Earlier this month I was in Wittenberg, reporting on the World Seminaries Conference of the International Lutheran Council. It was not my first trip to Wittenberg, but it was the first time I was able to see the Castle Church, which had been undergoing repairs during my previous visit.
All Saints’ Church, as it is formally known, is famous as the place where Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door on October 31, 1517 (or so the tradition goes). And while the document is hardly reflective of Luther’s mature theology, the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses is still widely considered the beginning of the Reformation. For several hundred years, Lutherans have observed Reformation Day every October 31.
With this year’s commemoration, we are now just one year away from the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. The gravity of that knowledge struck me anew standing in the Castle Church. For it is here that both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon—the two principal saints and theologians of the Reformation—are buried. It was strange to stand before their tombs. Through their writings I have heard these men speak time and again. But now, in their presence, I found them silent. Such is the power of death.
There is another kind of death that pervades the town of Wittenberg. As part of former East Germany, Wittenberg did not escape the atheistic effects of the communist regime, which led to a stark spiritual decline in the region. The result is a town full of the imagery of the Reformers but curiously devoid of the faith they taught. The birthplace of the Reformation then seems somewhat like a tomb—a memorial to the dead faithful but sadly representing only a minority of the living residents of Wittenberg.
These reflections on death have been sharpened by the sudden death of a member of my own family, my uncle having passed away while I was flying home to Canada from Germany. His funeral takes place today. And so it is that I remember the Reformation this year in the shadow of the grave.
Why do we commemorate the Reformation? It is surely not because of the Reformers themselves—at least not primarily. They too were sinners, and their sins are well known. And however famous, learned, and pious they may have been, they are not worth remembering on these counts solely. They were human like you and I. And they are dead.
No, it is not the Reformers alone that we commemorate. Rather, it is their doctrine that we rejoice in. Their teachings, grounded in the unchanging truth of God’s Word, continue to resonate throughout the world. As the prophet says, “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40: 7-8). Man may perish, but the Word of God remains active and alive forever.
And what is that Word which forever stands? St. Peter tells us directly: “This word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25)—the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for our salvation. This word is glorious good news to women and men running headlong into the yawning mouth of death. And make no mistake: As we are sinners, that is precisely the destination to which we run.
But though all humanity deserves death because of sin, the Word of Christ is a word of mercy. He has carried our trespasses. He has suffered in our place. And as he has been raised from the dead, he promises we too will share in his resurrection to eternal life—a gift given freely in grace to all who believe in him.
We remember Luther, Melanchthon, and the other figures and events of the Reformation because they point us back to this eternal Word of God and the Gospel of Christ. They tell us to seek salvation not in our own selves and works but rather in the person and works of God’s Son, the one who has defeated sin, death, and the devil on our behalf. “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works,” Melanchthon writes in the Augsburg Confession. “People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By his death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in his sight.”
That profession of faith in Christ is the foundation of the Lutheran Reformation. Standing on this foundation, the Reformers sought to correct the doctrinal confusions of the age, grounding their reforms in the Scriptures and the testimony of the Church throughout history.
That work was not easy. They faced opposition, both from those outside the reforming movement and from those within. One might say they did their work under the shadow of death. For Luther, this was more than a metaphor: The Edict of Worms called for his apprehension in order to face execution as a heretic. And yet in the midst of this darkness, God was indeed with the Reformers. Through them, he brought renewed clarity to the Gospel—a resurrection, we might say, of the central teaching of Christianity.
The Reformers may be dead and buried. But their teaching lives on—and it is a teaching that gives us hope in the midst of our own deaths. For the tombs of Luther and Melanchthon will not always stay silent. Christ will return, and on that day they shall arise, just as we shall arise and gather with them and all the saints before the throne of God, worshipping the Lamb who was slain for our salvation and who is alive again forever.
In the meantime, let us honor the dead, our forbears in the faith, and reflect upon their words and deeds. As Melanchthon spoke of the dead Luther, so let us reflect on all God’s servants this Reformation Day. “He was an important instrument, in the hands of God, of public utility; let us diligently study the truth he taught, imitating in our humble situations his fear of God, his faith, the intensity of his devotions, the integrity of his ministerial character, his purity, his careful avoidance of seditious counsel, his ardent thirst of knowledge.” And as it says in the Augsburg Confession: “The memory of saints should be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling.”
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine, communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada, and editor for the International Lutheran Council's news service.