Happy Reformation Day!
I don't celebrate Halloween. Never have. There are lots of reasons why, none of which I would want to legislate on someone else. Here are the top three:
1. Halloween was absolutely restricted in my house growing up, so I have no nostalgia attached to this dark "holiday."
2. I'm not into spooky stuff. It's not my thing. Never has been. Never will be. I don't like horror movies for the same reason I don't like super spicy foods: when I'm trying to enjoy myself, I don't want to be uncomfortable.
3. My wife grew up the same way, so we have no interest in celebrating Halloween as a holiday.
To be sure, there are other, more personal reasons. But despite my ambivalence toward Halloween, I still get really excited about October 31st. Why, you ask? Because it's Reformation Day!
This year, we will celebrate the 503rd anniversary of one of the most significant events in church history. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. This action kickstarted the historical period we now know as the Protestant Reformation.
Why Did We Need the Protestant Reformation?
By Luther's time in the 16th century, the Christian church had descended into a crisis of irreligion. There was no such thing as Protestantism, only Catholicism. And the Catholic Church had become corrupt. Priests and the papacy had taken to selling indulgences, which was a sign of their wholesale rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Under the indulgence system, one could essentially buy themselves into heaven by purchasing religious tokens from Rome in exchange for pardon or absolution of sins. If you had a relative who was waiting in purgatory for a chance to enter heaven, many Catholics believed, you could buy a lock of the virgin Mary's hair or a piece of Jesus' funeral shroud and buy down your relative's sentence. The popular refrain could be heard about the European world: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."
To protect their commitment to corruption, the papacy shielded access to the Scriptures from the public. Despite the radical, world-changing invention of the printing press roughly 75 years earlier, most laypersons did not own a Bible written in their language. If they had a Bible to read, they would have learned that justification by works and, therefore, indulgences stood in opposition to the truth of the gospel.
To be fair, Luther did not really start the Protestant Reformation. God had been working through a faithful remnant for centuries. John Wycliffe translated the Scriptures into English in the 14th century, earning his condemnation as a "heretic" after his death on New Years' Eve of 1384. He is often called "The Morning Star of the Reformation."
Wycliffe's Czech contemporary, Jan Hus, preached against the corruption of the Catholic Church and publicly and powerfully proclaimed the gospel through both the spoken and written word. He was executed on July 6, 1415, which resulted in a series of wars across Bohemia for more than 20 years. His last words tell a fascinating and powerful story.
"Hus’ last words are important. He declared that he would die trusting in the gospel that he had proclaimed and taught. Then he told his executioners that they could burn the goose (his surname means “goose” in Czech), but a hundred years later, a swan would come whom they would be incapable of killing" (source).
He was right! One hundred and two years later, deeply impacted and influenced by the writings of Hus, Martin Luther continued the work of these two great men by opposing the Catholic Church at Wittenberg.
Luther was a German monk who had no interest in leaving the Catholic Church, but rather, sought to reform it into the image of the Scriptures and the gospel. Luther had begun to preach the true gospel of justification by faith. The document known as the Ninety-Five Theses contained 95 short declarations that opposed the teaching and practice of the papacy, calling Church leadership to repent and reform.
The document, written in Latin, was quickly translated into German, published, and widely circulated. The fire that would burn throughout the western world and create what we now know as Protestantism was lit on October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany.
Why is the Protestant Reformation Still Important?
To put the answer bluntly and succinctly, without the work of God through men like Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, (and later) John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and others, our church would not exist. Our understanding of the Scriptures would likely be deformed or nonexistent.
Some have said the Luther "rescued the gospel." I would not go that far. The gospel was never in danger. It has always been and will always be "the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). The gospel has always been true and powerful and it will never fail to be so. But the proclamation of the gospel had been ignored, suppressed, opposed, and even corrupted by the leadership of the Church. And God used courageous men like Luther to awaken the church to a right understanding of sound doctrine.
To this day, the Catholic Church still believes in justification by faith AND works (see pages 66–74 of this document). And the Protestant Church still believes in justification by faith alone through grace alone for the glory of God alone.
Praise God for Martin Luther and his courageous, faithful, Spirit-empowered bravery.
Praise God for other men and women who have been willing to oppose false doctrines for centuries.
Praise God for the faithful "cloud of witnesses" that have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1) and have lit the way for us to walk.
Praise God that He uses ordinary people to accomplish His purposes throughout the world.
So, why don't you join me in celebrating God's goodness throughout history?
Surely, Reformation Day is a MUCH better holiday than Halloween!