While most of the world will observe Halloween with its ghosts, goblins and practices which have their roots in the pagan beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Europe, a few of us observe October 31 for another reason.
It was on that day in 1517 — on All Hallow’s Eve (the evening before All Saint’s Day) — a German priest and monk nailed 95 theses or statements to the community bulletin board of the day, the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. And the posting of those statements, meant to challenge and encourage debate over the sale of indulgences in the German lands, was the spark which led to the Lutheran Reformation — an event which changed the world.
It’s hard for us today to even imagine a time when church members were not allowed to own or read the Bible, when the church hierarchy and especially the head bishop (or pope) determined what was to be taught in the churches and rejected the central message of the Bible, when those who translated the Bible into the language of the people or taught what the Bible says were declared heretics and burned at the stake, when the head bishop and his hierarchy could determine whose sins were forgiven and whose were not, and when forgiveness could be bought from the church through the sale of indulgences. But this is the way the Western Church — the Roman Church — was in the 15th and early 16th Centuries. And, in fact, this sad state of affairs in Europe had been so already for centuries before.
And it was into this setting that Dr. Martin Luther — not to be confused with Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights advocate of the last century — lived. Fearing for his own soul, for he knew he was a sinner, Luther became a monk and later a priest and university professor. As such, he was privileged to read for himself the Bible and teach it to his students and parishioners. But Luther found that the teaching of the Bible and the doctrine of the Roman Church were far from the same.
Through the prayerful study of the Scriptures, Luther learned that no one was righteous or could be acceptable in God’s eyes by his own works or life “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Nothing that a person could do was enough to satisfy God’s just wrath against sin. But he also learned that all are “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Jesus Christ, by His holy life and innocent sufferings and death, made atonement for the sins of the whole world and rose again. He “was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
Thus, Luther, who was so troubled over his own sins and shortcomings in keeping God’s commandments and pleasing God that he abused and punished himself, found comfort for his soul. He found his hope in the Gospel, which reveals the righteousness of God which is ours through faith in Christ Jesus (cf. Romans 1:16-17). He came to know and believe “that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
He realized the Roman Church was wrong when it taught that people had to do good works assigned by the church to be saved. He knew that the indulgences the Roman Church was selling to raise money could offer no forgiveness and were entirely contrary to the teaching of the Bible. And He knew that the popes and the bishops and priests had no authority to preach and teach anything but the Word of God — the Bible.
Thus, beginning with his 95 Theses, Luther began calling the people and their churches back to the Bible as the only source and judge of all Christian teaching and to its central message, that salvation is by God’s grace alone, for the sake of Christ’s redemption alone, and is received through faith alone.
Later, when facing the likelihood of being put to death for his teaching, Luther was called upon to recant and take back all his teachings and writings which were contrary to the Roman Church and its hierarchy. He is said to have replied: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Luther’s stand for the truth of God’s Word and his preaching of the true and saving Gospel which had for centuries been silenced has brought blessings to us all, whether we realize it or not. Because of his stand and his translating work, we can read and study our Bibles today. And we can and should use our Bible as the only source of truth and with it judge what is taught to us in Bible classes and preached to us from pulpits. And through the preaching of God’s Word by Luther and others who have followed in his steps, we still can hear today that though we are sinners unworthy and guilty before God, we are justified and forgiven for the sake of Christ Jesus and His innocent sufferings and death in our stead, and that this grace and forgiveness won for us by Christ is ours, not by works, but through faith alone in Christ Jesus, our Savior!
Now that’s a great reason to observe the day!