What is Reformation Day? A Brief on Reformation Day History

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Lord’s Library contributor Jared Helms answers the question “What is Reformation Day” and provides a historical brief. Check out Jared’s YouTube channel and two blogs: A Light in the Darkness and Blind Faith Examples.

Reformation Day commemorates the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on October 31st, 1517 to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. This event is considered the starting point of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation saw the formation of several new Christian denominations including Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican/Episcopal. As the spirit and work of the reformers carried forward denotations such as Baptist and Congregational also emerged. Many of these churches celebrate Reformation Day as a part of their history and heritage.

More than this, the Protestant Reformation marked the recovery of The Good News that salvation from sin is possible by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. All those who hold these distinctives have a good cause to celebrate the Reformation. All those who enjoy reading the Bible in their native language can also celebrate the Reformation which saw a major revival of the work of Bible translation in common tongues.

Historically, the celebration of October 31st as Reformation Day was solidified around the two-hundredth anniversary in 1717. There are some reports of celebrations going back as far as 1567. 2017 marked the 500th anniversary. 2017 also saw the Romish observing Reformation Day alongside some branches of Lutheranism. Despite the show of goodwill, and some attempts at doctrinal reconciliation the divide between the papists and protestant remains, and the observance of Reformation Day continues as a distinctly Protestant celebration.

The Gospel

What is Reformation Day? A Brief History


Some within Protestantism have decried the celebration of the Reformation and the continuing protest as an unloving, unnecessary evil. They argue that the Reformation proved to be the greatest split in church history, and should rightly be viewed as a tragedy of disunification. One common claim in support of this stance is there was one denomination before the Reformation but thousands after. However, a more thorough survey of churches will show that claims of unity within the Romish church are overstated. Furthermore, unity is of no consequence if The Gospel of grace is lost.

So far, the Romish church has been unwilling to recant its unbiblical doctrine, and therefore the protest continues to be a necessary matter of gospel significance. Therefore, it may be argued the observance of Reformation Day is part and partial of the Protestant mission, and ought to be maintained and encouraged as a remembrance of gospel recovery, a call to gospel fidelity, and a warning against doctrinal drift. The observance of Reformation Day is a wonderful opportunity to turn attention toward church history, and more importantly The Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is time to look back on our Protestant Heritage, and forward to our ongoing work of reformation.

Reformation Day is held as a national holiday in some parts of Germany, as well as Slovenia and Chile. In Germany, the holiday was commandeered for nationalistic purposes during the early 20th century; taking on something of the flavor of the United States’ Independence Day. In other areas, the holiday was officially recognized due to the large percentage of Lutherans. The holiday is observed on the 31st of October, with some churches marking the nearest Sunday as Reformation Sunday.

In our own country, Reformation Day is a wonderful alternative to the increasingly problematic Halloween. More and more churches are embracing the celebration and seeking ways to share the celebration with their communities. Some of this rise in popularity can be attributed to the recent milestone anniversary; however, the greater interest seems to stem from a resonance with the spirit of the Reformation. We pray this spirit will remain and increase among us as we are reformed and always reforming.

Observance of the holiday typically involves special services and events dedicated to the history and the ideas of the Reformation. Hymns of the Reformation are usually played leading up to and during Reformation Day services such as:

  • A Mighty Fortress is Our God
  • Out of the Depths of Woe I Cry
  • Praise to the Lord the Almighty
  • All Creature that on Earth do Dwell

Around the 500th anniversary, several new hymns were composed to mark the occasion. For Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, the occasion is often time to review and reaffirm their foundational confessions. Some churches hold marches and special prayer services to draw attention to the cause of The Gospel, or the plight of the Church.

Two phrases often crop up around Reformation Day, and it is good to understand their meaning. The first we have already used in this article, “Reformed and always reforming.” The notion of being “reformed” has taken on several distinct connotations, but here it simply means that we have undergone reform. That is our churches have been reshaped to most closely align with God’s will as revealed in God’s Word. That we are always reforming simply means that we continue to be reformed. It is a never-ending pursuit and process for our churches.

The second phrase is, “Post Tenebras Lux”, or, “After darkness light.” This saying is attributed to the Swiss reformer John Calvin, who observed that after the dark ages the light of the true Gospel had returned to Europe in force. It is sometimes held as a general principle that after a time of darkness The Gospel light will shine through. We know this idea is true on the grand scale of history from Daniel and Revelation, as well as portions of the Gospels, particularly Matthew 24. It is both an admonishment and a great encouragement to God’s people in any age.

There is a lot of history, and a lot of doctrine tied to the Reformation; exploration of which is sure to be rewarded. We pray this article will serve as an invitation to celebrate the Reformation on October 31st, and to delve deeper into the subject. To God be the Glory. Amen.

NOW READ: The Best Reformed Hymns: Popular Songs of the Reformation


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Jared Helms
Jared Helms

Jared Helms

Jared received his Bachelor of Arts from Bryan College in 2012, and his Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2017. He has pastored churches in Kentucky and Tennessee. Most importantly, Jared has walked with Christ most of his life. His interests extend from theology to church history, but he is particularly passionate about ecclesiology and homiletics.

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