I remember standing outside on a cold winter night in 1986. My grandfather had taken me to the local university. We parked our car and filed into a long line that weaved up a sidewalk and around an outdoor concourse until it reached a door. After waiting for what to an 8-year-old felt like an eternity (probably more like two hours), we reached the front of the line. The professor announced our turn, and I stared through the university’s high-powered telescope.
There it was. A small ball of light was clearly visible; Haley’s Comet appeared before our eyes. My grandfather didn’t want me to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some things only come around every so often (Haley’s Comet appears every 74 to 79 years).
This Sunday we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the most significant event in human history outside the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Is this an overstatement? I don’t believe so. On October 31, 1517, the world began to shake with a few hammer blows on a small German church door.
At the time, none could foresee what the simple act of a professor nailing hand-written theses to a door would do to shape the world, but it did. And those reverberations would be heard not only throughout Europe, but the entire world.
The Protestant Reformation altered nations, shaped politics, provoked wars, and led to innovations in science, industry, economics, and medicine. It affected exploration and colonization. The Protestant work ethic, the proliferation of democratic governments, and world missions took shape as direct fruit of the Reformation.
But of eternal significance, the Reformation reclaimed a biblical view of salvation, worship, and biblical authority. This recovery led to the redemption of countless souls and served as a necessary correction to the church’s beliefs and practices.
Here are six ways to nail Reformation 500 this Sunday.
1. Remind your church.
As beneficiaries of the Reformation, it seems right and helpful to remind our churches this Sunday of the importance of this God-given gift. At the very least, we possess an opportunity to reassert that salvation is according to Scripture alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, for the glory of God alone.
Church leaders, consider shaping your service this Sunday as a way of erecting an Ebenzer stone in remembrance of what God has achieved.
2. Preach justification.
A pastor may choose to proclaim justification by grace alone through faith alone this Reformation Sunday. We cannot remind ourselves or our churches enough of this pivotal doctrine. As Martin Luther said of justification, “If this article stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.”
This opportunity only presents itself every 500 years. It’s worth taking a break from your current series to maximize the moment.
3. Sing Reformation hymns.
Other elements in the service could equally highlight and celebrate Reformation fruit. Many churches will sing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” this Sunday. Give a short introduction to this hymn, so the congregation sings with knowledge of its history. Many other great hymns of the faith could also be sung as we rattle the rafters in thanksgiving. “God Is Our Refuge and Strength,” “I Love Your Church, O Lord,” and “The Church’s One Foundation” come to mind as appropriate hymns for this anniversary.
I love good new songs as much as anyone else, but we should sing at least one good old one this Sunday.
4. Read a classic confession.
A congregation could responsively read together from one of the great confessions or catechisms that flowed from the Reformation. Consider taking excerpts from Luther’s shorter catechism. The questions on the Lord’s Prayer would make wonderful confessions of faith. Or you may go back to the creeds the reformers stood on by reciting the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed.
This reminds the congregation of their union with all who have come before them. We confess the same faith, in the same God, as members of the same body. We are truly surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. A reading from Hebrews 11 would remind all that God sustains his church, and that he sustained the courage of those who passed the faith on to us. Hebrews 12:1-3 is a fitting end to this reading.
5. Pray for reformation.
Pastors might also consider leading this week’s pastoral or congregational prayer in light of the need for continued reformation in the church.
What would the impact be of thousands of churches around the globe praying this Sunday for churches to be committed to sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, and soli Deo gloria?
6. Give them the giants.
Sunday morning is not the only opportunity. This Sunday night could be employed to present a short history lesson on the Reformation or to present a biographical sketch of a great magisterial or second-generation Reformer: Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, William Farel, John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Phillip Melanchthon, John Knox, Johannes Oeclampadius, Jeanne d’Albret, Lady Jane Grey, and so on.
We need to be reminded of the sacrifices our forefathers and foremothers made for our benefit and God’s glory. Such knowledge encourages faith, strengthens resolve, solicits thankfulness, and engenders perseverance.
Pastors aren’t the only ones who should think of seizing the opportunity this anniversary affords. Sunday school teachers, consider taking one of these historical figures and present a short lesson to the children in your class. Let us resolve with the psalmist, “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD and his might, and the wonders he has done” (Ps. 78:4).
Stories excite the imagination of our children, but these true stories could do more—they could pierce their souls. These aren’t mere biographies; they stand as testimonies of God’s might. They declare that he will not abandon the church, and they echo his promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20).
Seize the Day
Anniversaries like this only come around every several centuries. Let us seize the opportunity to remind ourselves of the great God we serve and his sovereign goodness. Let us point to “the glorious deeds of the LORD and his might, and the wonders he has done” (Ps. 78:4).
If the reformers were with us today, I’m confident they would encourage such reflection and worship. Though this Lord’s Day may be a bit different, the reality is that this should be our approach every Sunday. This is what we gather for—to meet with our living God, to thank him, and to celebrate the wonders he has done. This is what the reformers fought, sacrificed, and died for.