The Protestant Reformation is not merely an important historical event. It is a continuous call to return to God's word and to believe on Jesus Christ alone for salvation from our sins. The Reformation is a flagpole holding up the banner of the gospel, and it is still relevant because that gospel is still relevant.
Certainly, we ought to remember men like Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and John Calvin and strive to emulate their virtues, learn from their biblical insights, and avoid their mistakes. We ought to be inspired by the memory of men who, though they had great faults and were far from perfect, were yet willing to suffer much and sacrifice all for the sake of the gospel and the sufficiency of God's word. Yet, this is not the primary reason the Reformation matters to the church today. If you have your own copy of the Bible in your own language and can freely attend a church of your own conviction, you have the Reformation to thank for that. Still, not even this is the main reason that the Reformation is so important today. There is a far greater reason.
The Reformation matters because it isn't over. The church needs the Reformation to be a present reality now as much as we ever did back then. So long as there are "churches" which profess the name of Christ but do not actually believe the biblical gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone, there is a need for reformation. So long as people claim to be Christians while elevating human traditions and unbiblical doctrines over the perfect word of God, there is a need for reformation. While it is vitally important for true Christians to stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree on secondary issues and who worship in different buildings than we do, we must not let the idea of unity become a snare that leads us to lock arms with those who deny the gospel. True unity is found only between those who are in Christ, and one only comes to be in Christ through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone.
Justification through Faith Alone
Paul wrote to the church at Rome
"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ," (Romans 5:1).
It is the Justification that comes through faith, apart from the supposed merit of works or self-effort, that brings us peace with God. Nearly 1500 years later, this was the reformers' message to Rome as well. The professing church had added works, rites, ordinances, and rituals as additional necessities to obtain justification and to attain, not a lasting peace with God, but a sort of temporary truce that is easily lost and must constantly be regained through further works of penance and participation in further rituals. The reformers turned to the Word of God and called those who professed the name of Christ to return to Christ's message:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life," (John 5:24).
As Paul also affirms:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast," (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And as even the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament affirmed:
"And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen," (1 Clement, Chapter 32).
Jesus became the substitute for all who believe. He died our death and granted us to live His life. He, though perfectly sinless and pure, became guilty in our place on account of our sin, and we became righteous in His place on account of His righteousness! As Paul says elsewhere:
"He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him," (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus didn't "become sin" by sinning Himself. Jesus took on our sin apart from any sin of His own. Likewise, we do not "become righteousness" by doing good. We take on Jesus' righteousness apart from any good works of our own. The reformers looked to the Scriptures, believed these fundamental truths, and called Christendom back to this gospel while proclaiming this same truth to pagans and unbelievers. Today, we must continue this work. There are still many millions deceived by false gospels where faith in Jesus is only the first of many necessary qualifications to attain our justification. If the work of Christ on Calvary only starts the process which you and your "church" must finish by your own merit, that is not the gospel. Jesus is more than enough. His sacrifice is sufficient.
Yet, it is still the official, dogmatic teaching of the Roman Catholic church that:
"If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema," (Council of Trent, Canon 9).
And it is not Roman Catholicism alone. Many religions that claim to be "Christian" insist that faith in Christ is insufficient and that we must add our own righteousness to that of our Lord if we are to be justified. For example, Paul wrote quite plainly:
"For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all," (Romans 4:16).
But Joseph Smith, the founding "prophet" of Mormonism changed this passage, claiming that the Spirit of God inspired him to "retranslate" the verse as:
"Therefore ye are justified of faith and works, through grace, to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to them only who are of the law, but to them also who are of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all," (Romans 4:16 JST).
Likewise, where Paul said that "it is by grace you are saved through faith," (Ephesians 2:8), Joseph Smith insisted, "it is by grace you are saved after all that you can do," (2 Nephi 25:23). We could give examples from a variety of religious groups, but the issue would remain the same. The human tendency is to, however it is rationalized, diminish the depth of our sinfulness and the immensity of our dependence on God's grace and His grace alone apart from anything that we can do.
We do not like to think of ourselves as destitute spiritual beggars receiving an act of charity. Instead, we like to think that, on some level, we are able to contribute, even if in only a small way, to our own justification. We like to think that we are working together with God for our salvation, rather than being condemned criminals receiving an entirely undeserved pardon from our King. But we are beggars. We are condemned rebels against God, languishing on death row. If we are to be saved, it must be all of Him and nothing of us.
And this is where the good news of the gospel comes in! If we will but humbly realize that we are completely destitute and wholly in need of a redeemer apart from our own efforts or our own worthiness, we can grasp what Christ has done for us! Trusting in His sacrifice alone, we can be saved and clothed in His righteousness rather than clinging to the pitiful rags of our own!
This is the message of the Reformation, and it is as relevant today as it has ever been. For all who believe this, whatever church or denomination to which they may belong, they are our brothers and with them we stand united. If anyone rejects this, they are our mission field. We love them and call them to faith in Christ, but we cannot yet call them brother. The Reformation matters because it, by calling us back to Scripture and the gospel, defines our purpose, our faith, and the standard of our unity with others who profess the name of Christ.