In all my years of Catholic schooling, I’m sure I was taught about the Reformation in my history or religion classes, but I don’t remember those classes at all. However, what I do remember vividly is walking into a Lutheran church one October years ago and experiencing my first Reformation Sunday celebration.
All of it was new to me—the red clergy vestments, the red geraniums displayed on the altar, the sea of red clothing worn by congregants to commemorate the day.
The pastor preached on Martin Luther, the devout Catholic monk who was exhausted by trying desperately to earn his way into heaven through good works. (As an earnest young Catholic, I related to this 15th-century priest right away.) Luther knew that penance, fasting, and prayer weren’t enough to get him into heaven. Although he didn’t set out to start a schism, nonetheless he questioned the emphasis on good works (and indulgences) over God’s freely given gift of grace and in so doing changed the church.
For Luther, discovering that the church was minoring in grace and majoring in works changed his life. It changed mine, too. This month, as the church celebrates the 500th anniversary of Luther’s brave-hearted reform, I’m reflecting on the many ways his Reformation has impacted my personal faith.
1. Questioning is good.
Despite being a rather feisty and independent Italian woman in most areas of my life, it never occurred to me to question the Catholic church until I was gently prompted by my loving Protestant boyfriend. We took a journey deep into the Bible to dig for answers to questions and to understand the traditions, practices, and precepts that I had always taken for granted. I was a happily devout Catholic and am still grateful for many aspects of that vigorous training. But like Luther, I had to learn firsthand where the tradition was majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors.
2. Grace is amazing.
Like Luther, I was a good and conscientious student. I, too, felt overwhelmed trying to do my best for the Lord but always feeling less than, always weary of all the Catholic to-dos on my list. My mantra: “I must try harder.”
Growing up as a schoolgirl in a Catholic school, I learned through my parochial catechism that grace is a “gift from God,” but that gift wasn’t emphasized enough. In all those years, I missed the heart of grace: God’s love for us, the broken and beautiful people he created. God knows we are sinners and can’t ever do enough to repair our fallen humanity. That’s why he sent us Jesus to be our Savior. By God’s grace and through his son, we are forgiven, befriended, and made whole. Like Luther, I was changed when I fully understood what’s so amazing about grace.
3. The Bible is God’s love letter to us and to the church.
After being excommunicated from the church, Luther went on to publish a complete translation of the Bible in German, based on the belief that people need to read this important love letter in their own language. During my young adult faith formation, I craved that too. I had to find a Bible in my own vernacular, and I found one in The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the New Testament. Thanks in part to Luther, I feel a personal connection to the Scriptures, which inspire, encourage, admonish, teach, console, and comfort me.
4. Jesus wants to do life with us.
In reading the Bible closely as a young adult, I came to understand that God sent his Son to us to do life with us. In both the Old and New Testaments, we find evidence of this promise: Emmanuel means “God with us.” There are no more middlemen, no more veils and curtains separating us from God. We laypeople are called to be a priestly people—our whole lives are worship. I am called to be an altar, to be church, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world.
5. Reformation is continual.
Transformations—of institutions or people—are not “once and done” affairs. They are ongoing. In the life of the church, God used Luther to initiate the Reformation. These centuries later, he continues to transform the church through his people.
I also feel God’s transforming power in my own life. For me, learning about his gift of grace was just the first step, and now living into that gift is part of my lifelong journey. As I learn to trust in Jesus and invite him into every corner of my being, my daily prayer is a reformation prayer: “Alter me more and more.” As Paul writes in Ephesians, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3: 16–17).
6. Our mandate is to go, share, and tell.
In the gospel stories, everyone that Jesus heals wants to go out and tell others about the miracle that just happened. This “share and tell” culture was never part of my religious upbringing. Some Catholics like me tend to be private pray-ers, and we often forget the Great Commission. These days, however, “share and tell” is my heart’s desire. I understand now why Luther risked everything to publicly post his 95 Theses in Wittenburg, Germany—because he believed in the life-transforming power of the gospel.
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I celebrate the renewal of my faith and pray for the renewal of the world around me. I also commit to heart a simple but poignant reminder from the man who started it all: “We need to hear the gospel every day,” said Luther, “because we forget it every day.”
Andrea Syverson is the author of Alter Girl: Walking Away From Religion Into the Heart of Faith, which tells the story of her personal journey in, around, and through the church on her way to a deeper connection to Jesus.