Message 1, After Darkness, Light:
Reformation occurs when the light of God’s Word shines into places of spiritual and cultural darkness and transforms the people of God. This is why the motto of the Protestant Reformation became “After Darkness, Light.” This session sets the stage for the conference by considering why reformation was needed in the sixteenth century and why it is needed today.
Well, good morning dear friends. It’s absolutely lovely to be back here with you and in the warmth of Florida. It is not like this in Oxford.
Let’s pray, shall we?
Great Father and Lord of all, we ask You now, that You would send Your Word out in power and speak light into the darkness. That Christ Jesus might be glorified and that we might boast in Him above all things. That his name might be lifted very high, and that many might therefore be drawn to Him. And light might overcome the darkness, in our generation, and in Jesus name we pray, amen.
It is only March of 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But already, there is a loud — a loud and growing chorus in the media, telling us that the Reformation was a bad thing. Something to be repented of. So on the 499th anniversary, the 31st of October 2016, Pope Francis said this in Sweden at a symbolic joint ecumenical service for Catholics and Lutherans.
Pope Francis said, “As Catholics and Lutherans, we have undertaken a common journey of reconciliation.” Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path. We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.
Then, in January of this year, the Church of England’s Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement bemoaning what they called the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the church. They said, “Remembering the Reformation should bring us back to what the Reformers wanted to put at the center of every person’s life, which is a simple trust in Jesus Christ.” But, they said, “Remembering the Reformation should also lead us to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions. Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them.”
In a world doctrine is a boo-hiss word, the difference between justification by grace through faith, and justification by grace alone, through faith alone. That difference to most seems to be fussy nit-picking. In the words of Gerard O’Connell, Vatican Correspondent for the Jesuit Magazine America, “It just seems more reasonable for most people today to say, both sides misspoke. Mistakes made, let’s all move on, shall we?”
Now, what should we say to this? Nobody will deny that the era of the Reformation, like every other era, was one full of sin. Nobody claims that the story and the people of the Reformation were without blot. Nobody claims that. But, for us to say that the Reformation itself should lead us to repent.
To say that we should move beyond it, is a foolish or sly confusion of some of the events of the Reformation, with the message of the Reformation. Some of the events in the story of the Reformation were indeed regrettable and dark. So many more were glorious, light and heroic. But yes, there were some dark moments. The message of the Reformation, though, oh, is pure Florida sunshine.
And, for those who had sat for so long in the darkness of self-dependence. That was just how they felt, and how they expressed it. Back in the beginning of the sixteenth century, Geneva’s city motto was, “Post Tenebras Spero Lucem.” After darkness, I hope for light. It could be the motto of the world, couldn’t it? After the darkness I hope there’ll be light. When the Reformation hit they changed it. And they stamped coins with the new motto, “Post Tenebras Lux.” After Darkness Light.
For, through the Reformation they believed they had found what they’d been hoping for. Light, and glorious light. That is how it is when God’s golden Word goes out. In beginning, God spoke his Word and there was light. And because of God’s Word, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Turn with me now, to see how Paul puts this in — now, how am I going to say this? Two Corinthians fourth? Am I right? Second Corinthians four? Is that it? Oh dear. OK, 2 Corinthians 4. Paul writes, 2 Corinthians four, verse six — and notice how he’s picking up on Genesis 1 here, God’s speaking light into the darkness. “For God who said, let light shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts to give the light to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Now, you see, what Paul is doing here, is he’s showing us why God’s Word going out should mean light shining into darkness. It’s because when God speaks His Word, He shines, see, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
The glory of God is regularly associated in Scripture with shining light. Think of the blazing glory clouds that the Israelites saw in the wilderness. The shinning glory. Think, the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds that night outside Bethlehem. Think of how, in the new Jerusalem in Revelation 22, we read, “She does not need the light of lamp or sun or moon. For the glory of God gives it light. And the Lamb is its lamp.” When the Word of God goes out, the glory of God is manifested and therefore people are enlightened. Through the Word, God is manifested and glorified for who He is. As the Holy One. As the Lord of Lords.
As the all-sufficient, all-gracious Savior. And that is what happened in the Reformation. The Word of God went out afresh so that God was glorified. The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ was made known.
Now, let’s see a little bit how that was the case. And I’m afraid, before we get to enjoy the light of the Reformation message — to make sense of it you really need to see something of what the darkness was like beforehand. And nothing to my mind seems to capture that darkness quite like the testimony of a young priest in Cambridge, England called Thomas Bilney. He was ordained, he was a scholar in Cambridge, which is the finest university in the world.
And yet, for all that, until he came across Erasmus’ Greek New Testament made available in 1516, until he came across that, making God’s Word freshly available, Bilney had never come across these words: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He’d never heard that before. Masses he knew. God’s Word, salvation: it’s message were closed to Him.
And it’s for the very same reason that the young Martin Luther screamed with fear when a lightning bolt knocked him to the ground in the thunderstorm when he was a student. Luther was terrified of death because without knowledge of Christ’s sufficient and gracious salvation, without knowledge that by faith alone he could be clothed in the righteousness of Christ, counted as righteous as Christ Himself, because of God’s declaration — without knowing that, young Martin Luther had no assurance of salvation, of what would happen to him at death.
Now, contrast that, screaming in fear, contrast that with some classic Reformation pastoring from the English Puritan Richard Sibbes. Sibbes argued that without assurance of salvation, Christians simply cannot live lives as God would have us. So Sibbes said, “God would have us to be thankful, cheerful. Rejoicing, strong in faith.” But Sibbes said, “We can be none of these things unless we are sure that God and Christ are ours for good.” Let me read you some Sibbes. Says Sibbes, “There are many duties that God requires which we cannot keep without assurance of salvation on good grounds. What are these duties that God requires?
God bids us to be thankful in all things. But how can I be, unless I know God is mine and Christ is mine? God requires us to rejoice.” Philippians 4:4. “Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice!” says Paul. But, Sibbes says, “Can a man rejoice that his name is written in heaven and not know it is written there? Alas, how can I perform cheerful service to God when I doubt if He is my God and Father.”
God requires a disposition in us that we should be full of encouragement, strong in the Lord, and that we should be courageous for His cause, in withstanding His enemies and our enemies. But, how can there be courage in resisting our corruptions, in resisting Satan’s temptations? How can there be courage in suffering persecution and crosses in the world, if there is not confidence in Christ and in God.” And yet, the very confidence that Sibbes upheld as a Christian privilege and duty was damned by Roman Catholic theology as the sin of presumption.
It was in fact precisely one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. And there, the judges proclaimed, “This woman sins when she says she’s certain of being received into Paradise. As if she were already a partaker of glory. For, on this earthly journey, no pilgrim knows if he’s worthy of glory or of punishment. Which the Sovereign Judge alone can tell.” Now, that judgment on Joan of Arc (the sin of presumption), it made complete sense within the logic of the Roman Catholic theology.
If we can only enter heaven, if — yes by God’s enabling grace, but we have become personally worthy of heaven, meriting it ourselves — if we can only get heaven by becoming personally worthy of it in that way, then of course nobody can be sure. I can then only be as sure as heaven as I am sure of my own sinlessness. So, the need to have personal merit before God left a people terrified. Terrified at the prospect of judgment.
You can still see this, if you see a medieval fresco of ‘The Last Judgment,’ you can hear it in the words of the ‘Dies Irae’ — the day of wrath — that’ll be chanted at every Catholic mass for the dead. Here are the words, “Day of wrath. Day that will dissolve the world into burning coals. What am I the wretch then to say?” Listen to these words. “What patron can I beseech?” What patron can I — you don’t know? “What patron can I beseech? When scarcely the just be secure. King of tremendous majesty, do not lose me on that day. My prayers are not worthy, but do thou good God. Deal kindly lest I burn in eternal fire.” Go on, please.
That was exactly why Luther shook with fear at the thought of death. And why he said he hated God. He could not be as Sibbes said a Christian should be, thankful, cheerful, rejoicing and strong in faith. With that theology, he couldn’t be like that. And then, and then in God’s Word he discovered sinners by faith alone are freely declared righteous clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
And that meant suddenly, no longer was his confidence in that day dependent upon himself and his performance and his sufficient righteousness. It rested on Christ, and Christ’s super-sufficient, perfect righteousness. And that meant, no longer was he looking to a horrifying doomsday. Now, he looked forward to what he called, “The happy last day. The day of Jesus, my friend.”
That’s light into darkness. Doomsday, terror, fear, to the happy last day. Confidence before a Holy God. And the consolation that that brought to all who then began to suck in this Reformation theology. The difference it made was captured in the striking wording of the Heidelberg Catechism’s question and answer 52. Get this, no one who’d drawn one of those medieval frescoes would ever write this. “What comfort is it to you that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead?”
What comfort is it to you that He will come to judge the living and the dead? Answer? “That I with uplifted head do look to come from heaven as judge the very same one who before offered Himself to God on my behalf for my sins, and who has removed all curse from me.” Nobody talked like that before. Thinking I now look forward to the return of Jesus Christ because his sufficient atonement has dealt with all my sin, so that I can call out to him with confidence and look forward to His return with boldness and with joy.
Light-giving, darkness-defeating news. That was the theology of the Reformation. God was glorified as just and as the justifier of the ungodly. And, in the light of His grace and glory, people, struggling believers found comfort. In fact, more than that, they found joy. In the light of the revelation of God’s glory, people were, as Johnathan Edwards, that lovely British theologian would put it, “Happified.”
Martin Luther said that, “As a monk” … sorry, I must stop there with those — I’ll hold back. Martin Luther had said that “As a monk, I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God.” Without his rediscovery of the gospel of justification by faith alone, he could never have understood the deeply happy theology that began to flow. So where perhaps Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ in the Sistine Chapel is the crowning achievement of medieval Roman Catholicism. Picture that, the Last Judgment, against this, the prize flower of Reformation thought.
Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer, the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Smell the difference? For through all the doctrines that the Reformers fought for and upheld, God was glorified. And because of the nature of God’s glory, God’s glorification led to people’s joy. People now — I hope you know this. People now in Reformation theology rejoiced to tremble at the beautiful and awesome holiness of God.
People now rejoiced to repent of their sin. Weeping tears over their sin that were as sweet with forgiveness as they were bitter with regret at offending God. And, with joy, and oh how you hear this in the hymns of the Reformation, with joy people began to sing hymns of heartfelt praise to God, their Savior.
For through justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ, God was glorified as utterly merciful, utterly good. Both supremely holy and compassionate. Therefore people could find their comfort, their delight, their satisfaction in him. Through union with Christ. Knowing themselves clothed with him, their first-born brother.
In His righteousness. Believers could now, instead of screaming in terror, they could go before the holy God and boldly call him ‘Abba.’ ‘My Father.’ Confident that this God is powerful to save sinners and to keep them to the uttermost. And, because with Reformation theology everyone was leveled; you didn’t have some people who were slightly less helpless than others. Slightly less mired in sin than others. You didn’t have any hierarchy.
Everyone was leveled as a helpless sinner in need of God’s sovereign grace. And therefore, you didn’t anymore have a priestly hierarchy detached from the world. Believers could call each other brother, sister. Living every part of life for the Father they’d been brought to enjoy.
The light of God’s glory in the Reformation, in the Word going out, it was like the rising of the sun on a spring morning. It scattered the darkness of religious self-dependence. It started a sweet dawn chorus, as people began to come alive in this light. And lives began to blossom. Society began to be transformed, as the Reformers and their heirs, out of new biblical convictions, particularly the greatness of God’s mercy, made those of the Reformation concerned to extend God’s mercy. And so they began to fight slaveholding, animal abuse, prostitution, poverty and the list could go on and on. The transformation that rippled through the world from this enlightening message.
All told, it is not too much to say that 500 years ago the people walking in a great darkness saw a great light. Now, the verse I’m referring to, or alluding to there, is Isaiah chapter 9:2. Which is a verse about the appearance of the Lord on earth. Where all the nations see His glory. Now, that could sound blasphemous. For me to apply or say there is an application of that verse to the Reformation. But that is what happens when God’s Word goes out. We behold the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Nothing less.
That was 500 years ago. The light shone into the darkness. Today we are thinking of the next 500 years. And how right we should. For the need today and the darkness today are just as great as they were in 1517. First of all, the Roman Catholic Church has not been reformed. For all the warm, ecumenical language used by so many Protestants and Catholics,
Rome still vigorously repudiates justification by faith alone. And it feels it can do so because Scripture is not regarded as the supreme authority to which Popes, councils and all doctrine must conform. And because Scripture is so relegated, biblical literacy is not encouraged, meaning, millions of poor people are today kept from the light of God’s Word. And, as well as Rome’s direct teaching against justification by faith alone today, she proves her position in the catechism of the Catholic Church, that she still believes, not in a justification by faith alone, because she still affirms purgatory and indulgences.
Indeed, when Pope Benedict the sixteenth wrote a fairly colossal work on the last things. He spent more pages looking at purgatory than at heaven and hell combined. And why shouldn’t he within that system. It makes sense. For when justification is thought of not as a declaration, that God declares a sinner to be righteous with the righteousness of Christ, but when justification is thought of as a process of my becoming more and more inherently righteous, as it is in Roman Catholicism; if justification is that gradual process of inner transformation, well purgatory and indulgences makes sense. Because I could do with a few more years to get personally worthy for heaven.
And the need today is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church, and it’s one and a quarter billion members. Right across, all the churches that call themselves Christian, you still find the dark disease that in 1518 Luther identified as the root problem. In 1518, Luther called the problem “A theology of glory.” Now, let’s be clear on what this is. A theology of glory is nothing to do with the Reformation appreciation for God’s glory. It’s nothing to do with the desire to do everything in the light of God’s glory, to do everything for the glory of God alone.
No, a theology of glory, well, it’s the triumphalist idea that God must be pretty much like me. Pretty much like us. Perhaps God is a little bit bigger. Little bit better. But basically like us. Thrilled with us, of course. Why wouldn’t He be? His ways must be very much like my ways. There’s no deep sense of fallenness. And with that theology of glory, that reasoning up to think God must be like me.
His ways like my ways. Luther found that churches held out a message that had a small view of God. A small view of sin. A small view of salvation and of Christ the Savior. And you’re left with that theology, with a mundane message that does not confront the world. That does not surprise, does not awe, does not captivate. And friends, is that not what we see rampant in pulpits, if they have them, in churches today.
In shattering contrast, Luther fought for what he called a theology of the cross. Where God’s revelation overturns and demolishes all my petty thoughts and assumptions. Just as surely as the site of a crucified Messiah confronts, shocks. For in the light of God’s Word, in this theology of revelation, where I’m not just assuming God’s like me but I hear God’s Word, in the light of God’s revelation we see something we’ve never have imagined. We see a blazingly holy God. Awesome in His otherness, and so lovingly gracious. He would atone for our foul sins Himself.
So, listen to some of the statements that flow from this theology of the cross, that Luther wants to oppose the theology of his day. Here’s the theology that flows out of hearing the light of God’s Word. And instead you see of asking people to just do a little better, to please some indulgent and petty idol. Luther saw a message that throws us entirely off our self-dependence. For we are demolished as utterly helpless. And we’re thrown entirely, entirely onto Christ.
And so Luther would write, “He is not righteous who does much. But he who without work believes much in Christ.” No one had heard that one, when the Scripture hadn’t been opened for a thousand years. “The law says do this and it is never done. Grace says believe in this and everything is already done.” And would you ever make this one up? Luther said, to explain his theology of glory — is theology of the cross.
He said, “The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it. The love of God loves sinners, evil persons, fools, weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, strong. For rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved. They are not loved because they’re attractive.” Couldn’t the world hear that today? When it hears exactly the opposite. “Sinners are attractive because they are loved. They are not loved because they are attractive.”
This is the glory that only shines out when Scripture is opened. When the Word is heralded so that the glory of God and the face of Jesus Christ is seen. No human theology of glory would dream of such wonders. Such happy, above us theology. Such counterintuitive wonders. So, while people instinctively prefer thinking that glorifies mankind and puts us central.
While people instinctively prefer theology which makes God in His grace and glory, Christ in His person and works small. Those theologies tear up the root of human satisfaction and joy. And yet that is what we are seeing again in Protestant churches across the spectrum. That is why we need the Reformation message again today.
That the light of God’s glory. This theology of the cross might smash and overturn our proud theology of glory. For only when God is glorified and revealed for who He truly is, will mankind find life, satisfaction and rest. For what is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
It all leaves us with a challenge and a comfort. The challenge is this, today. Since only this light, found in the Word of God has the power to dispel the darkness that is in human hearts and in the world — friends, let us live and let us die for this. Once again, today, we need brave men and women like the Reformers, who will boast in Christ and not themselves. Who see that the glory of Christ seen in His sufficient atonement that needs no topping up from me. Here is the one light that can overcome the world’s darkness. Today again, we need men and women who will give their everything. Give their lives to the cause of His glory.
As an Englishman, it’s my sense that those of Reformational convictions in this country, in the United States, have perhaps an unparalleled opportunity, to lighten the world with a message of Scripture recovered by the Reformers. But, only if you don’t settle. Don’t settle for wealth, comfort, success, status. Don’t settle for the false lights of small God, big man theologies.
However, you are going to do it, my friend, live and die with all your strength to see God’s Word go out. That people might hear of a super-sufficient Savior. Of the glory of a God who’s love does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it. That people might hear of a God who loves sinners, and who keeps His own to the uttermost. That the enslaving darkness of false religion and self-dependence all around us might be replaced with heart-felt, happy trust in Christ and joy in Him.
Friends, let us seize this 500th anniversary of the Reformation as a golden opportunity to remember, we cannot give people anything better. There is no light better, no light more glorious. No light more powerful to overcome the darkness and transform vicious sinners into gracious saints. There is no light better than the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, seen in the message of the Reformation. Which is the message of Scripture. Here is light, to live and die for. And, dear friends, we can do all this with great boldness.
For undergirding that challenge lies a wonderful comfort: “After darkness light.” That’s how it is in Scripture. Evening then morning. After the darkness comes the light. You know it’s pagan Romans who said that a day, like history, like reality should go midnight to midnight. Darkness to darkness. That was a pagan idea.
No, no, in Scripture evening to morning, darkness to light. What began in the darkness in Genesis 1 must end with there being no more night in Revelation 22. And it means, as we look around ourselves today at the steady creep of secularism, we are not inevitably heading back into the darkness.
There is nothing inevitable about Western cultures de-Christianization. It has been checked before. It was, 500 years ago. And it can be checked and turned back again. For the same heavenly light has the same unstoppable power. The darkness can be overcome, again. Even in our day.
And for sure, soon it will be. For the God who said let light shine out of darkness, shine into that darkness and overcome it. He will win. Human attempts to deify themselves, satisfy themselves, save themselves will burn. Along with all evil. And there will be no more night. And then we will throng around the Lamb, our lamp, and we will not congratulate ourselves for our good works or our cooperation with God’s grace.
All our song will be, worthy is the Lamb. For by Your blood alone, You did it all. You effectively ransomed a people for God. And until that day, as children of light, the heirs of the Reformation, have this duty and this privilege. To cry now and for eternity. “Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your name be the glory. For the sake of your steadfast love and faithfulness.” Amen.