This year, while most people are out at Halloween parties or trick-or-treating, a few of us will be celebrating another October 31st holiday: Reformation Day. October 31, 2014 marks the 497th anniversary of the day when Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses (Oct. 31, 1517), an event of profound significance for all subsequent Western history. The traditional story is that Luther himself nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, though it is more likely that servants of the university posted copies of the 95 Theses on church doors all over town at Luther’s direction; Luther himself sent a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz the same day, enclosing a copy of the 95 Theses with the letter. Quite to Luther’s surprise, his 95 Theses were translated to German, printed, and disseminated throughout Germany within two weeks. In two months, travelers had spread copies of the 95 Theses throughout Europe.
Luther’s 95 Theses were a call for reform and debate within the Roman Catholic Church, which at the time was known simply as “the church” throughout most of Europe. Nowhere do the 95 Theses issue a call to break away from the Roman See and found a new Christian denomination; but when Luther’s proposed reforms were rejected by the ecclesiastical authorities—and especially after the pope had excommunicated him—he saw no alternative to organizing an independent church.
Pope Leo X (reigned 1513–1521), a member of the powerful Medici banking family, never took Luther seriously. His dismissal of Luther’s call to return to the Bible as the sole authoritative basis for Christian doctrine and practice helped to inflame the Protestant Reformation. Pope Clement VII (reigned 1523–1534), another member of the Medici family, also aided Luther’s cause by supporting the French king—and even the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent—against Emperor Charles V, whose power he feared. It was not until 1546 that Charles V was finally ready to take strong action against the Protestants, by which time it was too late.
For Protestant Christians, however, the success of the Reformation which Luther began is ultimately to be attributed to the power of God’s Holy Spirit, working in the hearts of individual people, to bring about spiritual revival. Luther’s study of the Scriptures led him to the conclusion that an individual’s right standing with God comes through belief in the gospel, as an act of divine grace, but can never be obtained by the works which the church taught were necessary to increase one’s merit (see Rom 1:16-17; 10:9-10; Eph 2:8-9). As Luther progressed in his study of the Scriptures, he concluded that many other teachings and practices of the church were also contrary to the Bible. The rallying cries of the Reformation were Sola fide! (By faith alone!) and Sola scriptura! (By the Scripture alone!).
As a Protestant Christian, I thank God for the work of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, who suffered greatly for their call to return to the gospel of salvation by faith apart from works, and to bring the teachings of the church back into conformity with the Bible.