Reformation Sunday – What Is It and Why Does It Matter?
Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
Sunday, October 31, 2021, is Reformation Sunday. This will be exactly 504 years after the Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517. The last Sunday in October is a day many churches set aside to commemorate the start of the Reformation. If you didn’t grow up in church or didn’t grow up with this practice, you may wonder what this means and why some congregations acknowledge it. In short, you may ask what is Reformation Sunday and why should we care?
The History of Reformation Sunday
Generally, Reformation Sunday is the day the Church commemorates all that was accomplished and learned during the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was the name given to a movement of reform that eventually divided the western branch of the Christian church into two parts: the Catholic Church and the Protestants. Specifically, Reformation Sunday recognizes the day that Protestant Reformation began. On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk and university lecturer in Wittenberg, Germany, Martin Luther, nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Church. This would have been the equivalent of creating an event on Facebook inviting people to come to a debate on what Luther saw as errors, abuses, and discrepancies by the Catholic Church. He wanted to debate these with the hope of reforming the Catholic Church. His desire was reform from within, not splitting the church.
The main subject of the debate he called for was on the topic of “indulgences” being sold by the Catholic Church. According to Edward Peters’ A Modern Guide to Indulgences (2008), in the teaching of the Catholic Church, an indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.” Even the Catholic Church today recognizes the abuses that were happening with the sale of indulgences at the time of Martin Luther. The last section of this blog gives the text for all 95 of the issues Luther raised regarding indulgences. Indulgences were a problem. The abuses of the day included selling the indulgences to receive forgiveness of sins, but most notable was the abuse that said if you buy an indulgence, you could secure the buyer’s salvation or release the soul of another from Purgatory.
What happened with the sale of indulgences is that money corrupted the church leaders and they got greedy. They began to abuse what we Protestants still see as a strange practice. Based on the reaction to Luther’s challenge of the abuses, most people knew it was wrong. They say that Luther’s 95 points of challenge to the sale of indulgences was like a spark being put on a stack of dry timber that lit a massive and fast-moving fire of reformation. Everyone was talking about it. Since he published his “95 Theses,” the world has never been the same.
Reformed, Reformers, Reformation
Before I talk about why the Reformation is still relevant, let me clear up a few related terms. They are the terms “Reformed,” “reformers,” and “Reformation.”
You may hear someone say, “I am Reformed in my theology,” or “I’m part of the Reformed Tradition.” To say “Reformed” today means to have a certain way of understanding the faith which Presbyterians, for the most part, share. Presbyterians are also known as people who are part of the Reformed Tradition, meaning we are part of the Reformed theological tradition. This is a statement about what we believe, and it includes emphases on certain teachings like the sovereignty of God, covenant theology, and the doctrine of election in which sits categorically our teaching on predestination.
To say “reformers” (notice lower case “r”) is to say something else. It is not about the Reformed Tradition, or Presbyterians, although it includes those of our tradition. The “reformers” refers to several generations of church leaders who sought to reform the church of the Middle Ages. People like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli were some of the reformers. The Reformation Wall statue in the photo for this post includes reformers from our own theological tradition. The statue is in Geneva, Switzerland, and features William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox.
The “Reformation” refers to the era in the 1500s when the western branch of the church split between Roman Catholics and Protestants. It is everything that came out of what the above section on the history of the Reformation Sunday describes. I might point out that in addition to splitting the church into the Catholic and Protestant branches, it is also considered one of the events that signified the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern period in Europe. As the History Channel wrote about it, “In northern and central Europe, reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Henry VIII challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic Church’s ability to define Christian practice. They argued for a religious and political redistribution of power into the hands of Bible- and pamphlet-reading pastors and princes. The disruption triggered wars, persecutions and the so-called Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s delayed but forceful response to the Protestants.”
Why Reformation Sunday Matters
I’ve not done much in church on Reformation Sundays. It is often around the time of a fall festival on grounds of churches I have served, and that has consumed much of our thought for planning. However, each year, I am taken back to my church history classes and great readings of this era of the church. I am reminded of the teachings that still matter to this day. With that in mind, the reason Reformation Sunday still matters is:
- It reminds us to continually examine all we do and teach. The church of the Middle Ages got away from its New Testament roots. It took several generations of faithful teachers to point them back to biblical roots and examine all practices and teachings according to the word of God. As Luther said when questioned about his views, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Knowing what happened then reminds us to continually examine what we do and teach now.
- It reminds us that God is a God of renewal. Since we are a people “prone to wander” as the hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing says it, we are in constant need of resetting our vision with God at the center. Remembering today the upheaval and reasons for it 500 years ago reminds us that we are in constant need of renewal as individuals and as a church. In our own Reformed Tradition, we have a saying that describes us. We are “Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” More than likely, there are parts of our church, both the larger Church in this world and our particular church, that are in need of “being reformed.” That is to say, renewal is an ongoing work.
- It reminds us that our sole source of salvation is in Jesus Christ. Indulgences may have been abused to the point that money could be given hoping to spring a person out of Purgatory. That may have been the presenting issue of the day for the Reformation era, but we have our own distractions from the sole source of salvation. I have spent nearly 25 years as a pastor battling a culturally ingrained transactional mindset inside the church. We are used to giving something in order to get something. When it comes to salvation, that mindset does not work. When it comes to our salvation, nothing we do—good works, money given to the church, moral fortitude, acts of serving—counts toward our salvation. It never has and never will. Only Jesus. He is our sole source of salvation. The Reformation reminded the Church of that truth when they lost sight of it then. It still reminds us of that truth today.
- It reminds us that the Church matters. Martin Luther and all of the other reformers saw the Church as an entity established by God worth fighting for. The social good done by the Church matters. The care and love for those who are vulnerable or struggling matters. The worship by the Church that centers on God and builds up the people matters. The growth and maturity in personal faith in Jesus Christ matters. It did then and it still does.
Appendix: Text of the 95 Theses
What follows is an English translation of the very text that started the fires of Reformation that led to the split into Catholics and Protestants, including Lutherans, Reformed/Presbyterians, and Anabaptist traditions in the western branch of the Christian church.
Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences by Dr. Martin Luther, 1517
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.