Oct. 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On this historic day in 1517, the theologian Martin Luther posted his famous arguments, known as his 95 theses, for debate on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The arguments kicked off the Protestant Reformation, a world-changing series of changes in churches and societies around the globe.
Many Christians are celebrating this anniversary. Should we join in? Should we care?
In recent years some Christian leaders have asked whether the Reformation is over (historian Mark Noll even has a book by that title). They argue the theological and political issues Luther debated with the Roman Catholic Church have either been settled or are now secondary issues.
Others argue the divide between Protestants and Catholics is just as serious today and say we must continue this five-century protest.
I think the Reformation still matters to Protestant believers because it gave us vitally important gifts. At least three of these are central to the gospel and essentially independent of Protestant and Catholic church relations.
These gifts are often summarized with Latin phrases – sola scriptura, sola gratia and sola fide.
SOLA SCRIPTURA (BY SCRIPTURE ALONE)
The Reformers in the 16th century insisted knowledge of God and obedience to Christ are possible only through the Holy Scriptures given by the Holy Spirit.
Although Christians have long debated how other authorities such as tradition, personal experience and church teaching stand relative to Scripture, the Reformation reinforced that all theological claims can only be made under Scripture’s authority and guidance.
Obviously that doesn’t mean we all agree on what Scripture teaches. Even the Reformers disagreed on many points. But the movement pushed everyone – Roman Catholics included – to ensure church teachings are grounded in Scripture.
Today when we debate important matters such as gender identity, medical ethics or how churches are responding to refugees, we don’t agree on every point. But we are truly reformed Christians – no matter our denominational stripe – when we insist we are being obedient to Jesus only when we pore over and apply the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
SOLA GRATIA (BY GRACE ALONE)
If we study the history of God’s people in the Bible and beyond, we see how easy it is to start justifying ourselves based on good works.
Galatians uses the words "fall from grace" to describe this tendency to justify and congratulate ourselves. We all experience this daily, whether we’re Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic, Orthodox or something else.
Martin Luther emphasized the importance of grace so much that some have wrongly accused him of teaching good works are worthless.
On the contrary. Luther argued good deeds (which he called "active righteousness") mean nothing unless we do them as an outflow of what he called "passive righteousness" – an unmerited gift of a right standing before God in Jesus Christ. We receive that gift of righteousness outside ourselves and our own efforts. Good works, in other words, are only good when they come through us as received from God in Christ.
Luther rediscovered our relationship to God exists only by grace. In fact grace alone is not just a part of the gospel. It’s the core.
Only by coming to grasp God’s gracious favour and mercy toward us can we be spiritually empowered to extend grace to others.
The Reformation was a critical reminder of the priority of God’s grace. We still need that reminder today.
SOLA FIDE (BY FAITH ALONE)
The 16th-century Reformers understood both Scripture and grace (embodied in the person of Jesus Christ) are unmerited gifts. But they also insisted we need personal trust in God to appropriate these gifts.
In fact Luther preferred to speak of faith as trust in God.
Just as Jesus came to fulfil Scripture through obedience to the Father – what Scripture calls Christ’s faithfulness – so we are exhorted to respond to the Father’s gift of His Son attested to in Scripture.
When the Apostle Paul writes we are "justified by faith," he means we are saved only as we put our full trust in the sole sufficiency of Christ’s obedience to the Father on our behalf.
Does the Reformation matter? As long as the authority of Scripture, the priority of grace and the necessity of faith matter – then yes, the Reformation matters.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is the EFC’s executive vice-president and resident theologian.
Image of Martin Luther from JPV Archives
Author: David Guretzki