Every Sunday Reformation Sunday

Reformation SundayOn the last Sunday in October and sometimes on the first Sunday in November, Reformed and Lutheran congregations often celebrate Reformation Sunday. I have already indicated some reservations about some aspects of this practice. It focuses upon the wrong day. The Reformation has precious little to do with the Ninety-Five Theses. According to Luther’s own account, he was still theologically Romanist when he posted (mailed or nailed) them. Luther needed to complete his journey from Romanism by working through Galatians and then the Psalms (again). Arguably he was not theologically Protestant until 1521. The modern impulse, represented by the Luther Renaissance school interpretation, has been to push the Reformation to an earlier date. This has the effect of re-defining what it is to be a Protestant. It has the effect of relocating our concerns about Rome, of relegating our protest to questions of clerical (and papal) immorality and ecclesiastical abuse. As important as those concerns were, our criticisms were much more fundamental. The Christian life (or lack thereof) is a consequence of Christian teaching. When Christian teaching (doctrine) is corrupted, the Christian life lacks a proper foundation.

Further, connecting the Reformation chiefly to the Ninety-Five Theses opens the way for a false ecumenism. Romanists can say, “Look, we have fixed x, therefore there is no basis for an ongoing separation.” Of course, Rome has never actually stopped selling indulgences (documented here, here, here, and here). Thus, even on that thin pretense, that particular ecumenical plea fails.

The sale of indulgences, which is thoroughly disgusting, is only a symptom of a much deeper set of problems to which the Reformation solas speak: Sola Scriptura (according to Scripture alone) speaks to the problem of authority. Rome has arrogated to herself authority that belongs only to God. The church is the creature of the Word, of the holy scriptures, not the reverse. God’s sufficient Word is the only authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. We confess what we do, we worship as we do, we practice the faith as we only on the authority of God’s Word. If Scripture does not teach it explicitly or necessarily imply it, then the church cannot impose it upon us. This is our doctrine of Christian liberty. So much for Rome’s five false sacraments and her corruption of the two instituted by Christ. So much for Rome’s corruption of the doctrine of salvation. So much for the papacy. So much for her corruption of Christian worship.

We confess sola gratia (by grace alone) and sola fide (through faith alone), as the response to the Romanist doctrine that we are justified and saved by the infusion of a medicinal substance (which they call grace), with which we are said to cooperate unto sanctification and thence, eventually, to justification. On the contrary, we say that salvation (deliverance from the wrath to come, righteousness with God, and progressive sanctification) is God’s free gift. Grace is not a medicinal substance with which we are infused and with which we cooperate (works). Grace is God’s favor toward us merited for us by Christ’s perfect righteousness for us and freely imputed to us by God. Faith is not a virtue formed by love but God’s gift and the sole instrument with which we receive, rest in, and trust Christ and all of his righteous and suffering obedience for us.

It is eminently useful to spend a Sunday once a year remembering our Reformation heritage. Leaving Rome to one side, we have plenty of reason within our own ranks to remind ourselves of why there was a Reformation. Nevertheless, we should not think that we may remember the Reformation once a year and be done with it. Our forefathers did not suffer at the hands of the Romanists that we might preach the gospel of free grace and raise the banner of Christian liberty only once a year. We ought to do those things every Sunday and not out of a misplaced tribal loyalty but out of a deep and abiding conviction that these are fundamental truths revealed in God’s Word that ought to shape our theology, our worship, and our lives.

    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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6 comments

  1. I’ve been thinking about Reformation Sunday quite a bit lately. Your post helps historically. I find it ironic that the heirs of a tradition that find Christmas and Easter suspicious at best, exalts a day that has no Biblical warrant whatsoever. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the post Professor Scott, whilst Luther may not as yet had his salvation
    experience, didn’t he debate Eck shortly afterwards of his posting of the 95 theses,
    where Eck was able to draw out from Martin and even accuse him of Huss’n(sic)
    notions, which shows that he was well on the way of embracing a fully-orbed, albiet
    Lutheran Protestantism? the seed had sprouted & the fire had been kindled!

    Personally believe that the Oct 31st date doesn’t cause a problem as its aim is to
    acknowledge the whole work of Reformation from first to last, though as someone
    who personally holds to a strict view of the regulative principle ( sola scriptura in
    relation to worship is what it is ) do agree with Kens comment that it has no
    Biblical warrant ; so ought not to be instituted as a de-facto holy day.

  3. Excellent piece. Semper Reformanda!

    And how many so-called Protestants even have any idea of what Reformation day is?

  4. This otherwise excellent article overlooks the often-overlooked 97 Theses (September, 1517) of Luther, posted one month prior to the 95, in which Luther denounces free will and Aristotle and affirms predestinating grace as the sinner’s only hope. To be sure, there was a flowering of this later by Luther, but the bud is there in the 97. God bless, Alex

    • Alex,

      This is a fair point. We might also point to his lectures on Romans in which he had already said the same things. There are two difficulties. First, on Reformation Day we don’t recall the Romans lectures of the 97 theses but the 95 Theses. Second, Luther himself said that, when he posted the 95 Theses he was still a “papist.” Yes, he had taken essential steps toward the Reformation to this point, including recovering Augustine’s doctrine of depravity and predestination, and the biblical doctrine of imputation but he had not yet reached sola fide. That was yet to come during or after the lectures on Galatians on the second course of lectures on the Psalms.

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