There’s a makeover video on YouTube that is now clocking in at 25 million views. And it points, through a sad irony, to a truth recovered 500 years ago at the Reformation.
The timelapse video shows Jim Wolf’s stunning transformation from unkempt street guy to bespoke-suited executive. And yet Jim told interviewers later, “The outside matters nothin’. Like I say I’m totally a Christian, and what’s . . . inside you is [what’s] important to Jesus.”
It may not be that the outside matters nothin’ (faith without works is dead), but Jim understands what Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation fought to make clear: inside you is what’s important to Jesus. Or perhaps—if this would be a fair paraphrase of Jim’s view (as it is surely a fair summary of Luther’s)—all God-pleasing change flows ultimately from the inside out rather than the other way around. God changes people by giving them new life.
Perhaps this video went viral because we all deeply desire that new life; we know we need resurrection. But the tools of common grace—medicine, science, art—cannot bring life from the dead. The closest thing to new life secularism can offer is a new leaf.
And that’s how the viral video ends, with a title card announcing the closest thing to secular salvation:
Since filming, Jim has taken control of his life. He is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.
Luther’s evolved view of sin
Carl Trueman describes in Luther on the Christian Life: The Cross and Freedom how Luther thought about sanctification prior to the Reformation:
[He] had been taught that sin….was a weakness that needed to be dealt with via the sacraments. One might say that such an understanding of sin meant baptism was understood as a kind of damping down of the problem or a temporary fix. Once sin reared its ugly head within the life of the subject after baptism, then there was need for further moral triage in the form of the other sacraments. (35)
But after Luther lectured on the Psalms and (particularly) Romans, he began to see things differently. “[Luther] became convinced that sin meant that human beings were morally dead” (35, emphasis mine).
Not defective; dead. And that has profound implications: “If the sinner is dead, then he needs more than cleaning or even healing,” says Trueman. “He needs to be resurrected. Luther thus moved from seeing baptism as primarily indicating a washing or a cleansing to signifying death and resurrection.” (35)
Sadly, Jim’s problems didn’t end after his 25 million minutes of fame. He soon hit the bottle again and landed back in jail. Local TV anchors said of his story, “Jim’s problems are rooted in alcohol, and he’s well aware that it’ll take much more than a makeover to fix that.”
On the one hand, Luther would surely agree with this assessment: it takes more than a haircut and a new outfit to fix human beings.
On the other hand, Luther would beg to differ: the root of a drunk’s problem is deeper than alcohol, just as an adulterer’s problem is deeper than sex and a Pharisee’s problem is deeper than unnecessary rules. All sinners are dead and need to be resurrected.
Luther and his fellow Reformers would ask (and here I quote again from Trueman’s summaries of Luther): “How can a dead person do his or her best?” (36) Luther believed that “human beings are dead in sin and ever inclined to invent a god who conforms to their expectations” (63)—including a god of the bottle or a god of environment-change.
Jim’s Christian view
Jim himself was aware that he needed more than a makeover; he took a noticeably Christian view of his plight:
I have no excuse for what I do wrong. It is all me puttin’ the bottle to my mouth.
And he practically quoted Paul:
I definitely want to say no, and I should say no. I hope nothin’ leads me farther down.
Sounds a lot like, “The evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:19, 24) My heart goes out to Jim, I feel that unless there is infinite hope through Christ for a man in his position, there is none for me. Jim’s story is not complete.
What the dead need
One of the local TV hosts telling Jim’s story wondered out loud whether the viral video had a net positive effect on its star:
The video was a feel-good…for those who watched the video; was it a ‘do-good’ for Jim?
Only if it helps him get hold of a stark biblical truth Luther and the Reformation retrieved: “The dead do not require help or assistance or cleansing. Nothing short of resurrection will save them” (139).
It’s easy to think that unkempt street guys are in a different category, that they need extra saving. But Reformation theologians such as Luther remind us that we’re all equally dead, and we all equally need to be “united with Christ in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5).