Repent for the Reformation?

MohlerA Response by Dr. Al Mohler (original source The Guardian reported yesterday that leaders of the Church of England have called upon their church and all fellow Christians to repent of the sins of the Reformation. The headline in The Guardian yesterday:

“C of E archbishops call on Christians to repent for Reformation split.”

Yesterday on the website of the Church of England, the two highest-ranking archbishops of that church, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu said,

“This year, churches around the world will be marking the great significance of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, dated from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses protesting against the practice of indulgences, on 31 October 1517 at Wittenberg.”

“The Church of England,” they wrote, “will be participating in various ways, including sharing in events with Protestant church partners from Continental Europe.”

But the two archbishops then continued,

“The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed. Amongst much else these would include clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church.”

But then the two archbishops took this turn, and I quote,
“Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.”

The archbishops said,

“All this leaves us much to ponder.”

They conclude,

“Remembering the Reformation should bring us back to what the Reformers wanted to put at the center of every person’s life, which is a simple trust in Jesus Christ. This year is a time to renew our faith in Christ and in Him alone. With this confidence we shall then be ready to ask hard questions about those things in our lives and the life of our churches that get in the way of sharing and celebrating faith in Him.”

In the part of the statement that has received justly the most attention, the Archbishop said,

“Remembering the Reformation should also lead us to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions. Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them. This anniversary year will provide many opportunities to do just that, beginning with this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

“We therefore call on all Christians to seek to be renewed and united in the truth of the gospel of Christ through our participation in the Reformation Anniversary, to repent of divisions, and, held together in Him, to be a blessing to the world in obedience to Jesus Christ.”

Now that’s the kind of statement that we might expect from the theological left in terms of the Reformation and its anniversary. But this is coming from the two senior leaders of the Church of England. The headline in The Guardian really gets to the point, are we truly to repent of the Reformation? Much of the background to the statement made by the two archbishops becomes clearer when we look at the words themselves. For one thing, when we look at their statement we notice that they are claiming that the Reformation caused a division in the church.

At this point we have to ask a very hard question. It’s the hard question that was asked by the reformers themselves. We need to note that the reformers, including not only Martin Luther, but John Calvin and others, did not believe that they had any right to bring division in Christ’s church. That is not at all what they understood themselves to be doing. They had come to the point and that was not clear in 1517, but it became clear shortly thereafter, that the Roman Catholic Church was indeed not even a true church. It was not the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Martin Luther made very clear, the simple rationale for this had nothing to do, first of all, with the papacy and the hierarchy of the church, or even with Marian devotion or any number of other issues, but the fact that the Catholic Church as he knew it not only did not preach the gospel, but by its system of sacraments and by its teachings repudiated the gospel.

The formula that drove the logic of both Luther and Calvin and their colleagues was this: if there is no gospel, there is no church. Thus, the reformers did not understand themselves to be bringing division in Christ’s church—they would’ve agreed that would be a grievous sin—but rather they understood themselves to be establishing true gospel churches and reforming Christ’s church, churches undeniably established upon the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s very important to recognize that the reformers were not arguing that Christ’s church did not exist until the Reformation. As a matter of fact, John Calvin makes very clear that in Christ’s atoning work there had never been a time since creation when Christ did not have his church. As Luther would put it, the church was established formally and announced in Matthew chapter 16 when Christ said,

“Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

The reformers also believed that there were many Christians within the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation, but that was simply because they had heard the Scripture or heard enough of the gospel that they believed. And yet, the reformers were also convinced that the church itself, that is the Roman Catholic Church, taught an anti-gospel, and thus was no true church. It was a false church preaching a false gospel. But then they went much further indicating that according to Scripture, not only was the papacy unbiblical, but it was abhorrent and the sacramental system of the church denied at every point the gospel in terms of its understanding of grace.

Now perhaps one could argue that if you go back to the 16th century, given the limitations of communication and everything else in that context, perhaps this had been just a massive misunderstanding. But all that was abundantly dismissed when the Catholic Church adopted the canons of the Council of Trent, calling an official council to answer the teachings of the reformers. In the Council of Trent the Roman Catholic Church declared itself to stand upon an understanding of the gospel that was antithetical to what the reformers believed was revealed in Scripture. Thus, by the time you come to one century after the Reformation that did begin in this sense in the year 1517, it was also transparent that the Roman Catholic Church had not only not been reformed in terms of its theology, but it established most of what the reformers had understood as an anti-gospel as the official teaching of the church.

Now in terms of repentance, there should be no question that both sides in the controversies of the 16th century and beyond at times acted in ways that were not right and did not meet biblical standards and were certainly rightly defined as sin. Wherever sin is present, one should and must repent of it. But what the archbishops seemed to say in their statement released yesterday was that the church should repent for the Reformation.

In one very interesting statement, you’ll recall that they lamented “the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the church.”

Well, there we have to ask the crucial question: The unity of what church? The reformers certainly would not have understood themselves to have been doing any damage to the unity of Christ’s church. But the archbishops seem to be saying on behalf of the Church of England that it was Christ’s church that was divided. And this is a huge problem. It’s a problem that puts the current leadership of the Church of England directly at odds with those who led the Reformation in what became the Church of England under Henry VIII and his successors. While the English Reformation did not go so far as the reformations led by Luther and Calvin, the Reformation in England was influenced highly by both, and the 39 Articles, as they became known, of the Church of England are a distinctly Protestant statement, a distinctively evangelical statement of the understanding of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The statement by the archbishops raises the inescapable question, for what exactly are we to repent? Are we to repent for the historic Protestant evangelical understanding of the gospel? Absolutely not. Are we to repent for an established commitment to the Reformation of the church according to Scripture? Of course, we must not. Are we to reject the claims of the church of Rome concerning papal authority, the authority of the magisterium, and the stewardship of doctrine in truth that is claimed to be held by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church? Of course, we must not. Must we repent of our steadfast opposition to the definition of the gospel that comes from the Council of Trent and has never been repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church? It stands today as official Roman Catholic doctrine and, of course, those who obey Scripture and love the gospel cannot possibly repent of faithfulness to Christ in these respects.

Another of the puzzling portions of the statement by the archbishops is where they call upon Christians to “remember the Reformation and to repent of our part,” they write, “in perpetuating divisions.”

Well, the Church of England right now is not obedient to the Church of Rome. Is the perpetuation of divisions for which we are supposedly to repent to lead the leadership of the Church of England to bring that church back under the Roman Catholic Church? To state the least, that’s unlikely. If you were to take the logic of their statement at face value, it would appear that what they’re calling for would be easily answered by the two archbishops getting on a plane, flying to Rome, and handing over the keys to the Pope.

This is the kind of statement that sows far more confusion than clarity. And by the way, while we’re thinking about this, we need to recognize that a great deal of what American evangelicals know and experience in terms of our faith and practice comes as an inheritance from the Reformation that took place in England, even in particularly the Church of England.

The Book of Common Prayer, initially at the hand of Thomas Cranmer, still establishes much of the language that even other non-Anglican, non-Episcopal evangelicals use in common everyday devotion, and of course in more formal occasions such as wedding ceremonies.

The evangelical movement as we know it in the United States as well as in Great Britain, particularly the English speaking evangelical movement, would not exist as we know it today without the massive influence of evangelicals within the Church of England. And we should be thankful today that fidelity in the larger Anglican communion, driven largely by archbishops not in Great Britain, but in particular in the so-called global south in places like South America and particularly in Africa, give us a great deal of hope in terms of the defense of the gospel in our own times.

We also need to recognize that within the United States of America, not only are there continuing faithful Anglican churches, but many continuing faithful Christians within the far more liberal Episcopal Church USA. For them, we should also be very thankful and on their behalf we should be particularly concerned about this kind of statement coming from the two senior leaders of the Church of England.

The Bible’s call to repentance is of course a key in central evangelical doctrine, and it was central to the Reformation, so central that repentance shows up in the very first thesis of Luther’s famous 95 theses nailed to the castle church door there in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, thus this year the 500th anniversary. The reformers, of course, were not without sin, nor are we, the heirs of those very reformers. But to state the matter boldly, we cannot repent of what was not and is not sin. And the Reformation itself was most particularly not a sin. Get ready for a particularly interesting and strategic year on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when all the issues that were at the heart of the Reformation and that conflict that emerged in the 16th century are very clearly making headlines once again.