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"Nailed It": Martin Luther and Reformation Day

Most Americans know October 31 as Halloween, but for Protestant Christians, it also is known as “Reformation Day,” as on October 31, 1517, the German monk Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses (statements) about the Christian faith onto the door on the church in Wittenburg, Germany for consideration and conversation (nailing stuff on church doors was a way to spark debate). This event typically is seen as the beginning of what is called the Reformation, in which individuals and groups throughout Europe sought to reform the practices and beliefs of the Christian church according to what they were finding as they read the Bible (and as they read earlier church leaders like Augustine). These European groups became different denominations (Lutherans, Reformed, etc.) once it became clear that these changes would not happen in the current structure of the church (Reformation Day also marks a significant turning point for the Catholic Church, in that many of its beliefs that are different from Protestant were solidified during this period, and reforms in practice did happen; the Council of Trent emerged because of the Reformation).

On this Reformation Day, I would highlight some of my favorite “theses” from Brother Martin’s list for our consideration. As an aside, these theses focus more upon the issue of indulgences (which were sold as ways to remit temporal punishment for sin in this life or in purgatory according to the church) than the so-called “solas” that mark the Protestant faith as defined by the Reformation (Sola meaning alone, with these solas referring to salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, with authority coming from Scripture [Bible] alone); these solas come through the debates that follow and underlie the differences in beliefs and practices. Now, the issue of indulgences is not something that many preachers discuss these days, but I think that the critiques Luther had of them can also address other issues in the church that we do need to hear more about, such as assurance of salvation through faith in Christ (Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to pay for our sins) and the need for the church to focus on the gospel of God that leads us to care for others. So, here are some of the 95 that stand out:

  1. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  2. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
  1. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
  2. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.
  3. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath.
  1. Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.
  1. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
  2. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20:16).
  1. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ``Peace, peace,'' and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14)
  2. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ``Cross, cross,'' and there is no cross!
  3. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
  4. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).

I thought it would be great to conclude with the way that Brother Martin stated this list:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

There has been some discussion among recent historians whether Martin Luther really did nail these to the door, or if he mailed them out on October 31 to the Archbishop of Mainz. Even if the nailing of the theses is something of a historical legend, hopefully reading them will show us that he really did “nail” the issues and the importance of the gospel.

 

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