How was the gospel lost prior to its rediscovery in the Reformation?
NICHOLS: It shouldn’t surprise us that, in the sixteenth century, the gospel was obscured. We see this in the first century. We see it in Paul’s churches. In his epistle to the Galatians, he’s astounded that they were entertaining a different gospel (Gal. 1:6), then he quickly adds that it’s a false gospel.
If we see it in the first century, in the churches of the Apostles themselves, then it really shouldn’t surprise us that there’s a temptation in every generation to “improve” upon God’s gospel or obscure it. In the sixteenth century, we found ourselves with the need to recover the gospel. And we find that is true of every generation. It’s true of every age of the church.
THOMAS: There is a predisposition in the heart of every individual to self-justification—to begin with the Spirit and to be made perfect by the flesh, as Paul says to the Galatians (Gal. 3:3). Not just at the Reformation, but also today, there is a tendency to revert to self-justification. That is why the rediscovery of the gospel is a continual and daily need, not just something that occurred in the sixteenth century.
FERGUSON: One might add that the Reformation is needed wherever the church hides the Bible. Martin Luther had not actually seen a Bible until the first year of his novitiate, when he was becoming a monk, and he was lent a Bible for one year only. That’s a real indication of how ordinary men and women knew nothing about the Scriptures.
During the trial of a martyr in Scotland, the accusing priest pulled a New Testament out of his sleeve, held it up to the court, and said, “This is the book that is causing all the trouble.” He was right, of course, but that’s a real indication of the need of Reformation and renewal wherever the church hides the Bible.
It’s sad to say that there are many churches in the contemporary world where the Bible is being hidden, either in ignorance or quite deliberately. Perhaps there’s never been such a time of need for Reformation and renewal as there is today in that respect.
PARSONS: I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Ferguson. In many churches today, churches, pastors, and the people in those churches would profess to know the gospel. They would say: “Of course we believe the gospel. The gospel is core to who we are as a people.” But, when you listen to the sermons and Sunday school lessons, down to the teachers in the children’s Sunday school classes, you don’t actually hear the gospel. You hear talk about the gospel and talk about Jesus. You may even hear talk about sin. But you don’t really hear talk about the gospel. It does not become lost altogether, but it does become obscured.
In these situations, the gospel becomes sort of displaced by entertainment, stories, sociocultural anecdotes, pop psychological anecdotes, and so many other things in the church. The gospel gets pushed to the side. It’s still there, and people still say, “We believe it,” but you don’t hear it. It’s not part of the warp and woof or the core being of the church.
This is a transcript of Stephen Nichols’s, Derek Thomas’s, Sinclair Ferguson’s, and Burk Parsons’s answers from our Reformation 500 Celebration and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.