When someone mentions October 31 our minds are most likely conditioned to think about Halloween, pumpkins, scary costumes, hayrides, or, best of all, candy. But the day is also remembered by many throughout the world for an entirely different reason.
If you were to find yourself in any of the participating German states on October 31 of any given year, you would discover that most places of business are closed in observance of Reformation Day. The public holiday celebrated in Germany commemorates the act by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther, when, on October 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg. Luther was not seeking to be provocative. Instead, he was troubled by what he saw as he witnessed spokesmen for the church (most notably, John Tetzel) abusing indulgences and manipulating the masses for personal gain. So Luther wanted to talk about it. He wanted to discuss how the practice was being carried out. But Luther was not ready to deny the veracity of indulgences, only how they were being abused.
Tetzel, his chief nemesis in this controversy, became infamous for coercing many ignorant and unsuspecting sensitive souls into purchasing documents guaranteeing remission of sin. The shrewd Tetzel accomplished this, in part, by using emotional phrases such as, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” And, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
For Luther, the main issues against Tetzel and the way in which he was selling of indulgences included an objection to the extent of what an indulgence can offer and a denial of the powers of the pope over purgatory. Luther contended Tetzel went too far and promised too much in each instance.
Anyone looking to Luther’s document hoping to find any of the traditional Protestant tenets might be disappointed. There is nothing particularly “reformed” in his Theses. There is no mention of the doctrine of justification or discussion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, no language commenting on the doctrines of grace, nor is there any indication of the idea of sola Scriptura. All of those biblical concepts had yet to fully germinate in Luther’s mind. It would take time before the German monk came to realize that the entire system of indulgences was contrary to Scriptures. Eventually, he wrote condemningly of the system he once naturally embraced:
“Indulgences are not a pious fraud, but an infernal, diabolical, antichristian fraud, larceny, and robbery, whereby the Roman Nimrod and teacher of sin peddles sin and hell to the whole world and sucks and entices away everybody’s money as the price of this unspeakable harm.”
Yet, October 31, 1517 is still considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s Theses-the words that sparked the movement to recover the purity of the apostolic message that was largely forgotten in medieval Christianity-started a revolution within the church that could never be undone. “Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it,” he began his document, troubled over the abuses inherent in the church into which he was born and had devoted his life. The “concern for the truth” eventually culminated in his radical understanding of the nature of grace and faith. He never felt at peace with God until he quit trying to merit God’s favor and embraced Him through faith. Luther spent decades in torment and fear before he could proclaim with the apostle Paul: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).
It wasn’t until Luther finally came out of the Roman Catholic Church and her insistence upon works as the basis, in part, of his righteous standing before God that he experienced the peace of which the Bible proclaims.