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Michael Reeves
 

An enduring truth

The only way the Reformation could possibly not still matter would be if beauty, goodness, truth, joy and human flourishing no longer mattered.

SOLAS MAGAZINE AUTHOR Michael Reeves 31 JULY 2017 11:10 h GMT+1
Martin Luther burns the Papal bull threatening his excommunication. Paul Thumann, 1872. / Photo: Wartburg-Stiftung

Some 120 years after the Reformation got going, some 120 scholars assembled in Westminster to write the necessary documents for a reformed church in England.



The first question and answer of their Westminster Shorter Catechism is a beautiful, prize flower of Reformation thought:



Question: What is the chief end of man?



Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.



The glory of God and enjoyment of him: these inseparable, twin truths were guiding lights for the Reformation. The Reformers held that, through all the doctrines they had fought for and upheld, God was glorified and people were given comfort and joy.



Through justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, God was glorified as utterly merciful and good, as both supremely holy and compassionate – and therefore people could find their comfort and delight in him. Through union with Christ, believers could know a firm standing before God, gleefully knowing him as their ‘Abba’, confident that he was powerful to save and keep to the uttermost. Without a priestly hierarchy detached from the world, believers could all call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, living every part of life for the kind Father they had been brought to enjoy. It has been our belief in this book that the Reformers were right in this, and therefore the Reformation still matters, for through these truths lives can still blossom and flourish under the joy-giving light of God’s glory. 



 



FEAR AND PRESUMPTION



A good test case of this can be seen in how differently Roman Catholic and Reformation theologies thought of our assurance of salvation. Can a believer know they are saved?



On the side of the Reformation, the Puritan Richard Sibbes argued that without such assurance we simply cannot live Christian lives as God would have us. God, he said, wants us to be thankful, cheerful, rejoicing and strong in faith: but we will be none of these things unless we are sure that God and Christ are ours for good. “There be many duties and dispositions that God requires which we can not be in without assurance of salvation on good grounds. What is that? God bids us be thankful in all things. How can I know that, unless I know God is mine and Christ is mine? … God enjoineth us to rejoice. ‘Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice,’ Philip, iv. 4. Can a man rejoice that his name is written in heaven, and not know his name is written there? … Alas! how can I perform cheerful service to God, when I doubt whether he be my God and Father or no? … God requires a disposition in us that we should be full of encouragements, and strong in the Lord; and that we should be courageous for his cause in withstanding his enemies and our enemies. How can there be courage in resisting our corruptions, Satan’s temptations? How can there be courage in suffering persecution and crosses in the world, if there be not some particular interest we have in Christ and in God?”[1]



Yet the very confidence that Sibbes upheld as a Christian privilege was damned by Roman Catholic theology as the sin of presumption. It was precisely one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed: “This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of … glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.”[2]



That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the system: if we can only enter heaven because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, of course nobody can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness. But while such thinking made sense in Roman Catholicism, it bred fear, not joy. The need to have personal merit before God left people terrified at the prospect of judgment. You can still feel it when you see a medieval fresco of the Last Judgment; you can hear it in the words of the Dies Irae that would be chanted in every Catholic Mass for the Dead:



“Day of wrath, day that will dissolve the world into burning coals … What am I the wretch then to say? What patron I to 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 perennial fire.”



It was exactly why the young Luther shook with fear at the thought of death, and why he said he hated God (instead of enjoying him). He could not be thankful, cheerful, rejoicing and strong in faith, since he believed only in God as a judge who was against him. It was a view of God reinforced by a carving he would pass underneath every time he entered the city church in Wittenberg: “On a stone relief above the entrance to the cemetery surrounding the church, Luther saw, carved into the mandorla (an aureole shaped like an almond), Christ seated on the rainbow as judge of the world, so angry the veins stand out, menacing and swollen, on his forehead.”[3]



With his discovery that sinners are freely declared righteous in Christ, that all changed. No longer was his confidence for that day placed in himself: it all rested on Christ and his sufficient righteousness. And so the horrifying Doomsday became for him what he would call “the most happy Last Day”, the day of Jesus, his friend.[4] The consolation it brought to all who held to Reformation theology was captured perfectly in the striking wording of the Heidelberg Catechism’s question and answer:



Question: What comfort is it to you that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?



Answer: In all my sorrow and persecution, I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me.[5]



Comfort in Christ for the struggling believer: that was the theology of the Reformation.



 



PURGATORY



What happens to us after death was no sideshow issue for the Reformation. Luther’s very first skirmish – that October day in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door – concerned purgatory. Purgatory provided relief for the problem that nobody would die righteous enough to have merited salvation fully. It was (and is) often viewed as a halfway house between heaven and hell – nowhere near as good as heaven, but not so bad as hell – but purgatory was meant to be a place exclusively for the saved. It was the place where Christian souls would go after death to have all their sins slowly purged from them. Through time in purgatory, sinners would be purified and made finally fit for heaven.



The doctrine of purgatory had got into full swing in the late Middle Ages, and fear of the place began to spawn a vast purgatory industry. Prayers and masses would be said for souls in purgatory, and special ‘chantries’ were founded, with priests dedicated to saying those prayers and masses for particular fortunate (wealthy) souls. And then, of course, there were indulgences: awards of merit handed out by the church to those who had earned (or bought) them. These indulgences could ‘top up’ an individual’s own personal merit before God, so fast-tracking them through purgatory, or even allowing them to leap-frog purgatory all together (with a ‘full’, or ‘plenary’ indulgence). It was an indulgence-monger, Johann Tetzel, who stung Luther into action with his blood-chilling religious marketeering. According to his notorious jingle, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”.



None of this has really disappeared from modern Roman Catholicism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church still affirms belief in purgatory and indulgences. Indeed, when Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the last things, he gave more pages to considering purgatory than to heaven and hell combined.[6] And why not? When justification is thought of as a process of growth in righteousness (as it is in Roman Catholicism), purgatory and indulgences make sense. Without the righteousness of Christ given to us, how else can anyone be righteous enough for heaven, unless they have much more time to grow than this short life affords?



But to the Reformers, purgatory quickly came to symbolise all that was wrong with the Roman Catholic view of salvation. John Calvin argued clearly and bluntly that, “purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death? Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots. But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?”[7]



His logic is simple: purgatory strips Christ of his glory as a merciful and fully-sufficient saviour; it also destroys any confident joy in us. No joy, no glory: it went entirely against the grain of Reformation thought, which cared so passionately about those twin prizes.



 



A PROTESTANT PURGATORY?



And yet. While Protestants have almost unanimously been averse to the idea of purgatory since the earliest days of the Reformation, things are changing. One of the darlings of modern evangelicalism, C. S. Lewis, was as winsome as ever when he turned his pen in support of some form of purgatory in The Great Divorce and Letters to Malcolm. He and others have made many think again with arguments that are as revealing as they are appealing.



Jerry Walls has assembled what is probably the most thorough case for a Protestant acceptance of purgatory, and his argument is worth hearing.[8] Walls actually agrees with Calvin’s classic argument against purgatory, but suggests that there is another way to think of purgatory without falling foul of Calvin’s anathema. That is, purgatory could be thought of not as a place to pay off any remaining debt uncovered by the blood of Christ, but instead as a place where those who are already forgiven might go on to become fully holy and so fit for heaven. In other words, purgatory should be seen, not as a place of punishment, but as a school where the taste for holiness is cultivated such that graduates might fully enjoy heaven, instead of feeling out of place. There in purgatory, Christians will not get more forgiven (their forgiveness is complete), but they will get acclimatised to the holy atmosphere of heaven. 



To illustrate, both Jerry Walls and C. S. Lewis turn to John Henry Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius, the account of a soul’s journey from death to judgment and then purgatory. Near the end, the soul approaches the throne of God (and in order to appreciate the pathos of the moment, it is worth listening to Edward Elgar’s musical rendition of The Dream). At that point, the full orchestra blares out the terrifying holiness of God and in pitiful strains the soul cries out to be sent away to purgatory, unable to bear the dazzling brightness of God’s presence.



Take me away, and in the lowest deep 



There let me be, 



And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,



Told out for me. 



There, motionless and happy in my pain,



Lone, not forlorn,—



There will I sing my sad perpetual strain,



Until the morn.



There will I sing, and soothe my stricken breast,



Which ne’er can cease



To throb, and pine, and languish, till possest



Of its Sole Peace.



There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:—



Take me away,



That sooner I may rise, and go above,



And see Him in the truth of everlasting day.[9]



Now, Lewis and Walls may have sidestepped Calvin’s volley, but there remains something entirely incompatible with Reformation thought here. True, purgatory is not now meant to finish off the work of the cross in securing our atonement. The problem is to do with some of those other basic questions we have seen raised by the Reformation: What does God give us? Himself, or some other thing called ‘grace’? What is our new life? Knowing him, or being enabled by him for something else? Here in The Dream, the soul thinks (and we are clearly meant to agree with it) that holiness and transformation will best happen away from the presence of God. There, ‘lone’ and ‘absent’ from the Lord, self-soothing, the soul believes it will best mature. Apparently absence makes the heart grow fonder, even in eternity.



The soul’s logic is at complete odds with all we’ve seen, that we find our joy and we find ourselves transformed through our communion with God, by glorying in him. Our sanctification is not something God ever enables from a distance, with hands off. We find ourselves “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” precisely as we “contemplate the Lord’s glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Finally, when he appears, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).



The soul claims to be ‘happy in my pain’, but the overwhelming tone of what it cries is one aching, stricken, ‘sad perpetual strain’. That is where any purgatory must leave it: belief in purgatory brings sadness and discomfort. Reformation thought, on the other hand, always sees joy found in the glory of God. True happiness is found pressing into (not away from) the brightness that purifies and heals.



 



S. D. G.



What the Reformers saw, especially through the message of justification by faith alone, was the revelation of an exuberantly happy God who glories in sharing his happiness. Not stingy or utilitarian, but a God who glories in being gracious. (That is why dependent faith glorifies him, according to Romans 4:20.) To steal from his glory by claiming any credit for ourselves would only steal our own joy in so marvellous a God.



And the glory of God, Calvin believed, can be seen not just in justification, the cross and the face of Christ: the whole world, he argued, is a theatre of God’s glory.[10] Throughout creation we see the sheer largesse of the creator: “Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer. … In grasses, trees, and fruits, apart from their various uses, there is beauty of appearance and pleasantness of odour [cf. Gen. 2:9]. For if this were not true, the prophet would not have reckoned them among the benefits of God, ‘that wine gladdens the heart of man, that oil makes his face shine’ [Ps. 104:15 p.]. … Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odour? … Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?”[11]



That is why Johann Sebastian Bach, when satisfied with his compositions, would write on them ‘S. D. G.’ for Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to God Alone’). For through his music he wanted to sound out the beauty and glory of God, so pleasing both God and people. The glory of God, he believed, gratuitously rings out throughout creation, bringing joy wherever it is appreciated. And that is worth living for and promoting.



In fact, wrote Calvin, that is the secret of happiness and the secret of life. “For whatever the philosophers may have ever said of the chief good, it was nothing but cold and vain, for they confined man to himself, while it is necessary for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness. The chief good of man is nothing else but union with God.”[12]



Against everything we are told today, happiness is not found in ourselves, in appreciating our own beauty or convincing ourselves of it. Deep, lasting, satisfying happiness is found in the all-glorious God. All of which is really just another way of saying:



Question: What is the chief end of man?



Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.



 



JOY AND GLORY STILL MATTER



The only way the Reformation could possibly not still matter would be if beauty, goodness, truth, joy and human flourishing no longer mattered. We have been made to enjoy God, but without the great truths that the Reformers fought for which display God as glorious and enjoyable, we will not do so. Seeing less of him, we will be lesser and sadder. Seeing more of him, we will be fuller and happier. And on that note, we should leave the last words to John Calvin. This is why the Reformation still matters: “it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honour and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him. … For until men recognise that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him — they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.”[13]



 



This article is an excerpt from the book, Why The Reformation Still Matters (IVP, 2016), co-authored by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester



This article was published with permission of Solas magazine. Solas is published quarterly in the U.K. Click here to learn more or subscribe.



 







[1] Richard Sibbes, ‘A Heavenly Conference,’ in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. A. B. Grosart, 7 vols. (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862), 6.479-480, my emphasis





[2] The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, trans. W. P. Barrett (New York: Gotham House, 1932), 320-321





[3] Oswald Bayer, ‘Justification: Basis and Boundary of Theology’ in By Faith Alone: Essays in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde, ed. Joseph A. Burgess and Marc Kolden (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 78





[4] D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar, 1883-1929), vol. 53, p.401





[5] Heidelberg Catechism, Question 52, my emphasis





[6] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 2nd ed., trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988)





[7] Institutes, 3.5.6





[8] Jerry L. Walls, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)





[9] John Henry Newman, The Dream of Gerontius (Staten Island, NY: St Pauls/Alba House, 2001), 68





[10] Institutes, 1.6.2





[11] Institutes, 3.10.2





[12] Commentary on Hebrews 4:10, my emphasis





[13] Institutes, 1.2.1




 

 


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