What Is Reformation Day?
Reformation Day is a very special day! On this day, we are celebrating the Protestant Reformation. What is Protestant? There were people who wanted to make a new church. A new church? Yes, 500 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church was the only church in the West, but there were people who didn’t agree with the Catholic Church. They wanted a new church and became Protestants. Then, what is the Reformation? It was their movement that actually made new churches. And Martin Luther was one of the most important leaders of this reformation movement.
There is this famous phrase in church history, “The church is reformed, always being reformed, according to the word of God” (ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum Dei). I think this phrase well captures the spirit of the Protestant Reformation. Yes, the church is always in need of being reformed. Not only by the leaders of the Reformation 500 years ago but also by all of us here and now, the church has to be reshaped and revitalized. Then, why? What’s the reason for this constant reformation?
There are two simple reasons. First, it is “because of who we are.” We are humans. We make mistakes. We have many limits. We are not perfect but sinners before God. And the church is one of the human institutions. Second, it is “because of who God is.” Our God is the living God who is not bound to any human mind or tradition. God’s work of love and grace among us is always unfathomable, and God’s way of leading us always goes beyond our imagination. Therefore, if we want to attune our lives and our church to God’s way and will, there is no other way than constantly renewing us by the living Word and Spirit of God and reminding us of who we truly intend to be.
So then, what is Reformation Day? Reformation day can be everyday. True, reformation day doesn’t have to be just one special day when we commemorate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that happened in the past. Yes, we can make our everyday as a small reformation day as we try hard to renovate our church to be the Body of Christ where people see God’s love prevails, where people feel the vivid presence of the Holy Spirit.
When Is It Observed?
Reformation Day is October 31 of every year. That is the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was a respected professor in Wittenberg, as well as the assistant pastor of the Castle Church. So he wanted people to raise their voices with him and started the reformation movement. Luther chose October 31, the day before All Saints’ Day, because he knew that next day, many people would visit the church and read his theses from the door.
Last summer, Jee Hei and I traveled around Eastern European cities. There we encountered the history of the Protestant Reformations.
This (left) is the statue of John Huss (Jan Hus) who is considered to be the first Church reformer even before Martin Luther. I took this photo at Old Town Square in Prague. Huss dedicated his life to the reformation of the Church in Bohemia, the Czech Republic today. He was executed, burned alive at the stake but he didn’t give up what he believed. This Martin Luther’s statue (right) was in front of the Church of Our Lady in Dresden. Dresden has been the capital city of the State of Saxon, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation where Luther hid himself from his enemies, translated the Bible from Latin to German, the language of the people, and wrote many hymns. Wittenberg is also in the same State.
Other than these two reformers, there were many reformers and Christians who committed their lives to the truth that couldn’t be confined in a church or its dogma. They put their faith into action even enduring great dangers and even death. Today, we are observing the day when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While celebrating the day, why don’t we take time to check our commitment to faith in Jesus Christ and think about how we can take our faith into action?
Why Did Luther Post His 95 Theses?
In Luther’s days, there was a document called “indulgence.” What is that? It was a certificate that says, “If you purchase it, you are forgiven and saved by God, and you will have eternal life.” The Pope asked the churches to sell these indulgences to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Some of Luther’s church members also purchased one and asked Luther, “Pastor, does this really work?” Luther went so mad because it can’t be true. So he wrote his 95 theses to tell others, “There is something wrong with the church and we need to change it!”
With his 95 Theses, Martin Luther helped numerous Christians to understand that the institution of the church is not equal to God. God is God, and humans are humans. No church or no human being can hold any divine authority on the way of salvation, or the authority over the Scripture.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32 33). Then, people ask him, “What does it mean to be free? We are not slaves.” Then, Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:34-36). Yes, if the Son sets us free, we are free. Indeed, Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. So we don’t need any other human way than Jesus’ way of love. We don’t need any other proof of our forgiveness than our faith in Jesus Christ whose truth sets us free. And we don’t need any other way of life than our life in a relationship with Jesus.
When posting the 95 Theses, Luther might have wanted all the people to know this simple and yet easily forgettable truth: God’s grace is boundless, and its free flow cannot be controlled by any human authority. And the good news of Jesus Christ has explosive power, and its liveliness cannot be contained in any institutional practices.
Reformation Themes 1
The first major theme of the Reformation is “salvation by grace through faith.” What does it mean? It means that we are saved not by purchasing indulgences or doing good works. But we are saved only by God’s grace and through our faith in Jesus Christ as the Bible tells us. Yes, by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God made the way for our salvation. We can accept Jesus Christ through faith.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, the prophet Habakkuk tells us, “But the righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). And Paul in his letter to the Romans repeats, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17). Martin Luther, as reading this Word of God, he would’ve deeply realized that we are saved by grace through faith. It means that our good works and our righteousness cannot be the reason for our salvation. But it is the work of Jesus Christ and his righteousness that is the only ground for our salvation and new life. Indeed, Jesus Christ has done it all, and there is nothing more to be added by us to commence our journey of salvation.
Reformation Themes 2
The second major theme of the Reformation is “the priesthood of all believers.” What is that? It means that all Christians can personally meet God and have a direct relationship with God. We do not need anyone to help us with that. In this sense, all of us are priests who serve God and meet God through reading the Bible, praying, and participating in worship service.
The Protestant Reformation opened people’s eye to see that every Christian can enter into the direct relationship with God and nourish the relationship through personal or communal practices of faith. Faith is no longer controlled by the priests or any kind of gatekeepers. It is freely available to everyone. However, this privilege of being in communion with God comes with responsibility. Every Christian is now responsible for one’s faith, and the fruits they bear.
If there would be a difference between Lutheran or the Reformed tradition and our Methodist tradition, it would be our Wesleyan emphasis on “the Christian life” where faith and love are put into practice and where we bear fruits on the journey of sanctification. Once we freely receive grace, then, we respond to that grace with our actual works of piety and works of mercy. The Holy Spirit’s ongoing sanctification of us is a gift for us as individuals and as a church. On this way of salvation, today, we are called to reform our lives and our church to be more Christ-like, to be holier, to be more fruitful.
Reformation Day can be everyday. We try to renew us always. We are the next reformers. We put our faith into action and keep the faith until the end. We make sure that people get the good news straight, “You are saved by the grace of God and through your faith in Jesus Christ. And you don’t need any intermediary to be in a relationship with God.” After all, we are called to bear fruits worthy of God’s reforming grace, in our practices and on our journey of sanctification. May this day be the day we rejoice in the Lord who grants us unconditional grace and guides us with everlasting love. Amen.
 “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda,” Anna Case-Winters (Presbyterians Today, May 2004).
 The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, ¶102: Our Doctrinal Heritage