by Robert Booth
This year, on October 31st, many Americans will be hoarding candy or plotting to scare people. As Christians, we have an awesome alternative. On October 31, 1517, an event took place that changed the course of human history; most people know nothing about it. Will you join me in celebrating the anniversary of one of the greatest historical events in church history — the Protestant Reformation?
To understand why you shouldn’t miss the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we need to travel back in time 534 years. The religious world was in one of its darkest times. The dedication of serving God was replaced by a religious formalism devoid of God.
Born Into A Dark World
Martin Luther was born into this dark religious period in the year 1483. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, and Martin began to prepare for this venture. One day as Martin was on the road headed to the University, a great storm came upon him. The thunder was terrible, and the lightening struck so close that Martin thought God was surely going to kill him. He lived in fear of God, whom he pictured as cruel, judgmental, and without compassion, like his earthly father exhibited. Certain God was out to destroy him, Martin desperately threw himself to the ground and cried out, “Saint Anne! Save me. If you save me, I will enter a monastery and serve you my entire life. I will become a monk.”
Despite all his effort, Luther could not find God.
True to his word, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery two weeks later, much to the disgust of his father. Martin studied hard and worked feverishly, trying to earn his way to God. Despite all his effort, Luther could not find the God that he wanted to find. He lived in terror of judgment, believing that God was only a God of justice.
After earning several degrees, his spiritual father sent him to Rome in an attempt to give Luther some "fresh air." Rome was the center of the Catholic church and the city where pilgrims made their journey to see the “Holy Father." As Martin entered the Holy City, much to his chagrin, he found chaos. Rome was an open sewer of greed and corruption where houses of prostitution catered to priests. Most appalling to Luther, salvation was for sale, and people truly believed they could buy their way to heaven.
In the year 1513, Rome elected a new pope, Leo X, who wanted to reform Roman Catholicism and rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. When Pope Leo lacked the necessary funds to build this massive church, he turned to underhanded means.
With the help of John Tetzel, a plan was formulated for the selling of indulgences. Tetzel rode into villages and set up a stage for his master performance. Imagine Tetzel theatrically saying: “Ssh, can’t you hear them? Listen! They are screaming in pain and anguish! Fathers calling to their sons and mothers calling to their daughters in anguish from the fires of purgatory!"
After painting pictures in the people's minds of their relatives burning in hell, Tetzel would offer a solution: A little money would release their relatives from the burning flames. He was known for one quaint saying: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” This is how the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica was being financed.
Luther heard about the abuses surrounding indulgences and stories of people who thought they had purchased their way to heaven; the words of Scripture rang out in his mind, “the just shall live by faith!”
A Call to Justification by Faith
This spurred Luther to pen the words of his Ninety-five Theses – arguments against indulgences. On October 31, 1517, Martin strode to Castle Church in Wittenburg and nailed them to the door. He anticipated an academic argument among peers, but God had other plans. A copy of the Ninety-five Theses found its way to a printing press, and it was soon read across Europe.
Martin Luther is one of those imperfect, messy individuals that God used to fan the flames of reformation and revival.
The days that followed were filled with change and debate. Charges were made against Luther. He became a renegade that Rome was determined to silence.
They never did. Five hundred years later, we are heirs of the Protestant Reformation.
History intrigues many with evidence upon evidence of how God takes imperfect men and women — sometimes messy men and women — and uses them to accomplish His will.
Martin Luther is one of those imperfect, messy individuals that God used to fan the flames of reformation and revival across Germany and beyond.
This October, join us as we reflect on our heritage. Don’t miss the 500th anniversary of the Reformation!
Bainton, Roland. (1950). Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York, NY: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press. This biography of Luther was originally published in 1950 and is still a classic. If you are interested in Luther, start here.
Marty, Martin. (2016). October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press. Written last year, this is a small volume that effectively covers this important date.
Sproul, R.C., & Nichols, S. (Eds.). (2016). The Legacy of Luther. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust. Sproul, Nichols, and thirteen other scholars and pastors examine his life, teaching and enduring influence. This volume is for those who are interested in a more academic approach of Luther.
Reeves, M., & and Chester, T. (2016). Why the Reformation Still Matters. Wheaton, IL: Crossroads. This book approaches the Reformation from why it mattered in 1517 and why it still matters, 500 years later.
God’s Missionary Standard, volume 68(3). http://www.godsmissionarystandard.com/pdfs/201708.pdf
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