For many people, October 31st is a day to dress up in costumes and travel from door to door asking for candy. In some traditions, it is even required that kids tell a joke before receiving candy! For many Christians, especially those of the Lutheran tradition, October 31st is Reformation Day. On this day we celebrate God’s work through his servant, Martin Luther, to preserve the message of the gospel as the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through faith alone.
As many of us likely know, on October 31st, 1517 tradition holds that Martin Luther nailed 95 theses or disputes on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, the location of the University at which he taught. The theses were written against the teachings of indulgences, purgatory, and other beliefs and practices of the church that were inconsistent with the clear teaching of the Bible. As a pastor of Wittenberg’s Town Church, Luther was concerned about the large number of believers who no longer came to confession and would justify this with the indulgence that they bought. Indulgences were slips of paper, sold by officials of the church and signed by the pope. These slips of paper granted God’s forgiveness of sins and reduced time in purgatory for the purchaser. The church was selling God’s gift of forgiveness of sins that was intended to be free!
Luther’s resistance to the practice of indulgences and others was seen as a threat by the leaders of the church and led many in the Christian church at the time to disagree with him. The church eventually labeled him as a heretic and excommunicated him. As a result, Luther took his reform movement outside of the church in order to preserve the true teachings of Scripture. The Reformation movement and indeed the whole Christian church are founded on the following biblical teachings:
At the center of the Christian faith is the assurance that salvation is based on the unearned free gift of God’s grace. Though we are sinners, disobedient children, deserving of God’s wrath and anger, we receive the riches of his love and forgiveness.
God’s gift of grace is received through faith in what Jesus has done for us. Our good works and the good things that we do flow out of having a right relationship with God, but these good things do not have the power to make us right with God. In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9). This is the teaching that separates Christianity from all other world religions. Other religions point to what we have to do in order to be made right with God. Christianity points to what Jesus has done for us to make us right with God. Through God’s Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, our faith is created and sustained.
The Bible is the inspired Word of God. It alone is the source for what we believe and what we practice in the Christian church. All other gifts that God has given to us and to the church such as tradition, experience, and human reason function to serve our understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, the Scriptures are used to judge the validity of these things, not the other way around.
Our basis and assurance of salvation is the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. Christianity is both inclusive and exclusive. The Gospel writer John tells us that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6).
During the month of October I encourage you to take some time to remember Reformation Day the core teachings of Christianity that were preserved by God through Martin Luther. Be comforted by the fact that God continues to work through particular people in particular places to turn people from sin and error so that they might flee for refuge and safety in the cleft of the rock of Jesus Christ alone. Take solace in the truth that God continues to curb you from sin and error and preserve your life in Christ alone through his holy Word and Sacraments. As Luther said in stanza two of his famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: “For us fights the valiant one, whom God himself elected. Ask ye, who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of sabaoth Lord. And there’s none other God; he holds the field forever.”