Note: This is the final section of the essay. For the occasions where it was delivered, please see the note at part one.
3. Above all, the Gospel of free grace would have continued to be shadowed behind the unreformed ritual and malformed theology of the Roman Catholic church.
Due to the decision of the Council of Orange in 529, the church had committed itself to a moderate Augustinian perspective on salvation. That is, while affirming Augustine’s emphasis upon the sovereignty of God’s grace and the utter depravity of humankind, the council hedged on the doctrine of predestination. After that, theologians in the history of the church sought to give more and more freedom and responsibility to human beings. By the time the fifteenth century came to an end, there was a form of covenant theology as articulated by theologians of the via moderna, summarized in the phrase, “God will not deny his grace to anyone who does what lies within them.” Ultimately, that meant doing good, especially, being baptized and participating in the sacrament of penance, and shunning evil. Penance became a key part of the Catholic means of gaining assurance of forgiveness and pardon. This penitential system was typically quite rigorous, provided only temporary relief with conditions attached. At least part of the reason for this was that the “effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety this side of eternity would have meant the end of medieval religious institutions.”
Of course, Luther’s Reformational discovery, that God’s righteousness shall come to those who live by faith, fundamentally threatened the basis of medieval religion and piety. If salvation came by faith alone in Christ alone, and if this provided an effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety, then the forms of penance that had proved so financially profitable for the church (particularly, indulgences) were not only unnecessary, but blasphemous. And yet, Luther’s discovery was actually a recovery of Augustinianism, articulated for the church at the Council of Orange—for this justification, this righteousness, could only come by faith which was granted by God through his sovereign grace.
But if this recovery of the Gospel had not occurred at that point, if the Reformation had not happened, then we would not be here in this church. If we went to church at all, we would still be observing the Mass, perhaps slightly revised by Vatican II (perhaps not, since there probably would not have been a Vatican II). We would still be observing an intense penitential system, seeking forgiveness and yet resigned to the fact that we would never fully know forgiveness in this life. The church as a whole would still carry the same fuzziness on how someone was right with God that characterized it before the sixteenth century Council of Trent, for without the Reformation there would have not been a Counter or Catholic Reformation or a Jesuit movement. Not only would the church have become irrelevant due to its corruption, but it would have been irrelevant pre-eminently due to its doctrine. In answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” the church still would answer, “Have you ever thought about lighting a votive, sponsoring a mass, or making a pilgrimage?”
The sheer fact that there are millions of Protestant Christians throughout the past five hundred years that have known peace with God having been justified by faith alone demonstrates that the Reformation was a vitally important reality, which transformed individuals, households, cities, and nation-states. While, perhaps, it may not have had the importance to modernity that some historians have claimed, it is undeniable that the Reformation was a genuinely significant event. In a recent brilliant social history of Calvinism by historian Philip Benedict, he observed that “the story of the establishment and defense of Europe’s various Reformed churches is fundamental to the history of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” The reason for this was that for that time, “it made a difference in people’s life experience whether they were raised as Lutherans, Reformed, or Catholics.” The Reformation made a difference in piety and worship, culture and politics. It continues to make a difference in our lives today, as evident in the worship of this Reformation church and in the profoundly good news that we are right with God by faith in Jesus. To tell the story as though the Reformation never happened or was insignificant to the story of early modern Europe and all that came after is to fail to tell the story at all.