For many Americans, yesterday was just Halloween. “Candy Day.” For Eastcoasters cleaning up after the devastation of “Superstorm Sandy”, it wasn’t even that. Lots of kids will have to wait until the streets are safe and their parents can think about something other than where to get water and gasoline.
For the Church, however, October 31st holds a different significance. It commemorates a time in the history of the world that eclipses a frivolous holiday; a historical shift that makes the altering power of a natural disaster look tame by comparison. This time next year “Sandy” will be a fading bad memory; an interesting yardstick by which to measure the next storm. But what took place 495 years ago changed everything. Thoughtful Christians remember it. Every Christian stands in the light of it.
On October 31st, the eve of All Saints Day, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his “Disputation … on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg and started a firestorm. It has come to be known as “the 95 theses”; a long list of objections the then catholic monk had against the practices of the Roman Church.
That brave act was actually just one of a series of things which brought about the Reformation. The translation of the Scriptures into the common languages of the people of Europe arguably did more to spread the fire than anything else. The writings and preaching of the leading Reformers also had an invaluable impact. But Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses is the moment selected to commemorate each year as Reformation Day.
October 31st was yesterday. Today is Reformation Day “plus one”, and I think it’s a great day to pause and reflect on the fact that we must not see the Reformation only as an event in the distant past. Those brave Reformers would not have wanted us to think like that. We must be committed to “perpetual reformation”.
What happened in Germany in the early 16th Century, and quickly spread across Europe and ultimately the world, was a seismic shift. It righted the course that the Church was on, and the ramifications are eternal and universal. But this was not nearly the first or the final movement of the Holy Spirit. He is the Great Reformer of the Church, the Author of every bit of her sanctification unto God from the Day of Pentecost to the present time. His work will continue indomitably until the day we stand perfected in glory.
The Church is always in need of reformation; seasons of spiritual revival and renewal which arrest decay and heresy, and propel us forward anew in God-glorifying worship and mission.
Getting stuck in the 16th or 17th Century, imagining that God has nothing more to say or restore, will not do. I’m reminded of the time when a professor of religion told an LA Times reporter that Billy Graham’s evangelism would set the church back 200 years. When the reporter then asked Graham to respond to the professor’s words, he said, “I’m sorry to hear that! I am trying to set the church back 2,000 years!”
That’s exactly what happened at the time of the Reformation: the 1st Century faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude v3) was restored. Not everything was restored in 10 or 50 years; it was an unfolding work. Today we desperately need that restoration power at work again. And we will tomorrow.
And not only “perpetual” reformation, but also:
The work didn’t begin that October day in 1517. The seed of the whole great tree was already planted and growing in the heart of that seemingly insignificant German monk. The movement that changed the theological and ecclesiological situation, and ultimately revolutionized the social and political fabric of Europe, began with a spiritual work that was intensely personal to that man Martin Luther.
And not him only, but before him Wycliffe, Huss and Savonarola, and after him Calvin, Knox and a host of others. Men whom God met and changed from the inside out.
It’s true that “reformation” and “revival” are different things; distinct ideas. But they are surely inextricably linked.
So, today — Reformation Day Plus One, 2012 — my call is that we be committed to seeking the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. To perpetual reformation, that begins in us personally.
“I am verily persuaded, the Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of His holy Word. For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the Reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion and will go at present no farther than the instrument of their reformation. The Lutheran can’t be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw… and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things… I beseech you, remember ‘tis an article of your Church Covenant, that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you from the written Word of God… It is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness, and that perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.”