Blogging the Reformation

How many fingers…?

The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.
— Martin Luther

There aren’t many movies from my childhood that hold up. I’ve tried watching several late 80s/early 90s films with my kids, only to have them quickly lose interest… or to be totally ashamed of what I once thought was cool. 

(Ahem… Space Jam.)

But I was pleasantly surprised when the family gathered round recently to watch The Mighty Ducks. Yes, it’s campy, complete with feel-good roller blade sequences and token representatives of minority communities. But it was genuinely fun, and it did my soul some good to watch my kids leap up and cheer when Charlie scored the winning goal in the final scene. 

In one scene, a player is hit in the head with a hockey puck. While lying on the ice, Coach Gordon Bombay rushes over and asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” (To which Goldberg the goalie replies, “He wouldn’t know that anyway.”)

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

Grace Alone and Seeing Straight

When it comes to the truth about God and ourselves, it seems like our culture has been hit in the head with a hockey puck. We’re dazed, bewildered, unable to see straight. We’re trying to figure out who God is, who we are, what the truth is, but we can’t quite make it out. It may be true that we “wouldn’t know that anyway,” but it’d be a lot easier if the picture weren’t moving around. 

In the teaching of the Reformation, grace alone goes hand in hand with faith alone. In order to understand faith alone, we have to understand that we cannot earn God’s favor by our works. In order to understand grace alone, we have to see ourselves clearly. We have to focus in on what Scripture teaches about our sinfulness and our need before a holy God. 

In order to understand grace alone, we have to see ourselves clearly.

Who better than our friend Martin Luther to play Emilio Estevez and ask, “how many fingers am I holding up?” 

Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther as Emilio Estevez?

Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther as Emilio Estevez?

Beating the Gospel into Our Heads

Luther was a firm believer in our inability to please God. Our sinfulness makes us wholly incapable of earning His love. 

The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Law is about doing. Grace is about receiving the righteousness of Christ for us. We can’t do what the law requires. 

No man can make any advance towards righteousness by his works.

This last quote is from his landmark book, The Bondage of the Will, in which he argued against one of the leading thinkers of the day, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who said we could please God by doing what lies within us. To this, Luther gave a resounding, “No!” Using the example of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he wrote, 

But look at the endeavor whereby he found grace! Not only did he not seek grace, but he received it through his own mad fury against it!

Later he writes,

[G]race is given freely to the undeserving and utterly unworthy, and is not attained by any of the efforts, endeavors, or works, small or great, of even the best and most upright men who seek and follow after righteousness with flaming zeal.

We can’t see straight because we're broken by sin. Grace alone can set us right and heal us. And to set our vision right, we need God to hit us over the head with His grace: 

Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.

Faith Makes Love

A Christian… lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.
— Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Faith alone has always been a controversial claim. Martin Luther was accused throughout his life of antinomianism: of claiming that the Christian does not need to obey the law or do any good works. If we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, then we contribute nothing to our salvation. And if we contribute nothing, then where’s the incentive for obedience? If the gospel is all carrot and no stick, his critics argued, the church will descend into chaos. 

Luther directly denied this. He clung to the freedom that faith brings, but he held that true faith leads to good work. Faith makes love

Faith Makes Love

After understanding the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone, a student of Luther’s said, “If this is true, then I can do whatever I want.” To this, Luther replied, “Exactly. Now what do you want to do?” 

According to Luther in The Freedom of a Christian, love is not left behind by faith. Rather, faith is the source of love.

Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praises or blame, of gain or loss.

Faith transforms the heart and motives of the Christian. It makes us want to love our neighbors in worship and gratitude to God.

Since by faith the soul is cleansed and made to love God, it desires that all things, and especially its own body, shall be purified so that all things may join with it in loving and praising God. 

So also our works should be done, not that we may be justified by them, since being justified beforehand by faith, we ought to do all things freely and joyfully for the sake of others.

No Faith, No Love

In fact, he would claim that there is no such thing as good works without faith. True love—unselfish, disinterested, sacrificial love for my neighbors—can’t exist without faith. Any work that appears good but that doesn’t have faith behind it is an attempt to steal God’s glory, and is thus inherently sinful. Rather, "Love is true and genuine where there is true and genuine faith.” 

Love without faith steals God's glory.

Love without faith steals God's glory.

So let him who wishes to do good works begin not with the doing of works, but with believing, which makes the person good, for nothing makes a man good except faith, or evil except unbelief.

Faith sets us free to live NOT for ourselves, but for God and neighbor. The Christian is called to “live only for others.” 

[A] Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love. 

All You Need Is (Faith That Produces) Love

If I have faith, my soul’s life is in Christ. And if my soul’s life is in Christ, my bodily life in this world will be conformed to Him. If Christ’s life on this earth was lived, “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45), then my life on this earth, in the body, will be lived always and only for others.

All you need is (faith that produces) love.

All you need is (faith that produces) love.

Faith is a state of the soul; love is the corresponding state of the body. A failure to love in my temporal existence can be traced back to a failure of faith in the deepest part of my being. It may be true that all you need is love. But if I want love, I need a faith that produces it in my life. The first step to a life of love is a wholehearted faith. 

Your Body, Your Soul, & Faith Alone

[O]nly ungodliness and unbelief of heart, and no outer work, make him guilty and a damnable servant of sin.
— Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

You aren’t just a body. When God made us, He formed us from the dust of the ground and then breathed life into us. As a human creature, an image bearer of the God of the universe, you are both body and soul

We are dust…

We are dust…

This is why Jesus told His disciples to pray, “that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Peter says the flesh wars against our souls (1 Peter 2:11), and James urges his readers to put off fleshly passions and receive the word, “which is able to save your souls” (1:21). 

Christians have always believed humans are complex creatures. We aren’t just bodies walking about with needs, desires, and feelings. We are simultaneously physical and spiritual creatures, made to reflect God in His beauty and glory.

Bodies Don’t Have Faith; Souls Do

We don’t think about this much. And that’s why we don’t understand the importance of faith alone. You can’t have faith with your body. You have faith with your soul. We believe and trust with the deepest part of our being. And how we behave in the physical, temporal world is a direct result of what our eternal souls have placed their ultimate trust in.

No faith here…

No faith here…

In part, this basic understanding of what it means to be human led Martin Luther to emphasize faith alone as he did. As I did in my last post, I’ll be drawing from his classic work, The Freedom of a Christian, to fill out the meaning of faith alone. There, Luther writes:

It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prayers, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body. 

Why doesn’t it help the soul to wear or do these sacred things? Because the soul stands before God, either justified by faith in Christ, or condemned by its faithlessness.

[T]he moment you begin to have faith you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful, and damnable…. When you have learned this you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you so that, if you believe in him, you may through this faith become a new man in so far as your sins are forgiven and you are justified by the merits of another, namely, of Christ alone.… [O]nly ungodliness and unbelief of heart, and no outer work, make him guilty and a damnable servant of sin

In other words, seeing Christ with the eyes of faith leads us to see just how deeply flawed our motives, thoughts, desires, and deeds are. Jesus’s perfection unveils the ugliness of our souls. No matter if our life in the world doesn’t look as bad as others'. Before God, our souls stand condemned: “No one is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). 

If the soul is unrighteous, no amount of bodily, earthly, temporal works or garments or fasts or anything else can make us right—justify us—before a holy God. The temporal doesn’t transform the eternal; it’s the other way around. 

Marrying Jesus by Faith

As imperfect, sinful, embodied creatures, we can’t justify ourselves. But by faith, our souls are united to Christ and made right before God. Christ was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), and fulfilled the law in His life on earth. 

Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his.… By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s.

Faith unites us to Christ.

Faith unites us to Christ.

This is the Great Exchange: our sin for His righteousness; our condemnation for His acceptance; our death for His life. We don’t earn these blessings by works. We receive them by grace through faith. Faith is the wedding ring; grace is the marriage of our souls with Christ eternally.

Marriage is a covenantal state entered into through promise. You don’t become married by moving in together, by sleeping together, by having children together, or by sharing a bank account. It isn’t the “works” of marriage that make a husband and wife one. It is the promise of marriage, the entrance into covenant enacted in the wedding ceremony. 

In the same way, we are welcomed into union with Christ, not by serving the poor, attending church, abstaining from sin, or reading the Bible. We are united to Christ by faith alone

Does this mean we don’t have to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20)? By no means! In the next post, we will look at how faith produces love in our lives. 

Faith Alone: No Church Without It

If the doctrine of justification [by faith] is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost … if we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything.
— Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians

Justification by faith alone was the central doctrine of the Reformation. Martin Luther said it is “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” In other words, a church isn’t a church (or won’t be for long) if it doesn’t have this central doctrine. Like a basketball team with no hoop or a marriage with no love, is a church without justification by faith alone. 

Like a church without justification by faith alone. 

Like a church without justification by faith alone. 

You Can’t Justify Yourself

In the film Chariots of Fire, British runner Harold Abrams, is driven to win gold.  In the lead up to the final race of the Olympics, he realizes his drive to win is rooted in his need to prove himself and his worth. “[I]n one hour's time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I? I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win.” 

He knows he needs to be justified, to have ultimate worth and value, but he realizes he has spent his whole life trying to get it through his own work. And now that he is about to accomplish that work, he sees it’s not enough. His work won’t do it. He can’t justify himself. 

Faith Alone (= Faith, NOT Works)

One of Martin Luther’s greatest theological breakthroughs was the realization that he could not justify himself by his own works. In The Freedom of a Christian, he writes:

Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.

None of his works could make God accept him. It wasn’t up to him to make himself acceptable to God or others. God had to do the justifying for him. Only trust in God’s grace in Christ can make us right with God. Faith alone justifies the sinner. 

It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law. 

He isn’t claiming a Christian does no works or that we don’t obey God’s law. Instead, our works are done from God’s acceptance, not for it. Having been justified by God, we are free to worship Him and love others.

So also our works should be done, not that we may be justified by them, since being justified beforehand by faith, we ought to do all things freely and joyfully for the sake of others.

Get Drunk on Justification By Faith Alone

Faith sets the Christian free. Justification by faith frees us from any need to earn approval from God or others. We have everything in Christ! We can now rest in these riches and enjoy life in Him forever! Luther's passion for faith alone stemmed from the joy and peace it brought him: 

[H]e who has had even a faint taste of it can never write, speak, meditate, or hear enough concerning it.

[T]rue faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison which brings with it complete salvation and saves man from every evil. 

[T]hrough faith alone without works the soul is justified by the Word of God, sanctified, made true, peaceful, and free, filled with every blessing and truly made a child of God.

By faith we have “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). If we have everything in Christ (1 Cor. 3:21-23), what more do we need? And when you realize the magnitude of God’s grace given to us through faith, you can’t help rejoicing:

Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.

Luther said we should get drunk on faith! This doctrine is so glorious, this promise so wonderful, that we can become intoxicated with it! The freedom faith brings should make our spirits sing. 

What was the Reformation? (Or, how 16th century theological hipsters changed the church forever.)

Thus far, I’ve told you it’s the Reformation’s 500th birthday, and that I’m especially nerdy for it. What I haven’t done thus far is define it. 

So, what was the Reformation?


At the time of the Reformation, the European Renaissance was in full swing. Renaissance means “rebirth.” The idea was a lot of classical European culture dating back to the Greeks and Romans had been lost. Proponents of the Renaissance wanted to rediscover it and revive it. Their cry was ad fontes, “back to the sources.” They wanted to mine the past for wisdom, knowledge and beauty, and learn from it. 

And learn from it they did. That generation produced some of the greatest art, science, and literature in Western history. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Galileo: just a few names you might recognize from the time.

They mined the past, and found a couple gems along the way.

They mined the past, and found a couple gems along the way.

In many ways, the Reformation took this idea and applied it to the church and its theology. The word Reformation comes from a Latin verb that means, “to form again, mold anew, or revive.” The Reformers went back to the sources of Christianity—the Bible and early church fathers—and wanted to re-form the church in line with them. 

The Reformers: 16th Century Theological Hipsters

For as historically groundbreaking as the Reformation movement became in the 1500s, the Reformers didn’t see themselves as radical. They believed the Medieval church had left the essentials of the Christian faith behind in favor of peripheral doctrines and practices, bureaucracy, and corruption. 

In their view, the Pope and his followers had tract-homed the church and its theology, paving over the beauty and wonder of the gospel of grace. The Reformers went back to the Scriptures and realized there were unfathomable treasures there that lay neglected by the church for centuries. They were like teenagers raised in subdivisions who had never been to a magnificent cathedral or art museum, and, upon taking their first field trip to see something of real and lasting beauty, had their entire world flipped upside down. They were like present-day millennials, fleeing the suburbs for the cities, looking for something more permanent than the strip malls they grew up next to. The Reformers were like the church’s first hipsters. 

Just like the Medieval theology the Reformers fled. 

Just like the Medieval theology the Reformers fled. 

I don’t think Luther would have fit into skinny jeans. But he could be the hero of a generation intent on pickling their own vegetables, brewing their own beer, and pursuing “authenticity” in whatever they do. (Though, in his household, it was his wife who did the homebrewing.)

Luther was raised in a theological climate that was generations removed from what made the church the church. Guilt and shame and fear and superstition had come to dominate a church built on a gospel of grace, forgiveness, healing and hope. 

Luther and his followers rediscovered this glorious foundation on which the church was built and determined to re-form the church by going back to this foundation, “back to the sources.” This rediscovery of the gospel was central to Luther’s writings. And new information technology (the printing press) ensured his writings made it to every corner of his world (a World Wide Web?). Add to that his penchant for cool hats and crude jokes, and Luther really does look like a theological hipster. 

The Reformation was a movement to reform the church along theological lines. Luther summarized those theological lines in 5 slogans (proto-Tweets?), known as the “Five Solas” which I will discuss in the next few posts:

  1. Sola fidei – Faith alone
  2. Sola gratia – Grace alone
  3. Solus Christus – Christ alone
  4. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
  5. Soli Deo gloria – To God alone be the glory! 

Obviously, hipsters aren't Luther. But, maybe, just maybe, Luther was a hipster. 

Why I'm Nerdy for the Reformation

Nerds are passionate. Really, nerdiness is synonymous with passion. But the nerd label sticks when a person’s passion falls outside the mainstream. When you’re passionate about a football team, you're a fan. When you’re passionate about Dungeons and Dragons or hair metal or sci-fi, you’re a nerd. I didn’t make that rule; I’m just acknowledging it’s there.  

The face of passion.

The face of passion.

Most people don’t care much about the Reformation. So my passion for it can legitimately be called nerdy. And I’m ok with that. I’ll say it loud: “I’m nerdy for the Reformation.” I said in my last post that the Reformation changed the world. But that’s not why I’m nerdy for it. I’m nerdy for it because it changed my life.   

Hearing the Wrong Story

I heard a lot of stories growing up in church. David and Goliath. The battles that Gideon or Samson fought. Daniel and the Lions Den. Those stories created a framework for my understanding of God and the Christian gospel. And the way the stories were told to me, the gospel I heard sounded something like this: “God blesses good boys and girls.” 

That version of the gospel makes a lot of sense to all of us. When you do something good, you expect to get something good in return. When you do something bad, you expect something bad will happen as a result. What goes around comes around. Christian karma

But Christian karma never lit my heart on fire. There wasn’t much to be passionate about in that understanding of the Bible. “I am a good boy; God should bless me.” If I was passionate, it was usually because I didn’t think I was getting the good I deserve. 

The 56th of Martin Luther's 95 Theses says, "The treasures of the church… are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ." Nearly 500 years later, in a church that could trace it's roots to Luther’s teaching, this was all too true. The treasure of the church—the gospel of Christ Jesus—was hidden from me. 

The treasures of the church… are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.
— Martin Luther

I heard the wrong story in church every Sunday. I heard, “God blesses good boys and girls.” But the gospel story is this: “God saves sinners.” 

Getting the Story Right

“God blesses good boys and girls,” means I have to be good to get blessed. Whether the blessings I want are material, social, or spiritual, the responsibility for acquiring them is mine. My good works earn God’s blessings. And if I worked hard enough, kept enough rules, didn’t get into trouble, and used my money responsibly, Christian karma would work in my favor.

When I moved to New York City in 2004, I became part of a small church plant. I think I was member #15. There was a lot about the church that was messy and hard. But through the ministry of that church, God unearthed the treasure of the gospel in my soul. He revealed the good news that “God saves sinners.” 

Unearthing the treasure.

Unearthing the treasure.

God.” Not me. I’m not the one who is responsible for getting blessed or finding God. I don’t find God. God finds me. 

Saves.” God doesn’t just bless. He doesn’t improve, or lend a helping hand, or help those who help themselves. He saves. Redeems. Rescues.

Sinners.” Spiritually, I was lost, blind, broken, dead. I was separate from God and deserved to be eternally so. And through no amount of effort on my part, according to nothing that was good in me, for no reason other than sheer love that I could never have possibly deserved—grace—God saved me. He took me from death and brought me to life. 

That is the gospel story. And it had become MY story! Once I realized how good and glorious it was, I began seeing everything in light of it. Life was like a Magic Eye poster for me: once it was all just a random assortment of colors and shapes; now I knew those colors and shapes came together to form something real and good and true! I wanted everyone to discover what I had, to share in that hidden treasure that had now been revealed as the gospel of Christ Jesus. 

"Just stand really close to it and then back away slowly…"

"Just stand really close to it and then back away slowly…"

How I Began to Be Nerdy for the Reformation

Naturally, I began wondering why I hadn’t come to this truth sooner. I discovered there was this thing called “theology” that some pretty important people in history really cared about. I read my first meaty Christian book (J.I. Packer’s Knowing God), and it made mention of this theology thing and this other thing called the “Reformation.” And that’s how my minor obsession with the Reformation began. 

In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, people used to leave old books out in front of their homes for anyone to take. I began combing through these piles looking for something about the Reformation. I remember going into all the used bookstores in the area, looking for books about Martin Luther. I wanted to know all I could about him and his movement. I thought I’d struck gold when I found one copy of a book on the Reformation at Barnes and Noble.  I would ask myself questions like, “Why aren't there more books on this? Why don't more people care?” I crossed from interested to nerdy very quickly. 

Over a decade later, I am still fascinated by Luther’s story. The theology of the Reformers still feeds my soul. And I do my best to believe, live in light of, and preach the gospel they rediscovered. I don’t want this blog series to be about nerding out (though I plan to do that a bit). I want it to show the beauty of the gospel. And hopefully it will inspire some nerdiness in the process. 

Happy (500th) Birthday Reformation!!!

500 years ago, a monk on a mission changed church history (and Western civilization) forever. 

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. All he wanted was a debate. What he got was a Reformation. 

Monk on a mission.

Monk on a mission.

Five centuries later, we can all read (!!!). Individual rights—including religious freedom—are held sacred. We live in a democratic society. If you're reading this, you likely believe that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And, whether you know it or not, we largely have the Protestant Reformation to thank for all of that. 

And all that because one dude wanted to talk theology. 

No Reformation, no reading. No reading, no homework. Darn Reformation!

No Reformation, no reading. No reading, no homework. Darn Reformation!

When I realized a couple months ago that this year was the Reformation's 500th birthday, I resolved to read as much Martin Luther as I could in 2017. All these years later, his biography remains gripping, his writing instructive and inspiring. His is still one of the clearest and most beautiful expositions of the gospel (On Christian Liberty). His writings on prayer (A Simple Way to Pray) and the Christian life (A Treatise on Good Works) continue to convict and teach me. His thought on church and culture (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; A Letter to the German Nobility) remains relevant. And he's still the only theologian I know who consistently makes me laugh out loud (Table Talk). 

So, rather than do my nerdy Reformation thing by myself off in a corner somewhere, I thought I'd share it with all of you this year. 

Nobody puts Marty in a corner.

I'll be blogging regularly here, as well as tweeting (@pastorjefflocke) using the hashtag #ref500. Feel free to follow along, ask questions, and join the birthday celebration!!!