Theology in the Reformation Era: Stephen Brett Eccher on Salvation

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Stephen Bret Eccher serves as associate professor of church history and Reformation studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Introduction

The Protestant Reformers generally agreed that the gospel had been veiled over the centuries and needed to be recovered if the church were to remain in the apostolic tradition. This recovery centered on two main ideas:(a) the proclamation of the gospel, especially articulated through the phrase “justification by grace through faith alone,” and (b) a reinstitution of the two biblical sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—tangible word pictures of the gospel. Although the Reformers were by no means in agreement on the precise definition or understanding of these ideas, they spoke with one unanimous voice corroborating the veracity of one confessional heritage: salvation was at stake.

Given that debates over the nature of faith served as the principle issue identifying who maintained a true, biblical church, the purpose of this chapter is to explore the doctrine of salvation during the Reformation. Special attention is given to the developmental nature of this doctrine among the Reformers, the divergent hermeneutical commitments that undergirded their soteriologies, and the unique historical contexts that shaped the differing understandings of salvation offered during the period.

Historical Overview (Very Varied)

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was born into a superstitious world consumed with death and riddled with guilt. Against this unique backdrop, the Roman Catholic Church posited that healing and salvation were realized through the church’s sacramental system. Late-medieval sacramental theology argued that the church had been established by God as the sole dispenser of the salvific medicine of divine, saving grace. The clergy stood as heaven’s gatekeepers, administering the sacramental medicine of immortality to humanity plagued by sin.

Luther languished in this sacramental system, especially during his time as an Augustinian monk. He was a man caught between God and the devil, a medieval viator moving from heaven to hell and back again with every sacramental act of righteousness, followed by more sinful deeds of his flesh. According to Luther’s 1545 Preface to the Latin Writings, this changed once
he began searching the Scriptures for answers to the questions that vexed him. He finally came to see salvation through the lens of the cross instead of the sacraments. Salvation was not something to be realized by human effort but a gift from God based on the work of the Son, Jesus Christ. Faith in the accomplished work of Jesus, itself a gift of God, became the means of finding a right standing before the Lord.

Case Studies

1. Martin Luther and Justification

2. From Calvin to Tulips

3. British Conviction and Confession

For the Church

One of the modern misnomers about the Reformation is that it caused the church’s division. To be sure, the fracture with Rome and the subsequent splintering of Protestantism into a myriad of confessional heritages was a regrettable inheritance bequeathed to modernity. Nevertheless, the church was already divided before the sixteenth century, as evidenced by pre Reformation figures John Wycliffe (1330–1384) and Jan Hus (1369–1415)or movements such as conciliarism. Given that divided past, what remains striking about the Reformation was the all-too-often-forgotten unity that was realized among most of the Reformers. Following a time when the gospel was either misunderstood or veiled by rampant moral abuses of the church and the sacramental theology of the late-medieval era, the Reformers came to a general accord regarding salvation. Gospel clarity came through an embrace of justification by grace through faith and a rejection of the Roman Mass.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021