For Christians in the Western world, Reformation Day is a reminder of the wonderful retrieval of the centrality of the gospel and of the theological reality of justification by faith. Sinners were to be understood as being pardoned in the eyes of God, the perfect judge, solely based on the righteousness of Christ being imputed to those who, by grace, believe in Him. In a period where acts and duties were seen as meritorious and contributive to salvation, such thinking was antithetical to popular thought, by moving individuals from dependency upon themselves to a righteousness that was outside them, and could only be found outside them. This revelation of looking at how one related to God through Christ, by faith that had been graciously God-given, was momentous. It was a total paradigm shift that was aptly summarised through the later Genevan Reformation slogan, ‘Post Tenebras Lux’ (After darkness light).
Martin Luther’s own theological journey in the decade that saw the nailing of the theses on the doors of Wittenberg aptly epitomised the doctrinal shift, or development, on justification. Luther had scaled the scala sancta, the ‘sacred stairway’, knee by knee, in Rome. Promised of its meritorious activity, he had doubted its efficacy. He struggled and disputed the role of relics and indulgences in the life of the Christian. He wrestled with the texts and works of contemporaries on the understanding of justification and came away thoroughly unmoved. And, by the end of the decade, his studies had convinced him of the true meaning of Romans 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
For the unintended kickstarter of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification was to become the very core of the Scripture. It was “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God.” It was foundational to the gospel message, for without it, “the world is utter death and darkness.” However, Luther understood that the understanding of this truth, and the assurance that it brought, could only come to the believer through the illumination of the Word (as applied by the Spirit). The proclamation of this and other key Reformation truths would help dismantle the oppressive spiritual bondage of papal Christianity for many in Europe but it was only possible through the promulgation and propagation of the Word of God. As Luther put it, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.”
This understanding of Luther’s, echoed in chorus by the other great Reformers, was itself a retrieval of yet another core doctrinal truth, the preeminence and sufficiency of the Word of God. Not only in the proclamation and reading of Scripture, although this much was critically true, but also particularly through its faithful exposition. Literature that comprised careful exegetical treatment and application of Scripture on a vast array of topics, ranging from theology proper to subjects that were deemed as more practical for the layman, flourished—and such a belief was strongly continued by their 17th and 18th century theological successors. The importance of being ‘in the Word’ or, as the 19th Century Baptist Preacher Charles Spurgeon articulated it, to “Visit many good books, but live in the Bible” was recognised as an essential element necessary for the spiritual realisation and growth of the average Christian, a legacy that was inherited from the Reformation.
Indeed, one must live in the Word, but visiting good Christian books helps one to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Word. Consequently, commentaries, systematic theologies, and Christian biographies all serve, in differing ways, to help individual Christians come to a better grasp of the Word so that they may be better be able to live the Word. And, in the English-speaking world, we’ve been undoubtedly blessed to have many accessible works from the pens of John Calvin, John Owen, George Whitefield, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield and many, many, others. However, not many language groups have been able to be benefit from the same availability of accessible theological works, as some simply do not have access to translated materials – either due to scarcity or illegality.
This is ultimately why ministries like Reformation Translation Fellowship (RTF) exist – to be able to make available good, helpful, sound literature available to the rest of the world. Since 1949, RTF has sought to support the advance of God’s kingdom among Chinese people by making available reformed works in the Chinese language. With the Christian church flourishing in China, despite the very real threat of persecution and social stigmatisation, we hope to be able to help make materials available that could help Christians both in China and within the Chinese community here in Australia. As we reflect on Reformation Day this year and contemplate on the great theological legacy we’ve inherited, may we also look to see how we, too, can help others also enjoy a greater appreciation of the same doctrinal truths.
RTF Australia has just released a translated version of Truth Matters (Ed. David Cook), which can be purchased from Reformers Bookshop. Our next translation projects are:
- Mark Jones, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God
- Joel Beeke, Reformed Preaching
if you wish to contribute to the translations of the two above books, please visit the donation section of our webpage at https://rtfa.org.au/donations/
 Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 703.
 Martin Luther, “The Second Sermon,” Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1930), 2:398.
 Likely a later summary of Spurgeon’s saying, but still fairly apt. His actual saying was “Read the books, by all means, but especially the parchments. Search human literature, if you will, but especially stand fast by that Book which is infallible, the revelation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” – Charles H. Spurgeon, “Paul—his Cloak and His Books”, Sermon no. 542 (Nov. 29, 1863).