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October 2021 - What's Reformation

What’s Reformation?

Some years ago, a dedicated office staff member was hunting for a bulletin cover for Reformation Sunday in late October. Not finding anything in the various catalogues, a phone call was placed to a Lutheran publishing and church supply house (which shall remain anonymous) to see if anything was available that was not listed in the catalogue or on-line. When the question was asked whether there were any Reformation bulletin covers, the customer service rep asked (no joke!), “What’s Reformation?” I think we can safely assume that this individual was not a Lutheran.

All irony aside, the question that this person asked is a good one: “What’s Reformation?” For many people, they really don’t know or have never heard about what the Reformation is. Most denominations don’t observe the festival of the Reformation. Last time I checked, this festival remains a uniquely Lutheran observance. Reformation Day itself, October 31 on the church’s calendar, is pretty much overshadowed by Halloween here in America. For the sake of convenience, this festival is usually transferred to the last Sunday in October, but happily, this year that date of October 31 falls on a Sunday and that will be observed as the Festival of the Reformation.

When Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546), professor of theology at Wittenberg University in Wittenberg, Germany, posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in that city on October 31, 1517, did anyone foresee what would happen? Probably not. Luther had become increasingly troubled with the spiritual state of affairs in his day. Christians were largely ignorant of God’s grace and mercy as revealed in Scripture. They sought out salvation through a variety of forms that, for the most part, depended on what they could do for God, rather than on what God in Christ had already done for them. Luther’s 95 Theses were a set of concerns (actually an invitation to debate) against these corruptions and abuses of the Church of his day. The Reformation movement as we recognize it today is viewed as being launched with Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on that day more than 500 years ago. Reformation is a looking back at who and what has gone before us.

If our observance of the Reformation, however, is going to be truly meaningful, it must not only be a looking back, but must also be a looking ahead. If we only look back at history, and fail to see how God is at work in his Church to reform and renew it today, then we haven’t learned much. Reformation, if it is truly reformation, is an on-going process in the life of God’s people. Beginning in holy Baptism, and continuing throughout our life-long journey of faith, we are constantly being re-formed, re-shaped and re-molded as the redeemed people of God by God’s grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, which comes through the Scriptures alone. As the well-known Latin phrase puts it: Sola Gratia… Sola Fide… Sola Scriptura.

With all of the troubles facing the world right now (and they are many), it would be very easy to think that we’ve got more pressing things to focus on than the Reformation. Point taken. However, it is vitally important for us to keep the main thing, the main thing – in life and in faith. We get into trouble when we veer off and lose sight of what is of central importance in our life together. In matters of faith, what is of central importance is what we will hear in the Epistle lesson for Reformation Sunday, written by Paul the apostle:

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:21-24, 28).

What’s Reformation? “Justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That’s not just a relic from 500 years ago, but is a treasure for every generation. Having this, we have everything. God has worked some amazing things through reformers like Luther in ages past. But the truth is that God continues to lift up and call people in our own day and age to draw hearts and minds back to him. As we look back at our grace-centered heritage as the Church of the Reformation, we realize in a whole new way that we’ve got an incredible message to share with the world – a message that makes an eternal difference.

May the Lord Jesus use each one of us to be his hands and feet and mouth to share this good news. A blessed and happy Reformation!