There are days worth remembering, for, in remembering, we find hope. And we need hope now more than ever.
Many Protestant churches will have an October festival. Some will even have a hymn-sing on the last Sunday in October or the first Sunday in November—a wonderful tradition. The Protestant Church is a singing Church, to be sure. Others will seek to redeem Halloween as an opportunity for some good, clean fun and fellowship at their churches. I delight in the hymn singing and enjoy handing candy to the little ones. I would be hypocritical if I didn’t admit just how much I enjoy the sweets in this autumn ritual. Yet, there is a sweeter time still in the Church calendar. We can move beyond trick or treat to human and cultural transformation. I wonder how many congregations will be observing Reformation Day? Is that even relevant in the Secular Age? It is. It always is.
Reformation Day recalls not only the historical event of October 31, 1517, and the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses against Indulgences by the Augustinian monk and seminary professor, Martin Luther, to the castle door at Wittenberg but recalls the ensuing revival that shook the world. It was a revival, not simply a political realignment of papal or princely allegiances. The Reformation drew divisions, not merely along national borders, but in the human soul, from lost to saved, from superstition to supernatural faith in the living God; from thinking thoughts after Man to thinking thoughts after God; from image to idea, and from the sanctimonious supremacy of a corrupted system to the soul-satisfying sufficiency of Scripture. The Reformation was a recovery of the Augustinian—the Pauline—doctrine of salvation according to Scripture alone, revealing divinely required righteousness from Christ and substitutionary atonement of sin by Christ for all who transfer trust from self to Jesus Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God’s glory alone. For a people so often denied the Truth of Scripture to consolidate and conserve political power, the doctrine of John Wycliffe in England, of John Hus in Bohemia, and, ultimately, embraced and proclaimed by Martin Luther in (what is) modern Germany the Reformation liberated the human condition (in a way the Renaissance could never do). So, what happened? Dr. Bridget Heal of St. Andrews University writes:
Soon after publishing a critique of scholastic theology, in 1517 Luther composed his Ninety Five Theses against Indulgences, nailed them (probably) to the door of Wittenberg’s castle church and sent them (certainly) to Archbishop Albrecht of Brandenburg, the Empire’s most powerful churchman. (See Michael Mullett on the Ninety Five Theses). The date, October 31st, was significant: it was the eve of All Saints’ Day, the date on which Frederick the Wise’s collection of relics was displayed to the public in the castle church, attracting pilgrims from far and wide. The posting of Latin theses – numbered statements for public disputation – was usually an invitation to academic debate. It is not clear, however, that Luther intended such a debate to take place: for him, the key seemed to be the sending of the Theses, accompanied by a provocative letter, to Albrecht, on whose behalf the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel had been selling indulgences in nearby Magdeburg. But the Theses found an audience and were reprinted in nearby Leipzig, as well as in Nuremberg and Basel. Luther’s critique of the church was now a public matter, at least among the Latin-speaking elite of early modern Europe.Bridget Heal, “Martin Luther and the German Reformation | History Today,” March 3, 2017, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/martin-luther-and-german-reformation.
I believe that we need to recover Reformation Day in our churches. I don’t mean that we do away with “games and goodies” night or require the children to dress up like Calvin and Knox, an embarrassing attempt to blend Halloween and Protestantism, by any estimation. Have you ever seen a really happy child dressed as John Calvin (I admit to having an old photo of my son dressed like George Whitefiled)? Instead, I propose that our churches mark this season with times of preaching and teaching, evangelizing, missions conferences, and other such spiritual times of refreshment. Forget about events that will draw people in to get a crowd or to entice them to have a community for the sake of community. Rather than using props to draw them in, exalt Jesus Christ, and He will draw them up. Magnify Him. We (in evangelicalism) surely have discovered that cultural accommodation is a failed fad that should have never been attempted (what a relief to pastors who could never be cool enough; and for congregations never hip enough; and those recovering from manipulation by emotional chord progressions as they look up to the screen, led by the girl singer dressed for clubbing). No, beloved. Celebrate the doctrine. Exalt in the glorious liberty our Lord Jesus brings by engaging in evangelism and missions or a prayer meeting for the lost. The postmodern slide into the soul-killing Secular Age signals our challenge to return to the essentials as believers. Preach Christ and Him crucified. Proclaim liberty to the captive. Pray without ceasing. Teach the Bible to the children! Teach the Bible to converts! Teach the Word of God to culturally contaminated believers (and that is all of us).
The dialectical contrast between dystopia and deliverance may be overwhelming, yet the truth is mercifully immovable. Yes, the days are dark. And, yet, the Lord is light. The spirit of the age is not only filthy but flourishing. The Spirit of Jesus Christ is not only transformative but triumphing. The duel is on. Yet the match is not equal. The day of evil and evil-doers feels like it will go on forever. The time of Jesus Christ’s return and His kingdom’s appearance is closer. Satan’s lies possess fallen Man, contaminate the culture, and incite chaos. God’s Word at work within the Redeemed exposes lies, changes lives, exalts the lowly, and instills peace. Thus, at length, the dialectical gives way to the undeniable: Our God and Savior Jesus Christ has defeated death, hell, and the devil at Calvary’s cross and Aremathea’s grave. Redemption is not only underway but undermining the remaining realm of Satan on this earth. Remember the truth of the Gospel:
"For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience, many will be made righteous. Moreover, the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so, grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:19-20 NKJV).
The Gospel story is the story that the Reformation recovered, reclaimed, reaffirmed, and revoiced (the right revoicing: re-telling the Gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners in need of a Savior). Reformation Day is a time to recall that God “came down” as a divine gift through the power of the Holy Spirit to mortals seeking understanding. Their epiphanies of the doctrines of grace and its consequences for human flourishing (a trendy but, in this case, I think, a most helpful phrase) overflowed with joy into others’ lives. Revival happened. Discoveries were made. Nations were born. New life in Jesus Christ continues to be the most compelling story on earth today. Nothing comes close. Therefore we remember and are renewed in hope: the God who revived Ninevah, reformed the Church, and unleashed the doctrine of God’s grace that changed the modern world is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Reformation Day is a festival in the life of the Church worth recovering and a day worth reforming. Let us preach the truth and the truths of the Reformation with renewed urgency lest we forget.
For Further Reading
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther: Roland H. Bainton. Reprint 2013. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013.
George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013.
Heal, Bridget. “Martin Luther and the German Reformation | History Today,” March 3, 2017. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/martin-luther-and-german-reformation.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Spirituality. Edited by Peter D. S. Krey and Phillip D. Krey. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007.
Parker, T. H. L. John Calvin: A Biography. Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corp, 2007.