Why We Still Celebrate Reformation Day
Over time, humanity forgets the troubles, turmoil, and conflict that brought them to the present moment. Like a footprint in the sand, the waves of time wash over it until only a faint imprint is left. That is what has happened with Christians and the Reformation. Most of us know of it, some of us vaguely know the main events, and far fewer are well acquainted with it. What is more, in recent times, some from the Reformed (evangelical) and Catholics—the two sides of the conflict—have sought to cover over their tumultuous past and resolve whatever disagreements are left. The question we face today is whether or not a resolution between Catholics and Protestants is attainable.
Part of the reason we arrive at this question is our forgetfulness of the past, but more so, it is what evangelical theology has morphed into today. A movement away from dogmatics and doctrine has occurred collectively because a likewise collective movement towards practicality in faith has also happened. Christians seem to live by the mantra: "Doctrine divides," so the question turns to what unites us. According to practical faith, what unites us is ministry or service. "We are all living for the same cause; therefore, we are united!" However, the consequent reasoning follows: "Therefore, we are Christians." Now we have arrived at the present moment, that if ministry unites us, all who do what Christians should do are Christians. Catholics included.
Although Catholics and Protestants share common societal and moral ideals, they are worlds apart in doctrine and theology. Entertaining the idea that Protestants and Catholics are similar and closer to unity than the Reformers thought is willful blindness to reality.
As I read through the works of different Reformers, I notice that our spiritual problems are the same as those who lived 500 years ago. Then, as I look at my life, at my spiritual problems, I realize that the correct and biblical method for overcoming my problems is the same method employed by the Reformers 500 years ago. It is not in ministry or service that my spiritual troubles are soothed, but in doctrine and theology. When I think about my union with Christ and the promises of God to those who are united with Christ, my doubts and fears are destroyed. When I think about the cross of Christ and the empty tomb, my guilt and shame melt away. When I think about Christ in heaven, sitting at the right hand of God interceding for me, my confidence and assurance rise. Serving God can't do for me what theology does.
That is why the Reformation happened.
The difference between theology and Christian service in helping believers' spiritual lives is why the Reformation happened. In the Reformation, this distinction was spoken of in terms of a "theology of glory" and a "theology of the cross;" Catholicism was a theology of glory, and Reformation teaching was a theology of the cross.
What is a "theology of glory" and a "theology of the cross?"
Both were terms used by the Reformers to describe their fundamental differences. The theology of glory was a way of thinking about the Bible, particularly salvation, which prioritized man. By the 16th Century, Catholic theology imagined Christ was too glorious to approach, so Saint Mary or Saint Mary's mother, Saint Anne, were called upon to put in a good word to Christ. Surely, they thought, Jesus would still listen to His mother. It also imagined grace to be spiritual caffeine that motivated Christians to holiness. The real kicker, though, was how Mass, baptism, confession, and celibacy caused God to increase His grace towards believers. The theology of glory was a theology of man attaining the heights of heaven's perfections by good works on earth.
The theology of the cross was the way Martin Luther spoke of his theology. It was Christ-centred and Christ alone. Instead of Christ being too glorious to approach in heaven, Luther saw the kind heart of Christ to sinners, especially how He feels with them and intercedes for them before the Father. Instead of works and rituals, Luther understood Christ's righteousness to be imputed to him by faith. Grace, according to Luther, was the kind disposition of God effectually saving sinners. To Luther, Christ was everything, and that was a theology of the cross.
Because this distinction continues to this day, and because Catholic theology has invaded evangelicalism through legalism and anti-law movements, the Reformation continues to matter today. That is why we still celebrate the Reformation on Reformation Day (October 31st), not with festivities and food, but through commemorating the start of a worldwide movement that has consequently affected millions of people. And we celebrate the Reformation by continuing to teach and think a theology of the cross. Christ alone; by grace alone; through faith alone, according to Scripture alone; for the glory of God alone.