SBC Life Articles

Union University Plans Multi-Faceted ‘Reformation Celebration’


When a German monk took hammer and nail to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel in 1517, he set in motion a series of events that changed the world.

Pastoral concern was Martin Luther’s primary motivation when he challenged the misleading and deceitful teaching that people could buy forgiveness of their sins.

Five hundred years later, Union University has planned a series of events to celebrate that momentous day that launched the Protestant Reformation. From evangelism to preaching to the public reading of Scripture to the “five solas” that were the Reformation’s heartbeat, the West Tennessee Evangelism Rally and the REF500 festival in March will explore the history and the legacy of what Union’s Ray Van Neste says is the greatest revival in the history of the church after Pentecost.

“That’s a big claim, but I think it’s true,” said Van Neste, professor of biblical studies at Union and organizer of the REF500 festival. “I think often times people miss seeing the Reformation as a revival. . . . [S]ometimes people think of it as merely an academic thing, but it comes out of pastoral concern.

“This is a recovery of the Gospel. It’s a rejuvenation or revival of the church.”

Personal Evangelism

The nine days of events celebrating the Reformation will begin March 5 with the second annual West Tennessee Evangelism Rally. Though not officially part of the REF500 festival, Ernest Easley, professor of evangelism at Union, said without the Reformation, an evangelism rally like this likely wouldn’t be happening.

“They really go together. Without what God did through the Reformation and the proclamation of the Gospel, we honestly may not even be talking about having an evangelism rally. It solidified the preaching of the Gospel. It got us back to the point of declaring the truth of Scripture. Without one, there wouldn’t be the other one,” he said.

SBC President Steve Gaines will be the keynote speaker at the plenary worship services. Attendees will be able to attend two of ten planned workshops, including a panel discussion on how business men and women can share their faith in the workplace and how parents can lead their children to Christ.

“All you have to do is look at the churches across West Tennessee and beyond to realize an event like this is essential right now,” Easley said. “Baptisms are really down. Attendance is down. Morale is down. We have an opportunity here at Union to encourage, to equip, to inspire our church leaders and church members to get back to this issue of getting the Gospel to people.”

Pastoral Proclamation

REF500 will formally kick off with an all-day festival of preaching on March 8 to be held in Union’s G. M. Savage Memorial Chapel. Five preachers will address each of the five “solas” that were the themes of the Reformation—“Scripture Alone,” “Christ Alone,” “Grace Alone,” “Faith Alone” and “To God Alone Be Glory.”

The five preachers scheduled are Steve Gaines, senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis and president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Fred Shackelford, senior pastor of Ellendale Baptist Church in Bartlett, Tennessee; Justin Wainscott, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee; Eric Smith, senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee; and Jim Shaddix, professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Preaching comes to new life coming out of the Reformation, and preaching is actually what’s pressing the Reformation,” Van Neste said. “It goes forth because of popular public preaching. So we wanted not just to talk about it, but to do it.”

Reformation Celebration

The central piece to Union’s celebration of the Reformation is a three-day festival March 9–11 with lectures from visiting scholars, breakout sessions covering a variety of topics, a music concert by Union’s music department, an art exhibit, a film showing, and a Bible exhibit.

Van Neste said since the church in the United States is often dormant, lackluster, and looking for renewal, one of the strategies for believers should be to look to great times of renewal in the past, such as the Reformation, for lessons that are relevant for today.

“If we look back carefully, we can see forward more clearly,” he said.

Plenary speakers for the event include Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School; David Lyle Jeffrey, distinguished professor of literature and the humanities at Baylor University; Peter Leithart, president of the Theopolis Institute; and Carl Trueman, the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Fifteen breakout sessions will cover the Reformation’s far-reaching contributions.

“This recovery of the Gospel, it did lead to salvation most centrally, but it led to a change in the way politics was done, in the way education and science were done,” Van Neste said. “I want us to see how it affects all of life.”

Scripture Reading Marathon

To bookend the REF500 festival, Union will host a Scripture reading marathon March 6–7 and March 13–14 in which four hundred volunteers will read for ten minutes each under Miller Tower on the Union campus. The reading will begin at 6:30 a.m. each day and go until midnight, and by the end of the fourth day, the entire Bible will have been read.

Van Neste said they’ll recruit Union faculty, staff, students, and alumni as readers, in addition to volunteers from area churches and schools.

“I’m telling people, ‘There may not be anybody there when you get there. You just read.’ Scripture itself has its own power.”

B&H is cosponsoring the marathon and will debut its new Christian Standard Bible at the event.

While other conferences will celebrate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary next year, Nathan Finn, dean of Union’s School of Theology and Missions, said the events at Union form arguably the most diverse conference of its kind in North America.

“I’m unaware of another conference that is giving so much attention to the variety of ways the Reformation has shaped not just theology and church practice, but western culture itself,” Finn said. “Union is a Christ-centered, comprehensive university that is committed to the liberal arts, the sciences, and the professions. The REF500 Conference is exactly the sort of interdisciplinary event that a university like ours ought to be hosting.”

Union’s Ryan Center for Biblical Studies, of which Van Neste is the director, is hosting the REF500 festival. More information is available at www.uu.edu/events/ref500.

Other Scheduled SBC Reformation 500th Anniversary Plans

Many scholars regard Baptists as among heirs of the Reformation tradition. Among the Reformation celebrations planned among Southern Baptists:

Baptist Press, State Baptist Papers

On October 31 and November 1, 2016, Baptist Press kicked off its coverage of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with four news features about the Reformers and the “unfinished reformation.” BP will routinely publish reports, feature stories, and columns leading up to the October 31, 2017, anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

In addition, several state Baptist papers have plans to carry monthly or weekly historical snippets about the Reformation and its continuing impact on Western Christianity, especially as it pertains to Baptist work in the United States and around the world.


LifeWay Christian Resources will release a small group Bible study titled “Echoes of the Reformation: Five Truths That Shape the Christian Life.” The six-session study will examine five core truths that stemmed from, and were the DNA of, the Reformation. The study aims to help believers better understand the Reformation’s impact on today’s church and how to live for the glory of God.

LifeWay’s B&H Academic division will release Reformation 500 next spring, a book by Ray Van Neste and J. Michael Garrett that will explore how the Reformation has shaped the world.


The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission will publish articles on the impact of the Reformation on the way we engage culture today and some of the movements that have arisen out of the Reformation, particularly the Baptist movement.


GuideStone Financial Resources will commemorate the Reformation with a special speaker during its weekly employee chapel services in October 2017.


The International Mission Board plans to post articles related to the Reformation on its website and IMB President David Platt is scheduled to speak in April at a Reformation-themed conference in Germany sponsored by the German group Evangelium 21 and US-based Together for the Gospel.

SBC Seminaries

Southeastern—Reformation scholar Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, will deliver a 2017 chapel address on the Reformation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, a June 2017 Reformation study tour in Europe will be led by Southeastern President Daniel Akin and Stephen Eccher, assistant professor of church history and Reformation studies.

Southern—Southern Baptist Theological Seminary will partner with Ligonier Ministries in August 2017 for the Land of Luther Study Tour, with church historians teaching in the places Luther lived and taught. The seminary also will host a Reformation Conference Oct. 24–25, 2017. In addition, chapel speakers, articles, and other resources will address key Reformation themes throughout the year.

Southwestern—Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will host three faculty-led study tours of Reformation sites in Europe between the summer of 2017 and the winter of 2017–18. The third tour will include key Anabaptist sites. On-campus events throughout the year will include a special Reformation Day chapel service next year.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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