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What does the Reformation mean for us today?


“Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it.

I am weak in the faith; strengthen me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent, that my love may go out to my neighbour.

I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.

In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have. I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor. I am a sinner; you are upright.

With me, there is an abundance of sin; in you is the fullness of righteousness. Therefore, I will remain with you, of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give. Amen.”

 -Martin Luther


Our Reformation Heritage

Many Christians would have heard of the 500-year-old movement called the Reformation, but not many of us understand the importance of this movement, and the impact it still has on us today. Some of us may know of Martin Luther or John Calvin—that one of them vandalised a church door by nailing a complaint on it called the Ninety-Five Theses. The Reformers went on to teach Three Solas that characterised our Protestant faith: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gracia and Sola Fides—Scripture Alone, Grace Alone and Faith Alone.


[Reformation Fact 1]

Martin Luther. Luther was 26 years older than Calvin. Old enough to be his father. He was the pioneer Reformer who kicked off the Reformation. Calvin was a second-generation Reformer. Thus, Luther carried more authority than Calvin during their time.

[Reformation Fact 2]

The Ninety-Five Theses criticised the sale and practice of indulgences. Medieval Christians believed that after death, most of them did not go to heaven directly. This is because they were still tainted by sin and needed to be purified in a holding area called ‘Purgatory’. This is where they would suffer for and be cleansed of their sins. Indulgences are certificates which one can purchase to give him or her time off from Purgatory. Say, a reduction of million days off time in Purgatory. An indulgence, in short, sped up one’s entry into heaven. 

[Reformation Fact 3]

The first person to coin the Three Solas was Theodore Engelder. He was a 20th century theologian, and the earliest we know who summarised Reformation faith into the Three Solas. This was found in his article: The Three Principles of the Reformation (1916). This is not to say that the essence of the Solas was not taught by the Reformers. They were. But the summary of their teachings into the Three Solas should not be attributed to the first Reformers.


Martin Luther and Medieval Salvation

Martin Luther was a German monk who first trained as a lawyer, and afterward as a theologian. Upon graduation with his PhD, he taught at the University of Wittenberg from 1512 until the end of his life in 1546. About 35 years in total. During his initial years as a monk, Luther struggled very hard with the concept of salvation. At that time, the medieval understanding of salvation was basically this dictum: “Do your very best and God will do the rest; God will count our best efforts as worthy for salvation.” But Luther found this teaching problematic.

An Illustration:

When my son was preparing for his Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), we found him to be more interested in play than study, quite typical of a boy his age. He was fixated on this notion: “An hour of study must be compensated by an hour of play with the XBox!”. There were many arguments about how much time he could spend playing, and the tension was very stressful indeed.

Given this situation, we wondered how much we should push him to study…  Often, we told him to do his best. But what did his ‘best’ mean? On a good day, he cooperated and studied well. On a bad day, he got cranky and spent more time quarrelling with us than doing anything else. 

How do we measure one’s ‘best effort’? What do we count as worthy effort? It’s not straightforward… The same can be said about medieval salvation. We don’t quite know when our efforts qualify as best and worthy before God!

Over time, Luther realised that this approach would not do. It often left him wondering and fearing whether he did enough to please God; whether his deeds were worthy and could justify him.


Saved by Faith

Around this time too (this was still the 1510s), Luther began to see that all humanity had a serious problem: our natures are not just defective, with minor flaws. Rather, we were morally or spiritually dead.

Ephesians 2:1-3 puts it quite plainly and graphically:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

In other words, we are not just wounded or injured, and can be patched and healed by a mere binding of our wounds. Rather, we are dead spiritually. Our allegiance is with the spirit of the world, the prince of the power of the air. We are in active rebellion against God. Nothing could save us except by a miraculous resurrection from such spiritual death!

Salvation thus begins when we become aware of how desperate our situation is. When we are in “utter despair” of our sinful condition, and will throw ourselves “entirely and without reserve upon God’s [love and] mercy.” And we do this by faith, by trusting that God would justify us out of His love and the saving work of Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

Thus, the Apostle Paul continues in Ephesians 2:4-9

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”


Justification by Faith

Herein was the start of our Protestant emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith. 

We are saved: 

  1. By the grace of God;
  2. Who made us alive with and through Jesus Christ. 
  3. We receive and enjoy this salvation solely by faith, not by our own works or merit. 
  4. For this purpose, as Romans 5:1 puts it, “we have been justified [we have been made righteous] by faith, [and so] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Justification by Faith in Practice

Most Christians know the doctrine of justification by faith very well. We preach it all the time. This is a wonderful, wonderful teaching to emphasise!

However we may sometimes confuse a theoretical understanding of the teaching with a real-life experience of it. On the one hand, we teach the doctrine of justification by faith—that we need do nothing to be saved and loved by God. On the other hand, we behave, in our daily lives, as though we need to do much to please God, to justify his love and pleasure. 

Here are some examples of the inconsistency between the doctrine and its practice:

  • Some of us may feel obligated to serve in ministries, attend Bible studies or even enroll in BGST classes in order to feel that we are on the right track with God. If not, we may feel that we are not growing as Christians. That we are somehow deficient as Christians. 
  • Some may feel that they are inadequate Christians because they are being bogged down with childcare, or caring for their sick or aged parents, and thus not able to serve in church.
  • When we retire as ministry workers or pastors, we suddenly feel lost as Christians because we are no longer in active ministry. 
  • In the case of the current pandemic, when many ministries have shut down, we wonder how else we can grow spiritually.

Before I began my theological studies, I was teaching full time, serving as a deacon, leading worship and bible studies, and also studying at BGST. But when I went to Regent College, I found myself suddenly without a job or ministry. I had nothing to show that I was growing as a Christian! I struggled a lot with what I thought was a real insufficiency in my life.

It took a year before I realised that God loves me without all these activities, that living a simple life of humility and love to those around me matters to God. This was when I realised that our spiritual activism can, if we are not careful, become a kind of legalism, or works-based righteousness. That is, I only became assured of my salvation when I engaged in some kind of formal Christian ministry.

Such spiritual workaholism is not a correct manifestation of justification by faith in Christ. Instead, true justification is knowing that Christ has done everything for me, and to know deep down in my heart that God LOVES me! He ACCEPTS me. He DELIGHTS in me!

It is out of this recognition of Christ’s love, of being fully accepted by God because of Christ, that we should lead out our lives. And Luther is quite clear about this!

The Role of Works in the Christian Life

When Luther first taught the doctrine of justification, his teaching sounded controversial to the Catholics. In fact, they were shocked by it. As they saw it, if works are not important, or not necessary at all, wouldn’t Christians just give up on doing good? Wouldn’t they just sin however they please? After all, the grace of God would cover the multitude of sins!

This depends on how one interprets Ephesians 2, particularly verse 10:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

“Good works… are expressions of our faith. They are the outlooking of our gratitude to, and love of God”

Good works are not attempts to justify ourselves before God. They do not merit salvation or God’s favour. Rather, they are expressions of our faith. They are the outlooking of our gratitude to, and love of God. As Luther put it in one of his early writings, called The Freedom of a Christian: “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.

It’s like our relationship with a loved one, whether this is a friend, a parent or even our spouse. When a boy falls in love with a girl, he is willing to do anything for her, and she reciprocates in love. Everything they do for one another is out of their love and faith for each other. They are not looking to score brownie points, or to gain the other’s favour. They are simply delighted that the other is happy. In fact, that’s their only goal. Yet, if their relationship deteriorates, when they become unsure of their status before the other, whether they are still loved, what happens then? They no longer do anything out of sheer delight of the other. Rather, they end up trying to gain the approval or favour of the other instead. What’s worse is that: they would always be wondering whether they have done enough.

But such stress, such an obligated life, is not God’s intention for us. God loves us and has saved us in Christ. Through Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice, He has justified us. He now extends the hand of friendship to us. As long as we accept what Jesus has done for us on the Cross, in faith, we can be assured of His love. We can be sure that our heavenly Father accepts and delights in us!

This is the dramatic rediscovery of Martin Luther, and the spiritual riches that the Reformation bequeaths to us.

Alien vs Proper Righteousness

There is more. After his excommunication from the Catholic Church, and a brief exile, Luther returned to Wittenberg to lead the Reformation. In the years ahead, he visited churches to assess their spiritual condition. He discovered, to his shock, that many Christians took his word too literally! (Visitation Articles, 1526). They assumed that since grace covered all sins, they were free to sin whatever they pleased. Moreover, they did not bother to learn the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer or even practise the Ten Commandments. 

In other words, they did not understand Luther’s teaching that they must still do good works, but as expressions of their love for Christ!

It is during this period that Luther began to differentiate between two forms of righteousness: Alien and Proper Righteousness.

Alien Righteousness is the righteousness deemed as ours by God. We receive it when we believe that Christ justified us by His saving work. God regards us as perfect or righteous because of Christ. This is a bit like the 2016 Olympics. When Joseph Schooling won an Olympic Gold, we all celebrated with him. This was because we saw him as our representative and that he won on behalf of all Singaporeans!

In contrast to this is the idea of Proper Righteousness. It refers to the Christian character and virtues that we develop over time. The virtues which are ours properly. These are nurtured over time through daily dying to our sins and sinful desires, and our development of new spiritual habits that leads to the virtues of faith, hope and love. In doing so, we become more like Christ. We become more and more like Him in righteousness. In Luther’s words: 

“This [proper] righteousness goes on to complete the first [i.e., alien righteousness] for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore, it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists. For in that it hates itself and does not seek its own, it crucifies the flesh. Because it seeks the good of another, it works love. Thus, in each sphere it does God’s will, living soberly with self, justly with neighbour, devoutly toward God.” 

Luther’s teachings are instructive for us. When we think about salvation by faith alone, we sometimes think that we should not focus on the development of our Christian character and virtue. Why? Because we fear committing works righteousness. 

Yet, we are psychosomatic, fully bodied beings. We need to do something with our lives. What do we do then? As mentioned earlier, we often end up engaged in all kinds of Christian activities—prayer meetings, Bible studies, mission work and so on. We assume that the more we do, the more spiritual and mature we are as Christians. All these activities are formative and are helpful expressions of our love of Christ. But, if not understood properly, it may morph into a queer form of works righteousness, a strange belief that “If I don’t engage in these activities, I am not growing in Christ.”.

This form of spiritual activism is not what the Reformers envisaged for Christians. Rather, Luther and the other Reformers call us to die daily to our sins and addictions, and to develop new habits or lifestyle, so that we become more and more like Christ in His love, humility and holiness. We must develop proper righteousness. Or as John Calvin puts it, be sanctified. 

The apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans 6: 1-4

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

Romans 6: 10-13

“For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”

“Whether we are engaged in pastoral or secular work, we are all working out our faith and priesthood. Neither vocations are superior or inferior to the other. We are all in full-time ministry.”

Good Works & the Priesthood of Believers

Thus far, we have seen Christ’s justification bestowing on us an alien righteousness, so that we can begin to cultivate a proper righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit. This then sets the stage, as Luther sees it, for us to fulfil the calling that God has for every one of us: to be a priest for Christ! 

Writing to the Christian politicians supporting him, Luther declared on the basis of 1 Peter 2:9 that through baptism each Christian has been united with Christ and thus “becomes a priest through Christ’s own priesthood.”

For this reason, whether we are engaged in pastoral or secular work, we are all working out our faith and priesthood. Neither vocation is superior or inferior to the other. We are all in full-time ministry. In Luther’s words: “Therefore, just as those who are now called ‘spiritual,’ that is, priests, bishops, or popes, are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities. They bear the sword and rod in their hand to punish the wicked and protect the good. A cobbler, a smith, a peasant—each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops. Further, everyone must benefit and serve every other by means of his own work or office so that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, just as all the members of the body serve one another.”

Some Christians have a preconceived hierarchy of Christian work. We think that some are better or holier than others. Some rank becoming missionaries as the most important Christian work, followed by pastors or ministry workers, possibly Bible school teachers, or Christians involved in caregiving or mercy work such as doctors, counsellors, or social workers. Then perhaps teachers or those in civil service, who are better than bankers, entrepreneurs or business people.

Well, Luther apparently didn’t think this way. The work of a cobbler, a blacksmith, banker, technician and data analyst is equally holy and good as that of a pastor or missionary! This, of course, is Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of believers.

Saved by Christ, Save for Christ

Our Reformation heritage celebrates the glorious fact that Jesus died to justify us, to make us righteous before God, if only we would accept this by faith—alien righteousness!  We are called to be inspired by this amazing love, so much so that we will serve God willingly, out of gratitude. This means that we do not engage in spiritual activism but seek to die to our sinful addictions and grow in Christ’s love and holiness—proper righteousness. It also means that we are to live out our calling as Christ’s priests—to serve Him wherever He calls us, whether in Church or the marketplace.


Contributor: Lai Pak Wah
Presented by:  BGST