I am not a big fan of Halloween, but I am a big fan of history, so I have to say I am looking forward to next Tuesday. It will be a special celebration of Reformation Day, the term some Christians prefer to call October 31, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on that date in 1517.
It’s not often you get to celebrate a 500th anniversary of anything, especially such a monumental event as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In so many ways, Luther’s act changed the world, though it was hardly his intent. As one writer said it, “He thought he was starting a theological debate. Instead, he ignited a revolution.”
Luther sought to spark a discussion about certain religious teachings and practices of the Roman Church, of which he was a part and from which he never intended to break. When he nailed his thoughts and complaints on the church door it was probably akin to posting an article on social media today. He expected some arguments from his opposition and perhaps some lively debate, but he had no idea the fire it would ignite.
I am surprised how few people these days really know much about Luther, and his contribution to Christian thought and to western civilization as we know it. He wasn’t just a guy with a denomination named after him, or a hymn writer who penned the famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He was also a monk, and priest, and Bible translator and theologian. And, in time, a revolutionary.
Luther first joined an Augustinian monastery when he was 21 years old, disappointing his father who wanted him to study to be a lawyer. His days as a monk were long, and filled with prayer and singing, meditation and study, and religious activity on every side. As one biographer wrote, he joined the monastery to save his soul. But even with all the religious duty and daily sacraments, he still struggled to find forgiveness for his sins and to fill his sense of emptiness inside.
That’s when, in studying the Scriptures, he came to understand that he was striving in all the wrong directions and had been missing the basic tenet of New Testament Christianity; namely that salvation comes by grace through faith alone. He had been trying to work his way to God and find justification by keeping the law, but came to understand that the gospel rested not on what he did, but what Christ had done for him.
Having come to personal faith in Jesus, Luther began to also see many of the other questionable doctrines he had been taught in the church, and soon began to follow his Master’s steps by turning over a few tables, at least figuratively speaking. His “protests,” and the theological arguments that they produced over the next several years, almost cost him his life. It also led to a revolution of religious thought, a reformation of the church that had barely survived the Dark Ages, and a liberation of those in bondage to religion.
The reality is, most of the truths that Luther taught–and many of those 95 theses he posted that fateful All Hallow’s Eve–are almost old hat to us today. We assume things like faith and grace and the authority of Scripture and the centrality of Christ, and well we should, since they are grounded in the word of God. But we must not forget the importance of the simple gospel and those who stood with great courage, refusing to allow it to be compromised.
Next week, we’ll begin a five-week sermon and Life Group study of the “Solas” of the Reformation, the foundational truths on which Luther’s revolution was built. I hope you can be with us for every week of this important study. I also hope you enjoy celebrating the revolution of the reformation this week. Happy Reformation Day!