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What Does it Mean to Be A Christian? According to Luther, Melanchthon, Tyndale and Calvin

Category Articles
Date October 21, 2021

The following is an excerpt from Evangelicalism Divided, (pp 154-158) by Iain H. Murray. Read the article, and then consider taking advantage of the special prices during the week-long Reformation Day Special. See below for more information on the special.

The lives of the Reformers are examples of men who, no longer content to trust the teaching of the institutional church of their upbringing, went back to Scripture. What was said of Luther might have been said of them all: ‘He strengthens himself each day in his convictions by a constant application to the Word of God.’ The definition of a Christian which they found there was startlingly new, first to themselves, then to others, and it divided them from Renaissance scholars (such as Erasmus) on the one hand, and from the upholders of the traditional theology of the Church of Rome on the other.

Against the scholars who viewed Christianity largely in terms of a discussion on opinions and morality, and who objected to all claims to certainty, the Reformers asserted the sufficiency and finality of the truth which they had been taught by Christ. They saw the difference between the Renaissance and scriptural Christianity as the difference between natural and supernatural. Thus Luther could respond to Erasmus:

“Leave us free to make assertions, and to find in assertions our satisfaction and delight; and you may applaud your Sceptics and Academics – till Christ calls you too! . . . The truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it.”

Philip Melanchthon elaborates on the same point when he states what it means to be a Christian in the Preface to his Loci of 1521:

“If a man know nothing of the power of sin, of law, or of grace, I do not see how I can call him a Christian. It is there that Christ is truly known. The knowledge of Christ is to know his benefits, taste his salvation, and experience his grace; it is not, as the academic people say, to reflect on his natures and the modes of his incarnation. If you do not know the practical purpose for which he took flesh and went to the cross what is the good of knowing his story? . . . He is given us as our remedy, or, in the Bible’s phrase, our salvation. And we must know him in another way than the scholars. To know him to purpose is to know the demand of the conscience for holiness, the source of power to meet it, where to seek grace for our sins’ failure, how to set up the sinking soul in the face of the world, the flesh, and the devil, how to console the conscience broken. Is that what any of the schools teach? . . . How often Paul declared to his believers that he prays for them a rich knowledge of Christ. He foresaw that we should one day leave the saving themes and turn our minds to discussions cold and foreign to Christ.”

The same principle of the sole authority of Scripture bore equally against Roman Catholicism. For the traditional religion, salvation was an external, objective thing, which the disciple could never know with any personal certainty this side of purgatory. All that could be done was to trust the teaching of the Church and submit to her ceremonies. Against this the Reformers preached that by repentance and faith in Christ there was full and immediate acceptance with God, and that the Holy Spirit himself testifies to the reality of this acceptance in the heart of the believer. United with a risen Saviour, the Christian has the joy of pardon and assurance in present possession.

To the universal objection of Roman Catholicism that the Protestants had fallen into such beliefs through lack of the guidance of the Church (the only true interpreter of Scripture) the evangelicals replied that an understanding of Scripture comes from the Holy Spirit. William Tyndale prized Scripture so highly that he lost his life in giving it to his fellow-countrymen. But he knew that far more than the possession of New Testaments was needed to make men Christians. Nor could any church supply what was necessary. As he told Sir Thomas More, his Roman Catholic opponent:

“Though the Scripture be an outward instrument, and the preacher also, to move men to believe, yet the principal cause why a man believeth, or believeth not, is within: that is, the Spirit of God teacheth his children to believe; and the devil blindeth his children, and keepeth them in unbelief, and maketh them consent unto lies, and think good evil, and evil good . . . It is impossible to understand either Peter or Paul or aught at all in the scripture, for him that denieth the justifying of faith in Christ’s blood.”

For the Reformers the Reformation was no mere controversy or doctrinal dispute. The Church of Rome, in her opposition to the way of salvation clearly taught in Scripture, was demonstrating her lack of the Spirit of God. This is not, of course, to say that the Reformers believed that the teaching of the Holy Spirit makes the thinking of Christians identical in every respect. But the Spirit teaches every Christian what is essential to salvation. The Roman system, by putting faith in the Church, and its sacramental system, in the place of the finished work of Christ, gave sure proof that she was not being taught of God. Her adherents, commonly, did not know the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

On this same theme John Calvin wrote:

“They who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards…Since for unbelieving men religion seems to stand by opinion alone, they, in order not to believe anything foolishly or lightly, both wish and demand rational proof that Moses and the prophets spoke divinely. But I reply: the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For God alone is a fit witness to himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaim what has been divinely commanded…By this power we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly, to obey him, yet also more vitally and more effectively than by mere human willing or knowing…I speak of nothing other than what each believer experiences within himself.”


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