Last year marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication of his Ninety-Five Theses, an event most observers point to as the unofficial beginning of the Reformation. Tradition says Luther nailed a copy of his theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Since the theses were published and presumably nailed on October 31, 1517, many Protestants informally commemorate that date every year as Reformation Day.
Some might understandably be tempted to downplay Reformation Day this year. After all, 2017 was Reformation Year in many corners of the Kingdom, and even good things can be enjoyed in excess. (This is why I try to avoid boxes of Oreos.) Nevertheless, the Reformation still matters today—both today in the sense of one year after the milestone anniversary, and today in the sense of this particular moment in Christian history. Let me focus on three reasons.
1. The Reformation still matters today because Scripture alone is still our supreme authority for faith and practice.
In the minds of many medieval Christians, Scripture and church tradition were treated as more or less equal authorities. In fact, when it came to certain medieval doctrines and practices, tradition was often functionally more authoritative than Scripture. The reformers didn’t always agree with each other on when tradition trumped Scripture, nor were they united in their views on the proper role of tradition. But there was widespread agreement that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority in the Christian life, standing in judgment over all traditions, practices, priorities, and opinions.
The relationship between Scripture and tradition remains a thorny issue today. Some Christian groups, most notably Roman Catholics, still argue that tradition is equally authoritative with Scripture, rejecting the Reformation principle. Even among believers who affirm sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), there is a tendency to ascribe too much authority to “little-t” traditions we assume to be normative. While few evangelical churches would affirm papal authority or look to a formal magisterium for guidance, many have their own extra-biblical traditions that are treated as untouchable, perhaps even sacred. The Reformation will still matter as long as the Bible isn’t recognized by all Christians as our final authority for faithfulness and flourishing—for individuals, families, churches, and denominations.
2. The Reformation still matters today because the biblical gospel alone is still the only hope for the salvation of sinners.
During the medieval era, the Catholic Church came to embrace the idea that justification is a gradual process that is tied to ongoing faithful participation in a variety of sacraments. The upshot was that justification was assumed to be based upon a combination of faith and works. During the Reformation, Protestants argued this position muddied the relationship between justification and sanctification, constituting a threat to the biblical gospel itself. This serious error was rooted in the aforementioned medieval Christian tendency to elevate tradition over Scripture. The reformers countered that the Scriptures teach that justification is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (sola Christus), to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria).
Today, there remains a lack of gospel clarity in many corners of the visible church. Of course, some traditions still confuse the relationship between faith and works. But other gospel errors tend to creep into evangelical churches. Some make much of the conversion experience itself, but with little emphasis on justification. Others struggle with legalism, which can contribute to a lack of spiritual assurance for many sincere believers. Still others struggle with too low a view of human sin, rendering justification less necessary. Finally, some waffle on the exclusivity of Christ—in practice if not always in theory—suggesting that there might be more than one pathway to being made right with God. The Reformation will still matter as long as the biblical gospel is threatened by errors that distort, confuse, downplay, and sometimes even reject the good news that “our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
3. The Reformation still matters today because the church still needs to be reformed.
One of the principles that came out of the Reformation is that a truly reformed church is always in need of reforming. That is not to say that churches should keep reforming for the sake of further change, as if change itself is virtuous. Rather, it means a church that is committed to the transforming power of the gospel and grounded in the supreme authority of Scripture will always be scrutinizing is practices through these complementary lenses.
No church is perfectly conformed to the Scripture, and no church’s gospel message is wholly unthreatened by heresy, neglect, or spiritual drift. Churches are communities of sinners who’ve been redeemed and become disciples—but they remain sinners, still. Because of this reality, pastors should lead churches to embrace what might be called “reformational instincts”—a ruthless commitment to placing every doctrine, practice, and priority under the microscope of Scripture and alongside the measuring stick of the gospel. The Reformation will still matter as long as churches remain in need of further reform. And that need will remain until that day when “the great church victorious shall be the church at rest” in the new creation.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Reformation, check out the Echoes of the Reformation Bible study.