While small super heroes and tiny princesses are parading around during Halloween, it is appropriate for Christians to reflect upon another October 31st event, the birth of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 an Augustinian German Monk named Martin Luther nailed to the door at Wittenberg his 95 thesis (issues he had with the Catholic Church). The 95 thesis are not particularly revolutionary in themselves. Initially very few people paid any attention to what Luther wrote. It is highly unlikely Luther even considered hammering his work as a spectacular event. Yet, history bears witness to tumultuous consequences and blessings of his action. When we reflect back on Luther and on the Reformation, we are celebrating three things: living by faith, Scripture over tradition, and giving God all the glory.
Living by Faith
Prior to his revelation from Scripture, Luther operated under the belief that good works would merit salvation. The German Monk’s conscience was uneasy with this proposition. No matter how disciplined he was, how many good works he performed, or prayers he made, Luther was condemned by sin. Every good work was tainted. Every action was infected with selfishness. If salvation were in his own hands, Luther believed he was condemned already. The revolutionary change in Luther’s thinking came from Romans 1:17. In Romans 1:17 Luther believed he found the heartbeat of the gospel—the righteous shall live by faith. Those who would be righteous need not trust in good works but must live by faith. Therefore, Luther challenged the Pope’s authority to forgive and remit sins (thesis 5). Nothing but faith in Christ alone could save humanity. This tenet of the Reformation would come to be known as Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Celebrating the Reformation means celebrating the forgiveness by faith alone.
Scripture Over Tradition
While Luther was contemplating Sola Fide, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican Monk, was selling indulgences to the masses. Tetzel became known for his famous couplet:
“As Soon Coin in the Coffer Rings,
a Soul From Purgatory Springs.”
Unbaptized babies, those who died without full grace, anyone with earthly attachments, they all were candidates for an extended stay in purgatory. Purgatory was a place for the purging of sin and earthly attachments, in order to make one fit for heaven. Fortunately, the faithful on earth could buy purgatorians a fast pass to heaven—an indulgence.
Luther, who wasn’t known for his quaint rhyme scheme (see A Mighty Fortress), took issue with Tetzel and the indulgence scheme. Once one accepted salvation by faith alone, good works could no longer merit salvation. For Luther, Scripture trumped the tradition of purgatory. No tradition was a greater authority than Scripture itself. The Bible for Reformers was the only infallible, inerrant, and sufficient source for faith and practice. Any church tradition that did not line up with Scripture needed to be reformed. Luther’s belief in going back to the source, the Bible, became known as Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). To reflect on the Reformation means opening the Word of God and allowing its infallible authority to change our lives.
Giving God the Glory
When Bach and Handel wrote their magnificent pieces, they would sign Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone). Every work, every action, every day for the Christian is given fully and entirely to the glory of God. Once a sinner, now redeemed by Jesus’s own blood, the believer lives his life for God’s glory. Celebrating the Reformation means celebrating a great change in the human heart. The motive of good works is no longer one of fear. Through Jesus, the believer is able to perform good works out of love.
Ultimately, celebrating the Reformation is sweeter than the occasional Trick or Treat on October 31st. We are not just remembering those who gave their lives in defense of the Christian faith. We are not just celebrating 500 years history. We are giving thanks for Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins. We no longer need to mask ourselves behind a thin veil of good works. We need not pretend to be anything other than what we are – sinners in need of grace. As believers in Christ, we walk by faith knowing that Scripture declares Jesus died for sins. Today when you remember the Reformation, don’t just be thankful for some list of historical facts. The men and women of the Reformation, who gave their lives so we could practice our faith freely, lived to the glory of God. All of humanity can be saved by grace through faith alone (sola fide) according to the Scriptures (sola scriptura) to the glory of God the Father (soli deo gloria).
Pastor Summerville First Baptist, married to Danielle, father of four, PhD student @SWBTS, MDiv SWBTS 2012, BA Theatre OSU