At the heart of the Reformation is justification by faith alone. This means that, though human beings stand guilty and condemned, God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. Closely related is the fact that God also transforms those who are justified to make them more like Jesus (often called sanctification).
This is the simple Gospel that was emphasized and put back at the center of the church by Martin Luther and the other Reformers.
This is what had first place in the New Testament Church: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).
It’s still easy for us to make other things of secondary, tertiary, or no importance central. I still struggle to keep the simple Gospel central. For a long time in my ministry, I did a terrible job of it. Even when I preached the simple Gospel, my actions often said that other things were just as important or more important.
When I left New Covenant Presbyterian in Spearfish in 2015, I preached from 1 Cor. 15:3–4. I explained ten things that I had tried to do, ten reforms that I had tried to make that were based on making the simple gospel central. I said, whatever else I had done, this was my vision and what I had wanted to do.
A man in the church came over to me afterwards and said, “You need to make that the first sermon you preach at your next church.” I changed what I was preaching on based on his advice.
And this is still my vision. This Sunday, I’m preaching on the Reformation. It’s on justification by faith alone. I’m going to share 10 reforms I think the church needs to make, if the simple gospel is central to her life.
- If the simple gospel is central, then it gives us an outward focus. The people outside the church are not that different from us. They are just one act of faith away from being fundamentally where we are.
- If the simple gospel is central, then all that is necessary to be a member of the church is to embrace the simple gospel. We can’t make entrance into the church higher than entering into the kingdom of God. This is what captivated me in Presbyterian history. Presbyterians aren’t perfect, but they have historically understood this.
- If the simple gospel is central, then we cannot let other preferences or other truths crowd it out. If other doctrines, ethical principles, church principles, or anything else gets talked about more than the simple gospel, people will believe what you talk about is the most central. We should not do that.
- If the simple gospel is central, then everything we do must be formatted around it. We cannot say one thing & then show another. We can’t say Christ’s love is free and then not care whether or not people can find our building. We can’t say Christ is hospitable but then be inhospitable.
- If the simple gospel is central, there is unity of believers in the local church. We may be at different levels in our spiritual journey or knowledge, but we all sit down around the table and let Jesus wash our feet. That gives us a powerful unity.
- If the simple gospel is central, then the church is composed of a variety of people from a variety of different backgrounds at a variety of different levels. Each should be valued as a believer in Christ. Thus, the worship and the sermons should be designed to include everybody and give them all sense of being part of the people of God.
- If the simple gospel is central, then we will value children in our church because the simple gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp and embrace.
- If the simple gospel is central, there is a unity with all believers. It is no longer just about the believers in our church, it is about believers everywhere because we all believe together that which we value most.
- If the simple gospel is central, then we can and should work together with all churches who preach this simple gospel. We share a basic unity that transcends other differences.
- If the simple gospel is central, then this is what we need most in order to grow. We must preach the gospel to ourselves when we see our sin, when we need guidance, when we are struggling with our circumstances, and when we are struggling with people. What does Paul write to the churches? The Gospel.
The Reformation was about clarifying the Gospel and bringing it back to the center of the church. This is not a completed act. It is not a pristine period in history. It is a continual call to make Christ and Him crucified the center of our lives, churches, and hearts.