We will have the pleasure of celebrating one of my favorite holidays on October 31. No, not Halloween—Reformation Day!
I do not ask my wife to listen as I read out all 95 of Martin Luther’s theses. I won’t nail 95 Reese’s candy bars to our door, though we have eaten sugar cookies in the shape of Luther’s head. We do take time to remember the beginnings of Protestantism and Martin Luther’s efforts to reclaim a gospel of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Alas, Martin Luther was no friend to the early Anabaptists. Luther accused them of being rotten geister, (gangs of spirits) unreasonable people who raved and rejected anything that was influenced in the slightest by the Roman Catholic Church. For Luther, Calvin and the rest of the so-called Magisterial Reformers, our forebears were fanatics and revolutionaries bent on throwing out the proverbial baby with the infant baptismal water.
Nor are many Anabaptists eager to claim Luther and his legacy. The great reformer and his teaching that believers are simultaneously righteous and sinful is rejected by some as incompatible with the Anabaptist view that one’s faith must be evidenced in one’s life. Still others deny any connection to Protestantism at all, claiming that Anabaptism represents a “third way” between Catholicism and Protestantism.
What’s an Anabaptist like myself who is interested in theology and church history to do? Can our Anabaptism be reconciled to mainstream Protestantism? Can we, in good conscience, celebrate Reformation Day?
There is no better place to turn than the original sources—ad fontes, “to the sources,” as the reformers would say. And if we do so, we will find that, contrary to what many think, Menno Simons, our denominational namesake, retained the original vision of Martin Luther and sought to achieve it in actual experience.
“No other remedy”
Many people see the doctrine of justification as the starkest difference between Luther and the Anabaptists. Luther emphasizes that works play no role in our salvation—salvation is an act of God, not of human beings. Menno and the Anabaptists, however, maintain that saving faith, if it is genuine, will bear the fruit of good works. Using these characterizations, Protestants and Anabaptists seem to be at an impasse.
Despite this difference in emphasis, by charitably and carefully reading both writers, one can see a great deal of similarity—even, in important senses, a shared vision.
For Luther, works play no role in justifying human beings before God. How could they? For we are dead in our sin, condemned by the holy law of God. We cannot “make even the smallest contribution” to our salvation, he says. Human beings are brought into a saving relationship with God through sheer grace alone, by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is only the gracious God who wills our salvation, declaring us righteous because we cannot actually become righteous ourselves.
Menno says much the same. For the Anabaptist, too, there is nothing we can contribute to salvation, nothing we can offer God to satisfy his wrath. Rather, salvation comes by God’s grace alone.
“As surely as the Lord lives,” writes Menno, “there will in all eternity be found no other remedy for our sins, neither in heaven nor on earth; no works, no merits, no sacraments, even though they are used according to the Scriptures; no oppression, tribulation, innocent blood of saints, no angel, men, nor any other means but only the immaculate, crimson blood of the Lamb of sacrifice which was once shed for the remission of our sins out of pure grace.”
In a word, there is nothing we can do to attain to our own salvation, not even the Anabaptist hallmarks like believers’ baptism or the patient and faithful endurance of suffering. Our works, all of them, condemn us, coming out of our inherent depravity, and we are unable to fulfill the holy law of God. We need his grace, and the good news is he offers it to us freely, as a gift. “We do not believe nor teach that we are to be saved by our merits and works as the envious assert without truth,” Menno writes. “We are to be saved solely by grace through Christ Jesus.”
Luther would put it differently. But the underlying message of God’s grace in Christ is similar. For both Luther and Menno, our works play no role in our salvation. We are saved by God’s grace when we believe.
“Be Christs to one another”
What, then, is our takeaway? It’s not like Luther and Menno are in total agreement: They part ways on everything from baptism to the Lord’s Supper to the proper sphere of secular authority. Each man would have no trouble criticizing the other for various sins.
But Anabaptists like Menno were no third way between Rome and Wittenberg—they upheld the Reformation doctrines of grace and faith, aiming to apply them more consistently in the Christian life. Taking after Menno, we can do the same. God saves us by his grace when he gave his life for us at Calvary. If we truly believe that the only reasonable response is to give our lives over to him and seek to live out his teachings in every circumstance.
Luther tried in his own way. He expected that, when he preached this good news, his parishioners would leave behind their lives of sin and walk in the new lives that belong to them in Christ. As many a pastor after him has discovered, this is not always the case.
The average Lutheran, he noticed, was living “like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom.” For Luther, as well as Menno, true faith should lead to righteous deeds, for God’s sake. While works do not, and cannot, justify any person, good works flow out of God’s gift of faith to us.
“As our heavenly Father supported us freely in Christ,” Luther writes, “so also we ought freely to support our neighbor with our body and its actions, and each person ought to become to the other a kind of Christ, so that we may be Christs to one another and be the same Christ in all, that is, truly Christians!”
Let us go and do likewise. In celebration of Reformation Day, as good Anabaptists and good Protestants, let us, too, as we cling to his gospel of grace, be Christs to one another.
Tony Petersen is a campus pastor at Mountain View Church in Fresno, California, and adjunct history professor at Fresno State University. He and his wife, Roaxanna, have three daughters.