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I have to admit that as a Bible college and seminary student I was not the biggest fan of Reformation Day.
It always had a bro-ish vibe (albeit of the Christian variety). In other words, it was a holiday for the 90% of my classmates with beards and flannel shirts. That’s only a slight exaggeration. Luther was viewed as a real bad-ass man’s man who wasn’t afraid to stand up for truth – hammer, nails, and theological treatise in hand. The five solas and the later five points of Calvinism went together as a kind of litmus test for Reformed orthodoxy, a test of who’s “in” and who’s wrong. There was, in my mind, an air of theological arrogance to the whole thing.
Despite that, I haven’t given up on Reformation Day, nor have I given up on Reformed theology. It’s not because I’ve finally grown a beard, but because I am starting to experience the ways that Reformed theology can be a balm in a devastating and uncertain world.
Let me explain.
Reformed theology is for the unconscious man whom I met in his dying hours. A nurse called the church to see if a pastor would come and pray with this stranger and his family. The family thought maybe he was hanging on in his suffering because he was not at peace with God yet.
I don’t know if that is true. I had never really done something like this, so I wasn’t sure what to say or pray or do. When we gathered around the bed, though, my Reformed-ness came spilling out: “There is nothing left for you to do. Be at peace and rest in God.” That’s “grace alone,” I think, not to mention the perseverance of the saints.
Reformed theology is for all of us who carry guilt and shame. It’s for those of us who are exhausted by life and the pandemic and who don’t have the energy to hear one more sermon that places a dozen burdens on us to have more faith, trust God more, read the Bible more, be more Christian, and do more for the world. Add those demands to last week’s list that remains unfinished! Reformed theology finds its strength and motivation for abundant living in the grace that God continually extends to us, not in guilt or shame. What God asks of us God also provides.
I haven’t given up on Reformation Day or Reformed theology. It is for those who cannot rest for fear of having unfinished business with God; it is for those who are fed up with guilt and shame.
I am also holding out hope that Reformed theology can do some more heavy lifting.
I am holding out hope that Reformed theology can tangibly comfort the marginalized in our churches. As my own denomination grapples with issues related to human sexuality, I am holding out hope that Reformed theology can be a comfort for, rather than a weapon against, our LGBTQ+ friends, family, and parishioners.
I am holding out hope that as churches continue to argue about whether being gay, or in a gay relationship, is a “salvation issue,” Reformed theology will be a steady stream of assurance that one’s salvation is not determined by Councils or Synods or reports or anything at all but the grace of God.
I am holding out hope that LGBTQ+ children of the Reformed tradition will find hope in that tradition and will not believe any theological gaslighting that presents the mercy and love of God as dependent on anything other than God’s gift of grace and faith through Christ. I hope that there would be Reformed pastors and theologians convicted by the reality that Scripture—so often weaponized—more deeply cherished and read in light of God’s grace is replete with stories of God’s radical acceptance and grace toward the marginalized.
I’ll cast my lot with Reformation Day and Reformed theology—so long as it does not become what the Reformers stood against: a religious tradition that uses religious power to control God’s children. May we rest instead this Reformation Day on God’s radically wide grace alone.
Thanks, Betsy, for your Reformation Day take on Calvinism and the comfort it offers. But, of course, it only offers such comfort to the select few who have been chosen by God. As you suggested, the wonderful grace of God is provided only by a sovereign God, and you might as well add, provided only to those chosen by God and not to all. So, for this unconscious man you prayed for, who knows if his guilt was alleviated. In fact, who knows if anyone’s guilt is alleviated. We only have our subjective feelings to offer us assurance. That’s why some in the Reformed tradition find it very difficult to participate in the Lord’s Supper. The “I know” of assurance becomes the “I hope,” as in wishful thinking.
Ah, good points. I guess I am assuming a prior experience of faith in this man’s life based on what I could gather from the family, so I am thinking in terms of God being faithful to the covenant promises made to this man rather than being a capricious deity whose mind changes based on the last best or worst thing a person has done. But you bring up a good point, especially with the emphasis on election, and I would agree this is a reason that many struggle with Reformed theology! I don’t find it particularly effective to push people on it, for the reasons you’ve mentioned. Even worse is when Reformed folks use it as an excuse to not extend God’s love and mercy to those they assume are not elect. This is part of what still chafes me about some in the Reformed tradition.
Rev. Dr. De Vries, I am with you on the Reformation Gospel, and its implications, its comfort, and even its mission. But if I may demur, what you present is essentially the Lutheran version, with its emphasis on grace, sovereign grace, by grace alone, sola gratia, etc.. Which I am a fan of, totally. But the Reformed version, as I understand it, emphasizes the Sovereignty of God, with all its implications (predestination, church discipline, transformation of culture, third use of the law, yadda yadda, all of which so easily lead to the bearded bro-stuff). I think we Reformed people too easily equate Reformation with Reformed. My demurral is minor, however, because I have long believed that we Reformed people need to be more Lutheran (more Heidelberg than Dordt), remembering that the Sovereignty of God is solely a gracious sovereignty, and for our salvation, “apart from the works of the law.” So let’s all us Calvinists be Lutherans this Sunday, and chasten our Calvinism not to be a Protestant version of the same old Bondage of the Will. So, then, finally, thank you for this Reformation post. (I have a similar story about being asked to visit someone in the hospital who was afraid to die: because of the things he had had to do in the service of the Dutch underground during World War II.)
This is a helpful clarification to my 30,000-foot view! I suppose in my mind those two points go hand-in-hand since the sovereign God is finally a gracious God. Or maybe I can say that I view God’s sovereignty through God’s grace and not the other way around. But that may be my own “accent” and not inherent in the Lutheran or Calvinist doctrines themselves, so it is helpful that you make this distinction for me. Thank you!
It seems i’ve been thinking more about salvation and grace in the last year or so than ever before. In all my reading of scripture, my understand now is that neither salvation nor grace has a qualifier. That’s how I see John 3 when Jesus said, “Whosoever….”
Oh Betsy: “What God asks of us, God also provides.” I needed that one today. Thank you.