“It may be safe to say that the greatest event for Christendom in the last 1500 years was the Protestant Reformation.”[1] Professor John Murray spoke these words in his class lectures on justification in the mid-1960s.

At that time, forty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone in a Reformed or evangelical church finding much that was exceptional about Murray's words. But today, in a world that would amaze him, the central doctrines of the Reformation are under attack, not only in liberal and ecumenical circles, but in the heart of evangelical and Reformed churches.

Contemporary criticisms of Reformation doctrine, it seems to me (a historian of the Reformation), usually arise from those who are not well acquainted with the theology of the Reformers, the concerns that motivated them, or the biblical foundations for their teaching. In this brief article, we cannot survey or answer all the critics. But we can take a quick overview of the fundamental convictions of the Reformers and see their continuing importance for the life of God's people and of our churches.

John Calvin's reflections on the Reformation are a good place to begin. In the course of his life, he wrote three important treatises defending and explaining the need for reform in the church. The first was a quite personal statement defending the reformation in Geneva, usually called “The Reply to Sadoleto” (1539). The second, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (1543), was written at the request of Martin Bucer for presentation to Emperor Charles V at a meeting of the imperial Diet. The third treatise, “The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church” (1548), was written in response to the imperial victories over the Protestant princes and the imposition of the Augsburg Interim requiring Protestant conformity to certain Roman Catholic practices.

While there are differences among these treatises, reflecting the different occasions on which they were written, they really speak with one voice, giving us Calvin's understanding of the basic concerns of the Reformation. These treatises show that for him the Reformation had five key concerns (not the traditional five points of Calvinism!). The first was that the Bible alone is the authority in the church for religious matters. The second was that the church must worship God purely, according to the Bible. The third was that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in the righteousness of Christ alone. The fourth was that the church must have a proper understanding of the two (and only two) sacraments instituted by Christ, baptism and the Lord's Supper. The fifth was that the true pastoral, teaching office must be restored in the church.

The Bible

The authority of the Bible as an utterly reliable and accessible source of all religious truth is foundational to Protestantism. The Reformation took its stand against the pretensions of Rome to make tradition an authority in addition to the Bible and to make the pope the only ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the Bible and tradition. Calvin wrote, “Ours [is] the obedience which, while it disposes us to listen to our elders and superiors, tests all obedience by the Word of God; in fine, ours [is] the Church whose supreme care it is humbly and religiously to venerate the Word of God, and submit to its authority.”[2] The Bible was not only a formal authority for Calvin. It was the vital and necessary authority in the life of God's people. In his Genevan Catechism, Calvin taught the way in which the Bible should be used:

If we lay hold on it with complete heartfelt conviction as nothing less than certain truth come down from heaven; if we show ourselves docile to it; if we subdue our wills and minds to his obedience; if we love it heartily; if having it once engraved on our hearts and its roots fixed there, so that it bring forth fruit in our life; if finally we be formed to its rule—then it will turn to our salvation as intended.[3]

Today the Reformation doctrine of Scripture is being undermined in some quarters by college and seminary professors and in other quarters by uneducated demagogues. Some professors contend that unless one possesses arcane knowledge of antiquity, one cannot understand the basic message of the Bible. At the other extreme, some arrogant demagogues contend that they alone, without education, really understand the Bible. Whether these claims rest on appeals to scholarship or appeals to the Spirit, they deny the authority of the Bible. The church still needs to study and believe the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, understandable to careful, grammatical-historical interpretation. The church needs to love and study that Word, confident that it directs us in the truth that we must believe and live.


Calvin believed that one of the most serious deformations of the church in the medieval period was the corruption of worship. Worship had become idolatrous, with human inventions and creations replacing divine institutions. Worship had become man-centered, focusing on human actions and reactions. Against this corruption, Calvin insisted that worship must be directed by the Word of God alone:

“I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, seated as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course?”[4]

Protestant worship in our day has become a factory of musical, dramatic, and artistic invention. Singing the Word, praying the Word, and reading and preaching the Word are often viewed as inadequate to produce the experience of God that so many are seeking. Serious worship as the meeting of the covenant people with their God through his Word seems in retreat far and wide. Human wisdom in worship is replacing divine truth, just as it did in the Middle Ages. Those who love the Word need to restore worship according to the Word.


Murray, immediately after the words which began this article, stated: “What was the spark that lit the flame of evangelical passion? It was, by the grace of God, the discovery on the part of Luther, stricken with a sense of his estrangement from God and feeling in his inmost soul the stings of his wrath and the remorse of a terrified conscience, of the true and only way whereby a man can be just with God. To him the truth of justification by free grace through faith lifted him from the depths of the forebodings of hell to the ecstasy of peace with God and the hope of glory. If there is one thing the Church needs today it is the republication with faith and passion of the presuppositions of the doctrine of justification and the reapplication of this, the article of a standing or falling Church.”

Murray here testifies that the doctrine of justification stands at the center of our Christian faith and life. He stands with Luther on this matter. Murray sees that the centrality of justification springs from a proper apprehension of how great our sin is and how dire our spiritual condition is outside of Christ. Murray, like Calvin and Paul, knew that only the imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness would enable sinners to stand before a perfectly holy God. Calvin wrote:

“We maintain, that of what description soever any man's works may be, he is regarded as righteous before God, simply on the footing of gratuitous mercy; because God, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him, as if it were his own.”[5]

The Protestant doctrine of justification has been replaced in many modern evangelical circles with vague talk about loving Jesus and being converted. Ecumenical statements express ambiguous sentiments that do not clearly uphold the gospel. Even Reformed scholars who have subscribed to Reformed confessions seem not to understand the doctrine. As Murray rightly said, without the biblical, Reformed truth of justification, the church will fall. He was not talking about the collapse of an institution, but the collapse of the true church as the bulwark of the truth.


In the medieval church, sacraments had multiplied and become the center of worship and Christian experience. The art and ritual of the church supported that excess, which the Reformers properly labeled idolatrous. The Reformation returned to the two sacraments instituted by Jesus and sought to understand them in their biblical meaning. Calvin wrote:

“Christ instituted the Sacraments to be not only symbols of the true religion, which might distinguish the children of God from the profane, but also evidences, and therefore pledges of the divine favour toward us. In Baptism, both forgiveness of sins and the spirit of regeneration are offered us; in the Holy Supper we are invited to enjoy the life of Christ along with all his benefits.”[6]

In many evangelical churches today, the biblical sacraments are maintained but marginalized. Instead of looking to the visible and tangible signs that God has given us to confirm and strengthen his grace, churches have sought other visible helps for the Christian life—again following the pattern of medieval Christianity. In some places, the sacraments have been removed from the Lord's Day, joined to other occasions of worship or even made a family matter at home.

The church must again recapture the scriptural teaching about the meaning and value of the sacraments for her faithfulness and well-being. The sacraments, like the faithful preaching of the Word, are the church's means of grace.

The Church

For Calvin, the Roman church had become a tyrannical institution, binding the consciences of members by doctrines and practices of human invention: As it was, therefore, our duty to deliver the consciences of the faithful from the undue bondage in which they were held, so we have taught that they are free and unfettered by human laws, and that this freedom, which was purchased by the blood of Christ, cannot be infringed.[7] Calvin not only opposed church tyranny, but also sought to restore the office of the minister or pastor in its biblical character. The opening of the Word of God was at the heart of this office. Calvin wrote: “No man is a true pastor of the church who does not perform the office of teaching.”[8]

But today many churches are led by men who see the pastoral office in terms of administration, pop psychology, and entertainment. Seminaries are under great pressure to train “leaders,” rather than to educate preachers and teachers of the Word of God. If preaching is a means of grace—indeed, the central means of grace—then the Reformation was right that pastors must be faithful, effective preachers, carefully educated to understand, believe, and communicate God's Word.

The preaching of the Reformation built churches with millions of members which endured over centuries. The pragmatists among us should note that as churches in America, following the advice of church-growth experts, have moved away from faithful worship and preaching, the church in America is smaller and less influential than it was forty years ago. We still need pastors who will preach the law and the gospel.


We should not be unduly surprised by the varied assaults on the biblical truth that was recovered by the Reformation. So it has always been, and so it always will be until the return of our Lord. But we must not minimize the seriousness of Reformed churches failing to preach Reformation truth with clarity and enthusiasm. We should ponder the sobering yet inspiring words of John Owen, written in 1682, only thirty-five years after the completion of the Westminster standards:

Let us take heed in ourselves of any inclination to novel opinions, especially in, or about, or against such points of faith as those wherein they who are gone before us and are fallen asleep found life, comfort, and power. Who would have thought that we should have come to an indifferency as to the doctrine of justification, and quarrel and dispute about the interest of works in justification, about general redemption, which takes off the efficacy of the redeeming work of Christ; and about the perseverance of the saints; when these were the soul and life of them who are gone before us, who found the power and comfort of them? We shall not maintain these truths, unless we find the same comfort in them as they did…. But now it is grown an indifferent thing; and the horrible corruptions we suffer to be introduced in the doctrine of justification have weakened all the vitals of religion. Let us, for the remainder of our days, “buy the truth, and sell it not;” and let us be zealous and watchful over any thing that should arise in our congregations.[9]