On October 31, people around the world will celebrate Halloween. In the United States, this usually entails carving pumpkins, eating candy corn, and placing signs by candy bowls on the porch that say, “Take one.”
My family will celebrate the day also, albeit from a different angle and with a better focus. Yes, we’ll dress the kids up in costumes, take them to some friends’ houses, and let them exchange candies. But we’ll leverage those fun little superficialities to teach them about something of much greater import: a single event on a single day that changed the world….
The Hammer Heard ‘Round the World
In the sixteenth century, a young German minister named Martin Luther struggled for years with the Roman Catholic Church. He had come to realize that the church was teaching a false gospel and had become increasingly angered by the spiritual manipulation he saw taking place through its clergy. In particular, he was furious that the church was selling “indulgences,” a practice that promised forgiveness of sins in exchange for donations.
Luther’s anger reached a high point and on October 31, 1517, he nailed his protest with ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Nobody could have anticipated that the sound of Luther’s hammer would soon be heard around the world, breaking the iron grip the Roman Catholic Church had over Western Christianity and unleashing a revival that would ripple throughout Europe. Of the ninety-five theses, one stands out as central: “The Church’s true treasure is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Pope Leo X declared Luther a heretic, referring to him as “the wild boar from the forest.” In 1521 he was called by Charles V to appear at the Diet of Worms and recant. This was Luther’s response:
“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.”
The Pillars of the Great Reformation
October 31, 1517, was the dawn of a Christian reformation and renewal that continues to bear fruit even today. Martin Luther’s gospel clarity and spiritual courage paved the way for other Christian leaders—such as John Calvin and John Knox—to likewise find their way back to a biblical view of the gospel. What’s more, Luther’s theses articulated the convictions on which thousands of new gospel-focused churches would be planted, with countless millions of souls brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Five of these convictions—known as the “Five Solas”—are especially important, and it is these precepts I emphasize as I talk with my children on Reformation Day.
Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone
The first conviction, “Sola Scriptura,” often referred to as the formal principle of the Reformation, is the belief that all Scripture is “God-breathed” and thus is infallibly authoritative for Christian belief and practice (2 Tim 3:16-17). The Holy Spirit guided the biblical authors’ pens so that what they wrote, God himself wrote, down to the very words (2 Pet 1:21). That cannot be said of the Pope’s declarations, the Church’s traditions, or the preacher’s sermons. Thus, Scripture must function as the supreme norm for Christian theology and practice.
Solus Christus: Christ Alone
Jesus Christ is the towering Actor in the Bible’s dramatic narrative. Through him, God created the world and through him God wrought redemption (Jn 1:1-4). As God-in-flesh, Jesus died a substitutionary death so that we can be forgiven our sins and experience newness of life. There is no other name under heaven whereby we may be saved (Acts 4:12). Thus, in contradistinction to our fallen tendency to think that there is something in us that can contribute to our salvation, or that there might be some other path toward salvation, Scripture is clear: salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.
Sola Fide: Faith Alone
If salvation comes through Christ alone, we must also determine how a person can appropriate the redemption he has accomplished: by consciously focused faith in Christ alone. The Reformers often talked about Christ’s substitutionary atonement as a “great, marvelous exchange.” Indeed. Through the cross, Christ took upon himself our sin and condemnation while at the same time giving us his right standing before God. In effect, he took upon himself our name, “Sinner, Condemned” and offered us his name, “Righteous One.” Thus, we are saved on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and through faith that is focused on him (2 Cor 5:21).
Sola Gratia: Grace Alone
As we place our faith in Christ, God graciously saves us from our sins. What’s more, God’s grace is not limited to our once-in-a-lifetime justification, but is extended also to our over-the-course-of-a-lifetime sanctification. His amazing grace has the unmatched power to turn our hearts away from idols and toward the one true and living God (1 Thess 1:9). This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “The love of God controls us” (2 Cor 5:14). God graciously preserves our faith in Christ so that we can persevere faithfully to the end.
Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God Alone
Thus, we arrive at our fifth sola, “Soli Deo Gloria,” meaning glory to God alone. If God has graciously revealed himself through Scripture, and if he graciously provides for us a salvation we do not deserve, then to God alone is the glory. Therefore, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).
These are the five solas of the Reformation and we do well to remember them today. Every generation must be ever-reforming because each generation is composed of sinners. So, we reform ourselves by turning again and again to authoritative Scripture and its focal point, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Lessons I Teach My Children
In remembrance of Martin Luther’s hammer and out of gratitude to God, therefore, my family joins many other Christians by marking October 31 on our calendars as “Reformation Day.” By doing this, we remember to celebrate God’s faithfulness to his church through courageous reformers such as Luther and Calvin; faithfully proclaim the biblical teaching of salvation by grace, through faith alone, in Christ alone; and glorify God by keeping the gospel at the center of everything we do.
I want my children to know that without Christ and his salvation, there would be no hope for them or for the world. Without the gospel, their life would have no real meaning and no good purpose. But because of Christ, there is hope. Through faith in Christ, we experience gracious redemption, real meaning, and focused purpose. So may it be our prayer that God would raise up young men and women who are willing to lay down their lives for the good news of the Kingdom and be used to lead a second reformation in our day!