What did Luther really do?


The whole question between Protestant and Catholic turns on the nature of revelation. While to the Catholic it came as a system, to the Protestant it came as a salvation. It came as personal redemption, it became revelation only as redemption, and within the soul arose another soul to be its true King and Lord. The only truth for the soul was not Redemption but its Redeemer. What was revealed was not truth in the custody of a Church, but it was a spiritual act and person of salvation in the experience of a soul. That was the nature, the price, the glory of the individualism of the Reformation. …

This faith, then, was the new, the reformatory thing in Luther’s position. What did it replace? It replaced what we find passing for religion to-day in the circles where the Reformation influence has not truly penetrated, where an institutional, episcopal, and priestly Church keeps the public soul under a mere Catholicism. What is that? …It is the Catholic idea of certain beliefs and certain behaviours; of accepting the knowledge of God and of the world authoritatively given by the historic Church of the land, along with the exercise of certain moral virtues to correspond; ‘Believe in the Incarnation and imitate Christ.’ That is all very well, but it is not a Gospel, only a Church-spel. Orthodoxy of creed and behaviour is this ideal, rising to the idea of imitating Christ as the great Example, but too seldom tending to trust Him as a matter of direct personal experience. It is right knowledge on the Church’s authority, and right conduct in personal relations, but less of actual and experienced personal relations with the divine object of the knowledge. Now the Reformation did not discard either right knowedge or right conduct; but it cast these down, for their own sakes, to a second place; and it put in the first place what Catholicism had, for the average believer, only made second (if second) — the personal trust and experience of Christ in a real forgiveness. Out of that all right belief and conduct must proceed, and it was the only guarantee for either. The first was made last and the last first. The whole Reformation might be defended as a crucial instance of that characteristic principle of Christian change, of divine judgment by inversion. The thing that was now put first is the thing that is always first in the spiritual order. It is the creative thing. Faith is the power creative both of right creed and right living. All the ethical world spreads away from the true focus of personal faith in God’s forgiving grace in Christ. All the moral order is ruled from this throne. I do not say that morality does not exist apart from religion; it does. But I do say that finally it cannot; in the spiritual and ultimate nature of things the two are not separable, distinguish them as you may. The permanent ethic is Christian ethic; and Christian conduct dies soon after Christian faith.

P. T. Forsyth
“What Did Luther Really Do?”
Rome, Reform and Reaction (Paternoster Row 1899), pp. 125-6, 136-8.


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