Relishing the Reformation

Nigel Fortescue came out of Bible college full of ideas, enthusiasm and a big vocabulary. Thanks to the wisdom of the Reformation, he gradually learnt that the big issues of ministry had not, and do not, change.

Six years ago, the idea of reading church history for fun was just plain odd—but now I love it! In recent months, I have had both cause and desire to re-read some of my Reformation favourites. To my surprise, the exercise has evoked both joy and sadness.

I was sad because my reading demonstrated that time brings humanity no closer to God. But I was also joyful because God has provided the answers to humanity’s deepest questions. The wonderful truths of the Bible remain a timeless treasure chest for exploring and understanding who God is and what he has done.

All this reading helped me to realize afresh that people come and go, but the pastoral questions and theological problems remain the same. It reminded me of my first weeks and months in ministry and the great benefit the heroes of the Reformation were to me during that time. Let me explain.

Upon finishing Bible college, I was raring to go. I could not wait to get out into church life. I was ready to tell people all about the way that ‘speech-act theory’ defeats the postmodern agenda. I could not wait to explain how Jesus was the “eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships”. The only problem was, the language I was talking was not the language my people were able to understand.

I was also ready to launch all the ideas I had seen, heard and thought of onto the unsuspecting people who had just found me as their Pastor. I had training courses, new opportunities to pursue, Bible study ideas and more, all up my sleeve. I had an infectious enthusiasm that I hoped would ensure growth and joy in the congregations of which I was a part. The problem was, my idea of what was needed was not necessarily what was actually required.

In the end, what I was offering was ministry by Nigel alone, with technical language alone, by activity alone. It was not long before it became clear to me that what the people in the church needed, I was not offering. What was required was simplicity. I don’t mean that I had to forget all I had learnt. Neither did I have to treat people like Sunday School children. Rather, unless you are simple you will never be understood and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those you serve.

Perhaps my preaching was a case in point and these words of Luther were just what I needed to hear:

If Peter and Paul were here, they would scold you because you wish right off to be as accomplished as they. Crawling is something, even if one is unable to walk. Do your best. If you cannot preach an hour, then preach half an hour, or a quarter of an hour. Do not try to imitate other people. Centre on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God. Look solely to his honour and not to applause. Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears.1

Preach the Big Idea with simplicity and purpose. I had heard it a thousand times at Bible college, but it was not until I was serving people full-time that the sound of my preaching lecturer’s voice and Luther’s wisdom had its real impact. This is something I continue to struggle with today and suspect I will for the first 50 years.

But the crux of the matter here extends beyond preaching. As I said, pastoral questions and theological problems remain the same across the ages. People are always wanting to find out about God. They want to know how to know God. They want to know how to please God. They want to be sure that their version of faith and religion will be acceptable to God. Multicultural Australia has provided people with a smorgasbord of options to pursue. The philosophies that have slowly been seeping out of our universities provide people with every reason not to believe. But the question still remains. Couched in terms foreign to the Reformers, yes, but asked in a way that the Reformers’ answers remain valid and helpful—yes!

How is it I can know God and be friends with him? The truth remains: it is by coming to know Jesus Christ (Sola Christi). How can they find out about Jesus Christ? By reading the Bible (Sola Scriptura). What do they find in the Bible? That God has done all that we need to be friends with him (Sola gratia). What must a person then do to make this real for them? Trust God (Sola fide).

Perhaps I could have used words like “Christ clothed in his gospel”, justification, revelation, vicarious and inspiration, and there is a time and a place for the use of these terms. But the questions people are asking require answers they can understand and the Reformation slogans provide those answers for us in a simple, understandable, digestible fashion. The simple answers the Reformers provided would have been like honey in the mouth to the poor people I evangelized in those early days. They became so, and still are, now that I am speaking so as to be understood.

Most helpfully, the Reformers drove me back to God. I have looked hard through the primary documents and I am yet to find the Reformation slogan sola Nigel. But time and again I have found the call to pray. The call to rely on God. The call to take seriously Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”. I am but a tool in the Master’s hand. I can preach and pray to the point of exhaustion, but it is God’s work, and he gives the growth.

So as I reflect on my (limited) experience in pastoral ministry, I am profoundly thankful for my Bible college education. But I am also thankful for our Reformation fathers who struggled and strained together. They have supplied the answers to today’s questions, a framework for young pastors to use as we go about answering people’s questions and helping people deal with their theological problems. Their theological adventures have helped me avoid choosing my own.

Nigel Fortescue is an Assistant Minister at Naremburn-Cammeray Anglican Church.


1 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1950.

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