Time for a New Reformation?

Contemporary Christianity bears some unsettling similarities to that of the late Middle Ages. Today, many ostensible evangelicals have what is basically a Roman Catholic view of salvation, marginalizing the Gospel and trusting in their good works to earn salvation. Superstition and materialism abound, as in the “prosperity gospel” that dominates the bestseller lists and Christian television. Many churches and church leaders, as in the age of the late Middle Ages, seem obsessed with ostentatious wealth and political power. Immorality is rampant. The theology of glory reigns, and the way of the Cross has, in many circles, been forgotten.

Is it time for a new Reformation? How might that happen?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://heresyhunter.blogspot.com Bob Hunter

    There are several Martin Luther’s around these days – trouble is, the promises of health and wealth are too appealing to people today for them to want to abandon it – even if it doesn’t work! I’m not sure what it will take to shake people out of their lethargy – maybe 95 Theses posted on the front door of the Trinity Broadcasting Network?

  • Manxman

    I feel America is living on borrowed time, squandering our inheritance from the past and living like there is no tomorrow. I’m afraid we’ll have to be humbled before true reformation can occur, and there are a number of things brewing that can bring that about – the Islamic threat, illegal immigration, global financial and economic forces, the fiscal unrighteousness of our government, sexual sin destroying social stability, etc. In the book of Judges, God’s people had to reach bottom, with their enemies’ feet on their necks, before they called out to God for deliverance. I think Americans are going to live out this scenario in our times. Our sin will eventually overtake us.

  • Doug

    I have sensed an undercurrent in today’s churches that makes me very excited. Younger people such as myself are not satisfied with the powerless preaching and confused theology of today’s churches. This discontent is leading to new church plants but also to people leaving the church (not God mind you) altogether. I believe the Holy Spirit, right now, is setting about bringing these people of like mind together.

    I am seeing young preachers being raised up who are returning to the creeds, confessions and old theology, not because of tradition, but for stability. From this stout platform sermons are beginning to be preached with power and authority once again.

    I believe a renewing is beginning. It will be considerably smaller in nature than the mainstream churches, but it will be powerful and God will be glorified.

    Post Tenebras Lux!

  • Bror Erickson

    I think we have to remember also, that the Reformation, especially the “Lutheran Reformation” wasn’t as popular in its day as we tend to think it was. The theology of glory has always had its sway over the people. In some circles the reformation was nothing more than a giant leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, exchanging one law for another, and missing the Gospel entirely.
    But where ever Christ crucified is proclaimed, the gospel in its purity preanched, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there the Holy Spirit works faith, and the Reformation continues on as unpopular as ever, such is the way of the cross.

  • organshoes

    I agree with Bror Erickson.
    Luther still teaches those who listen. The Gospel (the Reformation; the Truth!) is out there.
    The Lutheran Reformation never really ‘ruled’, did it? It simply did enough to take hold, hasn’t yet died, and, where the Gospel is, the Lutheran (not merely ‘the Protestant’) Reformation still is.
    For every New Reformation, there would always be a Counter-Reformation. It’s like thinking the latest tent revival will save a town or rally believers irrevocably, when in reality it’ll just move on.

  • Philip McCurdy

    I have been complaining about the works righteousness of evangelicals for years. My wife, who has a Lutheran family but was raised as an evangelical, resents the wasted time and misery of trying to get her salvation right.
    We (the Lutheran church) have imported Forty Days of Purpose and other such stupidities from the evangelicals while avoiding study of the Bible and the Book of Concord.
    Our culture denies the doctrine of original sin and embraces the concept of free will. We are fighting an uphill battle against a sinful world as well as an ignorant one.
    This is Linda: These people (evangelicals) have no formation to reform. They are not united on doctrine or training. They need to be formed…and truly become Biblical in their thoughts, words and deeds.

  • http://www.wittenbergtrail.com Eric

    Dr. Veith:

    Your book The Spirituality of the Cross and your article “Evangelical Catholics and Confessional Evangelicals” are examples of how to bring about a “new Reformation”.

    Confessional Lutherans are not very good at getting the Word out. We are almost invisible on TV, radio and the web (except for maybe one radio station and a small niche of blogs). In the local bookstore, especially “Christian” bookstores, you will very rarely find any of our books or resources.

    We have what the disaffected evangelicals are looking for. We have solutions for what is so wrong with modern American evangelicalism.

    However, how will they find us? How will they hear or read about our “solutions”?

    EC

  • S Bauer

    ecclesia semper reformanda est

  • Eric

    RE: #2

    The Church needs a restoration of God’s Word. The United States of America needs a restoration of constitutional values. They are not the same thing.

    We should love our country; God has given it to us for our good. I used to confuse this love with worship. Ameica is just another nation of the earth. God holds no special dispensation for her. Confusion on this point is part of why the Church needs a reformation.

    America is not the Church and the Church is more then America.

  • jayfromcleveland

    I don’t think the Reformation was necessarility limited to a specific event but is rather an ongoing process. The Holy Spirit has shown up at many places and times and births a new move of the LORD (e.g. Luther, Wesley, Whitefield, Asuza Street, Toronto Airport, etc.)

    However, once the movement spreads beyond its source, and once time elapses, it acquires infrastructure — property and doctrinal distinctives — thereby becoming a demonination — an institution, a fossil of the original movement, an old wineskin. Once the founders and their vision pass away, the wineskin continues, led by a generation that didn’t experience that first move of the Holy Spirit.

    This is why we have empty churches and dying denominations, and ongoing vitality in storefronts and school gymnasiums — the mitosis of the body of Christ, as dying cells divide into new healthy cells.

    One reason why contemporary evangelicalism has gone in the tank so quickly is because of it’s lack of institutionalism. It wasnt built on any sort of foundation. In comparison, the “high churches” don’t turn on a dime with every wind of doctrine and therefore change comes slowly, if at all. There are clearly pros and cons to each style, and neither has a monopoly on salvation.

  • Bror Erickson

    Jay from Cleveland,
    You have a lot of guts to compare Luther to Wesley, Whitefield, Asuza Street, or the Toronto Airport.
    I think this is the whole problem Lutheranism faces. People think they know what Luther stood for, but never actually care to read his works, or even portions of them. He was markedly different than any of those other names you mentioned. The Lutheran Reformation was not a pentecostal revival.
    No Lutherans don’t have a monopoly on salvation. But we do have the Gospel.
    As far as the church goes, it has always had an institutional side, and yet it has always been something quite more than an institution. The tension will always be there.

  • Doug

    I really think Jay hit the nail on the head. Well said.

  • tim prussic

    Jay’s comment’s interesting and less offensive as it progresses (!).

    Movements must put down roots to become in any way permanent. The Reformation needed the succeeding scholastic period to propagate itself. A problem enters when the institutionalization of a movement loses the fire of the original movement. This does not necessary happen, but quite possibly tends to.

    Another point: when a movement puts down roots, if it only puts them deep enough to capture the movement, the institution will soon be lost (along with the movement). The institution of a movement MUST capture a much broader chunk of the whole than than just the mere movement. That is, the roots have to go deeper than the movement in order to retain the movement. This dovetails with what Bror said: the church has ALWAYS had its institutional side. Any movement that will last as an institution MUST come to grips with itself in the broader context of the institution of Christ’s church on earth. That’s why the Reformed Scholastics, who institutionalized the movement of the Reformation, didn’t just parrot Luther, Calvin, et al. They drew from the pre-Reformation church, from the medieval and early church, and ultimately, of course, on the Scripture.
    In order to grow and mature, we need much deeper roots.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Robert Perry

    I’d side with Bror on whether the Reformation was ever that complete, even in the land of its birth. After all, the peace that ended the wars around the Reformation more or less decided that your prince would decide the church of your city-state. That’s not exactly how you build real converts, is it?

    No, you build real converts the way they always have been, by preaching the Word and interacting with those who hear it. You don’t do this by tearing down those who got on their horse to ride their circuit, but by getting your own horse and visiting the frontier yourself.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa Kiihn

    I’m afraid I’m with Bror on this one. Comparing what God accomplished through Martin Luther with so-called revivals is an insult to the reformation, though I don’t believe you intended it that way Jay.

    Revivals are demonstrations of outward signs and behaviors, usually quite short-lived. The Reformation was about returning the church back to a belief in salvation through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ through grace alone…and not through self-proclaiming actions like speaking in tongues.

  • fwsonnek

    reformation always starts at home.

    reading the old missouri synod church fathers, I see a repentant spirit that is refreshing and indicates strongly the source of their power.

    Dr Pieper in the forward to his excellent “Christian Dogmatics” for example did not triumphally claim that Missouri had done everything right, but that they had sadly lost good men through their shortcomings.

    It would be excellent to see a call to repentance on our own part in every declaration of the error of others.

    we personally and corporately should see that we have our hands full in reforming what we ourselves are doing. This work alone would be a powerful influence on the church at large.

    we live by grace through faith.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa Kiihn

    I just found this good point while perusing WELS.net on the subject of revivals:

    God promises to use his word whenever and wherever it is faithfully used and proclaimed (Isaiah 55:10-11). Our privilege and duty is to use that word faithfully and share it with people around us. And leave the converting to the Lord. This is our public confession: “Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith when and where it pleases God” (Augsburg Confession, Article V).

  • Richard

    Theresa–I agree. Well said. Why, soitenly! (oops, wrong forum, sorry).

  • Bror Erickson

    Robert Perry,
    lest you think I jump on Wesley’s case for visiting the frontier and riding horseback. No. That is one thing I commend him for, and no doubt many were saved through those efforts. ( For thank God that the Holy Spirit works despite us, through the word of God. And at least Wesley preached the word of God, albeit sometimes a little skewed.)
    What I jump on him for is writing “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” in which he turned Gospel into law, and unashamedly resurrected the Armenian heresy. This book in which he attempts to explain his doctrine as lucidly as possible, shows how different a spirit he had from Martin Luther.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    Below are two quotes which clearly illustrate the source of faith of two differing men. Can you guess who wrote which?

    A. “Friends, this evening I have felt the internal witness of the Spirit. On his deathbed my father told me this must happen (“”The inward witness, son, the inward witness, that is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.””) And by God’s grace it has happened inside me this very evening.”

    B. “We must not judge by what we feel or by what we see before us. The Word must be followed, and we must firmly hold that these truths are to be believed, not experienced; for to believe is not to experience. Not indeed that what we believe is never to be experienced, but that faith is to precede experience. And the Word must be believed even when we feel and experience what differs entirely from the Word.

    I must admit that the first statement sickens me. I can’t imagine worse words of wisdom to pass on to Christian children.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Robert Perry

    Bror, I’m glad somebody got that reference. :^)

    But seriously, I was not addressing you alone, or necessarily you at all, but rather the all too common tendency of assuming that those who seem to be very successful at reaching the lost are engaging in mere revivalism–and then neglecting to reach for their own saddle, so to speak.

    And I assume you mean “Arminian”, not “Armenian,” right? It’s correct that Wesley certainly tended to Arminius’ theology, though I hesitate to call it a heresy without examining it myself further.

  • jayfromcleveland

    Bror, you should be careful when you jump to conclusions like that. Matter of fact, I have read some of Luther’s works, along with a number of the church fathers and other historical Christian writers. While these writings are great and add various things to our understanding, they add exactly ZERO to Scripture and to God’s unmerited saving grace.

    Theresa’s distinction between revival and reformation is good, but my point basically was that the Holy Spirit is like a wind and transforms people’s lives, and doesn’t enshrine itself in human institutions. Why is it that simple people have that childlike faith that eludes the high-minded scholars? I do believe that that is what Jesus means by becoming like a little child, and if the church would only do that, there would be no need for a reformation, with or without Luther.

  • Bror Erickson

    Jay from Cleveland,
    “Theresa’s distinction between revival and reformation is good, but my point basically was that the Holy Spirit is like a wind and transforms people’s lives, and doesn’t enshrine itself in human institutions”
    Hmmm. But the Holy Spirit does attach itself or bind itself to the Word of God, and the Sacraments. Therefore if the institution preaches the word, and administers the sacraments, it has the Holy Spirit, even if there is no apparent transformation of lives of those in the pews. I would no more associate the Holy Spirit with the Toronto Blessing, or the Asuza Street revival than I would the Zwickau Prophets, or Thomas Muntzer. I do not associate its work with speaking in unintelligible tongues, or even moral reform. and neither would luther which is wherei object to him being compared to the names you mentioned.
    However I do rest assured that the Holy Spirit has been at work and is working to this day in the Lutheran Church and where ever else the Gospel is preached in its purity.
    Robert Perry,
    Yes I meant Arminian, and it is a heresy teaching works righteousness. It is not by accident that the church he spawned was named “Methodist.” As in method of salvation.
    And I do try to reach for my saddle when I can pull myself away from this blogging addiction I have developed.

  • Bror Erickson

    Jay from Cleveland,
    I have met a good many simple minded that have no child like faith. I have also met a good many high minded scholars that did have that child like Faith.

  • fwsonnek

    Bror:

    It feels so good to know that we have pastors in the LC-MS like you who doesnt claim to have ALL the answers, yet knows so very much, and most importantly knows that all questions are resolved so sweetly by grace in Jesus.

  • Christopher Martin

    I’ve been thinking alot about this heading into Reformation Day this year. Future Reformation Days need to sound the cry in our own backyard of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

    To speak of the Reformation of Luther’s time is, if I may be so bold, hard to take seriously when “death and decay all around I see” within our own midst

  • Patrick Kyle

    I think that the seeds of a new reformation are starting to germinate. Many young prople are leaving evangelicalism and searching out theology and worship with more substance. Willow Creek Community Church just released a report stating that their programs for discipleship have been abject failures and they are rethinking the whole thing. Sally Morgenthaller admitted that the whole evangelistic scheme based on contemporary worship was a failure, and shut down her website. People are hungry for something more, and the time is ripe for a change. If the Lutherans can get their act together we can really provide answers to those who are searching. Already there are several projects or individuals stepping into the gap and facing these challenges. Our gracious host Dr. Veith has written several books that are impacting those outside our circles. The Whitehorse Inn radio program has had a huge influence among discouraged evangelicals. (www.whitehorseinn.org) There are several good blogs that are trumpeting the reformation doctrine and engaging in spirited debate. Organizations like http://www.surfoutsider.net and http://www.newreformationpress.com are laboring tirelessly to bring the truths of the reformation to those who have never heard them.
    This doesn’t include the many efforts of fine Pastors like Bill Cwirla who make this doctrine a living reality in their church and parishoners. Pastor Cwirla’s “Four Concentric Circles” lecture is one of the finest overviews of theology and a place where the modern Lutherans stand on the shoulders of our forefathers and sow the seeds of a new reformation.
    While things may look dark, there are several bright spot on the horizon and I don’t think we are without hope.

  • CRB

    Jay and Bror,
    Just an observation and a gentle reminder that when
    you refer to the Holy Spirit as “it” you are mistaken. The
    Holy Spirit is the 3rd Person of the Holy Trinity and should be referred to as, “He”.

  • Bror Erickson

    CRB,
    Thankyou. I hate when I get into that habit. I don’t know where I developed it. But if I was given the choice between bad habits to quit. “Thinking of the Holy Spirit as an it” or smoking, I would definately quit referring to the Holy Spirit as it. Thanks. maybe this helps.

  • Bror Erickson

    CRB,
    I just went and did a little research on The Holy spirit. seeking to justify myself. It seems that Jesus uses the neuter definate article in referring to the Holy Spirit in Mark 13:11. So it seems I am in good company. And so is Jay.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Robert Perry

    Brother Bror, keep in the saddle, bro.

    However, the term “Methodist” doesn’t refer to works salvation, but rather to the methodical way Wesley and his followers went through the New Testament in their early meetings–it might have even been a term of mockery from Anglicans jealous at what they were doing, if I remember correctly. (I’m a former Methodist–with certainly reservations about Arminian theology and its episcopalianness in theology and current doctrine)

    Again, the circuit riders didn’t make it across the American continent because they were preaching works righteousness. Prominent Methodists like Bob Jones would take that up with you very quickly.

  • Bror Erickson

    Robert Perry,
    Go read “A plain account of Christian Perfectionn.” Then tell me that there was no works righteousness in Wesleys doctrine. Though you may be correct in why the name was chosen. It fits better for the other reason. Though salvation might technically be replaced with sanctification. But when you require that a person ATTAIN 100% sanctification for themselves before they can be assured of salvation then you have problems.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Robert Perry

    I cringe at that aspect of modern Arminianism, too. I’d split the hair and call it “works assurance” instead of salvation by works, but I must admit that I cringe. I have friends whose church (ironically) simultaneously preached the tulip bulb AND works assurance.

  • Bror Erickson

    So let me ask you Perry. After you split the hair, where does your faith rest? Am I to be assured of my salvation by Christ’s all availing sacrifice on the cross, or by my works?
    This isn’t just modern Arminianism this is straight up 100 proof Wesley and by default Methodism. I can’t seem to find my copy of “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.” So I picked up “Creeds of the Churches” Edtited by John Leith. I read his Sermon ” the Scripture way of salvation.’ and the “minutes of some late conversations between Rev. Messrs. Wesley and others.” Question number 3 of conversation 1 reads ” But must not repentance and works meet fro repentance go before this faith/”
    Answer : without a doubt; if by repentance you meand conviction of sin; and by works meet for repentance, obeying God as far as we can, forgiveing our brother, leaving off from evil, doing good and usis hsi ordinances according to the power we have received.”
    if that isn’t works righteousness I don’t know what is. We are saved, justified, and sanctified by Christ, and Christ alone through faith, which ought not be confused with the works it produces.
    Actually I am not surprised by the tulip and works assurance, you find that in Calvin.

  • allen

    In regards to child like Faith, I think what Jesus was referring to was that if you give a child a free gift, he will certainly have a good thought about you, but he won’t think that he owes you anything. You told him it was free. If you try to give an adult a free gift, he going to think that he owes you something. Yes, we owe God. But that would be the case even if there were no salvation.

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