Is There Any Comfort? Remembering the Reformation 500 Years Later

With the Reformation on the brain, here is a fantastic piece written by our friend, Jonathan […]

Mockingbird / 10.2.17

With the Reformation on the brain, here is a fantastic piece written by our friend, Jonathan A. Linebaugh.

In 1519, Thomas Bilney sat in a small Cambridge college with a book in his hands. It had been two years since a German monk named Martin Luther was said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg—hammer blows that were later remembered as the start of the Reformation and were rumored to have shaken the earth, producing aftershocks that caused the church’s unity to crumble, nations to war, freedom to be fought for and found, and theological debates to spill both ink and blood. This fraught history would come to Bilney’s England: Luther’s books were burned in Cambridge in 1520, the Church of England broke with Rome, and Bilney was killed for his Protestant sympathies under Henry VIII. But in 1519, all this was an unknown future that only later came to be called the Reformation. Bilney was just reading.

The book was both old and new. It was a New Testament. But this was a fresh Latin translation by the Dutch humanist Erasmus. Bilney got a copy because he wanted to savor the eloquence of the famous Erasmus’ Latin. He was, however, reading with an open wound: “My heart…was wounded by the awareness of my sins almost to the point of desperation.” Like the titular character in George Eliot’s short novel Janet’s Repentance, Bilney “was tired…was sick of that barren exhortation—Do right, keep a clear conscience, and God will reward you.” As Janet lamented, in the face of a history of “broken resolutions”—a life of “sorrow” and “weakness” and wickedness”—these are “feeble words.” Janet’s question was Bilney’s silent cry: Is there “any comfort—any hope?”

As Bilney read, the words made contact with his wound:

I chanced upon this sentence from St. Paul…in 1 Tim 1:15: “It is a true saying and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the chief and principal.” This one sentence, through God’s instruction…did so gladden [my heart]…that immediately I felt a marvelous inner peace, so much so that my bruised bones leapt for joy.

Luther’s own experience, as he remembered it in 1545, a year before his death, was remarkably similar. He was reading Romans and couldn’t get past a phrase in chapter 1: “the righteousness of God.” As Luther recalls, “I had been taught to understand” these words to mean that “righteousness by which God is just and punishes unrighteous sinners.” But Luther, like Bilney and Janet, “felt that he was a sinner” and so he “hated this righteous God who punishes sinners.” He was “desperate,” however, so he kept “pounding on Paul in this passage” until, at last, “God being merciful…I began to understand the ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which a person lives by the gift of God,” that by which “the merciful God justifies us through faith.” Put in more everyday terms, what God sees and says when he looks at us is not determined by our pedigree or our performance—by our biology or biography, you might say. It is determined by God’s love and grace, by the “one who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). And what God sees and says to us in his Son is this: “God so loved the world, he gave his son.” “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Just as these “comfortable words,” as Thomas Cranmer would later call them, made Bilney’s bruised bones leap for joy, they were for Luther an “open gate” into “paradise itself.” Their sin, like Janet’s sorrow as Eliot writes, exposed their “helplessness” and the hopelessness of “all other hopes”—all hopes that is except “His love alone.”

The story of the Reformation can be, and with its 500th anniversary in 2017 no doubt will be, told as a history of characters caught up in a complex of political, social, and religious contexts, causes, and consequences. But it’s worth remembering its core. A question, evoked by the suffering and sin of real human living: Is there any comfort? And an answer: Yes, his name is Jesus Christ. Our bones are bruised, our wounds are open, and we are, in Janet’s words, “too weak and too wicked” to save ourselves. Luther asked, “Do we then do nothing and work nothing” to attract God’s redeeming love? “I reply,” he said, “nothing at all.” This is the “renouncing of all other hope” that Janet experienced. But there is one hope: “His love alone.” Or in the words that Bilney read from St. Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the word to save sinners.”

Hear more comfortable words at our 2017 D.C. Mockingbird Conference, October 27-29! You can sign up here.