Reformation Today

Robert Schmidt

For Lutherans it is a familiar celebration. Reformation Day celebrates Luther’s nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, heralding the beginning of the Reformation. As Lutherans remember this day, they rejoice in the cardinal teaching of the Reformation that we are justified by grace, through faith, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. In former years Lutherans often compared this teaching of Luther to the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations that gave a greater weight to good works toward people’s salvation. Reformation Day was a time to talk about the meaning of reformation “for the Church.”

Lutherans still love to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and affirm their Reformation faith. But what does the Reformation and its cardinal teaching say to people who do not seem even remotely concerned about their sin and the way to salvation? Sure there are still sermons on those wonderful texts from Romans that we are justified by faith without the deeds of the law. In an increasingly secular society, however, the joy those words should bring simply does not register. Sin is increasingly defined as eating too much or having an affair. Then, of course, everyone has their own definition of sin, and one can always find excuses.

This two-part article will explore the meaning of the cardinal teaching of the Reformation to secular societies. Part I will look at a parallel application of the “justification by faith” texts, and Part II will revisit the meaning of the Reformation for world history.


Part I: Justification and the Sins of Others

Whatever happened to sin? Karl Menninger, the psychiatrist, asked this question some time ago.1 For Luther, it was the cause of deep anxiety threatening eternal damnation. Few people today seem to have that same fear. Yes, some are still troubled about their own inadequacies, vulnerability and failed goals, but outside of church circles they seldom call it sin. Nevertheless, nearly everyone is profoundly concerned about the crimes of others. For some it is personal; for others it is political.

On a personal level, a young man recounted what he called his conversion. An agnostic, he had had no room for God or religion in his life. The turning point in his life was when he became acutely conscious of the evil of some of his associates. Their actions were reprehensible; their actions were vile. They openly showed hatred to others and almost seemed to invite others to return their hate. The young man felt himself drawn into their vortex. Yes, with bitterness and anger he would return what he had experienced from them. At this point it was not his sin but the sin of others that produced in him a deep disquiet. The desperate need to escape the inviting sin of others led him to desire a salvation outside of himself. Might Jesus help?

Others become intensely aware of sin and its consequences in domestic and international politics. The carnage of war is not due only to miscalculation and faulty intelligence; it is also built on the hatred of evil in others. Both terrorism and war are fostered by dividing up the world into friends and enemies. Phrases applied to others like “the great Satan” and “the axis of evil,” become the pretext for massive killings. Although people may be blind to their own sins, they have little difficulty in seeing the sins of the enemy. Since they murdered women and children, since they killed the guys in my unit, since they hate us, we are “justified” in killing them.

Now, seen in light of the sins of others, “justification” becomes the operative work in taking down the towers, beheading the journalist, torturing the terrorist and bombing the targets with, of course, collateral damage. We are not justified by grace through faith; we are justified by the sins of other people. Projecting sin onto our enemies, personal or collective, has the added benefit of upping our own goodness. Our ideals, values, culture and religion are good and superior to those of others. Parodying on the hymn, many think, Chief of sinners though I be, they are certain to be worse than me.

How do we best address the terrible consequences of sin and the most welcome news of God’s justification to those more secular folks at the edge of the church? Some years ago the Swedish bishop/theologian Krister Stendahl wrote Paul among the Jews and Gentiles. In it he asked whether Luther really got it right. When Luther translated into German, “Der Gerechte wird seines Glaubens leben“ (The just will live by his faith), Rom. 1:17, he found the marvelous answer to his desire for righteousness. Luther found the comfort he sought in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Though Stendahl admits that Luther might legitimately find comfort in these texts, the Swedish bishop said that they were really written for another purpose. The overriding purpose of Romans was to bring together the wildly diverse, almost antagonistic, Jews and Gentiles in the churches he and the other apostles had planted throughout the empire.2

Those differences could not be papered over then, nor can the hostilities between soldiers and insurgents, Zionists and Jihadists, Americans and Iranians be smoothed over now. There is simply too much history, too many vicious crimes and too much religious rhetoric all over the place. Like the surgeon cutting deep to get out the cancer, Paul lays bare the cruel and brutal sins that fester in us all. Like those others, we are filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and craftiness, people are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom. 1:29-31). Then Paul gathers all the justifications for conflicts and wars and silences them with these words, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

Being justified by grace through faith, Jews and Gentiles could pray together, eat together and love each other. Jesus had broken down the wall of hostility not just between God and people but between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14). So what if Greeks did their games in the nude and Jews went around bundled up? Did it matter if Jews ate kosher and Gentiles ate Diana burgers? Because we have been justified by faith, have we also been “justified” to sit down with our enemies, be they personal or political—not justified to kill but justified for reconciliation?

And it happens. In Nigeria after over a million died during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, Nigeria’s top general forgave the Biafrans and their leaders. In South Africa Nelson Mandela and the newly elected African National Congress established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to forgive the enemies when they confessed their crimes. While appearing doable in history’s afterglow, a contemporary application seems impossible. Can the Iranians forgive us for the CIA’s overthrow of the Mossadegh government and replacing him with the Shah? Can the U.S. forgive the Iranians for imprisoning the U.S. embassy staff and perhaps arming the Shia insurgents in Iraq?

Ah! But was not Paul talking about justification by faith for both sides who repented of their sins and believed in Christ’s death and resurrection for their justification? At first it would seem so. When, however, we read on to Romans 9, all of our limitations on God’s grace and goodness fall away. Most of the Jews had not accepted God’s mercy in Christ. Paul would even forego his salvation for their sake if they would believe. What about those who are seemingly totally outside of God’s salvation story? Here Paul quotes from Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call `my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call `my beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, `You are not my people,’ they will be called `sons of the living God'” (Rom. 9:25).

Here Paul brings into the conversation not only those who believe but those on whom God bestows his marvelous grace and mercy. Who is the insurgent who kills for Allah? Who is the neoconservative who manipulated intelligence to get us into this war? Are they then beyond the grace of God? Paul asks, “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:15–16).

For Paul the love and grace of God simply overwhelms and smothers the conflicts and antagonisms of people. However, can we willy-nilly take a church doctrine (to say nothing of a denominational emphasis) and apply it to political matters? What about that Lutheran insight on the two kingdoms or the secular “separation of church and state”? Here Paul is not talking about “policy”; he is talking about “perception.” The love and grace of God are prior to all human response. Human acceptance of that mercy is always possible. It is in that hope that we perceive every enemy as a potential friend, every conflict as potential peace. Will this change policy? It can and will. This too we know “by faith.”

Singing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Lutherans celebrate that heroism of the Reformation: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill; they cannot overpower us.” Here was defiance against “the powers” because we were justified by grace through faith. Life and limb were laid on the line. One might be killed for what one believed.

Now as the world slouches toward wars within and without, the same heroism and courage are summoned. The message of Romans still is that the enemy is “beloved by God for Jesus’ sake.” As this is proclaimed and written and affirmed and demonstrated, prepare for the worst and remember: “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, or wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won; the Kingdom’s ours forever.”


Part II: Justification and World History

While church people see in the Reformation a more evangelical understanding of the Biblical message, the beginning of Protestantism, the marriage of pastors and the theological foundation of denominations, secular historians see something else. The Reformation together with the Renaissance laid the intellectual foundations for the modern nation-state system. Because people were justified by grace though faith, they were freed from the political pretensions of Pope and the remnants of the Empire. Henry VIII could marry whom he would and Frederick the Wise could steal Luther from Worms.3

What does it take to change the way people think about the world and their place in it? Augustine had laid the intellectual foundations of “Christendom” when he wrote Civitas Dei (“The City of God”), a massive work that took thirteen years to write.4 Augustine started writing three years after the fall of Rome to Alaric and the Goths in 410. How was the world to live after the Roman Empire? Classical political theorists such as Plato and Aristotle said that the state was and is the highest achievement of humanity. Our true fulfillment as human beings could only happen as citizens of the state. But Augustine called that “the Civitas Terrena,” the “Earthly City.” For Augustine the City of God trumped the Earthly City.5

Augustine was free from the ideology of the Roman Empire because faith had freed him from the habits of thought engendered by the empire. In that freedom he ascribed to the Christian faith the liberating influence which previously had been credited to philosophy. Whereas Plato and Aristotle had held that philosophy freed exceptional people to rule, Augustine argued that the Christian faith freed all people equally. Thus, the Christian faith potentially freed all people from the power of the state because there is an authority above and superior to the authority of the state.6

As the Middle Ages unfolded, the City of God in the form of the church did assert its authority over earthy duchies, kingdoms and empire. Popes had armies; archbishops governed cities; kings ruled because of their “divine” right. On occasion even the emperor would stand in the snow awaiting the Pope’s pardon.7 Though the unifying political rule of Roman Empire had been broken up into hundreds of smaller political units, the church, the Holy Roman Empire, the Latin language and the code of chivalry created a new unity of sorts. However, an observer in the late middle ages might well ask whether the City of God had really triumphed over the Earthly City. Might it be the other way around? Had the Earthly City really invaded, conquered and mastered the church, leaving only the Christian shell as a remnant of the Augustinian ideal?

Despite the universally recognized corruption of the church/state synthesis of the Middle Ages, it was the only accepted pattern. Though they might chafe under it, people accepted it as the norm. As an earlier generation thought that the Roman Empire was the accepted pattern for human existence, now people were habituated to the unholy alliance of princes and popes. The pattern, as distorted as it was, had become the “law” of western civilization. Its hold was deep; it would not be easily broken.

Just as 9/11 triggered major changes in United States foreign policy, so Luther’s rediscovery of “justification by faith” triggered a major change in western civilization. Yes, according to the law we must obey the church, the pope and laws of the church. But because Christ has freed us from the law, we are free not only from Jewish law but from the whole principle of law. This is why Luther could write, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”8 The freedom Augustine envisioned for the common man vis a vis the state now would rest on teaching of justification by grace through faith. No, it was not the freedom to slay, pillage and rape as irrupted during the peasant’s revolt. Rather, it was the freedom dutifully to serve one’s neighbors in their need.

When the Reformation stole power from the papal church by freeing both princes and people from their previous loyalties, the Earthly City was cut free from the City of God. Though emperors and kings still claimed a “divine” right to rule, they now governed openly according to a different set of ethics. In their absolute power over their subjects, they became as god. Luther sought to separate the church from the state so that the church might better preach the Gospel. His older contemporary, Niccolo Machiavelli, sought to separate the state from church morality. The aim of the prince is not goodness but power. This power is necessary both for the glory of the state and also for its ruler.9 Taken together they freed the state from the medieval synthesis of the City of God. Now the state could be secular; now the state could be sovereign. Freed from churchly constraints Henry VIII of England could confiscate the wealth of monasteries, and Catholic France could side with the Protestants in the Thirty Years War.10

The Reformation, however, did much more than simply separate the workings of the church from the state and set the stage for the nation-state system. It also provided the pivot about which people could accept the new reality. Being justified by grace through faith freed people from the laws, patterns and traditions with which they had become accustomed. Justification by faith did not only free people from papal pretense; it helped them welcome the new growing independence and nationalism of a more centralized France and England. The kings of Denmark, Sweden and later Norway pursued their nation-state status as the Lutheran Gospel spread. Though it would take a century or two before Germany and Italy joined the ranks of nations, they would copy the pattern of other states rather than that of the medieval synthesis.

So what is the relevance of justification by faith to world history today? The world may be at the brink of another even more significant system shift than at the beginning of the nation-state system. It is commonly recognized that no nation-state, however powerful, can address the growing number of problems on our planet. These are nuclear proliferation, environmental problems, terrorism, refugees, the growing divide between rich and poor, increasing population, religious conflicts and mass migrations. Furthermore, every nation-state is weakened by these same problems. In addition, changes in our world are heralding significant shifts.

Around the world people are seeking to adjust to transformations in technology, economics and organization. Modern technology has not only given us the hydrogen bomb with the potential to devastate areas far beyond any nation, it has also given us the internet with the potential of uniting people beyond political boundaries. Economically, the largest multinational corporations have incomes that far exceed the national economies of over 100 of the poorest nations. Organizationally, the nation-state is threatened on the one hand by divisions in the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq, Canada, Belgium, Spain and a number of African counties. On the other hand, the nation-state is also threatened by regional alliances such as the European Union, the African Union, Mercosur in South America and the G-8 nations.

Despite these sea changes going on around us, most people are still firmly rooted in their identities as citizens of the United States, France, China or any other of the 150 plus nations of the world. These loyalties were forged through history, tradition and the sacrifice of so many fellow citizens in the many wars fought over the centuries. In the United State we continue to fuel patriotic sentiments on Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the Fourth of July. In effect we say we are fervent Americans because of the death of others for us. We honor their memories, but at the same time, because of them, we find ourselves locked into a nation-state frame of reference. This is why nations can call on their citizens to die in unjust wars, pay taxes for boondoggles and remain oblivious to the sufferings of others who are not of their people.

Where is the relevant pivot today about which people might change some of their deepest loyalties? Since the death of soldiers then and now frees us from our selfishness to think of our nation before we think of ourselves, might not the death of God’s son free us from the loyalty to our nation to be even more concerned about all of humanity? Since we are justified by grace through faith, we are free from patriotism, from nationalism and from a blind fidelity to the Earthly City. Revisiting Augustine, does not justification by grace through faith bring us back again to the City of God, the Civitas Dei?

This time, however, the City of God will not be represented by the papacy, an orthodox metropolitan or any number of church presidents. Luther broke with that at the time of the Reformation. Instead, it remains an ideal whose time has come but whose shape is still embryonic. As the nation-state system took centuries to form, it may take even longer to reform. In the past great system shifts have been fraught with unexpected consequences with great anxiety, serious disruptions and violent conflicts. It happened at the time of Luther, and it will happen again. But for those justified by faith, we sing again, “take they our lives, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won, the Kingdom’s ours forever.”



1 Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).

2 Krister Stendahl, Paul among the Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

3 Robert Ergang, Europe: From the Renaissance to Waterloo (Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1954), 179. See also Kurt Reinhardt, Germany: 2000 Years (New York: Frederick Ungar Publ. Co., 1966), 213.

4 Michael Foster, Masters of Political Thought: Plato to Machiavelli (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.), 197.

5 Ibid., 197–202.

6 Ibid., 225, 226.

7 Lyon, Rowen, and Hamerow, A History of the Western World: Prehistory through the Renaissance(Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1970), 230–31.

8 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 31:344.

9 W. T. Jones, Masters of Political Thought: Machiavelli to Bentham (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969), 22–27.

10 Reinhart, 287.

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