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Our debt to the Reformers

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*This article is from the MB Herald archives, originally published November 18, 1983, in the column “Christian Mind.” Author Walter Unger (1936–2018) served the church as a teacher, administrator, and board member.*

We recently celebrated Reformation Sunday in our church. Since this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, I felt that a consideration of the faith of the Reformers was most appropriate.

We need to see ourselves as Mennonite Christians within the perspective of the broader stream of church history. We are, after all, only a tiny segment of the church universal. God has done his mighty acts through others, beside ourselves, and to our great benefit. In many ways, we built on the foundation stones they uncovered.

Before he became a Christian, Menno Simons read the writings of Luther and the other mainline Reformers. Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were disciples of the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli before they started the Anabaptist movement. Grebel said of his reforming zeal: “Zwingli brought me into this thing!”

I know that it is popular in some Mennonite circles to do a fair bit of “Luther bashing”, with extra barbs thrown in for the intolerant Calvin. We find it difficult to forgive Zwingli for his part in the exiling of Anabaptists from Zurich and later, their martyrdom.

There is no way such actions can be condoned, even by 16th century standards, let alone 20th century norms. Yet we must see the Magisterical Reformers, not as men of evil intent, but as men of enormous conviction. They lived in a violent, intolerant age in which their rediscovery of cardinal Christian truths was seen as threatened by any group which suggested that certain aspects of these truths were not followed through to their logical ends. This was precisely the complaint of the Swiss Brethren against Zwingli regarding his inconsistent application of the strict biblicism he had taught them.

We do well to remember that if the Reformers were men of great contradictions, more than one Anabaptist leader also left a mixed testimony for posterity. We would not want to follow Menno Simons in his defective view of the incarnation. We would not wish to emulate some of the harsh, legalistic banning and shunning practices of Menno, Dirk Philips and Leonard Bouwens. This led to schism and an unforgiving spirit in the Mennonite brotherhood.

Uncovering foundation stones

On the positive side, we are deeply grateful that the Reformers cleared away the rubble heaped up by Medieval Catholicism so that we could once again see the foundation stones of true Christianity. Salvation by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone-this is still the basis of our evangelical faith.

Luther’s definition of faith as going beyond mere mental assent to trust, commitment, and a throwing of oneself on God was the key to Menno’s conversion. It was also a truth re-emphasized by the founders of the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1860. They demanded of their members a living trust in Christ, a true conversion, not a memorized faith.

The learned doctors of the Roman Church had defined faith as assent to the doctrines of the church. In his Preface to the Epistles to the Romans Luther affirmed that faith was not the human notion and dream which some regarded as faith but “a divine work in us, which transforms us, gives us a new birth out of God …. Faith is a living, daring confidence in the grace of God, of such assurance that it would risk a thousand deaths. This confidence and knowledge of divine grace makes a person happy, bold, and full of gladness in his relation to God and all creatures”.

Marks of Luther’s definition of faith are clearly evident in Menno Simons, who wrote that faith was “the gift of God. All who receive it from God receive a tree loaded with all manner of good and delicious fruit … . He that receives it receives Christ Jesus, forgiveness of sins, a new mind, and eternal life (and) true faith makes one active, confident, and joyful in Christ Jesus.

“When we speak of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith we must add that in the strictest biblical sense, we are not really saved by faith, but by Christ. God does not save us because we have been so good as to believe (thus making faith a “work”). Our faith is not the ground of our salvation; the ground of our salvation is the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Faith, which is a gift from God, is simply the key which opens up the treasure chest of Christ’ s redemption and allows the Holy Spirit to apply it to our lives.

Martin Luther denied the validity of the Pope. He discarded the canon law containing all the pronouncements of the church. He also disclaimed the power of the church councils. He effectively removed the foundation stones of medieval Catholicism.

“Brother Martin “, his clerical opponents said, “You have heaped abuse on the Holy Father; you have repudiated the canon law; you have denied the power of the councils of the church. You have removed all these. What will you put in their place?”

Luther replied: “Christ. Christ alone is all we need!”

The Reformers affirmed the priesthood of all believers – all were holy and called on to minister to one another and to the world. The entire Christian ethic was binding on all believers. There was no hierarchy in God’s economy – clergy achieving a special holiness and laity living by lower standards.

Furthermore , the Gospel was best exemplified in the tasks of daily life – in home and school, at work and at play. Luther transferred the concept of vocation from the cloister to the workshop. The occupations of the farmer, the doctor, the school teacher and the minister were all religious callings. The carpenter who faithfully worked at his bench was just as holy and pleasing to God as was the minister who devoted himself to the study of the Word and prayer.

These may not seem like extraordinary concepts now, but they were in the early 16th century. The rediscovered, re-emphasized biblical doctrines of the Reformers revolutionized Christendom and made possible the emergence of evangelical Christianity. It is with heartfelt gratitude that we acknowledge the immense contribution of the Reformers to our spiritual heritage.

—Walter Unger  

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