Review of ‘Why The Reformation Still Matters’ by Michael Reeves & Tim Chester
Created by Jon Taylor - Tuesday 12 Sep 2017
Jon Taylor
This book is worthwhile reading not simply because it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year and it is important to understand our history. The Reformation still matters today. We should consider the implications of the Reformation concerning issues in the continuous present rather than relegating it to the annals of the past. Reeves and Chester provide an excellent means of communicating that, both in this book and on You-Tube. For the sake of brevity this part of the review is mainly limited to the first four chapters, though of course, that will hopefully be enough to encourage you to purchase it for yourselves!
As Getty & Townend’s song ‘Speak O Lord’ reminds us, we are dealing with ‘truths unchanged since the dawn of time that will echo on through eternity’. It helps to have a firm grasp on these key events and how that fits in with Christ centred biblical theology to make sense of where we are now and where we are heading.
We are thoughtfully informed from the outset that:

‘The Reformation was always intended to be an ongoing project. One of its slogans was semper reformanda, usually translated as ‘always reforming’; but a better translation may be ‘always being reformed’ (by God’s Word). It describes not a movement forwards to some uncharted horizon, but a continual movement back to God’s Word. (p17)’
The helpful distinction is made between justification by faith alone and justification by faith in addition to works. Justification is explained here as a legal term as opposed to a medical one. So we are declared righteous in a legal sense not by being made righteous in a hospital. A helpful table is provided that delineates between the Lutheran view of justification and the Catholic view of justification (p27). This is useful for explaining justification to others also.
Our righteousness isn’t the result of our efforts or even through our sanctification. Romans 8:30 explains that ‘Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called: whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified He also glorified.’ We are saved by God’s extrinsic righteousness through His unmerited favour, not by intrinsic merit which would never atone for our sins in a lifetime of life times.
This still matters today because it is possible to have assurance of salvation, through believing in God and trusting in Him alone. Assurance is a deeply personal matter. The first statement of the Shorter Westminster Catechism reminds us that ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.’ The glory and enjoyment of God were guiding lights of the Reformation (p166). Assurance of salvation is absolutely critical to enjoying God and drawing closer to Him. It is fascinating to consider that before Luther had assurance he stated this ‘I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God. (P62-cited in Luther’s Works, vol. 34, pp. 336-337)’.

How does God speak to us? Through Scripture or Tradition or both? Reeves and Chester cite The Catechism of the Catholic Church which was approved by John Paul II in 1992 and it is clear that in Catholicism, Scripture and Tradition are considered of equal footing (p35). In stark contrast one of the five solas of the Reformation was sola scriptura, Scripture alone.
Undoubtedly there are times when the Bible is hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), nonetheless Zwingli’s concern was to refute the claim of the Catholic church that the Bible needed to be interpreted by the church (p42). In later years we still sing Cowper’s famous hymn that rings true today ‘God moves in Mysterious Ways His Wonders to Perform’ and the closing and particularly profound lines remind us, ‘God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.
Thus, Zwingli considered taking verses out of context as akin to breaking a flower from its roots and trying to plant it in a garden (p44). To clarify, Zwingli was never opposed to commentaries, nor of course preachers and teachers, but maintained that God’s Word is in itself authoritative so that if one teaches in accordance with God’s Word it is not the teacher that teaches you but God who teaches him (p44-45). When we hear the Word of God preached faithfully today, our souls are being ministered to. It isn’t a matter of what the liberal speculators would advocate; choose your own interpretation, commit to nothing and hope for the best. God’s Word is sufficient, primary and authoritative for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3; 2 Tim. 3:16)

Reeves and Chester trace Luther’s view of sin (before he came to faith) to Aristotle and Greek thinking, hence in effect he lived by the maxim ‘We become righteous by doing righteous deeds (p58).’ Though how can imperfect and fallen creatures ever attain the perfect standard of righteousness of their Creator without trusting in Him alone and ceasing from their efforts to contribute either in full or in part to atone for their sin?
It is easy to point the finger though so often when we do so, we inadvertently forget that three fingers of our own are pointing towards ourselves. We often live by the above maxim either consciously of sub-consciously. For those who are not saved, grand efforts are often made to attain the human constructed view of goodness by doing good works to outweigh the sin-debt.
Sometimes though, those who are saved and also have assurance, find themselves subconsciously trying to justify how they feel about their justification by making a special effort to be good, forgetting momentarily that it is God who justifies and only God who can forgive sins! We are not justified by how we feel but by faith.
Until we see our sinful state in the mirror of God’s law, we are living not in blissful ignorance but in condemnation. Until the patient is willing to accept the doctor’s diagnosis of their condition, they are unaware of their plight and the the root of the problem and the urgency of their situation.
Reeves and Chester helpfully unravel the necessary irony of sin. It isn’t what we want to hear but it is what we need to hear so that we can understand our enmity with God and be reconciled to Him.

‘The Reformation’s ‘deep’ view of sin is rather like the proverbial ugly duckling: initially unattractive and embarrassing, but secretly a thing of promise. It is a doctrine of promise because without it Christ is robbed of His saving glory and the gospel loses its wonder. If sin is not much of a problem, Christ need not be much of a Saviour and we do not need much grace (p67).’

God’s grace determines our position of salvation in relation to Him and also our access to have fellowship with Him. Grace is unmerited favour and a helpful acronym is God’s Redeeming Act at Christ’s Expense. Grace can never be earned, only received through faith in Him. We are saved by grace through faith meaning that we can boldly approach the throne of grace (Eph. 2:8-9; Heb. 4:16). Again on a personal level, God’s grace unites us to His Son by His Spirit that we might share the life and righteousness of the Son (p75).
Reeves and Chester helpfully analyse the theology of a couple of hymns and especially that of Charles Wesley. We would do well to remember even today that our theology directs our hymn writing and our songs help us to remember and affirm what we believe and how we relate to God. Both Bunyan and Wesley could expound on how their chains fell off through the message of grace alone (p79 cited in John Bunyan, Grace Abounding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p66). May we testify of the same truth also.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quacking ray-
I woke, the dungeons flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head;
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.


Tuesday 12 Sep 2017