The Ongoing Relevance of the Reformation
Core principles that sustain our Adventist hope
To capture the multiple facets of the Reformation, it is helpful to identify the intrinsic principles shared by several Christian traditions. Many of these principles capture the issues at stake. They also indicate what was understood as the gospel, or the good news, of the new covenant. As a result of searching Scripture, Martin Luther discovered the fundamental truth of God’s unconditional love. God’s provision for salvation sparked a reformation in Luther’s life, one that is still felt today.
The principles of the Reformation, including the five “sola”s and other insights and changes in belief, were adopted to restore what was understood as new covenant revelations. They were all grounded in a deep experience of the sufficiency of God and the need to rely completely on Him.
“Luther’s breakthrough had a dazzling, corrosive simplicity to it. The power of those twin principles, ‘faith alone’ and ‘Scripture alone,’ lay in the word ‘alone.’ There is nothing and no one else other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ worth our attention. Being a Christian means throwing yourself abjectly, unreservedly, on Christ’s mercy. Living a Christian life means living Christ’s life—that is, abandoning all security and worldly ambitions to follow him ‘through penalties, deaths and hell.’ ”1
The core tenets of post-Reformation Christian beliefs were based on the following:
1Sola scriptura (Scripture alone as the foundation for faith and practice, not Scripture along with tradition). The “Scripture principle” is the conviction that the Bible is the only absolute source of authority and that all believers are equal before it. It is Protestantism’s central, unifying idea.2
2Sola gratia (by grace alone, not grace along with merits when it comes to salvation). The principle of “grace alone” highlights the depth of God’s love manifested in unmerited favor toward those He created in His image. Those who receive God’s grace are called to be gracious people.
3Sola fide (by faith alone, not faith with works to earn salvation). The nature of justification was at the root of the Reformation. The righteousness of Christ is the ground of our hope. As Ellen White put it: “Our only ground of hope is in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that [righteousness] wrought by His Spirit working in and through us.”3
4Solus Christus (Christ alone, the only mediator between God and humanity). This principle presupposes that only God can lead us to God. Only God can forgive offenses to God. Only God can save and offer eternal life. The whole purpose of the Christian life is to become a Christ-centered life.
5Soli Deo gloria (to God be all the glory; only God is worthy of worship). Instead of seeking popularity, prestige, or power, pastors and other leaders are called to validate their ministry by embracing the humility of Christ, who, even though He was the only one worthy of glory, did not seek His own glory.
6Presbyterii fidelium (priesthood of all believers). The new covenant is characterized by free access to God. The premise of this principle is direct access to all who come to faith in God. In the new covenant God graciously grants access to us through faith in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
7Ecclesia semper reformanda (the church is constantly being reformed). The church is in a continuous process of reformation until God makes all things perfect again. This principle is consonant with the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, who alone will complete the Reformation, given His prerogative to renew all things at His Second Coming. Every Christian ought to be a reformer.
8The sacraments. From the Reformation on, the seven sacraments of the Roman Church are reduced to two: baptism and Communion. Obviously, the latter was and is understood differently by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. This principle also invalidates putting church leaders on a pedestal above church members. Leaders are no more sacred to God than His other children.
9Equality. This principle is based on the fact that God makes no difference among God’s children. He does not practice favoritism among His redeemed. His love extends to all.
The principle of human rights recognized by the international community in declarations and treaties is grounded on the premise of equality. This equality is beautifully captured in the words of the apostle Paul: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28).
10Freedom of conscience. The famous declaration of Martin Luther on the pivotal role of conscience is in order: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason . . . my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything; for to go against conscience is neither right not safe. God help me, Amen.”4 Lack of conformity to this principle has tarnished the tremendous legacy of the Protestant Reformation.
11A biblical worldview. Such a perspective should inform Christian beliefs and practice. The Reformation set limits to every authority and tradition, and opened the door to a deeper movement of restoration that now seeks to restore what God intended. This restoration is deeply ingrained in Seventh-day Adventist self-identity and mission. Love is the ultimate expression of human dignity.
12Implications of the love of God. God's love reveals human dignity and humanity's infinite worth through our creation in God’s image. The love of God for humans created in His image undergirds every other principle of the Reformation.
The Reformation irreversibly changed the world of the Christian faith. These 12 principles, characteristics, and insights into the post-Reformation give us perspective about how the initiatives of Luther and other Reformers changed the world.
Seventh-day Adventist Emphases
Adventists claim to be entrusted the whole chain of truth. This claim presupposes that whatever is justifiably and genuinely biblical in other Christian traditions should be embraced in Adventism. Adventists are part of the nineteenth-century reform movement that insisted on the following:
- restoration of biblical truth
- affirmation of Christ’s high-priestly ministry
- preparation for Christ’s second coming
- God’s righteousness revealed in Christ
- transformation of our characters into Christ’s likeness
Key to Seventh-day Adventist self-understanding is the importance of Creation. It legitimatizes the Sabbath and human dignity by virtue of the belief that humans were created in the image of God. This aspect is present in the name Seventh-day Adventist.
The other aspect in the name refers to the Second Coming as the climax to the history of salvation and restoration of all things. Before this coming of God, the Son, a critical phase in the history of salvation is Christ’s priestly ministry.
In highlighting the heavenly, high-priestly ministry of Jesus Christ as an integral part of God’s salvation, Seventh-day Adventists show an undergirding attachment to the restoration of justice as only God can do it.
Justice is due in favor of countless people persecuted, discriminated against, and murdered. Christian martyrs and other victims of injustice require a work of vindication. Seventh-day Adventists’ broader understanding of the atonement is a distinctive feature of its identity.
In Adventist understanding, the cross is inseparable from the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther’s declaration “The cross alone is our theology” (crux sola est nostra theologia) is fully embraced as a crucial aspect of atonement, followed by Christ’s heavenly, high-priestly ministry.
Christ Himself is bringing the climax of the Reformation, which will be completed when He restores all things at His second coming.
- April 1521.
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D., is director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department at the General Conference and secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association.