The Reformation Still Matters
Sometimes when we talk about the Reformation we give or receive the impression that it was purely a historical event with no continuing relevance or even that Reformation is one thing and mission is another. Here is an episode that illustrates wonderfully the continuing relevance of the Reformation in several respects. On September 19, 2019 The Christian Post ran an article recounting a story told at a recent conference by a church planter in the Middle East. According to the story, recounted by the church planter, the Lord Jesus has personally visited a man to reveal to him directly the gospel of John. The story goes on to repeat the claim that a great number of Muslims are being converted to the Christian faith through dreams and direct revelations of the Lord. The church planter is quoted as saying, “‘I learned a valuable lesson: God will do his part, but we still have to do ours,’ he added.
AGR is not posting a direct link to the article, however, because it is illustrated with a violation of the second commandment of God’s holy law but the article and the story it contains is great illustration of the continuing relevance of the Reformation for missions.
The Holy Spirit Is Still Free
Let me preface my criticisms by saying that Muslims are coming to saving faith through the faithful proclamation of the law and the gospel. It is not safe for them for me to say where or when but there are reliable accounts of such from credible witnesses. That Muslims, Hindus, and others should come to new life and true faith is a thing very much to be desired and an answer to much prayer. We should pray fervently that the church would send men faithful, prepared to plant churches, to preach the law and the gospel, and to reach the lost with the gospel. We should pray that the Holy Spirit would soften the hearts of his elect and draw them to new life and true faith where ever they are. We should pray for a great ingathering of Muslims who are being converted by the work of the Spirit through the preached gospel.
Further, the Dutch have a saying that fits here: God uses crooked sticks to strike straight blows. There may be some irregular sorts of missions and church planting efforts through which the Spirit is pleased to act. It is not our business to tell the Holy Spirit where and when he may act. It is our business, however, to be faithful to God’s Word. We know what God’s revealed will and Word are from the Scriptures and we are not bound to fallible interpretations of providence.
Sola Scriptura Still Matters
The Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura (according to Scripture alone) holds that the Bible is God’s infallible Word, that it does not err, that it was given by the Holy Spirit, and that it is the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. It was originally articulated in the context of Romanist claims that the Roman communion had authority to revise Scripture (e.g., by denying the cup in the Lord’s Supper to the laity), or to add to Scripture, e.g., by imposing doctrines and practices not imposed by the Word itself. It was also formulated in the context of Anabaptist claims of continuing miracles and revelation.
With the rise of the Modern missions movement in the 18th century and with the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura remains relevant. The history of Modern missions (since the 18th century) is replete with examples of unverified claims of apostolic-like direct revelation or other sorts of quasi-apostolic miracles and wonders. On this see B. B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (1918). The patterns that he observed a century ago have only intensified with the growth of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements. The claim that Muslims are receiving dreams, visions, and apparitions of the risen Lord is a part of the culture of Modern missions and especially of Modern Charismatic and Pentecostal piety. We are not obligated to accept these claims, which are almost always second or third-hand accounts.
The Reformation insistence that Scripture alone is the Word of God and that direct revelation of Scripture has ended with the close of the canon is a great guardian against such claims, which always work against the unique and final authority of the Word of God.
The irony here is that Islam is predicated upon a claim by the prophet of direct revelation from Allah via an angel. Thus, this story seems a fairly transparent example of seeking to making Christianity credible in the context of a religious culture that is premised on a religion of direct revelation. Some of the prophets and apostles saw visions of God the Son but some were simply “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). Scripture, as Peter says, is not the product of the human will. It is always the product of the Holy Spirit but the Spirit operated through the language and media of the time. In short, the Christian understanding of inspiration and the Muslim understanding are rather different.
The credibility of the Word of God does not rest on claims of a direct revelation to contemporary “prophets” or persons. The credibility of the Word rests in the Word itself. In Westminster Confession 1.4, the Reformed said: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”
Finally, under this heading, we should note that the article reporting these claims contained what the Reformed churches confess to be a violation of the second commandment. God’s Word says:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Ex 20:4-6; ESV).
Since the 7th century (but not before), it has come to be widely assumed that since God the Son became incarnate we may represent him with images. That is not the teaching of the New Testament, which left us no images of Jesus. Nothing in the NT even hints that we may make representations of Jesus. God’s Word is plain that God may not be represented. God the Son incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, is God. Therefore he may not be represented in images (icons) even for the most worthy of reasons (worship or instruction).
Further, the earliest Christian teachers explicitly rejected the use of images of Jesus as contrary to the Word of God. Here are some resources on this question. Here again, sola Scriptura helps us avoid a serious theological and moral error.
Sola Fide Still Matters
The second thing to be noted in this article is the statement by the church planter, as reported in the article, “I learned a valuable lesson: God will do his part, but we still have to do ours.” The reporter did not add much context and the link to the presentation is no longer live (the site does indicate that the presentation did happen, however). The thing to be concerned about here is that this is the very language used by late-medieval theologians just before the Reformation.
Indeed, Martin Luther himself was taught in university, to paraphrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” In regard to salvation this is known as Pelagianism, the teaching of the heretical British monk from the late 4th and early 5th century. The Council of Ephesus declared rightly this teaching heresy in 431.
The biblical doctrine of salvation is not that God helps those who help themselves. Scripture does not teach that God will do his part and we must do ours. Scripture teaches that, by nature we are dead in sins and trespasses (Rom chapters 1–3; Eph 2:1–4) and that while we were utterly unable to help ourselves, Jesus obeyed for us, died for us, was raised for us, and that the Holy Spirit graciously, freely applies the work of Christ to his elect before they can do anything. The biblical doctrine of salvation is not grace and works but grace alone (sola gratia). The sole instrument through which we receive Christ and his finished work is faith (sola fide).
Sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura: These were central Reformation doctrines. They freed us from the imaginations of men and from their good intentions. They freed us from the bondage of salvation through grace and works. They freed us from looking to ourselves for salvation. They freed us to look to Christ alone for salvation.
Let us rejoice that the elect among the Islamic people groups are being brought to new life and true faith and let us seek to bring the gospel to those groups and others according to the Scriptures. Let us seek to bring to them the gospel and the Christ of the Scriptures (sola Scriptura). Let us preach the biblical gospel of salvation by God’s free favor alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That message will liberate the captives. The Reformation is not an impediment to mission. It is an incentive to mission, to set the captives free to trust in Christ alone for their whole salvation and to give themselves to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria).
Your comments about depictions of Christ really hit home. With today’s image-based communications all around us, it has become very easy to pass over this unchanging revelation of the will of God as we encounter these images in modern media. How would you relate this idea to the images of Christ that come to us via movies and videos about, for example, the life of Christ or specific books in the New Testament? Perhaps an even more poignant question would be about these images being shown in actual church assemblies – whether as a video for all to watch or as background images on the “worship song screens” that adorn the front wall of the vast majority of protestant churches?