For Lutherans, October 31st is more than Halloween. It is also Reformation Day. October 31, 1517, is the day that Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses (statements) to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Why did he do this, and what happened because of it?
The 95 Theses outlined what Luther believed were errors that had crept into the Roman Catholic Church. The main catalyst for his statements was the sale of indulgences in the region. Some were saying that by purchasing these indulgences, people could buy the forgiveness of sins for themselves or others. Luther stated in Thesis #1: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt. 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In other words, buying a piece of paper doesn’t free anyone from sin or from the responsibility to acknowledge sin.
The 95 Theses were soon translated from Latin into German, and copies were circulated in Germany and throughout Europe. To his surprise, Luther became a sort of overnight celebrity (well, it did take a little longer than that). He had not intended to lead a reformation of the church. In fact, he believed at that time he was doing the pope a favor by pointing out these abuses. If the pope knew what was going on, Luther thought, he would surely address and settle the issue. But the pope was not pleased. He had authorized the sale of these indulgences in Germany to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Before long, Luther realized he didn’t have many allies among the leaders of the church. Even the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, wanted him to be quieted. In 1521, Luther was ordered to appear before the emperor and to recant, or take back, everything he had written to that point. This was not something Luther thought he could do. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he said. “I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” For his stand, Luther was excommunicated from the church, declared an outlaw, and fully expected to be imprisoned or killed. But he lived another twenty-five years, dying in 1546.
Among his many writings Luther is perhaps best known for his Small Catechism (published in 1529), which is a basic summary of the Bible’s teaching. It is still used for instruction by Lutherans today. His translation of the entire Bible into German was published in 1534, enjoying acclaim and longevity in Germany similar to the impact the King James Version of the Bible had among English speakers. He also wrote a number of hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Luther certainly wasn’t perfect, and he never claimed to be. He trusted in Jesus alone for his salvation from sin and death. This is clearly expressed in one of his well-known prayers: “You, my Lord Jesus, are my righteousness; I am Your sin. You have taken from me what is mine and have given me what is Yours. You became what You were not and made me to be what I was not. Amen.”
– Rev. Peter Faugstad