What relevance is the Reformation today? Are the issues that were in question hundreds of years ago still in question within the church today? How about the growing unity between Protestants and Roman Catholics? Are there differences in theology that prevent a true unity within the church? In his book “Rescuing the Gospel,” Erwin Lutzer seeks to give an overview of the events and the people of the Reformation and to bring some clarity and, possibly, answers to these questions.
Lutzer writes, “The better we understand yesterday, the better we will understand today.” His purpose in writing the book is to remind the reader of the issues that caused the Reformation to happen in the first place. In analyzing these issues and becoming more familiar with them, we can look more objectively and intelligently at the things that are taking place within the church today.
The majority of the book is spent on Martin Luther, fitting considering that he is known as the Father of the Reformation for most people. Lutzer opens his narrative by talking about some of the abuses within the church. Lutzer reminds the reader that, “He (Martin Luther) had no intention of breaking from the church; the idea that his actions would eventually change the map of Europe didn’t even enter his mind.” Martin Luther’s intention was to correct the errors that he saw and move forward together, he didn’t expect the results that would eventually come, some of which he saw in his lifetime, others which he did not.
What were the main reasons that Luther hung his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg? Abuses within the papacy caused Luther concern but there were also theological differences that he saw that he believed needed to be remedied. He believed that the Bible should be put into the hands of the people and that the mass should be done in the language of the people as well. He also saw that there were issues which centered around salvation, works, and justification which needed to conform more to what he believed could be read and interpreted in Scripture.
Protestants and Catholics, Lutzer writes, disagree over the idea of justification. Does salvation come through grace perfected in the work of Jesus Christ or is something more necessary? Was Christ’s work sufficient or do we need to add something to his work? The Catholic view of salvation can be described as a “works based salvation,” signifying that Christ’s work was not enough for our salvation. This was the conclusion that Luther came to as he dug deeper into Scripture and it is the same belief that is held within the Evangelical Protestant church today, according to Lutzer. As he puts it, “…no matter how many changes the Catholic Church makes, it will not – indeed cannot – endorse and evangelical view of salvation.”
Lutzer doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Luther and the other Reformers. He is honest about some of their missteps, their faults, and their sins. About Luther and his last days, Lutzer writes, “when the irritability of age and disease took over, he said many things that would have been best left unsaid.” Zwingli watched and added sarcastic commentary as his former friend, Felix Manz, was drowned within a river for his view on baptism. Calvin was responsible for the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus. While all of these men contributed significant writings and thought to the Reformation, Lutzer makes it clear that they were not to be worshipped and that they were just as fallible as you and I.
Throughout Lutzer’s book are illustrations and pictures of various people, places, and things associated with the Reformation. For those who are not world travelers or who may have a limited exposure to the Reformation and its key figures, these are helpful to bring some context to them. Lutzer’s writing is engaging and he does a good job condensing such an expansive subject within the pages of this book.
This book is not intended for the scholar who has devoted significant amount of time to the study of the Reformation, although it may serve as a good overview to remind those already familiar with the Reformation of key events and figures. It may invoke, for some, a desire to do further study and research for one’s self. “Rescuing the Gospel” is well-written and an easy read. Whether the information is new to you or if you simply want a refresher, it’s a worthwhile read.
(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)