Unbeknownst to many, the most important occasion on October 31 every year is not Halloween. No,really – it’s Reformation Day.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the Wittenburg Church door calling out the Roman Catholic Church on many of its abuses and corruptions. Luther had no intention at the time of leaving the church, much less starting a denomination that would be named after him. But Luther’s simple request to dialogue about dealing with these abuses would become the catalyst for a reformation in the church that would rock the Christian world and split the church apart.
For those of you who aren’t inclined to church history as I am, why does Reformation Day matter? Why not just put on your Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton costume and get to work collecting candy? There are numerous reasons why this historical event still matters, but allow me to suggest just one.
Fast forward to April of 1521 in a German city called Worms (not pronounced “worms,” but “vorms”). By this point Luther had become a celebrity. His books couldn’t stay on the shelf and he had become a huge thorn in the side of the great Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was named “God’s Viceroy on Earth” and was a fierce defender of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was in Worms because he was being tried for heresy. In this time period things don’t go well for heretics. What were the accusations, you ask? That he believed the Bible was the ultimate authority and that a sinner who trusts in Christ alone for salvation would be saved, apart from works.
The Roman Catholic Church believed that grace was dispersed through the sacraments and that one must continue to take the sacraments if one wanted to be right with God. Assurance of salvation was non-existent and, in fact, the church had been selling indulgences to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. An indulgence was a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment for some types of sins, and by this time included paying for the forgiveness of sins for relatives who were already dead.
On April 17, 1521, Luther was escorted before the Holy Roman Emperor with stacks of his books laid out on a table. He was told that he had been summoned to acknowledge whether or not these were his books and, if they were, whether he would recant of his teachings. Luther admitted that the books were his, but in a moment of anxiety he asked for another day to decide whether he would recant or not.
It seemed that Luther had caved in to the pressure. I mean, who could blame him? He new that not recanting would lead, no doubt, to his burning at the stake. The following evening, Luther was brought back before the emperor and asked once again whether he would recant. By this time the hall was packed with on-lookers and torches were lit because it was dark out.
The timid Luther from the day before was nowhere to be found. He said in a firm voice that he would not retract his teaching against the false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Asked one more time whether he would recant he said,
“I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”
Luther staked his life on the Word of God. The Scriptures were his ultimate authority. They were an authority over feelings, over reason, over traditions and over the church. Everything was to submit to the Word of God. This was the root of the Reformation. As Luther, and those like him, began reading and submitting to the Scriptures that taught on salvation and grace, their lives were turned upside down. They couldn’t go back to the way things were.
We live in a day where truth is what you want it to be. The authorities of our culture are reason and feelings. It seems like there is tolerance for everyone in our world but Christians. We are now being called before the cultural powers and asked to recant of our beliefs as Luther was.
What is our response going to be? Are we going to cave to the cultural pressure or are we going to stand for the authority of God’s Word and the gospel? Does the Reformation still matter? Absolutely! There is “nothing new under the sun” and we can learn from the faithful saints that have gone before us. Christ Chapel is indebted to the men and women in the sixteenth century who stood for the authority of God’s Word and justification by faith alone. What Reformation Day does is give us a chance to pause and remember how profoundly we’ve been shaped by the events of this period and allow us to offer a prayer of gratitude to God for the faithfulness of these brothers and sisters in Christ.