What Reformation Day Really Is

theses95Reformation Day as we know it is somewhat arbitrary. There’s little about the 95 Theses is that is distinctively Protestant. There are shadows and hints here and there in the 95 Theses of what would become Luther’s mature views, but for the most part the 95 Theses were not terribly novel. Others had made similar criticisms well before Luther formed them. Did you know that it’s possible and perhaps likely that Luther never actually nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenberg? There’s little confidence among modern that he did so. He certainly mailed them to the authorities but there’s real doubt that he ever nailed them to the door. Whatever the history of the Theses themselves, in his later years Luther said that when he wrote them he was still a “right roaring papist.” He said that because the 95 Theses don’t contain clear articulations of the key Protestant doctrines.

Reformation Day, as we know it, is misleading. It creates the impression that the Reformation was about “cleaning up” the church. It wasn’t. There were moral reform movements about in the late middle ages and early 16th century but the Reformation wasn’t one of them. The Reformation was a theological event that was intended to have moral consequences, but it wasn’t first of all about moral self-improvement and tidying the ecclesiastical house. Beware all the various “reform” movements in our churches today that want to turn the Reformation into moral renewal (and that’s most of them). Beware when folk invoke a “new” Reformation who don’t understand the old one. Beware when folk call for a Reformation that requires a repudiation of the first Reformation. Those movements abound.

Reformation Day, as we know it, perpetuates the pietist myth that the Reformation happened suddenly and in one-fell-swoop of religious experience (the so-called Turmerlebnis). It wasn’t and it didn’t. The Reformation doctrines developed gradually between 1513-21. In succession, and with fits and starts, Luther gradually realized the great Reformation solas. There are some Reformation solas with which we’re not all familiar. Luther’s first breakthrough happened during his lectures on the Psalms when he realized that Scripture teaches that we’re not just a little sinful but that we’re completely sinful, i.e., that the effects of sin are radical and affect every faculty. We’re not able to “do our part” or to “do what lies within us” toward justification because, as a consequence of the fall, all that lies “within us” is sin and death. Therefore the first Reformation sola was “solely unable.” This is the essential assumption behind sola gratia, the claim that justification is by grace alone. Grace, is no longer to be reckoned a sort of medicinal stuff with which we are injected, with which we cooperate toward eventual justification. Luther came to understand that grace is God’s attitude of favor toward sinners. Grace isn’t something with which we are infused. Rather, God is gracious toward us. He shows us favor. He gives to us what we do not deserve: righteousness and life.

Only then did Luther realize, as he next lectured through Romans that it was only by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ that we are justified. The entire medieval system was about interior moral renewal. The Reformation is that the gospel is outside of us. The Gospel is that Christ has done it all for us. Justification is solely on the ground of imputed righteousness.

During his next two sets of lectures in Galatians and Hebrews Luther gradually realized that the medieval definition of faith as “formed by love” (fides formata caritate) is false and a misreading of Gal 5. Faith doesn’t justify because it produces sanctity (holiness) in internal moral renewal. Faith justifies because it apprehends Christ and his obedience and death for us (pro nobis). This is solus Christus. Faith is an open, empty hand. Faith is a beggar. Faith looks outside of itself and one’s self to Christ. Faith has no power except Christ its object. Faith is receiving and resting on Christ and his finished work for sinners. Faith is a certain knowledge and a hearty trust in Christ and his gospel. That’s sola fide.

With these breakthrough conclusions came others. During this period Luther came to a new hermeneutic. Where much of the patristic and all of the medieval church had read the Bible to contain two kinds of law, old and new, Luther came to see that the Bible had throughout two kinds of words: law (do) and gospel (done). The gospel is not: here is more grace so you can keep the law. The gospel is not: Christ will approve of you if you do your part. The gospel is: Christ has done it and all that Christ did for us is received through faith alone (sola fide). This turn to the law/gospel hermeneutic was a foundation stone of the entire Reformation and it was adopted by all the Protestant churches and confessions Reformed and Lutheran. One of the great tragedies is that today there are congregations that will celebrate Reformation Day or who celebrate a nearby Reformation Sunday who will look you straight in the eye and tell you that the Reformed don’t use a law/gospel hermeneutic.

Another global change that occurred at the same time is the turn to Scripture as the magisterial and unique authority for faith and life (sola scriptura). There’s no one point at which this view developed, but it’s certainly symbolized by Luther’s stand for the sole and unique magisterial authority of Scripture at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Again, the tragedy of this day is that there are Reformed folk who sincerely believe that an Anabaptist hermeneutic or corruption of sola scriptura (biblicism) is the “Reformed” hermeneutic. They believe sincerely and wrongly that it means I and my Bible deciding what is and isn’t true. That isn’t how Luther understood sola scriptura and it isn’t how the magisterial Reformers understood it and it isn’t how the Reformed churches confess it. Scripture norms all norms. Amen. But we read Scripture with the church. My interpretation of Scripture does not norm all norms! Scripture interpreting Scripture norms all norms. Scripture interprets me. It interprets reality. We recognize that fact, we submit to it, we do not create it. Therefore the church has only ministerial not magisterial authority. If we’re going to celebrate any day as Reformation Day it ought to be April 18 when Luther gave his great speech.

Every year I wonder if Reformation Day isn’t just a way for folks to avoid Halloween. I’m ambivalent about Halloween. I don’t know of my ambivalence is justified or not, but whatever fundamentalist greeblies may yet be running about my conscience, that’s nothing to do with Reformation Day.

Reformation Day is a fine thing but let’s remember what the Reformation was: the assertion and defense and conviction that justification of sinners is by unmerited divine favor alone, that, in the act of justification, faith justifies by receiving and resting and trusting in Christ alone, and that Scripture is the magisterial and unique authority for faith and the Christian life.

UPDATE 10/31/2014

Thanks to Nick Davis for alerting me to a note from Mark Noll and Thomas Howard in the November (print) edition of First Things in which they write:

Interestingly, it was Calvinists, not Lutherans, who in 1617 first proposed a centennial marking Luther’s attack on indulgences. Alarmed by an increasingly assertive Tridentine Catholic Church and lacking legal status in the Holy Roman Empire. early in that year church and royal officials in the Reformed German Palatinate proclaimed in October they would hold a centenary “jubilee,” to remember how “the eternal, all-powerful God has looked upon us graciously and delivered us from the horrible darkness of the papacy.” The ruler of the Palatinate, Friederich V, urged all Protestants (by which he meant Lutherans and the Reformed) to put divisions aside and offer thanks giving between October 31 and November 2 for recovering the bright light of the gospel.”

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “Reformation Day, as we know it, perpetuates the pietist myth that the Reformation happened suddenly and in one-fell-swoop of religious experience (the so-called Turmerlebnis)… Every year I wonder if Reformation Day isn’t just a way for folks to avoid Halloween. I’m ambivalent about Halloween. I don’t know of my ambivalence is justified or not, but whatever fundamentalist greeblies may yet be running about my conscience, that’s nothing to do with Reformation Day.”

    I’ve always held the same suspicions (but a lot less for Halloween). Reformation-palooza seems like the Reformed version of evangelical enthusiasm for itself—some might even call it a manifestation of Reformed narcissism. That seems to me far, far worse than a thoroughly secularized fright party.
    Great post, Scott. I was wondering if anyone would give this day something better.

  2. I’ve read the 95 thesis and didn’t find them so great. It made me wonder what the big deal was with the whole thing. A good chunk of it, of what I remember, is condemnable. I really wonder if many within reformed churches have actually read the thing.

    Today (Oct. 31st) is my son’s birthday. “Benedict Luther”. No he wasn’t named after the pope…

  3. “It’s a 19th-century invention intended by a German politician to facilitate the organizational and doctrinal union of Reformed and Lutheran churches.”

    Fascinating! Who is this German politician and where can we read about him?

  4. I just reread both the 95 Theses and his Heidelberg Disputation that he wrote a few months later. The HD is a great read. Since it seems like there is some pretty clear Protestant doctrine to be had in there could it really be true that was a still a “right roaring papist” when he wrote the former, or did the formation and articulation of a more Protestant view develop within a period of just six or seven months?

  5. Adam,

    I think the latter is closer. His theology was developing very rapidly in this period. Remember, the lectures on Romans were done by now and he’s in Galatians (if memory serves) and before long he’ll be in Hebrews. His vocabulary was continuing to develop. There are still surprising expressions in the early 20s.

  6. Isn’t it fine for Christians to at times celebrate certain things or days in place of a holiday which is celebrated by unbelievers but disturbs the Christian conscience? Isn’t this how Christimas and, I think, Easter came to be celebrated?

    It is interesting how Halloween and Reformation Day are on the same day. But I should also add that El dia de los muertos (The Day of the Dead) is on November 1st (and perhaps the 2nd as well). This time of the year is filled with odd and pagan things.

  7. I thought that the Reformation Day (Reformationstag) was started by Kurfürst Johann Georg II. von Sachsen in the year 1667 and some German states joined it soon after. Although various German localities used November 10 and February 18 as Reformation Day (Luther’s birthday and day of his death respectively) by the end of 1500s. I think some day in June was also used for Reformaion Day (Diet of Augsburg, when the Confession of Augsburg was read) – Anyway, I may be mistaking.

    Wholeheartedly agree with the article.

  8. Vaclav,

    This is interesting and helpful. I should have said that the celebration of Reformation Day, as we know it today, is rooted in the 19th century setting.

  9. You say the Bible in the OT says “do” and the NT says “done”.
    True, but some Puritan said that the false gospel is “do this and live” and the true gospel is “live and do this”.
    Once we are saved we will “do”, for we were created in Christ Jesus for good works. Would you agree? (I know the stuff we subsequently do is only by God’s help and grace, but we do “do”– out of thankfulness, not for merit).

  10. Eliza,

    No, not at all. This is a common misunderstanding. What I said is “the law says ‘do’ and the gospel says ‘done.” The law and the gospel are found throughout the bible.

    This is a common misunderstanding so I’m glad you gave me an opportunity to clear it up. The gospel is found throughout God’s Word from Genesis to Malachi. Every time God’s Word announces that salvation will be accomplished (Gen 3:15; Gen 15, Gen 17 etc) that is a reflection of or an announcement of the gospel. The law is found throughout the NT. Our Lord himself preached the law repeatedly. When he said, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28) he was preaching the law.

    When Protestants speak of “the law” and “the gospel” in this way we’re speaking about what grammarians call a “mood” of speech. The law is in the imperative mood. The gospel is in the “indicative” mood. To add a layer of complication there are imperatives connected to the gospel so not every imperative is law but we also don’t want to turn faith into a work. You can read more about this here and here To add another layer, it is true that Protestants sometimes have spoken about the OT generally as law and the NT generally as gospel insofar as there is proportionately more law under the OT and there is proportionately more gospel revealed in the NT. When our writers have spoken thus they are usually speaking about the progressive accomplishment and revelation of redemption. It was promised in the OT and fulfilled in the NT.

    As to your second question, in Reformed circles we speak about the “third use of the law.” So yes, as you say, we have been redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone in order that we might be sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The power of sanctification is never the law (i.e. the command: “love God and love neighbor.” The law is like a set of railroad tracks. The tracks provide no power for the train but the train must stay on the tracks in order to function. To go off the tracks is to break the law which is sin but the law always remains law. It only says, “obey God, love neighbor.” It never gives any power to do what it commands. Only the gospel has power, as it were, to move the train.

    The gospel alone gives the power to obey. Through the gospel the Holy Spirit makes us alive, gives us fait,h unites us to Christ, and makes us truly thankful. We live in obedience to God’s law, we die to self and live to Christ, we sin and confess our sin, we daily repent of it (turn away), and embrace Christ and seek to be conformed more and more to his image by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, in union with Christ by the power and presence of the Spirit.

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