Why the Reformation Still Mattersby Michael Reeves, Tim Chester
Length: Approximately 8 hours. To read (224 pages).
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The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his ninety-five theses has come and gone, but Reeves and Chester convincingly demonstrate that the Protestant Reformation is so much more than a historical event to be commemorated.
Who should read this?
Each of chapters of this book gives an excellent summary of a key idea of the Reformation for those who might not be as familiar with what was at stake. Since the first century A.D., there has been, perhaps, no more important era in church history than the Reformation. Therefore, Protestant Christians ought to know what happened and why.
For others (those who can recite the Five Solas as easily as their phone number), this book does an excellent job of connecting the issues of the Reformation to the modern church. The Reformers, I think it would be fair to say, would not have viewed their work as something that could be perfectly completed prior to the return of Christ. For today’s church leaders as well as for members in the pew, this book serves as a clear and timely call to preserve the heritage of the Reformation.
Co-authors Michael Reeves and Tim Chester helpfully organized their book into eleven chapters, each of which focuses on a single topic. For instance, the first chapter of the book is dedicated (appropriately) to the material principle of the Reformation, justification by faith alone. Other chapters cover such topics as Scripture, sin, the sacraments, the church, and union with Christ.
For those who might be less familiar with what the Reformation was all about, this way of setting up the book will help them get a big-picture view of why the Reformation was so important.
Reeves and Chester have definitely written this book for a general, Christian audience. There is a fair amount of historical information presented, but the presentation is geared toward the layman, not the academic or the seminarian. This book could prove useful for local churches who offer their members courses on church history: the scope is limited to a particular time period and it gives special attention to connecting past and present.
The reason the authors wrote this book is obvious from the title. In 2017, there was no shortage of events commemorating the date on which Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. But how many of the billion or so Protestant Christians have a firm grasp on just exactly why their churches are Protestant rather than Roman Catholic or something else?
Does the average person in the Protestant pew know what difference it makes for them today that a German monk proposed a debate on the practice of selling indulgences?
An honest answer to those questions might not be encouraging. In 2016, Ligonier Ministries worked with LifeWay Research to poll the theological beliefs of Americans. That survey found that 36% of self-identified evangelicals agreed or somewhat agreed with this statement: “By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.”
The idea that a person can “partly contribute to earning [a] place in heaven” was one of the very ideas that the Reformation repudiated. It was not the case that the Medieval Roman Catholic church did not teach salvation by grace.
In fact, as Reeves and Chester point out, it was before his conversion that Martin Luther himself taught that salvation “is not on the basis of our merits but on the pure promise of a merciful God.” The Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation, however, taught that “God does save by grace, but that grace is given to those who are ‘prepared’ for it, who ‘do what is in them’ to be fit for grace.” The similarity of that idea with what more than one-third of self-professing evangelicals claim to believe is striking.
If Reeves and Chester wrote out of concern that the truths that were rediscovered during the Reformation are now being forgotten, the data seem to back them up. The danger that Protestant Christians will unwittingly forfeit the heritage passed down to them from the 16th century is, sadly, all too real.
Whatever percentage of Christians it is that has a firm grasp on what the Reformation meant and continues to mean–and perhaps the picture is not so bleak after all–the church can always stand to be better educated on its history and on its doctrines. Reeves and Chester’s book seeks to help the church do exactly that.
Mere knowledge, however, is not the ultimate goal. In showing how the church became what it is today and how it clarified what it believes, the authors also urge the reader to understand “the difference between the zombie religiosity the West has grown so sick of and a living faith that can transform it.” The Reformers’ goal all those centuries ago was to see lives transformed by the power of the true Gospel. The authors of this book make clear that that is their goal as well.
Whether it is defending the doctrine of justification by faith alone, a proper understanding of sin, or the relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit, the authors follow the example of the Reformers in building their case on the foundation of God’s Word. The sufficiency of Scripture was, of course, the other key principle of the Reformation (the formal principle), so it is only fitting that this book ultimately constructs its argument about the importance of the Reformation not on history and tradition, but on the firm foundation of the Bible itself.
Reeves and Chester have, with this book, created an accessible resource that effectively draws attention to a significant time in the history of the Christian church. One cannot truly grasp the significance of the Reformation without also seeing that the essential ideas the Reformers fought for remain crucial for the church today.
I’ve been fascinated by church history long before I started reading this book. I know that many of my brothers and sisters in the church do not share that same enthusiasm for history. In shying away from historical topics, however, they deprive themselves of the chance to develop a richer understanding of why the church is what it is today.
It’s become trite to say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less true. It’s certainly no less true for church history than it is for history in general. Indeed, perhaps many of the errors we see creeping into the church today would not be such problems if more Christians could quickly recognize those errors because they knew their own family history.
Some of the topics covered in this book are deep and can be difficult to understand; the Reformers often wrote in styles that are foreign to modern ears. One of the best qualities of this book is how the authors distill a wealth of theological information to its essential points and package it to be both appealing and understandable.
Knowing facts about the past is relatively easy compared to understanding what we should learn from those facts about today. Reeves and Chester do an excellent job of showing Christians why these ideas still matter today and warning them about how false doctrines have begun making their way back into the church.
Being the lover of history that I am, I would have enjoyed a book that took a deeper dive into the story of the Reformation. Not just the theology, but the lives of men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and many others are interesting to study. The book didn’t set out to be a biography, of course, and what history it does relate is presented in a way that is sure to spark an interest to learn more.
Published in 2016, on the eve of a certain amount of “Reformation anniversary hysteria,” this book could not have come at a better time. Now that we have passed the big milestone that everyone was waiting for, it’s a book that is more important than ever. For whatever reason, the state of theological knowledge in Protestant churches is not what it ought to be.
Lest the Protestant church surrender the Gospel ground retaken by the Reformers five hundred years ago, Christians must understand what the Reformation was about and what it means for them today.
At its heart the Reformation was a dispute about how we know God and how we can be right with him. At stake was our eternal future, a choice between heaven and hell.
There are a few wild-eyed baddies out there, we concede, but most of us are good people muddling our way through. What Luther came to see, surprisingly, was that such sunny stories of how basically good we are, so attractive in their cheeriness, are actually terrible, enslaving lies.
We live in a culture where everything is about response and feeling. . . . We need to understand that the gospel is entirely outside us. The gospel is not my response. The gospel describes the objective reality to which I am to respond.