream was the idol–not the ruleset.

    The problem in Jesus’ day for the Jews, or Luther’s day and any period including today for the Christian church isn’t that God has been made too small in our minds. No, it’s that our idols have taken on qualities so large in comparison. Idols have been elevated such that they are rivals to God. The view that Christianity “isn’t a religion but a relationship” is no doubt reductive, but it may be that it’s less a religion than a critique of religion. That is an insight of the late René Girard. Christianity is demythologizing; it is made to free us of idols that we may see who God is. Luther didn’t think the Church as insufficiently religious, but rather too religious. He didn’t think it insufficiently held things sacred, but rather too many things too sacred. The rest is about destroying and demythologizing the constructions built upon these false ideas.

    I don’t think we’ll see a new reformation of the church as anything comprehensive. It’s a new time and the democratization of knowledge makes possible new senses of the idea of the priesthood of all believers that surely would have terrified Luther near as much as it terrifies the Postmodernists today sprinting as fast as possible away from “rationalism” for the supposed safe harbor of practices and experiences, and the “authenticity” they imagine these to deliver. We should all be on or looking for those who can help us in our personal seek and destroy mission to expunge from ourselves the idols of the age.

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