Reformation day is significant for many Christians and stands as a landmark in Church History. It reminds us that we should constantly be looking to learn about the faith of those before our time, and how doing so is both necessary and relevant to understanding culture, our faith, and the world around us.
An Overshadowed Holiday
‘Tis the season of spooks and ghouls; costumes and candy; tricks and treats. The last day October is well-known as the day of scary décor and the only time it’s appropriate to take candy from strangers, called Halloween. However, while many in our culture are enjoying tootsie rolls and popcorn balls, and hiking from neighbor to neighbor, a smaller portion of people remember another major event which took place on Oct. 31: Reformation day.
Some of you may have at least an inkling of knowledge about this event, and that in the 16th century, on this very day, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the doors of Castle Church, starting the Protestant Reformation.
However, this act was not done out of impulse, but rather, was one of great faith. Furthermore, it was not just a single event, but rather, sparked the reformation, movement that would have lasting results.
Luther’s Early Life
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father was a successful miner, eventually rising to own the mines he worked in, providing Luther with the opportunity to pursue a career and have a prosperous life.
Luther initially studied to become a lawyer, a respected vocation. However, the course of his life took a drastic turn. One day, while Luther was walking, a horrible storm hit. Fearing for his life, he swore that if God saved him he would become a monk. Luther survived the storm, and thus, reluctantly became a monk.
He joined the Augustinian Order at Erfurt, where he greatly wrestled in his faith. He could be heard at night arguing with Satan and God. He was taught that to please God and earn his grace, he had to be perfect and love God above all else. However, he hated God. He was close to hating the church. He struggled with the pressure and weight of feeling like he had to achieve righteousness to be right with God, unable to love a God who he felt was condemning him. He was sent on a pilgrimage to Rome by his spiritual father. It was here where he first began to see the corruption of the church, mainly in the form of indulgences.
Injustice and Outrage
Indulgences came about because of a fundraising campaign. Some people fund-raise by selling cookie dough or wrapping paper. Pope Leo X sold release from purgatory.
Purgatory is believed to be a period of punishment and suffering sinners went through before their souls could move into heaven. It was the cause of great fear for many; people would do anything to not become a barbecued kebab or suffering sojourner in the afterlife.
The pope used this to his advantage. There weren’t copies of Scripture available to the common person. Most copies were in Latin, so only scholars and church leaders could understand the text. For biblical guidance, the people relied on the leaders of the church to tell them the truth. And this is where corruption crept in. The church could pretty say and declare whatever they wanted, and they would be believed.
There were Muslim Turks on the brink of invading, and people were looking to the church for strength. Those inside the church were looking towards papal authority for reform, knowing the church needed a change. Pope Leo X felt the way to do this was to build St. Peter’s Basilica, as a symbolic beacon of the church’s strength.
Because you know, it’s not like Jesus doesn’t represent the core and strength of the church or anything.
However, this building project was quite expensive, and hence the selling of indulgences, and the work of John Tetzel.
Tetzel was a priest commissioned to sell these indulgences, traveling from village to village in Germany, twisting Scripture and scaring the villagers into given as much money as they could to save their souls and the souls of their loved ones. He spoke the famous line “when a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
While the selling of indulgences was outlawed in Wittenberg, people would travel to nearby towns to hear Tetzel speak and buy these indulgences. The people had no way to check that this practice was true or Scriptural, as only the church leaders had access to Scripture, and so the people only had the choice to trust that this was true.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
A little before this fundraising campaign went into full swing in Germany, Luther had come back from Rome still struggling with the faith and church. He was sent to Wittenberg to become a professor of theology at the young University of Wittenberg, and while there began to study Romans. From his study, he began to see that the teachings of the church were different than that of Scripture. He saw that God freely justifies by faith, and that released him from this burden of being perfect. Around 1514 Luther became a born-again Christian.
Luther had caught wind of the indulgences being sold, and couldn’t stand to see the church leaders abusing the trust of the people. The selling of indulgences diminished the free gift of salvation, of which Luther himself had finally embraced. So, Luther wrote.
The 95 Theses
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church. The pounding of his hammer didn’t just resonant in the courtyard, but well into the future of Christ’s church.
These theses spread widely. Soon the theses were translated from Latin to German, and copies were made and spread. Within a few weeks, copies were spread throughout Germany. Within a couple months, they had spread throughout Europe. The reluctant monk of Germany fed the fires of reformation.
However, it wasn’t Luther alone who started the reformation. If he did this on his own he would be no better than the pope trying to reform the church through building St. Peter’s Basilica. The papal saw earthly things as the way to bring life by into the church, money, buildings, people. However, Luther was spurned by the Holy Spirit because he knew it was the Word of the Lord that could inspire reform.
The Significance and Importance of Church History
When we learn about church history, it is not just a list of people and events that had some significance. These people are our brothers and sisters, and these events were inspired by the Holy Spirit to shape the church we know and experience today.
Protestants are really bad about studying the history of the church. Sure, every so often we will quote one of these holy giant’s writings on Facebook or use a little anecdote from their lives to illustrate a point in a sermon, but do we take the time to learn their stories, learn their hearts, see God’s presence in their lives? Knowing the full story humanizes history. Martin Luther actually lived. He struggled. He sinned. He was a man. But he is also our brother in Christ. He’s family.
We learn a lot about the history of our country. I can name the first fourteen presidents in order, tell you the important events leading up to the revolutionary war, the political issues involved in the Civil War, the date JFK was assassinated. But until recently, I didn’t know many of the major events which helped shape the church. There were councils where people would discuss the basic principle we know as truth, and these people had to stand and proclaim it. People debated over the deity of Christ, the three-in-oneness of the Trinity, the source of salvation- basic principles and beliefs that we almost take for granted.
When we take the time to see how many of the staples of the church were made, we can begin to grasp how God is at work constantly. The formation of the church didn’t end with Paul. The Holy Spirit wasn’t just working in the time of the apostles and then jumped to the 20th century. God has been at work since the beginning, and He never left us for a moment. He has been working in the hearts of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, just as He stirred in the heart of Martin Luther centuries ago.
He hasn’t stopped working in us either. The church is still present, still active because God is active. Believers make up the church. Corruption in the church and society is not new. There have always been people who speak lies, and whether it be by selfish gain or mislead thinking, influencing the church negatively. We can even see this is Scripture, with Paul writing and guiding many churches back to the truth. If there is one thing church history teaches us, it is that when there are people speaking falsehoods about the Lord, there will be those who the Lord raises up to teach His Truth. We are raised to speak truth.
On this Reformation Day, remember how the Lord is eternal, how He is continually at work, and how He is always present. Maybe take some time to read up on some lives of great Christian men and women who lived for the faith. See what God did for them, and remember He is the same God who works through us. We are a part of history, and not just the history of mankind, but of the eternal kingdom of Heaven. We have a greater purpose. We are the church. Let our hammers resonate.
Now go eat a Halloween Kit-Kat while reading a Martin Luther Biography in a Darth Vader costume.
“I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.” – Psalm 77:11
Poets and Saints by Jamie George
A Concise History of Christian Thought by Tony Lane
This Day in History: Martin Luther at www.history.com/this-day-in-history/martin-luther-posts-95-theses
Danielle Crowley is a staff writer at the Daily Runner.