Reformation 500 – The Gospel Always Subverts and Changes Us
Yang Mingdao is the pseudonym used by Chinese staff within China Partnership.
Hannah Nation serves as the Communications Director for China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works part-time doing international outreach for her local church, Christ the King Presbyterian Cambridge.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s instigation of the Protestant Reformation. Conferences, lectures, and tours are taking place across the Western world, and particularly in Germany, to commemorate this event. But even though many people may not think about it, the Reformation is not significant only for the West. The Reformation and its legacy are important for the global church and for the church in China. In May this truth can be observed as thousand of Chinese church leaders gather from across the country in Hong Kong to attend Reformation 500, a conference focusing on the gospel of grace and its implications for China.
If we only think of the Reformation as some historical event that happened five hundred years ago in the West, we really do not have a full understanding and grasp of what the Reformation was and what it meant for all of us. The Reformation is not only a historical event – it was an event that had eternal significance and theological and personal eschatological importance.
If you look at church history, the Christian religion is first a personal religion. By “personal,” I do not mean individualistic, but rather that it is between persons, between the Triune God and his people. Interpersonal relationship is the core foundation of the Christian religion. If you look at the first three chapters of Genesis, creation started with a personal relationship with the Triune God. Christian history has been a history of struggle around this idea.
A dogmatic history of the Christian faith takes us back to the first doctrine that was decided – the Trinity. Who is Christ? Who is Jesus? What is his role? Is he God? Before we can say what Jesus Christ does for me and how he is related to me, we have to figure out who he is. So the first thing is the Trinity, a foundational doctrine if we really care about who God is. After the church understood that Jesus has full deity, it looked at what it means that he is incarnated. Who is this God-man? The answer determines what he did and what he does for us. So the second doctrine that the church decided on was Christology. If Jesus is not a personal God, there is no struggle. God is just very remote and someone who is not related to me. But the incarnation challenges this.
The Reformation, the third stage, was really about soteriology [how to be saved], a matter that was never really settled earlier in church history. The doctrine of grace was lost for hundreds of years. It was very much a mess in the middle ages and when it reached the age of the Reformation, the movement was not only a purification of morality in the Roman Catholic church, but people has been really struggling with soteriology for hundreds of years.
Martin Luther was an insider from the medieval church, a very well trained monk who was taught systematic theology by Peter Lombard. Then he was an Old Testament professor. Everything changed due to his struggle with the question, “How can I be saved?” All of his personal things mingled with his theological reflection, and that is what generated the Reformation. It was theological, but it was deeply personal, relational, soteriological, and even pastoral. All of this came together and Martin Luther’s major contribution was the rediscovery of the gospel.
How can man be saved by a righteous God? Luther’s answer was by justification by faith alone. All you need is what God does for you through the second Adam, Jesus Christ. You are not offering something to God as a sacrament. Everything is God’s service to you. And you are entirely passive. Righteousness is entirely foreign and external – it has nothing to do with you. We are debtors who receive God-given faith. This is what solved the soteriology tension that had lasted for one thousand years.
We can know about the Trinity – but the devil himself knows that. We can acknowledge Christology – but the devil himself knows that. How the Triune God relates to you – that is through justification by faith, by Christ alone.
Putting all of this together, I would say that the gospel lens of the Reformation – justification by faith – is the Spirit-given lens. That is the key to understanding the whole Bible. If we do not have that lens, I think we are doomed to go astray very quickly.
These questions were key not only to the Reformation, but for all of world Christianity. This is why we want to celebrate it. We do not simply want to celebrate a historical event. We want to celebrate God’s gospel. We celebrate history today because we are blessed by God in Christ through the gospel that was renewed in the Reformation. This movement, the Christ-centered or gospel-centered movement goes back to the same gospel discovered in the age of the Reformation. This gospel is the same gospel you can see so clearly in Acts and the early church. We celebrate because we want this gospel to show up and work. We want to let people see that the gospel movement that we are doing in China is not something new. It is only new in that Christ is always new. But it is the same gospel as in the past. It is the same gospel as in the Bible and today we want to go back to it again.
In our churches today it is so easy to leave the gospel focus behind. It is nature for us to be self-righteous, seeking self-redemption and false atonement. The gospel is always foreign to us because it comes from God’s view, not our view. Because that is the whole purpose of the last five hundred years, we proudly label ourselves descendants of the Reformation.
Even though we are saved, our nature and the church’s nature try to distort the gospel constantly. We can compare ourselves to a computer or a phone. Our thinking, our value system, worldview, everything, is the software or operating system inside of the hardware. We often think of the gospel as a document or file saved on the phone. We say, “Yeah, we know the gospel,” and we pull out the gospel like a saved document. Here it is. We can recite it and say very clearly what it is. It is the gospel, but it is the content of the gospel.
You can say the gospel is not only a document, it is also like a program or app. It has some effect to do something to my life. The gospel is the second Adam’s life and what he did. It is his continuously renewing power. It is Christ’s life.
But in the end, the gospel really is an entirely new operating system. It is not only a document or text file, it is not only an app, it is an entirely new operating system. It replaces all my views, everything inside me. So we read Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is a process in which a new operating system is going to replace the old one. This is the living gospel, the living word.
In our gospel movement in China we want to know that the gospel is continually renewing hearts, that it is a subversive changing power through the work of the Holy Spirit. It works in people’s hearts, in the church. We want to make this so clearly explicit and keep our ministry focused on this power of Christ’s life in the gospel. We want to make that the only source propelling internal change and cultural change.
If we do not intentionally make this the focus, we will be distracted or even lost. Christians can be program oriented, ministry oriented, results oriented. In our movement we like results, we like programs, we like ministry, but we ask are they driven by the life-giving gospel? This is what we learn from the Reformation. If the life-giving gospel is not the core focus in any church or organization, the gospel will always be retold in a worldly way. We have to let the gospel control the discourse, control the narrative, interpreting our life and driving our ministry. The gospel always subverts and changes us and that is the passion of the gospel-movement in China.