October 31, 1517 is the date that marks a beginning during the Reformation in Germany, since on that day Martin Luther initiated a debate with the 95 Theses about long standing problems with Christianity that prevailed to his day. Luther has been praised as a hero and vilified as a horror. Many are uncomfortable with Luther today. Similarly, John Calvin suffered the adoration and hatred of many during his time and in the centuries that followed. Both men were as all people are – clay pots, created from dirt and intended by God to honor and enjoy him despite our many fears, failures and utter helplessness. Both Luther and Calvin were weak instruments of God’s greatness, whereby God shows his power through the context of human weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-10) – our recalcitrant prejudices, our persistent wounds, and our propensity to rely on ourselves (self-sufficiency). The Reformation was a moment of God’s gifts to the church, similar to earlier moments throughout history when God unleashed his revelation so people may return to him.
We honor God’s gifts in the Reformation in several ways (a partial list):
- When we read a translation of the Bible in the language of everyday talk and thought of the many modern languages
- When we ground our theology in the exegetical task of wrestling with the intended meaning of words, phrases, and paragraphs of biblical Hebrew and Greek (and a little Aramaic)
- When we evaluate theological ideas according to what the Bible says, instead of grounding our theology in theological traditions, logic or other cultural ideas
- When we take up tasks in everyday life as equally worthwhile to our religious practices because God has saved us to respond to him in all aspects of life, whether those jobs be prayer, pulling weeds in the garden, studying the Bible, folding laundry, teaching theological wisdom or playing tennis with a 10 yr. old
- When we participate in communion in both kinds, the cup and the bread
- When embrace water baptism as a sign and experience of entrance into the New Covenant salvation (Anabaptists)
- When we engage with God as our true Father, knowing that we are exempt from punishment for our sins and knowing that we are accepted according to the righteousness of Jesus Christ, his perfection now covering us
- When we look to God himself and the finished work of Jesus Christ as the ground of our salvation already accomplished, instead of looking to our own intentions and actions that undulate daily and tempt us to worry that we are unworthy of God in ourselves (as we are)
Obviously, more could be said beyond this list – what items would you put on the list? My concern is that we are forgetful of the gifts that have been provided and passed on to us in the 21st century, and we do worse by dishonoring those gifts through misunderstanding and other distortions.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed the demise of the Reformation in Lutheran Germany to his day in the 20th century. Having been taught by Martin Luther and others that the righteousness of God was a gift that God provides in Christ by grace alone through faith alone, professing Christians then found in this theology a way to remove themselves from any obligation to live righteously in daily life.
The Reformers’ breakthrough to the grace of God as a true and complete gift was reversed to affirm people in living without regard for discipleship to Jesus. Salvation was reduced to a transaction that was a legal fiction believed only by nominal Christians. They saw the light of the Reformation and then misused it to blind themselves to the problem of their sin. Justification does not mean that God has blinded himself to sin; instead, God faced evil, punished it and thereby delivered his people from its destruction. Bonhoeffer’s audience mistakenly read the label of Reformation theology without entering the reality of new life in Christ—but thought that they had.
Bonhoeffer termed the problem among his fellow Germans as cheap grace, the notional theology that God has justified their sin without requiring any change of daily life. Attempts to follow Jesus through obedience in daily life were condemned as contradictory to the grace of God in justification, as if the sincere Christian were adding works to God’s grace. The twist is nuanced misuse of theology, and a dishonor of God’s gift.
As remedy to cheap grace, the self-serving misunderstanding of God’s gift, Bonhoeffer urged costly grace, meaning that gift of God cost him everything to provide it for us, and that gift of God that requires the recipients pay a price of their own abject surrender to Jesus. The gift of sharing Jesus’ human perfection (justification by grace alone through faith alone) entails participation in both his achieved righteousness (Rom. 10:4) and daily self-denial per God’s calling that parallels God’s children bearing the cross with Jesus (Luke 9:23). These are heavy theological ideas capable of much misunderstanding, which twisting occurred to Bonhoeffer’s day and continues with us now. Despite the clarity of the Bible, and the further clarity of theological explanation that God has provided to the church throughout two millennia, we manage to dishonor God’s gifts so we may continue to honor ourselves (Luther termed this move the theology of glory).
Many students reading Bonhoeffer’s book Discipleship find him overly rigid and despair that they are not doing enough to obey Jesus’ high standards. They fear the ways Bonhoeffer rebukes his readers for not taking Jesus seriously, since he speaks to an audience that has swept most of the standards away with the broom of cheap grace. Maybe we are not so bad off as they were, but I’m sure we have our own evasions by which we too dishonor God’s gifts in the Reformation.
Bonhoeffer calls us to take Jesus seriously according to costly grace. This call follows Luther’s reversal that we do not obey God to be saved, but that we have been saved so that we may obey. Luther understood that God has accomplished his requirement for human righteousness (a perfect human life) for us representatively by Jesus Christ, and this is the new ground for our voluntary action in Jesus’ steps. God has reconciled us to himself, and now works to reconcile all our actions to himself consequently – and voluntarily – for sanctification (1 Thess. 5:24-25). God saves us – not we ourselves – and the saving entails drawing us along in discipleship to that form of life set down by Jesus.
We additionally dishonor God’s gifts in the Reformation when we:
- Look to our own good deeds as the basis for our standing with God
- Tell ourselves or others that sufficient for salvation is to ask Jesus into your heart or believe the gospel, without any follow-through of response to God’s reconciliation
- Use our theology to evade the call from the Bible that we surrender everything we are and do to God, whenever he points to it in our lives
- See salvation mostly in terms of what happens to us when we die, instead of an implication for what fills our days and nights right now
- Possess dozens of Bibles without listening to God speaking to us through his word
- Relate to God according to our ideas of our good or bad moral performance, whether by sins or virtuous acts, religious deeds in ministry or acts of selfishness
- Live as practical deists, thankful that God has saved us from Hell for a bright future in Heaven, but happy to sort out our lives for ourselves in a nice and morally good fashion as suits the expectations of our church friends, people at work and the neighbors on our street