The one true Reformer is Jesus Christ. The Reformation then is not an event that began in 1517, or 1518, or 1528, or at any other time in Church History because of a man or any men. The Reformation occurs wherever Jesus is doing His Christ-Jesusing for sinners. But what does that mean? Where does this Reformation occur? How do we participate in it?
Iranaeus, who died about A.D. 200, was the first to articulate that, "wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church." That is, as our Lord says, "Wherever two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). Whatever we have to say about the catholic faith we are saying about Jesus. No Jesus? No church. No church? No Reformation. Even when we argue about worship, communion, what we sing, how the pastor dresses come Sunday, and who is bringing the treats for Sunday School, the fact remains that these do not bring us closer or divide us from Christ Jesus. But only Christ Jesus makes the church the Church.
Whether it's Abraham, Irenaeus, Martin Luther, or you and me, at any and all times we are in Christ through faith in His promise to cover all our sin and raise us from death. This is the true, catholic faith. This is the true Reformation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin, life, and eternal salvation is where our Reformer is doing His "Reformationing" for us. Or, as the Lutheran Confessions express it:
"It is also taught amongst us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel."
Where Jesus speaks to us, takes ahold of us, and gives Himself to us through His promise and gifts, where He takes action for us in the immediate, concrete, real present tense there the Reformer is reforming us. Reforming us, not according to a method of physical, mental, or spiritual renovation, but in the way of death and resurrection.
Where Jesus speaks to us, takes ahold of us, and gives Himself to us.
When Martin Luther raised the question about our doing for God, versus God's doing for us at Calvary, he received no answer from the church. The leaders and governing authorities considered the monk's question impious. They told him to pipe down and remember his place within the church. When Luther begged for a discussion of the Gospel he was told to recant, repent, and submit to the Pope's authority or be excommunicated. But, following the posting of his 95 Theses, the delivery of his Heidelberg Disputation, and several other confrontations with papal authorities, Luther recognized that the Pope went one way and the Gospel went the other way. Thus, the Reformation of the 16th century began when Luther followed the Gospel instead of the teachings of the papacy.
After this the Lutherans did not try to erect a new (and what they believed to be a better) form of church governance. There would be no new papacy for them. They taught that, according to Scripture, there is no singular God-commanded form of church government. Rather, the foundation of the Church is justification by faith alone. The Pope would have nothing to do with any movement that denied he was the vicar of Christ, and so at Trent the papacy condemned the Lutherans and their Gospel, declaring "let [justification by faith alone] be anathema."
The True Reformer
The Lutherans, or "evangelicals" as they were called by the papacy, kept everything in the churches the same so long as it did not conflict with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is also why the Calvinist Reformation accused the Lutherans of staging a half-way Reformation since the Lutherans did not throw out crucifixes, vestments, candles, altars, organs, stained-glass windows, and statues. But, what the Calvinist Reformation failed to grasp was that candles, altars, vestments, and so on, do not make the church evangelical, catholic, or anything else. The church is Church and evangelical only so long as the true Reformer is at work reforming sinners through death and resurrection, through the Gospel and His gifts. Where Christ Jesus is with His promise and gifts there is the true Catholic Church. The true Reformer. The true Reformation.
Where Jesus comes to do His reformationing of us, for us, we are freed from human factors and reliance on man-made teachings, statutes, and practices. Therefore, wherever the Gospel and Christ's gifts are present regardless of the denominational label—if the Word and Sacraments are present—there we will discover the two or three gathered together in Jesus' name. There we will find the Church. There we will locate the true Reformation going on, where Savior Jesus translates sinners into His kingdom.
The Gospel and the gifts are not exclusive to Lutherans. They are not under the control of any group, organization, or institution. Only Jesus Christ, who is there for us, giving Himself to us through Gospel and gifts, is the source of our confidence that the Reformation is going on, and we are a part of (in fact, we are) the Reformer's work.
Where Christ Jesus is at the center, there the true Reformation is occurring.
The end of the Reformation occurs when we push away Jesus and replace Him with people and things that are not Christ. But where Christ Jesus is at the center, there the true Reformation is occurring, the Church is established, and sinners are translated by God's salvation promise through death into new life in Christ.
So, where is the Reformation? Where Jesus the Reformer is doing His reformationing for us. Who then belongs in the Reformation? If we look at ourselves, none of us. We are dead in sin and deserve nothing but God's furious anger and condemnation. Instead, look at Jesus crucified on Golgotha. He says we belong in the Reformation. He died and rose again for us. Nothing can now separate us from Him, not time, nor distance, nor even death itself. Savior Jesus is the only true Reformer and in His Church the true Reformation occurs. This revelation drove Irenaeus' pen, it drove Luther's hammer, and it drives our confession at present.
Where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel, that is where we take our stand. We stand still before Christ Jesus. We stand still on the Gospel. And in this way we are still standing in the Reformation.