Do you ever wonder, ‘Where would we be without the reformation’? No, me neither, at least not until reading chapters eight to eleven in Know the Creeds and Councils, through which I’ve learnt more of reformation history and engaged with its issues.
To wrap my mind around the significance of the reformation, I did ask this question. In this period of reform and conflict, men and women went to the stake for certain points of doctrine. So where would we be if they hadn’t?
This next section of Know the Creeds and Councils offers up the what and why of the reformation. In covering the Council of Trent, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Justin S. Holcomb points out the key issues that prompted the reformation’s genesis, and walks us through the resulting discussions.
As I read these chapters, more dominant than any other issue of the reformation narrative was justification, our being seen by God as sinless – is it by faith in Christ alone, or a product of faith and works? From the Council of Trent, Rome’s answer to Luther’s Protestant objections, through to the thoroughly Calvinistic Westminster Confession of Faith, a conversation was taking place that asked churches and believers to take their stand on one side or the other.
It turns out that we sometimes caricature the Catholic position on justification, perceiving Catholics as relying solely on works for justification. The decisions at Trent show that it’s more nuanced than this, that ‘the council preserved the Catholic idea that humans are not able to bring about their own justification without the grace of God, but neither are they merely passive.’ It is this expectation of impassivity that separated the doctrine of the Catholic Church from that of the reformers.
Conversely, the Heidelberg Catechism, in answer to its 60th question, ‘How do you know God?’ responds, ‘Only by true faith in Christ Jesus’. Decisions on justification by faith alone in the Westminster Confession are largely tied up with that of predestination, articulating that, ‘People are said to be unable to will their own conversion… God has to awaken in the human heart the desire to be reconciled to himself.’ These decisions stood staunchly in opposition to the Catholic doctrine of justification, bolstering the divide between the two sides during the reformation. On one side stood justification dependent on faith in Christ alone, and on the other a perception of justification that expects humans could take part in justifying themselves.
Our relationship with God begins to crumble when we view our justification as being found or cemented elsewhere than through faith in Christ. So perhaps even more pertinent than the question ‘where would we be without the reformation?’ is ‘where would we be without justification by faith alone?’ The answer to that question offers a horizon bleak with uncertainty, one where we’re left believing that the cross of Christ needs our contribution if it is to become effective. How thankful we should be that knowing justification to be by faith alone, we can affirm that, ‘out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ…’
Our tendency is to reach for control of everything, even our own salvation. We like to see our good works as worthy of merit, despite knowing that they achieve nothing towards justifying us. So praise God that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not only true but upheld and proclaimed in evangelical churches. Imagine just how much we would pursue justification by our works without this teaching.
About this month's contributor, Lauren Mahaffey
I’ve been a Sydney girl all my life and have just moved from the leafy 'burbs of Northern Sydney to the narrow streets and terraces of Newtown.
I grew up being taught about Jesus from a young age, and while I always thought there was a God and that the God of the Bible seemed to be Him, it was in my early years of high school that I truly understood the Gospel and put my trust in Jesus.
In 2014 I started studying at Moore Theological College. So far it has been thoroughly stretching my understanding of God, His Word, and how to bring it to bear on people’s lives. I’m also serving with the team at MTS as the Communications Officer (aka the kid with the Twitter password) and am part of the community at Summer Hill Church.
I studied media and writing at Macquarie Uni before I started an MTS apprenticeship at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford. It’s a great gift to have access to the Bible and know God through it, and I love poring over it to soak up what it reveals about God and His plan for us in Jesus Christ. I also love reading novels and quirky short stories, and in recent times I’ve come to really appreciate the availability of good Christian books and their value in helping us understand the scriptures.
As well as this I love cooking, watching The Office (US, of course!), sewing, going out to see bands, and generally exploring the Inner West!