A day has more meaning than its cultural value. A holiday is not limited to just its celebration. Take my birthday for example. Every year, I get to spend time with my family celebrating the moment when I was born and reflecting on every moment since then. But, that’s just my family and however many Facebook friends decide to post on my wall. In reality, the rest of the world hates my birthday, because the rest of the world only sees it as April 15— Tax Day.
This weekend we are celebrating Halloween, but October 31 is about much more than merely trick-or-treating. As you dress up this weekend and enjoy the inauguration of another year-end holiday schedule, let’s take a moment to reflect on the other meaning of October 31: Reformation Day.
What is Reformation Day?
Simply put, Reformation Day marks the official beginning of what is now known as the “Protestant Church.” Nearly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Naturally, two questions jump out at this point: Who was Martin Luther, and why did he nail something onto a church?
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 to Hans and Margaretha Luder. Before being ordained, Luther was pursuing a career in law at the University of Erfurt. One night when he was 21, however, Luther was caught in the middle of a thunderstorm. Fearing for his life, he cried out and vowed to become a monk if he would be protected from the storm.
Shortly after, Luther entered an Augustinian Monastery. Over the next several years, Luther struggled with an intense understanding and sensitivity to his own sin. He was constantly in a state of sorrow and confession, which was compounded by his confusion regarding the various corruptions he saw in other priests in the Catholic Church. When he moved to Wittenberg to study theology and become a professor in 1515, Luther made a monumental discovery. While reading through Romans 1, Luther was struck by the reality of verses 16-17:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
According to the passage, the gospel is meant to be a revelation of the justice of God. The idea of God’s justice is what had been personally tormenting Luther, but he had never connected it to the gospel. Understood in this light, God’s justice is not merely seen in his punishment of sinners; it is also connected to the righteousness of God. God is just, but he also justifies sinners with the righteousness of Jesus when they place their faith in him. Luther’s realization of the truth found in Romans 1:16-17 opened a flood of grace and peace into his life. Justification and salvation was a free gift of God based on faith!
Yet, at the same time that Luther embraced the security of his justification by faith alone, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Leo X, began to further emphasize the sale of something known as “indulgences.” Essentially, the Catholic Church taught that individuals could buy an indulgence for themselves or for a loved one (living or deceased) in order to shave years off the time they would have to spend in “Purgatory” before being released to spend eternity in heaven. With Luther’s new understanding of salvation and justification by faith alone, these indulgences were reprehensible to him. In an attempt to promote conversation about the centrality of Scripture and the sole contributor of faith to one’s salvation, Luther decided to post “95 Theses” on the door of the church in Wittenberg. His goal was not to divide the Church; simply to reform its understanding of justification and Scripture. Yet, out of this one act sparked an entire movement that has resulted in what we now know as the Protestant Church.
Why does it Matter?
As we reflect on Reformation Day this Halloween, the point is not to emphasize the division of the Church into “Catholicism” and “Protestantism.” Regardless of your denominational background, salvation is offered to everyone in the same way: repentance and faith in Jesus Christ alone. The real importance of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation is the centrality of God’s Word in leading all of us closer to God. The gospel is as simple as it is complex, and, thankfully, it is also unchanging. Though individuals and churches may give into the changing culture and modify their theology or their approach to the Bible, God does not. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and we can truly know him by focusing on his Word just as Martin Luther did. God used one man to spark an entire movement recovering the beauty of God’s grace, and he is just as able to use you and me for his glorious purpose today. Whatever you do to celebrate Halloween this weekend, remember that your faithfulness to God in every aspect of life has the power to change the world.
This blog was originally posted on Rob and Riley Russell’s personal website. You can go to www.robandriley.com to follow the Russell’s as they set out on this journey to plant a church in New York City.