The vast majority of those who will be celebrating this October 31 will be going door-to-door in costumes asking for candy. However, there is another reason to celebrate, and that is Reformation Day.
It was on October 31, 1517, that the great church reformer, Martin Luther, nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in Germany. At the time, Luther just wanted to start a healthy debate within the church of Rome, which he hoped would lead to the inward reform of the church. He did not initially plan to break away from Rome. However, things didn’t work out as he initially planned. And instead, over time, various countries began breaking away from the Roman church and establishing their own variations of what came to be known later as “Protestant” churches.
In fact, for better or worse, the Protestant movement, and the gradual accompanying of legal freedom for individuals to worship according to one’s conscience, has led us to our current cultural moment, where according to the 2010 Atlas of Global Christianity,1 there are now, currently, somewhere in the neighborhood of 41,000 denominations. Whether or not the proliferation of denominations should be interpreted as “divisions” or whether it is simply “multiplication” (or in reality, probably a mixture of both), the point is clear. The Reformation launched a program of change within the Western church that has continued with us until the present day.
Therefore, in light of Reformation Day, I’d like to offer three takeaways from the Reformation in retrospect:
1. We must always keep the biblical Gospel at the center of the church.
While I personally lament (and I believe the Scriptures do as well, see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-4), the rampant divisions in the church we often see today, there are in fact times when it is necessary to make hard decisions to separate ourselves from “professing” Christians who in fact deny the Gospel. While Luther had numerous complaints against the Catholic church, at the heart of the matter was the concern about how and in what way sinners were made right with God.
This was no secondary issue. And I believe what Luther was defending was the very doctrine of the Apostle Paul who taught, “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). We too today must make sure that the Gospel always stays at the very center of our churches, and that we do not compromise it or replace it with matters of secondary importance.
2. We should challenge our levels of commitment to the local church.
While Luther and many others literally risked their lives for the sake of the church, many American Christians do not even attend, serve or give regularly in a committed manner. On the contrary, it is quite common for Americans to complain about various inconveniences related to their participation in the life of a local church. But the truth is none of us have to risk and sacrifice nearly so much as the early Reformers and their congregants did in order to be faithful church members (or even as much as many Christians living in other parts of the world today). Let’s think about it this way: If Jesus loved the church so much He died for it (see Ephesians 5:25-29), and we claim to be followers of Jesus (which means loving what Jesus loves and hating what He hates), then we should be challenged to deepen our levels of love and faithfulness, in tangible ways, to the Lord and His church today.
3. We should cultivate a greater sense of appreciation for Christian history.
As American Christians, it is easy to forget that at one time it was a foregone conclusion that if you lived in the West, and you were a Christian, you could only be a Roman Catholic. At one time, you could not own a Bible or read it in your own language. And there was a time when an individual could not worship according to their conscience, but rather, the forms of worship would be legally prescribed for all (this is actually the historical context of the famous freedom of religion clause in the U.S. Constitution). Forgetting the cost of our freedom to worship the LORD is the surest way to lose it. I pray our churches would all do a better job of practicing gratitude for all those brothers and sisters who have gone before us and made our religious freedom possible, even if we might differ with our spiritual ancestors on various, secondary points.
So, wherever you are this October 31, take a moment and thank the Lord both that we have had the Gospel of grace preached to us, and for the faithful saints of old who have made our religious freedom possible. And let us also consider what we can do to show our love for Christ by solidifying our commitment to His church today.
1 Johnson, Todd M., and Kenneth R. Ross. The Atlas of Global Christianity: Its Findings. “PDF,” n.d.