October 31, 2011
Reformation Day is an occasion for reflecting on the importance of the historical event of the Protestant Reformation. Although the actual observance is typically transferred to the Sunday (called Reformation Sunday) on or before October 31, its focus is on this date as the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. This dispute over the church’s practice of selling indulgences launched what became the call for broad reforms of Christian faith and practice that have defined Protestantism ever since.
There are certainly many distinctives of our Protestant Christian faith that are worthy of renewed appreciation on this special day. The reaffirmation and recentering of the authority of the Word of God over the Church is probably the most basic. This was the basis for the fundamental shift to how we now understand Christianity in connection with the Word of God as a personal encounter with God through union with Jesus Christ our risen Lord in the power of the Spirit who quickens and heals us by making Christ’s benefits our own. This reform turned the focus from what occurs within us in a sacramental view of salvation, to that which takes place outside of us in God’s own work of forensic justification. Here our reflection on Scripture alone leads us to the other liberating insights we inherited from the Reformation: grace alone; faith alone; by Christ’s work alone; and to the glory of God alone.
Our Christian practice also has many distinctives that follow from the Reformation. The recovery of an affirmative attitude toward the world is probably the most basic. This resulted from the Reformation’s renewed emphasis on the distinction between justification and sanctification. The reform shifted focus from meritorious works seen as essential to being in the state of grace, to a new understanding that embraces God’s promise in the gospel as giving us what his commands in the law require. This has made us perfectly free to turn our full attention to dutiful service where our works of love overflow to needy neighbors, whom we are enabled to serve as a church that is a priesthood of believers. Here our reflection on the value of the God-given vocations of everyday life leads us to a renewed appreciation of the Reformation’s high regard for the idea of just government and human rights; for the rights of women; for the value of the family and of marriage; of Christian activism in politics, involvement in the marketplace and in music and art; and for the study of science.
Why Reformation Day? Because we Protestants have inherited a great tradition that should not be taken for granted. We should pause to reflect on it, to appreciate it, and to become reacquainted with it. This is the tradition that has formed us as Christians. It is the tradition we confess, the tradition we live, and the tradition we will advance and ultimately bequeath to those who come after us.
Professor Peter D. Anders is an Instructor in Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, MA. His academic work includes research in political science and international relations regarding the state of Christianity and the Christian church under the Marxist-Leninist governments of Eastern Europe and the USSR. He is also a contributing scholar to Modern Reformation.