In our contemporary American context, if you were to ask someone “What is so significant about October 31st?” they would say, “That’s Halloween!” However, this date is far more significant than the commercialized combination of costumes and candy that we know it to be. In fact, this date is far more important than we realize when we consider the church and the practice of our faith. You see, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sparked the explosion that became the Protestant Reformation.
When Martin Luther was born in Germany in 1483, the Roman Catholic Church was THE Christian church in Europe at that time. Everything was controlled by the Pope and his cardinals, including the rise and fall of many kings and nations. Martin Luther was a devout Catholic and had joined an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany in 1505, but he continually struggled to understand the biblical doctrines of sin and salvation as they related to the justice of God. By 1512, he had received his Doctorate in Theology and was regularly preparing lectures on the Bible. His theological struggles continued to drive him to deeper study of the Scriptures. Then, as he was teaching through the book of Romans in 1515, he came to the biblical understanding of how the righteousness of God was graciously granted to sinners on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ.
Luther’s rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith led him initially to seek theological reform within the established Catholic Church. At the time, Pope Leo the Tenth had approved the ongoing, widespread sale of indulgences to finance his own economic and political ambitions. “Indulgences” were basically edicts of the church granting forgiveness to the purchaser for sins which had been committed or sins that were about to be committed. Indulgences could also be purchased on behalf of dead relatives so that they could be granted forgiveness of sins and released from purgatory into heaven. The Dominican John Tetzel, the most infamous seller of indulgences, was known to promise purchasers, “as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
So in response to the corruption and biblical inconsistency that was so prevalent in the church, Martin Luther wrote “95 Theses,” or 95 points of challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, and posted them on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel on October 31 of 1517. His theological arguments were not fully grasped at first, but his challenges to the corrupt establishment resounded with common people all over Germany. Justo Gonzales, in his book on church history, notes “With little awareness of what he was doing, or whom he was attacking, Luther has spoken against plans for profit designed by very powerful lords and prelates.” Printers soon spread copies of the 95 Theses throughout Europe, and the Protestant Reformation was born.
Because of Luther’s biblical fidelity and courage, the theology he had come to espouse soon took center stage. For his beliefs, he faced the unbridled fury of the Catholic establishment, and though it was not his initial intention, new churches came into existence based upon the five solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (By Scripture Alone), Solus Christus (By Christ Alone), Sola Gratia (By Grace Alone), Sola Fide (By Faith Alone), Soli Deo Gloria (For the Glory of God Alone). By the grace and sovereignty of God, men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, and Cramer were used during the time of the Reformation to recover the biblical doctrines that are the foundation of the faith we practice today.
Thus, as you look toward this upcoming October 31st, I hope you will look past all the macabre commercialism of the American observance and take time to remember the 493rd anniversary of the Reformation. I pray you will take time in family worship this week to teach your children and grandchildren about the 5 Solas of the Reformation and how these great truths point us toward the centrality of God’s role in saving us by grace, through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. I love you all dearly!