The Gospel Coalition has posted an interview with me today on Why the Reformation Still Matters in Spanish. I’d like to pretend it was conducted in Spanish, but I would be pretending! So for those of you like me whose Spanish is not up to scratch, here it is in English. Why the Reformation Still Matters can be bought from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.
- What do you think makes this book different from other books about the Reformation?
About five years ago I approached Mike Reeves, my co-author. I was aware that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was coming up. This would be a great opportunity to celebrate the rediscovery the biblical gospel. But I suspected that in the wider culture the Reformation would be regarded as an unfortunate event that is thankfully behind us. It would be seen as something that belongs in the past with no relevance for today. Or it would be seen as a lamentable event that should never have happened from a time when people argued about religion. So we wanted to help Christians understand the significance of the Reformation, and be equipped to tell their friends and colleagues what it was really all about.
At the same time we felt that there was much in the theology of the Reformers that continues to speak to the evangelical church today. We didn’t want the book to be just about our conversation with Catholicism. We wanted to show the implications of the message of the Reformation for all of us.
- What would you first explain about the Reformation to a Christian who knows nothing about it?
At the heart of the Reformation was a rediscovery of the biblical gospel. Perhaps the two key elements were the Bible’s teaching on justification (how we are right with God) and the sufficiency of Scripture.
The medieval Catholic church spoke of grace and faith, but saw grace as power from God (mediated through the institution of the church) to help you live a faithful life that might, perhaps, be acceptable to God. In other words, grace gave you a boost, but it was still down to you. That meant you could have no assurance of salvation. Any confidence was seen as arrogance because it implied you thought of yourself as a good person.
What the Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin saw as they read the New Testament was that God does everything in salvation. It’s not God merely helps us become righteousness. Instead he credits us with the righteousness of Jesus. Luther called it ‘the happy exchange’. Our sin is credited to Christ and he bears its punishment on the cross. And Christ’s righteousness is credited to us. So we can be confident in our salvation – not because we think we’re good enough for God, but because we trust in Jesus and his finished work!
When the Catholic church opposed this teaching Martin Luther faced a choice. He could follow the Church or he could follow the Bible. He chose the Bible. The Catholic Church believed in the authority of Scripture, but it added to Scripture the traditions of the Church. The Church claimed the right to interpret Scripture. But Luther argued that Scripture is supreme because it’s revelation from God. The Church doesn’t make Scripture; Scripture makes the Church.
So at its heart the Reformation makes us small and it makes God big. It makes us small because it forces us to recognise that, left to ourselves, we are utterly helpless and hopeless. It makes God big because our salvation is all down to the Father, Son and Spirit.
- The subtitle of the book reads, “Knowing the past, to reflect on the present and to shape the future.” What are some of the dangers we are exposed to when we don’t know our past, specially regarding Church History?
Let me answer that question in three ways. First, the story of the Reformation is our story. Most of the people reading this interview will be in churches that trace their history back to the Reformation. So this is our identity. If you want to understand who you are then you need to know your story.
Second, church history helps us see the failings and foibles of our age. We take so much of what goes on around us for granted. Imagine a frog jumping into a pond. As he swims past a couple of fish he remarks, ‘The water’s warm today.’ Once the frog has swum by, one fish says the other, ‘What’s water?’ Water isn’t a thing fish encounter; it’s the context in which they encounter everything else. It’s like that with our culture and our church culture. We inhabit a thought-world, often without really ever thinking much about it. There are so many traditions and ideas that we just take for granted. So to really understand and critique our world sometimes we need to step outside of it. And reading church history is a great way of doing that. We enter another world and that allows us to look back on our own world. It’s as if we get to step out of the pond for a moment and look back on it from the bank.
Third, the Reformation was full of great theology. In one sense, it doesn’t matter whether it was written 500 years ago or five years ago – it’s really good stuff which can inform and shape our Christian lives!
- You write, “At its heart, the Reformation was a dispute about how we know God and how we can be right with him”. This is the central problem of every human being. How would you say understanding the Reformation emboldens evangelism in the Church?
Because the Reformation was played out in the context of medieval Catholicism it’s easy to assume that its message on justification is relevant only for religious people. But the fact is that everyone – religious people and secular people – are trying to be justified. Everyone has some idea of what will bring them fulfilment, meaning or identity. Although they may not use the language of ‘salvation’ to describe it, everyone has a sense of the salvation to which they aspire – the thing that will make them truly happy. It might be the admiration of peers, a beautiful home, a happy family, success in business, professional recognition or a host of other things.
Not only this, but everyone has some law by which they live. They have some sense of what they must do to achieve their version of ‘salvation’. ‘Proving yourself’ is simply another way of talking about ‘justifying yourself’. Everyone wants to prove themselves somehow to someone.
What the Reformation reminds us that we can’t justify or prove ourselves through law (whatever that law may be). When we do well we become proud and look down on other people. But on a bad day we feel crushed – our ‘law’ condemns us.
The good news is that God offers an infinitely more satisfying version of salvation – to know Jesus, the one who is the Bread of Life. And when we fail, instead of condemning us, Jesus is condemned in our place.
The anniversary of the Reformation is a great opportunity to tell people this good news. But in fact we don’t need an anniversary. Every day people are falling short of their law and looking for hope.
- Which is your favourite literary work published during the Reformation? Why?
That’s a tough question. Reading anything by Luther is a joy. He has a wonderful turn of phrase. Some writers provide careful, balanced explanations of their topics. Luther’s not like that. He shoots from the hip.
But if I have to pick just one work then it would be Calvin’s Institutes. I reread it last year with a young man in our church. At first sight it appears rather intimidating. But don’t be put off. It’s actually a wonderful book to read. Calvin wrote it with lay people in mind. On many topics (like the Lord’s Supper, prayer and our relationship to earthly wealth) it remains one of the clearest explanations of biblical teaching available. But it’s also written with pastoral warmth. There are so many ‘wow’ moments as you read it. What struck reading it this time round was how many times Calvin brings issues back to the fatherhood of God.
- Could you deliver a short message to the 5000+ people that make up Coalición Lee, TGĆ’s reading group, who read “¿Por qué la Reforma aún importa?” during October?
My pray for you all as you read the book is that there will be times when your heart sings! The message of the Reformation is glorious good news. It enables us to face the future – indeed to face God – with confidence and hope.
But I also hope there’ll be moments when you’re forced to rethink the way we live today. One of the catchphrases of the Reformation was semper reformanda. It means ‘always reforming’ or, better still, ‘always being reformed’. The Reformation was not just a moment in history. It’s an on-going committed to keep being reformed by God’s word.
Dr Tim Chester is the pastor of Grace Church Boroughbridge in the United Kingdom, a faculty member Crosslands, and the author of over 40 books. He is married with two daughters.