If you forget to buy candy for tomorrow tonight, I am sure you will certainly cringe with regret at each impending knock on your door. If that becomes you, know that you are not the only one regretting the knock on a door on October 31st. 500 years ago, the Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany experienced their own regretful door-knocking. It was at their chapel door where Martin Luther nailed his infamous 95 Theses; highlighting certain issues he had with their theology and practice. This 500-year-old event would spark a movement known today as the Reformation. From there, Luther and his team of Reformers would take on the Catholic Church for what they believed was a false understanding of salvation resulting in malpractices of the church. Martin Luther and the Reformers were willing to risk their lives for the sake of a gracious gospel; one without the need of works and indulgences. To the Reformers, we owe the return to some of the most foundational truths of the Gospel.
This history-changing event is what most Protestants around the world find themselves celebrating on October 31st. Even without consciously knowing it, a Protestant Christian’s theology has been greatly influenced by these now 500-year-old voices. Their emphasis on “faith and grace alone” has become the rallying cry for Protestant churches since.
For many Christians, tomorrow is a day to celebrate and reflect on the Reformation. Often though, our reflection turns to wishful nostalgia as though the Reformers had everything figured. This mindset is what I fear as we approach the 500 year mark. The Reformers certainly added incredible thoughts to the theological world, but their ideas are not perfected nor final. Let us then be thankful for their tireless work but not let their desire for reform be limited to their time.
The Reformation of 500 years ago was never meant to be the only Christian reformation. The Reformers, with such heavy emphasis on the salvation (or as the theology nerds say: “soteriology”) debate, left other, equally important questions without the same justice. They were wrestling with the issues and questions of their time in history. Now, there are new matters for believers today to which the Reformers did not answer.
Today, we face a new wave of predicaments for which our faith must contemplate. With such a dramatic shift in reality between our time and the Reformers’, the world begs us for new reformation. As N.T. Wright puts it regarding our need for new reform:
“For too long we have read Scripture with 19th-century eyes and 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first first-century eyes and 21st-century questions.” – N.T. Wright (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision p. 21)
It is time for Christians to embrace possibilities of new Reformation. To observe the issues around us and ask the necessary questions for our time. To see what needs improvement or revitalized contemplation. To seek unity and work together in digging the depths of Scripture. This is not a blast at the Reformers but a blunt realization that the work they set out to accomplish has not yet been completed. In fact, the greatest compliment we can give to the Reformers is not solely relying on their work, but by extending their efforts to fresh perspectives and contextual relevance.
So on October 31st, let us not uphold the Reformers to the level of unattainable pedestals. Let us instead embody their spirit of reform and once again rally around the quest for true Gospel. Let us not make the Reformation a point in history where “they got it all right” but instead seek new transformative movements in the Church.
I am grateful for Luther and his gang of Reformers. As an aspiring theologian, I am inspired by their stubborn devotion to truth. I know they were not perfect and they missed the mark plenty of times. I desire to hold in balance and admiration for their work and understanding that there is far greater depths of Scripture to plunge.
I would like to end with what may be my favorite Luther quote:
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to no one. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” – Martin Luther, (The Freedom of a Christian, 1520)