Most days are pretty boring. We wake up, do our routines (for me that includes precariously holding my toddler in one arm while I cook an egg and get her “sheirios” ready for breakfast), go to work, come home, go to bed, etc. Rinse and repeat. Rarely do we wake up and think, “Today, I’m going to change the world.” I doubt that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther aimed to change the course of human history when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All-Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Yet over five hundred years later, we’re still commemorating Reformation Day.
What is Reformation Day? Is it a Christian alternative to Halloween, with “Fall Festivals,” apple cider, and screenings of “Luther”? What was the Reformation?
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century religious movement that resulted in several religious groups breaking away from the Catholic Church due to differences in doctrine. The movement had different leaders and was located in different regions of Europe. Men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others challenged the common Christian’s dependence on the Catholic church and the papacy in matters of doctrine, especially that of salvation.
Historians have summarized the Reformers’ theological legacy in five “solas”:
- Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
- Sola Gratia – Grace alone
- Sola Fide – Faith alone
- Solus Christus – Christ alone
- Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone
Sola Scriptura means that while Scripture is not the only spiritual authority, it is the final religious authority. At the time of the Reformation, authority was found in Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium (the authoritative teaching of the church). To teach salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone meant a dramatic turn from the common understanding of salvation. Introducing sola Scriptura meant not only that the church did not have the same spiritual authority as the Bible, but also that the church leaders would lose their control over the populace.
Sola gratia means “by grace alone.” The medieval church taught that grace was found in Jesus but kept by the church through the sacraments. The sacraments (including baptism, the Eucharist, penance, and others) all required the church’s administration. A person who sought to live a life pleasing to God couldn’t do so apart from these requirements, which were controlled by the institutional church.
With a strong conviction that Scripture was their final religious authority, the Reformers returned to the source to understand what grace is and how it is received. Men and women could now see grace as revealed through the Bible.
Closely related to the doctrine of grace alone is the doctrine of faith alone, or sola fide. The Reformers were united in emphasizing that justification is by faith alone. While there were minor differences among them as to how divine grace impacts us as we come to faith, the Reformers agreed that human beings are sinners, unable to measure up to God’s standard of righteousness, having no hope in their own efforts to obtain salvation. But God has provided salvation through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. United to him by faith worked by the Holy Spirit, humans are accepted by God as righteous, which is received by faith alone.
Solus Christus means “Christ alone.” If we lose the doctrine of solus Christus, all the other “solas” go with it. If Christ is not alone, then we have no claim for the Bible being the final religious authority, because the Scriptures themselves testify to this truth. If Christ is not alone, then faith is not alone, because we may choose our gods as we see fit and worship them as we desire. If Christ is not alone, grace is not alone, and religion becomes transactional and not a gift. If Christ is not alone, then we cannot say to God be glory alone because our understanding of salvation is dependent upon the unity of the Trinity. God speaks in his Word to not only inform us, but to save us. He has given us the text of Scripture so that we would see that Christ is the only way for someone to be saved.
Soli Deo Gloria
Lastly, we come to soli Deo gloria. Salvation is by faith alone, grace alone, and Christ alone—without any meritorious contribution on our part. All glory is God’s. We don’t share in the glory of our salvation; it belongs completely to God. In medieval times, the common man believed he could contribute to his process of salvation. Without the Protestant Reformation, our understanding of salvation and our very lives may still be tied to a form of church that did not set people free to worship and serve the Lord as He intended.
Why Does Reformation Day Matter?
Why does this matter? For starters, think about how you came to know the Lord. For many of you, that moment came through the preaching or reading of the Bible. You heard a sermon that proclaimed the grace of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or maybe you read in your Bible how Jesus was full of grace and compassion.
If you lived before the original Reformation Day, you would not have heard a sermon like this or have been able to read your Bible. It was a capital crime in the 1400s to print the Bible in English. It wasn’t in the church’s interest to have a populace that wasn’t dependent on the institutional church. We should celebrate that God worked in history to give us access to his Word. It’s a precious thing to have the Word of God, ready at the turn of a page or the opening of an app.
We should also celebrate the Reformation because of the way we experience the love and grace of God. We don’t have to go back to the sacraments to keep our grace bucket filled up. We are justified by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, once and for all eternity. We’re not dependent on a system of sacraments to know and love God. Beloved, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free; let us run in the freedom that God has given us in Christ and be thankful that the way we experience God is no longer tied to an exploitative system.
Let us also finally celebrate Reformation Day in the spirit of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (“the church reformed, always reforming”). This phrase means that the church is always in need of reformation. Not change for change’s sake; reformation must be continual because human weakness in faith and morals is inevitable. We’re redeemed sinners, and as redeemed sinners, we still sin. A church that is perpetually in need of reformation expresses a willingness on the part of the whole church to repent. This isn’t a call to spin away from orthodoxy, follow the shifting winds of cultural change, or follow trends in church growth strategy.
Semper reformanda calls us to go back to the Scriptures, to self-examine, to repent, to cry out to God, and to seek to live out our faith in light of the five “solas.” Let us, like the Reformers, seek a better and purer faith so that we may love and honor God all the more. This Reformation Day, let’s remember what the Reformation was, how it changed our understanding of salvation, and be ready to continually reform our faith and our church, for the glory of God alone.
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