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Reformation Day: What, Why, and Resources for Worship

What Is Reformation Day?

Reformation Day is a day set aside to recognize, remember, and celebrate the Protestant Reformation. In some countries, it is observed as an official holiday. It remembers Martin Luther and the central role he played in the reform movement that split the western church of Rome.

When Is It Observed?

Reformation Day is October 31 of every year. That is the day in 1517 when Dr. Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was Luther's act that caused the initial furor that resulted in the Reformation. Luther had earned his Doctor of Theology degree in Wittenberg and was a respected professor there, as well as the assistant pastor of the Castle Church. Luther chose October 31 because it was the day before All Saints' Day. The Castle Church's front door opened on a main street of the city, and it was a good place to post a notice for public viewing. Luther knew that on the next day, November 1 — All Saints' Day — the church would be filled with worshipers, many of whom were educated and literate. His act of posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door was the equivalent of publishing a journal article, taking out a newspaper ad, or putting up an Internet website today. Reformation Day is most often observed today on the Sunday prior to October 31.

Why Did Luther Post His 95 Theses?

There were numerous reasons identified in the theses. Luther addressed a number of objectionable teachings and doctrines, including salvation by works and the practice of selling indulgences. These were actual certificates that people could purchase from the Church that absolved them of their sins and promised their salvation and eternal life. Pope Leo X called for the sale of indulgences in Germany to help raise money to complete the construction of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome. The Pope said that those who purchased these indulgences would be absolved of all sin. Some of Luther's parishioners purchased these indulgences and asked Luther about their validity. This led directly to his posting of the 95 Theses.

Reformation Themes

Luther argued that salvation could not be obtained by purchasing indulgences, through works of charity, by making a pilgrimage, or by performing other acts of piety and devotion. He argued that salvation was an act of God, given by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. God has already provided for our salvation by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and salvation is ours to accept through faith, not to achieve through works. A second major theme of the Reformation is the priesthood of all believers, meaning that Christians do not need an intermediary between them and God. It was the right and duty of all Christians to enter into their own personal relationship with God, to read the Bible and worship in their own language, and to pray directly to God rather than through another's efforts.

Importance to Us Today

As United Methodists today, nearly 500 years after the start of the Reformation, what is its significance to us? Why even observe it? After all, we are not the descendants of Luther. Our roots are deep in the Anglican tradition: Both John and Charles Wesley were priests in the Church of England. There are a number of reasons we should observe the day. The themes of the Reformation remain the great themes and principles of our own faith today. The great schism that occurred in the church remains with us. Our fractured denominations have entered into dialogue and cooperative activities that have brought us closer together. Today we may observe Reformation Day with a sense of moving toward unity and community. It is an opportunity to repent of the sins and excesses of the past and to celebrate our common faith, even if we still cannot celebrate a common ritual and sacrament. Reformation today can represent healing of old wounds as, together, we all work to build and strengthen Christ's church and love one another as Christ has loved us.

Reformation Worship and Music Resources

The United Methodist Book of Worship

  • 501, prayer: "O gracious God, we pray for your holy Church universal…" (from The Book of Common Prayer)
  • 502, prayer: "Most merciful Father, send your heavenly blessings upon this your Church…" (from The Book of Common Prayer)
  • 503, prayer: "Spirit of promise, Spirit of unity…" (Olive Wyon)
  • 504, prayer: "O God of all times and places…" (Walter Rauschenbusch)
  • 505, prayer: "O God, the Giver of life, we pray for the Church…" (Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, on the visit of Pope John Paul II)
  • 506, prayer: "O God, you have built your Church…" (Harry Emerson Fosdick)

The United Methodist Hymnal

  • 110, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"
  • 159, "Lift High the Cross"
  • 163, "Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know"
  • 332, "Spirit of Faith, Come Down"
  • 385, "Let Us Plead for Faith Alone"
  • 452, "My Faith Looks Up to Thee"
  • 529, "How Firm a Foundation"
  • 555, "Forward Through the Ages"
  • 556, "Litany for Christian Unity"
  • 558, "We Are the Church"
  • 574, Prayer: "For Renewal of the Church"
  • 577, "God of Grace and God of Glory"
  • 579, "Lord God, Your Love Has Called Us Here"
  • 595, "Whether the Word Be Preached or Read"
  • 598, "O Word of God Incarnate"
  • 589, "The Church of Christ, in Every Age"
  • 660, "God Is Here"
  • 709, "Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above"
  • 714, "I Know Whom I Have Believed"

The Faith We Sing

  • 2220, "We Are God's People"
  • 2221, "In Unity We Lift Our Song"
  • 2224, "Make Us One"
  • 2226, "Bind Us Together"
  • 2227, "We Are the Body of Christ"
  • 2238, "In the Midst of New Dimensions"
  • 2240, "One God and Father of Us All"

Worship Song

  • 3147, "Built on a Rock the Church Doth Stand"

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