No, The Reformation Isn't Over
Today is October 31, which most people know as Halloween. A smaller number who have backgrounds in liturgical churches would think of today as All Hallows' Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day. Still fewer remember that, 497 years ago today, a cranky and combative monk walked up to the door of the Wittenburg cathedral and nailed a list of debating points, hoping to provoke a discussion about corruption in the church.
Martin Luther didn’t intend, at that moment, to spark a massive Reformation, but God had other plans. Someone took his Latin debating points and translated them into German, and copies were soon circulating everywhere. Luther’s challenge to the Catholic church’s views of repentance, grace, and papal authority led to the greatest revival in history.
People have short memories, however, and ours is an age where most lack the patience—or are too self-absorbed—to learn the lessons of history. Whatever your views on Halloween, I hope you’ll understand my frustration with the strange fact that the most common alternative to Halloween offered by evangelical churches is an oddly secular, spiritually meaningless “Harvest” or “Fall” Festival—when October 31st already stands as Reformation Day, a vitally important day in church history, inviting our remembrance and celebration. (The fact that many of these same churches would at the same time strenuously object to the secular culture doing exactly the same thing to Christmas as many churches think they are doing to Halloween is somewhat ironic, but I digress).
And when evangelical leaders like Rick Warren can refer to Pope Francis as “our new pope,” when Catholic priests are welcomed into ministerial fellowships by Protestant pastors, when evangelical leaders and theologians can sign documents (like “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” in 1994) which refer to one another as fellow believers in Christ, it shows that too many claiming the title of “evangelical” have forgotten the Reformers and what they fought for.
If you are a Protestant, if you believe that salvation is by grace alone and is obtained through faith alone, the fact remains that the Roman Catholic Church has declared you anathema – bound for hell. At the Council of Trent, convened to respond to the growing Reformation, the church of Rome pronounced the key beliefs of the Reformation—beliefs that evangelicals today are supposed to hold dear, like the idea that the Bible alone is our final authority, like the idea that our works can’t contribute to our justification before God—to be heretical. Pope Francis hasn’t rescinded those anathemas. Neither have any of his predecessors. And Rome still offers indulgences! Rome still sells Mass celebrations to reduce time in purgatory. Rome still teaches that Jesus must be re-sacrificed again and again and again, every Mass, to pay for sins, denying that his was a once-for-all, finished work. Rome still teaches that you must add your own efforts to secure your justification. The Catholic church hasn’t moved in our direction one inch.
Sadly, many evangelicals, to their everlasting shame, have nevertheless moved toward Rome in their thinking and practice. Many Protestants have functionally diminished the doctrine of Scripture alone as the final and sufficient authority for Christian faith and practice, by looking instead to business practice, or marketing wisdom, or internal feelings and impressions, or pragmatism as granting authority for practices and beliefs in the church. Many Protestants muddy the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, by mixing unbiblical superstitions like “altar calls” into the process by which a believer is saved, and encouraging Christians to look back to prayers or aisles walked, rather than the possession of living faith, as evidence of salvation. Vast swaths of evangelicalism are devoted to the denial of the truth that salvation is for God’s glory alone, by presenting the Christian life as being first and foremost about our own personal and individual success and prosperity, about “Your Best Life Now,” or by talking and singing about faith as almost exclusively being about how Jesus “makes me feel.”
Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, according to the Scriptures alone: these are what many faithful men and women suffered and even died for. They were worth fighting and dying for almost five hundred years ago. They are still worth standing and suffering for today—even, as unlikely as it may seem now, to the point of death. These Reformation truths are, quite simply, the very Gospel by which we are saved. This is what we are here for.
So this Reformation Day, please join me in prayer for the Church of Jesus Christ. Pray with me that the Gospel will be restored in our pulpits and seminaries. Pray with me that God will grant us the courage and wisdom to say with Luther still today: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Ask that God will preserve the integrity of our witness as we clearly declare that the truths which make us Protestant are still, indeed, true to this day, and that the church of Rome remains opposed to the Gospel and the Pope still an anti-Christ as he promotes heresy to more than a billion followers. Pray with me that we may be firm but loving, gracious and gentle with those who are deceived and in error even as we are forthright and honest with the truth. Pray that our church, and every church, will by God’s grace be an ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: a “church reformed, always reforming,” and that the work of Reformation will be understood to ongoing and constant.
And let us all thank God that he has preserved his church, and for the promise that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That promise, and that faithfulness, means we can truly say to one another, “Happy” Reformation Day.