A year ago, an article appeared in First Things titled, “Remembering the Reformation But Celebrating What?” The author, a conservative Presbyterian seminary professor named Carl Trueman, contemplates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that we will now be celebrating on October 31st. His article, intended for the greater evangelical world, asks an important and thus-far overlooked question. What are you celebrating? As Trueman points out, it’s rather odd that Baptists or Pentecostals would find anything worthy of celebration in the Reformation. The theology and teaching of so much of American evangelicalism is in another constellation than that of the Reformation. And yet, evangelicalism will be celebrating at the end of the month as well. They won’t be celebrating Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper, or his insistence on baptismal regeneration. Instead, they will be celebrating Luther the hero, who got the ball rolling on the Reformation by taking a stand and breaking away from the corrupt church.
I don’t write this to reinforce a sense of superiority in us as LCMS Lutherans. I actually think Trueman’s question is a good one also for Lutherans to contemplate on this historic occasion. As we remember the Reformation, what are we celebrating? Sadly, also for many Lutherans the temptation will be to celebrate the man, his attitude, and actions. Even as LCMS Lutherans, we will be tempted to look at the Reformation as a celebration first and foremost of Martin Luther.
But this is a profound misconception about the Reformation. Martin Luther himself would not recognize this picture of the Reformation. He was fully convinced that he himself was dispensable. Throughout his life after 1517, he was ready and constantly expected that he could be martyred. He didn’t fear such a fate, because he knew the Reformation was not really about him at all. In fact, Luther vehemently opposed the term ‘Lutheran’ being applied to the truth. “How should I, poor, stinking carcass that I am, come to have the children of Christ call themselves by my dreadful name? Not so, dear friends; let us do away with party names and call ourselves Christians after Him whose teachings we have.” The name ‘Lutheran’ was coined by enemies of the truth who applied it to the Reformers in derision. They didn’t choose it for themselves. Eventually, Lutherans reluctantly accepted the moniker since to deny Luther’s teaching would be to deny the Gospel. As much as we give thanks to God for the work of Martin Luther, so also do we recognize that it is not his person that we celebrate in the Reformation.
What then are we celebrating? Not Martin Luther, but the good news about Jesus Christ. Luther discovered in the Scriptures and proclaimed that we are declared righteous before God on account of Jesus Christ’s obedience and death, by which God’s grace and favor are bestowed on us, which we receive through faith. Luther taught this, but the teaching was not Luther’s. This Gospel belongs to Jesus Christ, who has sent his messengers throughout the history of the world to proclaim this saving truth. The Reformation was about the Gospel. We are thankful for Martin Luther only because as a faithful servant of God he proclaimed and taught the good news of Jesus to the church. Carl Trueman exhorts the church to do more than celebrate the man. His encouragement is for us to celebrate the Gospel. As Lutherans who have by God’s grace been given eyes to see and believe this wonderful good news, what better thing could we possibly celebrate?