Just last week, we marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his famous 95 theses, which marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Throughout the Fall, we at Bethlehem College & Seminary have been reflecting on and, yes, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
However, the very month we celebrated this great anniversary was bookended by the tragic shootings in Las Vegas on October 1 and Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5. In light of these shootings, the ongoing racial tension in America, the looming threat of war with North Korea, and countless other tragedies across the world every day, is it wise to take time to celebrate the Protestant Reformation this month? Why not save our energy and pen strokes to work toward solving some of these issues that are tearing the world apart?
After all, many Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, would say that the Reformation is not something to be celebrated, but instead a schism in the church led by a bunch of racist, sexist, white men that should be grieved. Would it be wise to cancel these plans in favor of directing our attention to more “relevant” concerns? While I can understand why some might ask this, I think this would be a profound mistake and tragic misunderstanding of what we are commemorating this Fall.
We are not celebrating schism in the church. The Reformers did not set out to divide the church. Until it became clear that the Roman Catholic Church had no real interest in reform, they did not intend to separate from it. It is a right and proper thing to pray and work for the kind of unity Jesus himself prayed for in John 17:20-23.
But as long as the Roman Catholic Church remains unrepentant in its formal condemnation of justification by faith alone, its veneration of Mary and the saints to the point of idolatry, and its insufficient understanding of justification and the work of Christ as seen in the doctrine of purgatory, among other practices, the divisions that resulted from the Reformation remain in the category of necessary divisions (1 Cor 11:19). The reason why these divisions are necessary is that through them, the genuine is recognized. And the need to recognize a genuine gospel lies at the heart of the Reformation–it makes it a pressing pastoral issue when tragedy strikes.
And so, we do not celebrate division for the sake of division. Nor do we celebrate Martin Luther or John Calvin or Ulrich Zwingli as our saviors or popes or saints to whom we pray. These were very flawed men; they themselves would be the first to admit that they were sinners in desperate need of God’s grace. Their own recognition of their brokenness and their need for the gospel is why we celebrate these men during the Reformation. As they looked around and saw sin, death, corruption, and pain, they found true and lasting hope in the only place where it could be found: in God’s grace, given through faith in Christ alone.
This good news lies at the heart of our celebration of the Reformation. Not the restraint of Martin Luther. Not the physical prowess of John Calvin. Not the perfection of Ulrich Zwingli. We are celebrating the Reformation because these men helped us recover the gospel that gives us hope in the face of a mass shootings, the threat of war, ongoing racial tension at home, the perversion of God’s gift of sex, and thousands of other tragedies.
The horrors around us do not make the Reformation less relevant. In fact, this tragedy makes it even more important to commemorate the Reformation, because in so doing we are remembering the very good news that gives us hope through our tears. Through Christ, God is committed to redeeming the world. For those who are in Christ, it will not always be this way. What could be more pressing than understanding and proclaiming this good news?
And so this month, as we steel ourselves for another tragedy, another police shooting, or another unwise decision coming from Washington, let these tragedies shake us out of our slumber. In the early days of World War II, C.S. Lewis spoke of how war wakes us up to the reality and inevitability of death. He wrote, “War makes death real to us. . . . We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.” In the same way, the tumult around us should wake us up to the reality of sin, death, and brokenness—and not a moment too soon.
When we remember the Reformation, we remember that God has not left the world in its brokenness. He revealed himself in the Scriptures, which are our final authority for faith and life. In those Scriptures, we learn that we are united to Christ and get all of the saving benefits he has won for us by faith alone–not any works that we have done. This union with Christ and even the faith that unites us to him is a gift of God’s grace alone. We are reminded that it is Christ alone who has won this salvation for us. It is he alone who is our Savior, Intercessor, and King. And this great work of justification and redemption–in fact, our very lives–exist for the glory of God alone.
Until Jesus returns to make all things new, tragedy, sin, pain, and death will continue to cross our newsfeeds. But the glorious truth that the Reformers rediscovered and that we celebrate this month is that these things do not have the last word. In Christ, God is saving a people by faith through grace for his glory. And this fills us with great hope. Especially when tragedy strikes.
Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek
- Pray for those impacted by the Las Vegas, NV and Sutherland Springs, TX shootings.
- Pray for Gospel truths to spur us on to prayer, Bible-reading, and reaching our world for Christ.
- Pray for our students and professors as they come to the end of the semester.
- Pray for the filling of the Serious Joy Scholarship through year-end giving.
C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Essential C. S. Lewis (ed. Lyle W. Dorsett; New York: Scribner, 1996), 377.