Repentance and Reformation

by

The Protestant Reformation is called the Reformation for a good reason. It is not called the First Reformation or Reformation II, as if they happen every so often. I have never been asked, when referencing the Reformation, “Of which Reformation do you speak?” Renewals? Of course. Revivals? Who could doubt it? There has been only one Reformation, precisely because they are rather hard to come by. Those of us who long for another, then, might be wise to search out that spark that started the Reformation. Where did it all begin? Was it with Martin Luther’s stirring speech at the Diet of Worms, his firm resolve to stand on the Word of God? Perhaps. Did it start earlier, in Luther’s study, as he exegeted key texts on justification? Maybe. Did it start with his fiery speech before he dropped the papal bull announcing his excommunication into the flames? One could so argue.

Most of us, however, celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, not the anniversary of any of the above but the day Luther nailed the Ninetyfive Theses to the door in Wittenberg. That hammer striking the nail ignited the spark that started it all. If we want a new reformation, and such we ought, we should look no further than the very first of those theses, which reads, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” If we would find reformation again, we must repent of our failure to live lives of repentance. We will change the world out there when we change the church in here. We will change the church in here when our own hearts are changed. That happens only as we repent and believe the gospel.

One of the great blessings of the Reformation was the destruction of that perspective that cleaves the world in two. Rome divided the world into a spiritual and a natural realm — one good, the other at best neutral. The Reformation carried with it the notion of the priesthood of all believers and the principle that all our lives are lived coram Deo, before the face of God. The Bible became for our fathers the sourcebook for wisdom not just on how to get one’s soul saved but on how to justly govern a culture, how to understand work, how to raise up godly seed. That creation-affirming spirit drove both the Pilgrims and the puritans across the ocean to fulfill their errand in the wilderness. In more recent times, heroes of the faith such as Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer have carried the banner of reformation into broader and broader spheres. For all this blessing we must give thanks. We ought also, however, to be on our guard. In reaction against the dangers of pietism — the view that suggests that all we ought to be concerned about is our own souls and not the world around us — too many of us have dishonored the blessings of piety. Worse still, we have missed the hard truth that it is piety that drives the engine of reformation.

That piety that drives reformation, however, is Reformation piety. That is to say, we will get nowhere if we seek to change the world by our own spiritual bootstraps. Reformation piety is not a mere commitment not to dance, drink, or chew, and not to date girls that do. No reformation will ever be built on the foundation of our own spiritual ardor. Reformation piety is a piety that breathes the very air of repentance. It sets aside the camel-swallowing, gnat-strangling propensity we all have of looking at our own sins through a microscope and looking at the sins of others through a magnifying glass. We instead ought to be, as Luther was before us, haunted by our own sin long enough to cry out for the grace of God. And then we believe.

It was, in the end, faith that brought us the Reformation, and only faith will bring us another. We did not change until we learned that we cannot change ourselves. We did not enter into purity until we understood, by His grace, that only His purity would do. That Reformation faith, however, did not end with our own salvation. Neither did it leap from our own salvation to remaking the world. Instead, it moved from saving faith to sanctifying faith, from repenting to believing. Then, all heaven began to break loose.

Jesus said much the same thing. He told us to stop our fretting and worrying about this thing and that. He reminded us that this is how the unbelievers behave. We are called to faith. We are called to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Repenting and believing is the very pathway into the kingdom, the very coin of the realm. It is, in turn, how we come to possess that righteousness that is His rather than our own. When we do this, and stop our incessant worrying and plotting about everything else, it turns out that everything else takes care of itself. All these things are added unto us.

The life of repentance and faith — this must needs be our only “strategy.” Repent and believe, and reformation will follow. Jesus said so. Luther said so. Here we stand. We can do no other. So help us God.

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