Why Celebrate Reformation Day?

In addition to being Halloween, today marks the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther chose the date intentionally. He was challenging the medieval teaching on indulgences, purgatory, and what it is that constitutes a saint. Thus there was a symbolic value in doing this on the eve of All Saints Day. Before he completed his theological project, however, Luther came to see that the central issue at debate was not a single errant practice, but an overarching theological and salvific confession: justification by faith alone, the article of the standing or falling church and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and despair. All Protestants, but especially Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians look back to the Reformation as a definitive establishment of their confession of faith and as a mighty act of God through His Spirit. Traditionally, they have taken the occasion to celebrate.

But why celebrate the Reformation now? There are various reasons to ask this question and various ways to answer it, but instead of trying to say everything (my typical flaw), I want to get right to the bottom line because the Reformation is all about the bottom line. We celebrate Reformation Day because we believe in and celebrate justification by faith alone and the immediate work of God in the act of saving sinners. This means that God does the saving, He does it for free, and He does it on His terms. (See here if you want an extended discussion of mediation and all its ins and outs.)

This doctrine relativizes everything else in life. By that, I don’t mean that it makes them unstable, unimportant, or unworthy of respect, but it makes them all penultimate. We must subject everything, even good and holy ordinances, to the sovereignty of God, to His word, His will, and His timing. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

And that means humility, dependency, and faith.

We should point out that while Martin Luther may have initially understood his “reform” as a moral and intellectual reform of an institution– the Roman Catholic church as it understood itself, more or less– he very quickly came to see that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was more radical than that. It affected the conception of the Christian religion as a whole: what exactly religion did for a person, how saving grace was applied, and the appropriate methods of persuasion. Luther denied that this conception was new, but he readily admitted that it had been obscured to the point of being lost. He also eventually came to the conclusion that the power structure atop the Roman Catholic Church was not only supportive of and entangled with the false doctrines which distorted the gospel and its work, but was in fact dependent on those false doctrines. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, you see, leaves no place for a clerical mediation of salvation, and that means it certainly leave no place for an infallible papacy which functions as a spiritual lord.

Justification, you see, has to do with how a man is made right with God, how he is justified rather than condemned. It is, with no hyperbole at all, a matter of heaven and hell. Luther’s theology developed, but even at the very beginning he believed that salvation was an immediate work of God. God declares us righteous, and therefore free from eternal moral judgment, because of His own work, the work of Christ on the cross. Our calling is to believe and to submit our entire life, not simply to a list of divine commands, but to the singular command of dependency and reliance upon God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

This means that we cannot look to ourselves, to our good works and good intentions, for salvation. There can be no boasting. But it also means that no other things in life can do the work of God for you. Your family cannot do it. Your country, its laws and political virtues, cannot do it. And neither can your church. This last one was where Luther really got into trouble. If you read the 95 Theses on their own terms, you will be surprised to see just how favorable Luther is towards the Pope and the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. And yet, even in the midst of that general “conservatism,” he believes that the work of the church is one of testimony and proclamation. It is not mediatorial. Luther will allow that the church has its own authority, even canon law (up to a point), but he always insists that when it comes to saving a man’s soul, the church is but an instrument of God, to be used by His as a means of giving free grace. The church can never be a causal institution which makes or breaks a person’s forgiveness and acceptance before God.

And this is huge.

To put one’s salvation in God’s hands alone is to put it in the only secure place. It gives you assurance, and it directs your hope to the place which is truly infallible. It gives you peace. And it sets you free. It prevents anyone else from being your lord, and it prevents you from ever being a slave.

Let me explain this part more. Slavery is the pervasive human condition. “ Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey” (Romans 6:16). We are all slaves to sin, that is our selfish desires which cause us to disobey God and to harm other men. And this slavery causes us to enslave other men, sometimes by outright violence and physical subjection and other times by bringing them under our control in other ways, by making them dependent upon us. There are a thousand saviors out there offering you hope on the condition that you become their slave. And yet justification by faith alone says that even earthly slaves are spiritual and therefore eternal freemen: “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:22-23). In that section, the Apostle Paul isn’t talking about politics. He’s talking about religious obligations and life within the church. We are all slaves to Christ and therefore free from all men. This is true freedom and true equality, and this is what the Reformation is all about.  

Being free can be scary. There is no big brother or nanny to keep you from falling. And this is where the competition to justification by faith alone always shows up. “You’re left to yourself,” they say. “Look at all those mistakes you’re making, all the disagreement between everyone, and the lack of any muscle-power in the world.” And this is where we need to go right back to the beginning. Yes, we are “on our own” in one sense. Each of us must relate directly to God. But right away we see that being “on our own” in this sense means being coram deo, which is where everyone else is too. The hands of God are there, even if you don’t always see them. Will you walk by faith?

Celebrating Reformation Day is celebrating the gospel, plain and simple. It includes being broken by the law, true enough, just as it includes the Prodigal’s time at the pig-trough and David’s sojourn among the Philistines. But these are just the necessary introduction to the triumph of salvation by grace, God’s free mercy given to us because of what Christ did and nothing else. Reformation Day is a celebration of God and a proclamation of our dependence on Him.

Can you celebrate Reformation Day wrongly? Of course. Any boastfulness would actually be a self-contradiction. Taunting and putting down others still presumes that some inert worthiness on our part. But celebrating Reformation Day precisely because it forgives messed up sinners and covers up our inconsistencies and inadequacies? That’s just boasting in the Cross, the duty of all Christians.

And so go ahead and lift your stein without guilt. Sing those German and English hymns. Memorialize the mighty work of God done through His servants in the history of the church. And party like your sins are forgiven for free.

Because they are.

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