The challenge of teaching the Reformation

When it comes to teaching our children about the Reformation, especially our young children, we have to admit the challenge of it. Perhaps, the most obvious challenge is that the official date for recognizing the Reformation is Oct. 31, 1517. There is a part of me that wishes that Martin Luther would have had some foresight with his choosing of a date! Didn’t he know that this would become Halloween and that children would be hopelessly distracted? I am thinking that it probably isn’t enough to dress up your children as Martin Luther to help them understand the joy of the Reformation.

In addition, the Reformation isn’t just competing with Halloween. It’s also competing with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. My daughter, Tayley, came home from public school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day impacted in ways that I rarely see, trying to tell me the story of the civil rights movement. In fact, she is having the hardest time accepting that Martin Luther King Jr. was named after another Martin Luther that was greater than he.

With that said, perhaps the greatest challenger in teaching our children about the Reformation are the truths themselves. Most of the key ideas are framed by Latin slogans or “solas.” Whoever decided to frame the Reformation in this way didn’t have children in mind. What is more, if someone challenged us Lutherans to put the Reformation itself into a single sentence, we might say, “The Reformation was all about the Bible’s teaching that we are justified by grace through faith by Christ alone.” Try teaching that to your six-year-old!

The ideas of the Reformation are saving and powerful, but they are also abstract. Somewhere along the line, I remember learning that kids under a certain age simply cannot grasp abstract concepts. For parents wanting to teach their children about the Reformation, these are the challenges.

I’ll tell you what I am going to do with my kids to meet the challenge. I am going to teach my kids about the Reformation during the entire month of October. Really, whenever it comes up in daily life, we are going to talk about it. I am going to buy a children’s book from Northwestern Publishing House. There’s one called Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed The World that looks especially good, but I’ll look into other possibilities as well. We will talk about the different “Martins” and why October 31 is special to us for better reasons than candy.

But what about the truths of the Reformation? How can we share abstract truths with them in meaningful ways? We will let Luther guide us with Scripture. His first thesis, which guided the other 94 theses, stated, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This is where everything started. He was wanting the world to know that the life of a believer has two parts 1) contrition or sorrow over sin and 2) faith in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s actually a pretty simple concept to understand. That’s what I intend to teach my girls.

I am going to teach them to apologize to each other and to their God. I am going to hold his law in front them and show them their sin. Then, I will show them their Savior who died for them. I will speak to them of Jesus’ love and grace and about how forgiven and washed and loved they really are. I probably won’t even call it repentance. They will learn that word later, but they will learn about Jesus. That’s really my number one goal.

Even if they never do come to know with great clarity the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr., I want them to know Jesus. That after all is what the Reformation was all about.

Timothy Bourman is a pastor at Sure Foundation in New York City and co-host of the podcast Project 1517. He and his wife, Amanda, have three young daughters.

Telling—and showing—children the story of the Reformation

Would you like to tell your children a story this Halloween? The 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation gives you that chance.

You can tell the story of a young man bothered by the practice of paying off sin’s punishment with money. You can tell the story of a young man who was brave. He didn’t keep his mouth shut, even before those older than he, because he cared about souls. You can tell the story of a young man who cared about God’s truth, wanting to understand what true repentance meant and wanting the leaders of the church to treasure God’s grace. It is an amazing Halloween story, the posting of 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517.

There is a story to tell. But that story didn’t end on October 31 five hundred years ago. There is a continuing story you can tell every day you are with your children. In fact, you get to live out the story. On each of your days you have the chance to put on display divine Reformation truths that are at the heart of our salvation—grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.

We are all in favor of these Reformation concepts. Yet as parents, it is easy to live something other than grace and faith and Scripture. When a child has sinned, we may forget that any Christian discipline intends to have an ultimate happy ending, in the grace of God. In our pride we may overlook the reality of our absolute dependence on God, the centrality of faith for eternal life and for every other moment in life. In the busyness of life, we may speak of Scripture’s importance but let its priority slip. We may speak a story of Reformation when the anniversary hits, but it’s very hard to live out the Reformation during those many moments God gives us with young precious souls.

Being a parent means confessing sin. That’s a Reformation truth. There are times when we sin against our child by assuming the worst and thinking they had done the very thing we had warned them against, only to find out that we were wrong. Can you look your child in the eye and tell him you are sorry, explain that you have a sinful flesh too, and ask him to forgive you? There is no greater joy than to hear a representative of Christ, at the young age of seven, smile and forgive.

Being a parent means forgiving sin as well. That’s a Reformation truth. Your child sins, and she is sitting on the couch in the basement in a timeout. After some screaming and crying there is silence, and then a very different voice rises up the stairs: “I’m sorry.” Can you walk down the stairs and have the first words from your mouth be, “I forgive you, and Jesus forgives you too”? Yes, parents can offer guidelines and loving consequences after assuring their child of forgiveness, but we don’t want our direct response to “I’m sorry” to be a threat—“Don’t let that ever happen again.” Those little souls can be tricked by the devil, but they can be crushed when God’s love is withheld. You don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. We know how precious God’s love has been to us. Shower his grace on those you love.

Being a parent means depending, depending on someone else for your salvation and for every other challenge in life. Can you humbly commiserate with your children? Can you agree with them that we are all weak and we do not have the power to obey as we want? Can you mourn with them over their wicked flesh, but then can you give them hope as you remind them that our peace when we disobey and our power finally to obey comes not from ourselves but from our God? We depend. We trust. By God’s grace, we believe. Faith—that’s a Reformation truth.

Being a parent means listening, listening with your children to words that come from a God whose word made the world and raised the dead. Bible stories are powerful words. The truths of those stories are power to rebuke, to comfort, to guide. Read God’s stories. Talk about God’s stories. Have Scripture be a daily meal in your home—that’s a Reformation truth.

There is a Reformation story to tell. Do speak of Luther’s Reformation. But even more, make the Reformation—by God’s grace and power—your daily beating heart.

Stephen Geiger is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis. He and his wife, Anna, have six children ranging in age from 10 to 1.