Cover Feature

The Army & the Power of Reformation

Standing on the shoulders of giants

There are pivotal moments in history that affect all that comes after. The day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 concerns about his Catholic Church to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral was such a time. But Luther was not alone in his protest. His was a culmination of many cries for reform. Other giants of the faith, like Jan Hus, John Wycliffe and the Lollards, before Luther contested that the institutional structure of the medieval church had clouded the Gospel. Many of these luminaries suffered and died for their challenges to the status quo. Luther’s salvation came out of the witness of those who had gone before. And the world has never been the same. The Salvation Army stands in the succession of those who have protested any diminishment of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The central question of the Reformation was, “How can a person stand before God as righteous?” The common person had been taught that righteousness was earned by doing some act, like being baptized, taking communion or going to confession. Those who demanded reform flatly rejected any focus on works-righteousness. Thus, the “protestants” produced a theological earthquake drawn from a growing belief that righteousness came, not through works, but by grace. That relationship was sealed by the only scriptural condition for humanity found in verses like Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, “the righteous shall live by faith.” God has used the exact same emphasis to produce another much needed revival at the origins of The Salvation Army (per its 8th doctrine). And we dare not lose that core focus.

The Radical Nature of the Gospel

I heard a preacher say, “There is enough truth in the Gospel to start a new Reformation in every generation.” The Holy Spirit used the Book of Romans to bring a personal reformation to men of the stature of Augustine, Martin Luther and John Wesley. The Holy Spirit uses successive clarifications in the hearts and minds of the people of God to bring us to a fuller understanding of the Truth found in Jesus Christ. The Wesleyan perspective on salvation formed the heart of the Army. And we stand today in the continued joy of the Gospel of a salvation based solely on the grace of Jesus Christ’s person and atoning work.

The word “reformation” is an apt description of the radical change grace enables. From that basis, a whole new perspective on the church, on what a person is called to and could experience, was born. There was the need to re-form a mindset. The focus was no longer on nature, or works, or acts of obedience, but on grace, the love of God and the offer of life in Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Our history shows that it was this same struggle that motivated the earliest ministry of the Army in England and America. The Salvation Army will always stand in the shadows of previous Christians who prayed, struggled, studied, preached and mostly, believed that the Scripture way of salvation is through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.

The Army and the Reformation—Areas of Distinctiveness

While grateful for the men and women who paved the way for the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed, the Army’s vantage point distinguished it from the larger families of the Reformation. There were several major Reformation groups: Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist and the English arm of renewal. In our day of individualism, it is hard to remember that the Reformers were actually quite traditional. They earnestly attempted to get back to the Scripture and to the earliest preaching of the Gospel. The unique mindset that arose in the English context was what called the via media or, “middle way” between the Reformers and Catholicism. That meant that not everything was left behind in the changes to come. John Wesley drew from the giants of both the Catholic Church and the newer, helpful insights of Luther, Calvin and others. Thus, The Salvation Army’s heritage incorporates profound insights of truth that both precede and follow 1517. Our history draws from the best of the past which the Holy Spirit has confirmed.

One major area to be noted here is the view of God of which the Army is an heir. The righteousness of God came to be viewed primarily through the lens of a courtroom, with God as the Judge. Justification by faith took on a primarily legal interpretation. Justice for a sinner could only come from a mediator. The “rightness” of a sinner was imputed by a holy God through the sacrifice of Christ.

The Wesleyan tradition agrees with that wholeheartedly, but would also include the early Christian emphasis of God as Father. The Bible offers us a fuller conception of God than merely a Judge who does a work for us. His divine love is transformative. We are made righteous by His life in us. So the Army has always balanced the work of God for us as well as in us. We are justified and born-again; the distinction is very important.

Another major area of distinctiveness is the purpose of salvation in every believer. Because of the strong focus on total depravity, the Reformers defined a Christian as a sinner saved by grace. This meant that sin was always going to have the same power over every believer until Heaven. The phrase that came to describe the Christian experience was “At the same time, a believer is both a sinner and just.” The tradition out of which the Army arose fundamentally disagreed with that assessment. Without undermining the seriousness of sin in every person’s life, there was an equally strong emphasis on the power of the grace of the atonement to fundamentally change a person’s life. They could stand before the Righteous Judge because they had been declared righteous in Christ and because the Holy Spirit immediately began to work in them to re-create them in the image of God. The Father desires to share His likeness with us.

What does the Spirit want us to be and do in this generation?

Another important difference came because of the first two. God’s nature as love and salvation as the promise of personal transformation confronted a preoccupation with God’s sovereign will. A judge relates to convicted criminals differently than a father to his children. A sinner who becomes a saint by the reforming work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart relates to God’s power in a uniquely personal way.

The Army has never agreed with those who say that God arbitrarily chooses to save some and to condemn others. We protest the belief that Jesus died for a select few or that grace for salvation cannot be rejected. The sovereign power of God has always been viewed personally, relationally. Simply put, the Army has always believed that the Father, Son and Spirit offer us love and life that incorporates judgment and power but not in ways that eclipse our human response. Love is always a relationship of true giving and receiving.

The Army and the Reformation the World Needs

If the Gospel is so powerful that a reformation could result in every generation, it would be good to ask ourselves what the Spirit wants us to be and do in this generation. As Protestants, our theology should build on the past with deep love and respect, but we should emphasize the deepest needs of the human heart. We offer a radical and reforming view of salvation. Is it possible that our emphasis on holiness is exactly where we have something distinctive to offer to the world? Justification by faith has defined the church’s self-perception for 500 years this month. What would happen if our language incorporated that and more? 

The Reformation began with those who built on earlier insights and recaptured the Gospel to emphasize the grace of God. It would seem to me that we ought to have that down by now. The Army’s offer of transformative grace is that all can be saved from the power of sin. What if in this day Blood and Fire Salvationists could offer the radical truth that God’s righteousness can be formed in us (see II Corinthians 5:21)? This is the radical Gospel that reforms persons and nations: Justified by grace through faith and sanctified by grace through faith. 

The reformation of the church for the sake of the world continues if the Holy Spirit can produce in each successive generation the fullness of the life of God. We praise Him for the past and all its benefits, but we also look to the future and ask what must we be about to show this present age that God truly redeems, renews, restores, recreates and re-forms every heart and life that is open to His full presence.

William Ury, PhD, and his wife Diane were commissioned as national ambassadors for holiness in August.

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