On 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.