October 31 For many people the month and the day mean one thing only; a celebration of a pagan holiday where hyperactive children are given insane amounts of free sugar and adults find yet another reason to practice debauchery that society views as normal on that day. But, when you place the year 1517 behind the month and the date, it should bring a whole new meaning to the combination of the month and the day.
Before one can understand the full importance of that date, a little historical background should be provided. At this time in history, Europeans had only one choice for church attendance, the local church in their village with a priest, a monk, or a bishop which practiced under the guidance and polity of the universal Church of Rome. During this time, the Church placed a massive emphasis upon the sins of the people and their impending judgement in purgatory or hell. One of the Church authorized means of relieving ones self from the punishment of sin and of guilt was for the sinner to practice the sacrament of penance as assigned to them by their priest. After a priest would hear confession of sins from a parishioner and witness contrition for the sins committed, absolution for the sins was granted by the priest. However, the process was not over yet for the sinner still would need to provide satisfaction for the confessed sins as prescribed by the priest. Usually the satisfaction of the penitent involved fasting, giving alms, or saying a specific prayer a certain number of times. If the sins were more severe, you could be asked to satisfy them by going on a long pilgrimage or on a crusade.
Over time, the Church’s system of penance adopted a new development. They began to allow people to pay penance for the satisfaction of their sins. This practice was a win-win situation for the Church and the penitent; money for the Church and satisfaction for the sinner without the inconvenience of time spent on prayers and pilgrimages. When the Church would receive money for sins committed they would issue to the sinner an official document of the Church that would acknowledge the payment of monies and give the sinner release from any further appointed practice of satisfaction. The official document or papal ticket would become known as an indulgence. The practice of buying and selling indulgences quickly took hold. One of the other practices involved with indulgences was that they could also be purchased for friends and relatives who had already died, thus relieving the amount of time they would have to spend in purgatory.
With that background set, we can now look at the importance of October 31, 1517. In the country of Germany at that time, in the vicinity of Wittenburg, there was an indulgence seller named Johann Tetzel. He was a high pressure salesman who had catchy jingle for his indulgences that went something like this, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” As Tetzel’s indulgence selling neared the very gates of Wittenburg, he unknowingly was about to receive the ire of a young monk who lived in Wittenburg. A young monk by the name of Martin Luther.
For a few years now, Luther had been practicing a slightly different religion then what the standard European church would practice. He had come under the grip of the Holy Word of God, specifically Romans 1:17 “The righteous will live by faith” and had been guided by the Spirit to see that his life’s practice of works righteousness could never compare to the sufficiency of Christ alone. In later years Luther would say this of his conversion, “My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement 'the just shall live by faith.' Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning...This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”
This recently converted monk began to see the abuses of the universal Church. He understood they impact of souls being eternally damned to Hell through the practices of buying and selling indulgences. As Tetzel neared the gates of Wittenburg, Luther took pen in hand and wrote ninety-five statements of abuse by the Church of Rome. On the thirty-first day of October, Martin took those ninety-five theses and nailed them to the door of Wittenburg Castle for all to read. With that single action, he sparked a flame that would soon sweep all of Europe in a firestorm. For that one nail held the convictions that would soon unite the reformers of the past with those who were yet to come, and it allowed the present reformers to stand and proclaim the light of the true Gospel, Christ alone.
So, while this is all well and good and yes, we can nod our heads and say that we are thankful for the early reformers like Luther, what can we take from this event in history and hold on to and make our own? I believe there are many and while my list is not exhaustive, I will share a few.
The story of the Reformation reminds me of the importance of prayer. Almost every time I read about the early reformers, I am reminded of a term that almost made me cringe the first time I heard it, posthumous joy. Picture it this way. Let us say that in the twelfth century AD there lived an old man who had been enlightened with the true joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There was not much he could do but pray for the Gospel to continue to be illuminated to the lost and dying around him, but pray he did. He prayed for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to come and to start a revival that would sweep through the Church and bring many to Jesus. He prayed faithfully from the day of his conversion until the day of his death and never saw that revival come. Now picture that same man in Heaven as centuries later or in eternity future he sees God’s sovereign hand answering the prayers of the faithful as the Reformation begins. Picture that man walking with Luther and John Huss in Glory and saying, “I prayed you would come and God faithfully answered my prayers.” Imagine then the posthumous joy of the saints of God as they glorify the One who is Faithful and True. We are never promised an answer to our prayers in our lifetime, but we are commanded to pray. James 5:16b
The second thing I am reminded of is the power of Scripture. Luther was one of the most devoted followers of man-made religious practices, but it was God’s Word that moved within him and planted the seed that sovereignly grew into Salvation. Hebrews 4:12
I also think of the faithfulness of God and how He fulfills His promises to us. Christ promised that His church would stand and the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. At times in the darkness of the middle ages and at various times in history, it appears as if thought the Church has disappeared or almost destroyed. But God kept His promise and He will continue to do so. Hebrews 10:23
Finally, I am reminded of how thankful I truly am for Jesus Christ. When I look at all of the man-made devices of “salvation,” I am in awe of the sufficiency of Christ alone. If I was left to find my own means of salvation I would never make it. There is nothing I could do that would be enough to make up for what I have done. There is nothing I can add that helps save me a little bit more. It only upon Christ that my hope rests and I am so thankful that it is the only way. Hebrews 4:14-16
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