It’s Reformation Day

Unless you live under a rock, you know that today is Halloween, a holiday celebrated around the world by millions of people each year.

Fewer people know that it’s also Reformation Day, which commemorates Martin Luther’s historic act of posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517.

The Unintentional Reformer

Luther’s theses were viewed as an act of defiance to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church of the day, as they challenged the legitimacy of church practices, like the selling of indulgences and Church teachings about the authority of the pope, the authority of Scripture, purgatory, and the forgiveness of sin. Luther, who at the time was a humble theology professor, did not intend his Ninety-Five Theses to be a call to reformation, for he did not want to cause a rift in the church. However, his ideas were controversial because they questioned the authority of the church. Helped by the newfound technology of the printing press and the cultural situation of the early 1500s, Luther’s ideas were distributed throughout Germany and the rest of Europe, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation marked a colossal shift in attitudes about spiritual authority, the nature of the church, and biblical doctrine. The century before the Reformation was marked by widespread dismay with the corruption of the leaders in the church and with false doctrines, biblical illiteracy, and superstition. Some monks, priests, bishops, and popes in the Roman Catholic Church taught unbiblical doctrines including the treasury of merit and salvation by faith plus good works.

On a deeper level, this main issue was driven by the rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification.

Spiritually earnest people were taught to justify themselves by charitable works, pilgrimages, and all kinds of religious performances and devotions. They were encouraged to acquire this religious “merit,” which was at the disposal of the church, by purchasing “certificates of indulgence.” This left them wondering if they had done or paid enough to appease God’s righteous anger and escape his judgment.

Others within the Roman Catholic Church recognized the problems and had called for reform, but Luther’s gifts, the technology of the printing press, and the social situation in Germany combined to make Luther’s actions the spark that, in the popular language of the day, “set the whole world on fire.”

The Heart of the Matter

On one level, the main issue was spiritual authority: is it the Pope and church councils that define the Christian faith, or is it the Bible alone? However, on a deeper level, this question was driven by the rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification—salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

It was seeing people suffering under the weight of uncertainty about whether they had done enough to please God that prompted Luther’s desire to refocus the church on salvation by grace, through faith, on account of Christ, by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. To those spiritually oppressed by indulgences and not given assurance of God’s grace, Luther proclaimed free grace to God’s true saints:

God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite (Luther, WA, 1.183ff).

In place of a treasury of merit for sale, Luther declared that “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”

Further Reading

Reformation Day is worth remembering because of the massive impact the Reformation had on our theology, our history, and our faith. For more on Luther and his work, see these posts: