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World Congress on Evangelism, 1966
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REFORMATION 1517 AND 1966
by Gerhard Bergmann


Exactly 449 years ago today, on October 31, hammer blows fell on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. These blows echoed quickly on the wings of the wind throughout all the Christian civilized world of that day. The Reformation became a cosmic event of the first magnitude and the threshold of a new western era..

The World Congress on Evangelism here assembled does well to remember this birthday of the Reformation. In doing this we will consider three points, namely,

l. The various ways of viewing the Reformation

2. The inner meaning (Selbstverständnis) of the Reformation

3. The challenge of the Reformation for us today

1. Various ways of viewing the Reformation. Historia est magistra vitae: history is the teacher of life, that is, we learn about life from history. Beginning in 1517 the Reformation penetrated the decades and centuries that followed, making strong impacts upon us even in 1966. Unfortunately, the Reformation could not escape being subjected to dire misconceptions. A wrong understanding of the Reformation leads to wrong attitudes, to wrong reactions. We must guard against this with all our might. In these days of spiritual confusion it is imperative and vitally pertinent therefore to reflect upon and to consider the Reformation. It is important for us as a World Congress to learn from these erroneous interpretations. Only then will history become our teacher.

There are four different views of the Reformation.

a. There is the cultural-historical view. This view was particularly popular around 1900. Here Luther is praised as the founder of the German language. And he is seen as the herald of freedom of conscience. He is lauded as the pioneer of a humanistic view of man. Luther and Erasmus, the Reformation and Humanism, are drawn together in rather doubtful fashion. But it was just against this optimistic, rosy picture of man as given by Erasmus that Luther objected so sharply. Mankind should have learned from history that the Reformation gained its cause by its biblical and therefore sober and realistic view of man. The horrors of two world wars, the concentration, prison, and internment camps have decisively refuted humanism. Humanism is finished. For in humanism man becomes something harmless and inoffensive. Never dare we put the Reformation and Humanism in one package. The cultural-historical view of the Reformation, therefore, is definitely false.

b. There is a nationalistic interpretation of the Reformation.. This view is represented especially by Paul de Lagarde and by National Socialism. Here Martin Luther is seen as the great German who freed Germany from the bonds and tutelage of Rome. But this nationalistic interpretation of the Reformation is also false. It is true that Luther believed in his people and country as every Christian ought to do. But something else was of central importance for Luther. This his words make perfectly clear: "When Germany buries its last minister," he said, "then it will be burying itself." With these words Luther clearly pointed beyond that which is but national to that which truly remains and abides. It is this which remains that was Luther's concern.

c. There is the confessionalistic view. This confession- alistic concept appears in both Protestant Catholic garb. Even today there are many inside the Catholic church who interpret the Reformation as the great downfall of western man. The Reformation brought about defection from the church. The Reformation, they say, is responsible for the fateful division of Christianity; it even supplies the root for later secularism and for the autonomous man of our times. This view of the Reformation subjects one to a distorted view of history. For the root of secularism and autonomy lies not in the Reformation, but in the Renaissance. Happily a change is taking place in the Roman Catholic church in its view of the Reformation. Dean Kiefl has said:"Luther cleansed the innermost sanctuary of the church." Another Catholic dignitary acknowledged to a Protestant bishop: "What should we have become without you?" And with me a Catholic priest discussed the "uncompleted Reformation." By this he meant that the Reformation must yet do its work of renewal in the Church of Rome itself. Only then would the Reformation be complete. In his two- volume work, Die Reformation in Deutschland, Catholic uni- versity professor Lortz has made a significant contribution toward correcting the picture of the Reformation. This changed understanding of the Reformation penetrated even into the Council, where the word "Reformation" came into official use.

But we find an erroneous understanding of the Reformation even among Protestants. There are those who lull themselves in confessional self-satisfaction and become exhausted in polemics against the Roman Catholic church, and are no longer self- critical. This confessionalistic view of the Reformation is likewise false; Luther did not see himself as a confession- alist, but very humbly he saw himself as a preacher of the Word in keeping with the admonition "Preach the Word!" as given by the Apostle to the Gentiles to his pupil Timothy.

d. There is the view of the Reformation as related to the entire church. This view has a great deal of truth. It says, for example, and correctly, that Luther did not want a new church, but simply renewal of the existing church. He desired continuation, he did not desire inauguration of something new. For this reason the actual birthday of the Protestant church is not October 31, 1517, but rather the first Day of Pentecost, 33 A. D. This view also notes, and properly, that Luther was no revolutionary, but a reformer The Reformation was simply something that happened in the church.

It is likewise correct to see that every one of Luther's successors bears a responsibility to the entire church. Even this World Congress is in no way exempt or excluded from this responsibility. Yes, we bear responsibility also toward the Roman Catholic church, for everyone who takes seriously Jesus' high-priestly prayer in John 17, "Holy Father ... may they be one as we are one,” it considers the division a great, gaping, bleeding wound in the body of Christ, His Church. For just as there is but one God so there is but one church. A divided Christendom is a self-contradiction. Because the successors of the Reformation stand in a responsibility to the total church, all of us both inside and outside of this Congress Hall are called to confessionalistic cleansing.

No matter how correct this is and remains, no matter how properly it is seen from the total church perspective of the Reformation, nonetheless the Reformation was not concerned about the church as such but about something else. This brings us to

2. The Reformation's inner meaning or concept of self. If it were asked, what was the Reformation all about?, tiae answer would include three things:

a. the absolute glory of God

b. the all-sufficiency of the redemptive work of Christ

c. the joyous Christian who has assurance of personal salvation

The inner meaning or core of the Reformation, therefore, is theo- and-christo-centric. Only if we thus understand the Reformation, the way it understood itself, do we view it properly. We are called then, to a theo- and christo-centric perspective of the Reformation.

Let us briefly ask ourselves: what is contained in this threefold inner concept of the Reformation?

In the first place, it stresses the absolute glory of God. The basic concern of the Reformation lies in consistently taking seriously the first commandment: "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Luther's opposition to the papal church derived from his recognition that it had indeed placed something "beside me." Because the entire Reformation took very seriously the revelatio Dei-- that is, God's revelation in His Word,--the Reformation movement became a movement of the Bible. Because it was concerned for the absolute glory of God, the Reformation was concerned, too, for the honor of God's Word. This basic passion of the Reformation, namely, to let nothing stand alongside the God revealed in His Word, helps us understand Luther's revolutionary, and in his day, heretical, comment: "Even councils can err!"

This basic concern of the Reformation helps us understand also its negation, not of tradition as such, but of granting equal status to Scripture and tradition. The Reformers deeply revered the church fathers. But everything the fathers said was to be measured in the light of the Holy Scriptures. It was this norma normans, this matter of the Bible as exclusive, determinative norm for all the teaching of the church that prompted the poet Konrad Ferdinand Meyer to say of Luther: "He senses the monstrous rupture of the times, and securely clasps his Bible."

In the matter of God's glory the Reformation was concerned about a clear witness as to what constitutes ultimate authority (Erstinstanz). And what is this ultimate authority? The triune God. The witness to this triune God the Reformation found in sola scriptura, in Scripture alone.

We discuss, secondly, the all-sufficiency of Christ's redemptive work. We wrongly interpret the Reformation, if we think that the Reformers were opposed to good works and pious exercises; what they did deny was the meritorious nature of good works. The Reformers vehemently opposed any suggestion of synergism, the false teaching that man cooperates with Christ to bring about faith and in a manner that grants him personal merit. All of us somehow have a touch of synergism. Why should there be this impassioned opposition to cooperatively gained merit? Simply because to the extent that man can help earn his salvation by good works, to that extent Christ's merit is lessened and thus the all-sufficiency, of His redemptive work is undermined. For this same reason we must also understand the Reformation's total negation of invoking the saints. The Reformation takes seriously the words of Scripture: "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (I John 2:1).

In the last analysis also this second principle of the Ref- ormation is concerned with the glory of Jesus Christ in that it stresses the all-sufficiency of His atoning work and of the objective redemptive facts.

In the third place, the Reformation is concerned with the joyous Christian who has personal assurance of salvation.

What does this indicate?

Despite God's greatness and incomprehensibility, man is nonetheless, called to the possibility of having the joyous certainty of being a child of God. This means nothing less than that personal assurance of salvation is a special concern of the Reformation. As Luther says: "It is idle talk to say man is uncertain whether or not he is a recipient of grace. Beware lest you ever be unsure; instead, be sure.” This assurance of personal salvation is possible because of the gracious and merciful gift of Christ's redeeming work. We see then that the third concern of the Reformation is closely related to the second.

The Reformation discovers anew the words of Scripture: "Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver or gold ... but with the precious blood of Christ... (I Peter 1:18-19). Or there is the passage: "We know that we have passed from death unto life" (I John 3:14).

It was this awareness of personal salvation that brought the joyful Christian into being, that created the freedom that a Christian knows in his bondage to Christ. The Reformation proclaimed certitudo, certainty of salvation, over against securitas, that is, security of salvation standing defined in terms of so many meritorious deeds and works.

I trust that these three emphases have given us the inner significance, the heart of the Reformation.

Closely related is the vital question we shall now discuss under number 3.

3. What challenges has the Reformation for us today? First we must note and acknowledge that the problems apparent on October 31, 1517, are different from those of October 31, 1966. The World Congress must take this fact into consideration. This change in problems came about in a two-fold connection:

a. The concept of the world (Weltbild) has changed.

b. The view of man (Menschenbild) has changed.

By this we mean that the pre-scientific concept of the world as it still obtained at the time of the Reformation eventually had to succumb to the scientific view. For many people this scientific concept of the world is that of natural science, this causal-mechanistic view, there is no longer any room for anything that would explode the causal-mechanistic theory. In other words, there is no room for anything miraculous, supernatural, mystical, for anything that deals with wondrous and inexplicable things; there is no room for soteriology and eschatology.

Just as the concept of the world (Weltbild) has changed, so has the concept of man (Menschenbild). Today's man has a different attitude toward life than did medieval man. Today's man is the man of technology and science.

But we would ask, dear friends, have these two changes--in viewing the world and in attitude toward life--not also thrust the Reformation into the wheel of history, into the panta rhei, the flow of all things? Is it still possible to speak seriously of a challenge of the Reformation?

Paradoxically enough, the answer must be that the very fact of these changed concepts of the world and of man is what makes attention to the Reformation all the more necessary and its challenge all the more urgent. This we must demonstrate.

The Reformation presents us with a three-fold challenge:

1) that pertaining to supreme authority (Erstinstanz)
2) that pertaining to the correct view of man
3) that pertaining to fullness of spiritual power

Point one investigates the matter of supreme authority. It is true that man's concept of the world has changed. -ut it is wrong to exalt this changing world view to the place of supreme authority (Erstinstanz). Even logic opposed this. That which changes cannot be norma normans. Only that which itself is removed from the cycle of changeability can be supreme authority. God is this ultimate authority and not some construct of the world (Weltbild). God is unchangeable. The Weltbild is even less justifiably enthroned as final authority now that the natural scientific concept of the world has once again been enthroned in our day, and that 'in fact by natural scientists. The time is past when it is considered possible to absolutize a causal-mechanistic view of the world, and to raise it almost to the status of a Weltanschauung and philosophy. Even if the existence of God cannot be scientifically proved, neither can it be scientifically denied. What's more, a God proved by science would not be God. For I can prove only that which is by creation lower than I, that which is at my disposal. Therefore God must needs be removed from the arena of proof or He is not God, He is the ultimate authority (Erstinstanz).

This knowledge of ultimate authority was peculiar to the Reformation. This is its legacy to us.

It follows then that if the question concerning ultimate authority is made clear and if God and not some concept of the world, not some human rationalistic idea, is the ultimate authority, then the three-fold concerns of the Reformation are still fully valid today. Today, therefore, we are still concerned with:

1) the absolute glory of God
2) the all-sufficiency of Christ's atoning work
3) personal assurance of salvation

We shall now consider the second challenge of the Reformation, namely, the question of a valid concept of man.

It is true that many people today are influenced and impressed by science and technology. But it is wrong to capitulate to this fact, to make it a gauge for one's proclamation of the Gospel. It is foolish to argue, for example, that because many people today no longer believe in miracles, that therefore we must tell them that, in fact, there never were any miracles. Any theologian or Christian who does this is offering the white flag of surrender to the followers of science and technology. Such a one is never in a position to be of any real further help to modern man.

We must clearly acknowledge that there are those who are indeed influenced by science and technology. In fact, all of us are influenced thereby to some extent, and in some manner. But even those who are especially impressed by technology and science are aware of other and deeper levels of consciousness that are beyond the reach of technology and science. It is here, however, that the real and essential decisions of life are made. We cite only one of many possible illustrations of this fact. The German Auto Club queried 4330 drivers. These were people, obviously, who would have at least some knowledge of the mechanics of an automobile, and who can usually be assumed to be mentally competent. You will be interested to know that of these 4330 persons, 84.5% carried some kind of charm in their cars, and only 9.9% preferred to rely on and use safety belts.

Apart from technological persons there are still many more persons whose thinking and emotions are not decisively influenced by technology and science. Against this background, we will see how totally wrong and absurd it is, even from a religious-psychological perspective, for Bishop Robinson (in his book, A New Reformation) to deal with a concept of man that--although I won't say it is totally unknown--is what one might at least say is practically non-existent. Moreover, it is the greatest of errors to make this obviously false view of man the yardstick for Christian proclamation. Let me state the situation very clearly: neither some view of the world nor some concept of man can be or can become the ultimate authority (Erstinstanz) for proclamation. While views of the world and of man are not overlooked in the right kind of proclamation, they are subject to correction in the light of the revealed gospel. The gospel help secular man recognize his self-estrangement as, in fact, an estrangement from God.

For these insights concerning the proper view of man we are indebted to the Reformation in its totality. Seen from this perspective the Reformation of 1517 becomes real and imperative also for us. We are still concerned with justification of sinners by God and with personal assurance of salvation. Just today when a great deal is being done in the area of depth psychology and when much is in danger of being dissolved in psychologizing, we must tell people in all clarity that assurance of salvation is not something measured by some kind of a barometer of the emotions. If this were so, man would be thrown back on his own resources. And that would be wrong. True, while assurance of salvation has to do with persons, it nevertheless comes from, derives its life from the fact of salvation. Assurance of salvation comes about through the objective redeeming work of Christ. God imputes it to anyone who personally avails himself of it in an act of faith. Certainty of salvation, therefore rests not in man's psyche, but in the redemptive work of Christ.

All that we have said thus far confronts us now in the Reformation's third challenge for us today.

In point three we consider the matter of fullness of power (Vollmacht). The Reformation and proclamation of 1517 and thereafter were accompanied by such fullness of spiritual power that they sped like a life-giving breath throughout the countries of that day.

We today, on the-other hand, suffer because many of our churches are tongue-tied. At the same time, our many, diverse churches and fellowships yearn for a word of authority.

Two questions become prominent, then, as we look back on the Reformation of 1517:

1) what is fullness of power?
2) how are we to preach, in order that proclamation be accompanied by this fullness of power?

Concerning 1), we would say that fullness of power is being filled with the power from on high, being filled with the Holy Ghost. Fullness of power is total dependence upon Christ and independence of men. Fullness of power is unconditional assent to Christ and denial of self.

The secret of fullness of power both for the Reformation of 1517 and for that of 1966 is found authentically only in Jesus Christ. His life was subject to the rule: "I must work the works of Him that sent me..." (John 9:4). In Jesus' life, there was no reference to self, only to God. Jesus was always in direct relationship to God This was the secret of his complete dependence upon God, of His fullness of power.

From such dependence comes the realization that fullness of power leads to freedom, freedom in interpersonal relationships in marriage, in the family, among countrymen, and in the State. In His authoritative freedom Jesus radically opposed the degenerate social concepts of His day. We read: "He eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners" (Mark,2:16). Against the theological dignitaries of His day, against the high priests and scribes, Jesus hurled the words: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers" (Matthew 23:33).

Soren Kierkegaard says: "...infinite thoughtlessness is power.” Please note, however, this is not thoughtlessness or lack of consideration toward others; it means, rather, to have no thought for oneself. Fullness of power is rooted in the "Determination to require nothing, to fear nothing...to want to offer everything" (Kierkegaard). "Nec laudibus, nec timore"--one is to regard neither man's praise nor blame, because one knows himself to be totally dependent upon God.

In Jesus, fullness of power as dependence upon God, selflessness, and freedom toward men was coupled with seeking and sacrificial love. "For the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

Today we have only as much fullness of power as Jesus has power in us. For fullness of power is not a matter of determination. it does not come by personal choice and of oneself, but comes, rather, from what is given.

All fullness of power in the lives of His Reformation servants is a mirroring, a reflection of Jesus' indwelling power. Fullness of power is captivity of the conscience to the Lord. It was Luther’s total dependence on Christ and the captivity of his conscience to Christ that prompted him to declare before Kaiser and his kingdom: "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen." Fullness of power as dependence upon God gives an inner feeling of being able to rise above people and circumstances. This explains Luther's letter to his sovereign when he said: “I should rather protect your Highness than that you should protect me."

Now we consider the second question, which pertains to the relationship between proclamation and fullness of power. First we must distinguish between fullness of power as it pertains to the message (Sache) and fullness of power as it pertains to the person. Fullness of power in regard to content pertains to the inescapable validity of the revealed fact of the triune God as given in His infallible Word. Bible criticism destroys fullness of power. Therefore we unhesitatingly say yes to the Holy Scriptures. Fullness of power in reference to the message and fullness of power in reference to the person are inseparable.

And so, because the concerns of the Reformation are actually the basic concerns of Scripture it follows that we can expect fullness of power in Proclamation today only if we make the foundations of the Reformation in their entirety the basic concern of all our proclamation, teaching, and life.

Authoritative proclamation in preaching and Evangelism, in written and spoken word, must have as its purpose the glory of God and the salvation of men.

Today one often hears it said that during the Reformation man's concern was how shall I apprehend a gracious God? But today presumably man's concern is how can I have good neighbors? In regard to this widespread attitude of our day we must make it very clear that certainly we are concerned about good neighbors, whoever they might be--whether American, Russian, Chinese, or even the neighbor in business or at the office. But we will have gracious neighbors only when men find their way back to a gracious God. Even the anthropological problem of our day is a theological one. Fullness of power as dependence upon Jesus Christ and independence or freedom from men, and from theological ideas and trends has in it the courage to face unpopularity. Fullness of power has in it the gift of courage to face the consequences. Such authoritative proclamation must trumpet forth the truth that the deepest reason for the spiritual illness of our feverish world stems from man's proud self-glorification which stops not even at the doors of the church. The constantly increasing turning away from God is the basic evil of our time. The scourge Of our age is autonomy and anthropocentrism. To the extend that autonomy and anthropocentrism gain room in the church and in theology, to that extent will the church and theology become savorless, discarded salt; more than this, both will become traitors to the ultimate authority (Erstinstanz) and to the Reformation of 1517.

On the other hand, to the degree that we take seriously the revelation of God as given in His Word and keep it untainted from secular philosophical questionings, inasmuch as the Bible is not at all interested in such, I say, to that degree we may hope God will open the gates of heaven and pour forth torrents Of his power that will surge through the church and theology, through our preaching and our evangelizing.

Authoritative preaching today in 1966 as in 1517 consists in the full, undiluted proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Fullness of power is total absence of compromise in both the Message and in the messenger.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, who of us does not see the connection between the Reformation of 1517, this Reformation Memorial Day of 1966, and the World Congress on Evangelism? Is there anyone who does not recognize his personal responsibility?

It is my desire that this Congress shall bring everyone of us directly and wholly to the foot of the cross of Golgotha. Only there are we protected and unimpeachable. If we truly place ourselves beneath the cross, then we will throw off lives of masquerade, of make-believe, of bluffing, of emptiness, and of secret sin.

Then we shall discover what is real and genuine. Then we shall be empty, open vessels for God's Holy Spirit.

Then and only then will this Congress become a kairos, a time filled with total and direct dependence upon God to the extent that this is a reality our lives will be granted fullness of power.

The Reformation of 1517 shall and must under any and all circumstances live on both today and in the future. Never dare the Reformation chimes become a death knell.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Reformation bells of Easter will ring out today also if they resound in each of our hearts and if we, like our fathers, are filled with the honest determination that to God alone shall be the glory. Soli Deo gloria!


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Last Revised: 4/5/06
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2006