Reviewed by Ben Rogers
In less than a year, Protestants will celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the nailing of Luther’s The Ninety Five Theses to the Wittenburg church door and the birth of the Reformation. A number of commemorative works have already been published and readers should expect to see many more in the coming months. Why the Reformation Still Matters represents Michael Reeves and Tim Chester’s contribution to this growing body of literature. Many readers are already familiar with the authors. Tim Chester is the pastor of Grace Church, Boroughbridge, and curriculum director of Acts 29’s Oak Hill Academy. He is also the author of more than thirty books on a wide variety of subjects that share a common concern for linking theology and practice. Michael Reeves is the president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford and the author of a number of books including, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, which happens to be one of my favorite popular introductions to the Reformation.
Summary and Evaluation
As the title suggests, the focus of this work is the ongoing relevance of the Protestant Reformation. According to the authors, the Reformation still matters for three reasons, which are set forth in the introduction. First, at its heart the Reformation was a dispute about matters of eternal significance. The instrumental cause of justification, for example, may sound like a purely academic debate, but our eternal destiny – our eternal felicity or misery – is bound up with this issue.
Secondly, the Reformation still matters because debates between Protestants and Catholics have not gone away. The anathemas of the Council of Trent have not been repealed. The Church of Rome still rejects sola scriptura and affirms the sacrifice of the Mass. Despite the changes made by Vatican II, fundamental differences between Protestants and Catholics remain, and the authors do an excellent job of highlighting them without being contentious or uncharitable.
Finally, the Reformation still matters because Reformation was always intended to be an ongoing project. The Latin phrase “semper reformanda,” meaning “always being reformed,” was one of its slogans, and the authors make helpful suggestions about how contemporary evangelicalism might benefit from the Reformers’ insight.
The authors devote the rest of the work to outlining key emphases of the Reformation and their ongoing relevance for the church today.
Chapter 1: Justification: How Can We Be Saved?
Chapter 2: Scripture: How Does God Speak to Us?
Chapter 3: Sin: What Is Wrong With Us?
Chapter 4: Grace: What Does God Give Us?
Chapter 5: The Theology of the Cross: How Do We Know What Is True?
Chapter 6: Union with Christ: Who Am I?
Chapter 7: The Spirit: Can We Truly Know God?
Chapter 8: The Sacraments: Why Do We Take Bread and Wine?
Chapter 9: The Church: Which Congregation Should I Join?
Chapter 10: Everyday Life: What Difference Does God Make on Monday Mornings?
Chapter 11: Joy and Glory: Does the Reformation Still Matter?
Each chapter begins with an attention-grabbing introduction which is typically drawn from the life of Martin Luther (chapters 6 and 11 are exceptions). They introduce the reader to the subject of the chapter and provides a measure of historical and intellectual context. This is followed by a presentation of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the topic. The authors cite a wide variety of sources and are remarkably even-handed in their presentation. Next comes the presentation of the Reformers’ theology. Although Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, to a lesser extent, hold pride of place, they also mention the thought of lesser lights of the Reformation such as Tyndale, Sibbes, and the Anabaptists among others. Lengthy quotations abound, but rather than distracting from the discussion, they whet the reader’s appetite for more. I put down Why the Reformation Matters and immediately picked up Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian, and it may prompt you to do something similar. The authors conclude each and every chapter by returning to the theme of the work – the contemporary relevance of the Reformers’ thought. These concluding sections are packed with practical wisdom and insight, and well worth thoughtful consideration. These make the work useful as well as informative. One of my favorite examples can be found at the end of the chapter on the Spirit.
Still today Christians display a strong gravitational pull away from knowing God. We can believe (and proclaim) some message called “the gospel,” and we can hold a high view of the Bible, go to church, and live what we like to think are “holy(ish)” lives – and still not actually know God. Our “gospel” can be a “Get out of hell free” deal we have signed, where knowing Christ is nonessential. Our “holiness” can be nothing more that self-dependent morality. This is precisely what sin does in us: it draws us away from keeping the greatest commandment that we love the Lord our God. This is precisely why the Reformers’ theology of the Spirit is so necessary for the church’s health today: it means the difference between that zombie religiosity the West has grown so sick of and a living faith that can transform it. (137)
Although I enjoyed all of the chapters, I liked three in particular. Chapter 5 contains one of the best – and surely the simplest – expositions of Luther’s theology of the cross that I have ever read. Chapter 7 reminds readers that the Reformers were keenly interested in the work of the Third Person of the Trinity as well as the Second. And chapter 10 provides a powerful reminder of the transforming power of the slogan sola deo gloria for everyday living. These chapters are filled with scriptural truth, historical insight, and pastoral wisdom, and they are well-worth the cost of the book.
The style of the work deserves special attention. The authors write in a popular and engaging style. They provide useful analogies and illustrations to help those unfamiliar with the religious world of the Reformation to grasp important concepts and ideas. Above all, the work is characterized by simplicity, both in terms of substance and style. J. C. Ryle, who loved simplicity in preaching and teaching almost as much as the Reformation, would be proud.
Finding fault with Why the Reformation Still Matters is difficult, and what I found is mostly trivial. I would have liked to see more of the English Reformers, but that is largely a personal preference. Perhaps the authors could have spent even more time on the ongoing theological divide between Protestant-Catholics. Though we often work well together to promote religious liberty and protect unborn life, the Reformation reminds us that our theological differences are serious and long-standing. The current religious and political climate in the English-speaking West tends to obscure these differences, and maybe an equally charitable but slightly more forceful reminder is needed.
Why the Reformation Still Matters is an all-around informative and enjoyable work. The style and simplicity of the work make it an excellent popular introduction to the thought of the Reformers. The substance and size of the work make is well-suited for a small-group study, on the one hand, or a practical resource for preachers and teachers who might like to prepare a series of talks on the Reformation, on the other. In short, this is a welcome addition to the growing body of anniversary literature and well worth the purchase price.
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Why the Reformation Still Matters