Reformation Day: 501 Years Later
As creatures enshrouded in the concept of time, we tend to like the idea of clearly delineated dates. We mark our years and our lives through important events that happen to us or have happened to our forebearers throughout history. In this act of remembering, nothing makes us happier than celebrating a nice, even-numbered anniversary; one that shows how far we’ve come and turns us toward reflection, celebration or both. Yet on the 501st anniversary of Reformation Day, the observed day where the Catholic friar Martin Luther probably nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and in turn set off one of the largest schisms in church history, what is left to celebrate? Just a year ago, we observed huge, worldwide and denominationally deep celebrations. Hundreds of articles, books, and events critiqued, assessed and psychologized the Protestant Reformation with everything from comparisons between Luther and Trump to conferences celebrating Reformational achievements. Should we, for once, take a break and pick it all back up again on the 502nd anniversary? Aren’t we tired of hearing the same stories and the same history about an anxious monk who lived half a millennia ago?
While 500 years is certainly something to be celebrated, to always focus on the anniversary number could run the risk of forgetting the true meaning behind the reason we remember the Reformation as an important period in the history of the Christian church. Viewed from another perspective, however, to downplay critical dates and events can also miss the mark. I grew up in a church tradition where anniversaries and important dates were often not called out as special with the reasoning that “every day is Christmas” and should be observed as such. Just as we can get caught up in the numbered anniversary, so too, we can forget the importance of marking important days in history. An understanding of momentous days through time bears the significance of repeating the truth such days and periods expose, regardless of which numbered anniversary.
While the Reformation brought many truths to us in the form of church reform, cultural development and the like, there are three specific aspects I believe are essential to understanding the Reformation and most importantly, to understanding and hearing the true beauty of the Reformation: the proclaimed word of forgiveness on account of Christ.
The Reformation was not a Revival:
In the United States, we are no strangers to the idea of revivalism. In fact, it could be argued that revival has formed some of the core of what could be considered American Christianity. In the First and Second Great Awakening’s of the 18th and 19th centuries, enthusiasm for piety and personal holiness spread quickly through tent meetings, circuit-riding preachers and religious fervor. A key mark of these movements was personal and internal feelings of religious devotion as well as outward moral reform. To be a believer in Christ was to feel the Holy Spirit working inwardly and to live a pure moral life outwardly. This, is of course, is a picture painted in very broad strokes. To learn more about revival religious movements, I suggest watching this video from our friend Dan van Voorhis.
On the other hand, Martin Luther was not concerned with moral reform as much as he was with doctrinal and theological reform. While many Catholic reformers of Luther’s day, including Erasmus, desperately wanted to reform the church's morality, Luther rebuffed such directives. What is fascinating in this, however, is that through his insistence that the Church refocus its attention on the pure proclamation of the Gospel, moral reform did take place. By placing the reclamation of Christ crucified at the center of the Reformation, Luther was not ignoring Christian living. Instead, he simply put it in its proper place as an outpouring of the preached Word and the promised result of the freedom of the Christian.
The Reformation was outwardly focused:
When we say Luther rediscovered the Gospel during his lifetime, what exactly do we mean? In contrast to human attempts to justify oneself under the Law, the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel to proclaim to us that Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross has justified us once and for all, without any help or assistance from us. Those in Reformation traditions find it concerning to promote looking inwardly for assurance of this justification because we understand the Christian man or woman to still be at war with sin as Romans 7 tells us. Thus, to find assurance in Christ’s promises of forgiveness and justification, one must look to the Savior’s finished work on the cross, which stands as objectively true no matter how we feel inwardly. We know this work of promise and fulfillment to be true because we find it in God’s Word, a Word that effects what it promises when it reaches the ears of the hearer from the outside through preaching and the sacraments.
In addition, then, the Gospel spreads through the pronounced word of forgiveness from one sinner to another. Think, for a moment, how beautiful this is. Through the Holy Spirit and in Christ, even the most parched lips can speak the truth of God’s Word to their neighbor, and conversely, deaf ears hear. This is the work of the priesthood of all believers and the defining characteristic of the church itself. The truth that all believers can provide forgiveness to another, no matter their vocation or standing in the world, is just as revolutionary today as it was in Luther’s time. Most importantly, this need for a Word about ourselves from outside of ourselves pushes us to the cross, which means it pushes us to Christ as the only answer to our sin. Practically speaking in this life, as we are turned to the cross, God’s work through His Word also turns us to outward to each other.
The Reformation was not new, and yet it is always new:
We see over and over again in the work of both Luther and his good friend and colleague, Phillip Melanchthon, an attempt to convince the Papacy that the need for Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone was nothing new to Christianity. Citing church fathers, the creeds and clearly rejecting heresies of the church when necessary, Luther and others from the Magisterial Reformation wanted nothing more than a return to Christ crucified as the center of the Christian faith. This is something they saw clearly represented by Scripture.
No matter the time and the place, we will continue to see resistance to the idea of Reformation. This should not surprise us. Some will call the Gospel “new” or perhaps they will insist it comes with prerequisites. Others may state the Reformation had less to do with the Gospel than we would like to think. But here is where the rubber meets the road, for where we cannot see the goals of the Reformation in Scripture, we should abandon the celebration. But as Scripture continues to call for objective forgiveness of sins, Christ’s imputation of righteousness and the priesthood of all believers on account of Christ’s finished work, Christians today must return to the roots of Luther’s reformation. These roots are not new, they are not improvising on but only recapturing the truth of the Gospel.
Yet at the same time, we can be encouraged that the gifts of God advocated for by Reformation thinkers - forgiveness proclaimed over the sins of one and belief in Jesus Christ - are always considered new by the one who receives them. Forgiveness never comes to the ears of the sinner as old news. It is the good news that must be replayed, retold and re-proclaimed over and over again. Furthermore, we live in a time and place where Gospel proclamation is, in fact, very new to a people who rarely hear it. A recent survey shows that 33% of American Christians somewhat or strongly disagree that "God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.” Another 14% were unsure of this claim was true. That means almost half of Christians in America do not believe a very central claim of the historic Christian faith. A new reformation - and by that, I simply mean a return to the truths of Luther’s reformation which was in and of itself a return to the truths of Christianity - is needed now more than ever.
To celebrate Reformation Day as a historic Christian is to celebrate the same return to the Gospel that Martin Luther rediscovered throughout his lifetime. To observe this day and mark it as an important date in the history of the Christian church should, hopefully, more than anything else, give us more opportunities to point to Christ crucified for the sins of you and me. Reformation Day reminds us of our history, but more importantly, it provides us the chance to continue to proclaim the gift of forgiveness on account of Christ - an act that is never brand new yet always new to the each of us in desperate need of a Savior.