Book Review of The Unquenchable Flame
I have just finished reading The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves. He succinctly records the history of the Protestant Reformation in a fresh, interesting, and sometimes comical way. Ultimately, Mr. Reeves writes this short history of the Reformation to answer the question, “Is the Reformation over?” To which Mr. Reeves rightly responds with a resounding, “No!”
The Unquenchable Flame receives its title from a phrase that Puritan Richard Sibbes once made regarding the Reformation. To Mr. Sibbes, the Reformation is “that fire which all the world shall never be able to quench.” The Protestant Reformation is a truly unquenchable flame.
But what makes the Protestant Reformation so unquenchable? The big issue of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification. Michal Reeves describes it this way in The Unquenchable Flame:
What will happen to me when I die? How can I know? Is justification the gift of a righteous status (by faith alone), or a process of becoming more holy (by faith)? In which case, can I confidently rely for my salvation on Christ only, or does my salvation also rest on my own holiness? Far more is at stake than a fussy concern to dot the ‘i’ and cross the ‘t’ of doctrine. (p. 188)
The doctrine of justification by faith alone, what the Reformers called sola fide, is vital to our faith. On it, in fact, hangs our faith. In his conclusion, Mr. Reeves convincingly argues that the Roman Catholic Church still does not adhere to this doctrine of justification by faith alone but rather makes faith into a work, a process by which we become progressively more holy and more acceptable to God. Far from it and God forbid! We Christians are accepted not for our meritorious faith working through love; nay, we are accepted because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. We are not accepted for what we do, but for what Christ has already done. We are covered in the blood of Christ—how are we to be more accepted when we are covered in that blood?
Mr. Reeves also shows how this central point of the Reformation—justification by faith alone—is still relevant today. He writes on p. 191:
Today we are all bombarded with the message that we will be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet it is a religion of works, and one that is deeply embedded. For that, the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. As Luther put it: ‘sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.’ Only this message of the counterintuitive love of Christ offers a serious solution [to the world’s need to be loved].
If you’re like me, you need to know more about the Reformation. Quite frankly, high school history classes cannot and do not do the Reformation justice. Pick up Mr. Reeves’s aptly-named book and marvel at the bravery that marked the Reformers. They died because they firmly believed that God accepted them because of Christ’s faithfulness to die on the cross, not because of their own faithfulness.
That is truly a message to die for. But will we die for it? I thank God to live in America where I can worship freely without the fear of persecution. However, our lack of outward persecution does not excuse us from daily dying. As Jesus said in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” To “deny” yourself is to die to your self-will. In its note on this verse, the ESV Study Bible directs readers to its note on Matthew 10:18, which reads:
Crucifixion is a shocking metaphor for discipleship. A disciple must deny himself (die to self-will), take up his cross (embrace God’s will, no matter the cost), and follow Christ.
The Reformation is not over because each of us must daily reform and conform to our Lord’s command to die to self-will, embrace God’s will, and follow Him. “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda,” the Church always reforming, was a motto of Martin Luther’s. Personally, I shorten it to “Semper Reformanda.” We Christians should all be always reforming. And by teaching us just how faithful some of the Reformers were, Mr. Reeves inspires us to be faithful to the same Lord and the same faith, also.
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