What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

Today is Reformation Day, and not just any Reformation Day – it is the 500 year anniversary of the event which is usually considered to mark the official start of the Reformation, and rightly so – because something was done on October 31, 1517 which would snowball into the Reformation and would changed the world forever.

But what was that event?

It is widely held, that this is the day when Martin Luther defiantly nailed his 95 Theses to the wooden door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany – his hammer strikes shattering the Holy Roman Empire, and the nail piercing right through the heart of the Pope!

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But on closer examination, it was actually something no less significant, but probably slightly less dramatic!

Here’s what we know:

Luther mailed a letter

The one thing we do know is that on this day, Luther posted a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. So rather than having the picture in your mind of Luther brazenly and defiantly mailing nailed a list of grievances to the door of the church, picture in your mind Luther sitting at his desk, sealing an envelope and then gently handing a letter to a currier, and giving him some cash to deliver it.

Furthermore, this letter was written – not defiantly and aggressively, but in the most humble, polite and apologetic tone that can be imagined.

You can read the text of that letter here: Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517)

Here’s just his introduction:

Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do, — moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer.

The reason Luther wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz is because these indulgences were being sold in his name in the region over which he had oversight and authority, and Luther believed that Archbishop Albrecht was not aware of what was going on, and that it was his duty to inform him. Luther expected that upon hearing about what was happening, Archbishop Albrecht would put an abrupt stop to it. That is, however, not what happened…

We don’t know when the 95 Theses were actually posted

It was Melanchthon, Luther’s follower, who several years later gave the date of October 31, 1517 as the date when the 95 Theses were posted. There’s a good chance that he did that based on knowing that was the day when Luther mailed his letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.

Maybe that is the date, maybe it isn’t.

The 95 Theses probably weren’t posted the way it has been depicted

A hammer and some nails. So dramatic. Such bravado! But in all likelihood, that’s not how they would have been posted.

More likely:

  • They were probably posted with paste, rather than with a hammer and nails. So instead of imagining Luther with his arm cocked back to strike a nail with a hammer, imagine him with a bucket of paste and a brush.
  • They were probably not posted by Luther himself. The door of the church functioned as the church bulletin board, where you would post everything from “I lost my cat Mittens” to “I’m offering guitar lessons for $10/hour”. And it was the job of the church custodian to post things on the door. So try to picture Luther gently handing the church custodian something to post on the door, you know: when he had a moment.
  • They were probably posted on several church doors. The posting was in Latin (not the vernacular German), and it was an invitation to a scholarly debate. Kind of like how you might post to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to get your message out there, it is likely that a message like this would have been shared on more than one church door (AKA bulletin board).

No matter the particulars about it, we can be sure of one thing: the Reformation was about a return to the Bible, putting the Bible in the hands of the people, and a rediscovery of the core message of the Bible: the gospel!

Happy Reformation Day!

How Martin Luther King Jr Got His Name

This coming weekend at White Fields we will be starting a new series for the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation about the 5 Solas.

Partly in preparation for this and partly out of my own interest and curiosity, I’ve been reading a few books. One of them is Eric Metaxas’ new biography of Martin Luther, and the other is Stephen Nichols’, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World.

Metaxas begins his book with a story, which I had never heard before: How in 1934, an African American pastor from Georgia got on a boat to make the trip of a lifetime; he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, through the gates of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Israel. After this pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he traveled to Berlin to attend an international conference of Baptist pastors. While in Germany, this man, Michael King, became so impressed with what he learned about the Reformer, Martin Luther, that he decided to do something dramatic: he decided to change his name to Martin Luther King. This man’s son, also named Michael, was five years old at the time, and although close relatives would continue to call him Mike for the rest of his life, his father also changed his name, and he became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr.

Metaxas uses this story to highlight the dramatic impact that Martin Luther has had, not only on the world, but on those who have come to know the story of his life and understand his actions, which have indeed changed the world and Christianity as we know it – even Roman Catholicism.

What has caught my attention most in the book so far, is how shockingly little even those who did have access to the Bible actually read it in Luther’s time, and how deep and widespread the problems were in the church at that time, largely as a result of this. It seems that what really set Martin Luther apart, and what led to the Reformation, was simply that he read the Bible. May we not be guilty of neglecting that in our day!

Tomorrow evening (Tuesday, October 24), my wife and I will be going down to Denver to see Eric speak about his book at Cherry Creek Pres. If you’re interested in going, here’s the event site where you can get tickets.

Happy Reformation Day!

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499 years ago today, Martin Luther – a German professor of theology, priest and monk, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church (ironically on the eve of All Saints Day – AKA: Halloween) in Wittenburg, Germany. This act is considered the spark which ignited the Protestant Reformation.

If you own a Bible in your own language, that you can read any time you want, you have the Reformers to thank for that. It was not always that way; people fought for these things.

Before Luther, there were others who sought to bring reform to the church. John Wycliffe (1331-1384) published the first English translation of the Bible. Jan Hus (1369-1415) started a movement of the prolific teaching of the Bible to the common people, and was ultimately executed in Prague. Peter Waldo (1140-1218) commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the local vernacular of southern France. Each of these people were persecuted for trying to put the Scriptures into the hands of the common people.

In 1516, John Tetzel was sent to Germany to raise money for the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His means of raising money was the sale of plenary indulgences, which promised the release of a person from purgatory, based on their purchase.

The sale of plenary indulgences had been one of Jan Hus’ major contentions with the medieval Catholic Church, and Luther took issue with it as well: the idea that God’s favor or blessings could somehow be earned, not to mention purchased, was something he whole-heartedly rejected. Furthermore, the concept of purgatory is in conflict with the Biblical teaching of the sufficient atonement of Christ on the cross.

Luther had long struggled with feelings of condemnation and never being able to measure up, but had experienced an epiphany when he read Habakkuk 2:4: Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.

This led Luther to the other places in the Bible where this phrase is repeated: in Romans 1:17, in Galatians 3:11, in Hebrews 10:38 – where the message is clear: It is not by our own works that we are justified before God, but it is God who justifies us as an unearned gift of His grace, and we receive that justification by FAITH. That is how Abraham became righteous (Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness – Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3 & 22), and that is how we receive God’s righteous, which he has provided for us in Christ!

Luther’s re-discovery of this Biblical truth came through his reading of the Scriptures. He became convinced that everyone needed to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and that the practice of the church at that time, of keeping the Scriptures out of the hands of the common people, was something that needed to end. He believed that people had the capacity and the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures for themselves. Luther himself, in the pursuant years, translated the Bible into German, a translation which is widely used to this day.

Luther came to believe that the Scriptures alone are the source of theology, that justification is by Christ alone through faith alone.

The 5 “solas” (alone statements) of the Reformation are:

  • Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone)
    • The Bible is the only source of Christian doctrine
  • Sola Fide (by faith alone)
    • Justification is received by faith alone
  • Sola Gratia (by grace alone)
    • Justification is by God’s grace alone
  • Sola Christus (through Christ alone)
  • Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)

This October 31st, I hope you’ll remember that there is something much better than “fun size” candy bars: having God’s Word available to you, for you to read and understand yourself.

After all – what is “fun” about “fun size”?  There’s nothing fun about tiny candy bars. They should be called “sad size”…

In April 1521, Luther was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, at which Luther was commanded to recant his teachings. Luther thought he would have a chance to defend his ideas. Charles would only accept an absolute recantation. Luther refused to do so.

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Here is a portion of Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me.”

If the Reformers could speak to us today, they would tell us this: the Reformation never ends. It is a continual movement of returning to the Scriptures and examining our lives and our practices in light of them.

Happy Reformation Day!

Don’t Forget the Actual Holiday Happening Today

Today is Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

Today is a great day to remember the work of the reformers which you unquestionably benefit from. Men who struggled for us to have the freedom to read the Bible for ourselves, in our own languages – and consider for ourselves what God says to us in the Scriptures. Today is a day to be thankful for the return to Biblical theology and the doctrine of grace that these men fought for.

The Holiday America Forgot

Today is October 31st. That means that today, all across America, neighborhood children are going to come knocking at your door to try to coerce you into giving them candy by threatening retribution if you don’t comply. We call it Halloween, and yes, in its modern form, it’s innocent enough. In fact, as I wrote in this post earlier this week, Halloween is a great opportunity for Christians to think missionally,  as it is the only day of the year when most of your neighbors will come knocking on your door.

However, October 31st is a much more historical and significant day in the history of the world. Before anyone considered dressing up as a superhero or a robot, October 31st was celebrated for a different reason: It is the day when in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church (ironically on the eve of All Saints Day) in Wittenburg, Germany. This event is generally regarded as the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, thus – for centuries before Americans came along and capitalized on Halloween and commercialized it, October 31st was celebrated amongst Protestant Christians as Reformation Day.

These days, Reformation Day is still a big deal in Germany and other parts of Europe, but in America it is only celebrated by a handful of Lutherans, Reformed Christians and other protestants – albeit, most of them celebrate it as a Halloween alternative, and still get dressed up and hand out candy to kids. If you really want to make a splash at one of these events, here’s a tip: dress up as Martin Luther. You’ll probably be the only one (no you won’t; I was being facetious). If you really want to wow all your Lutheran friends at the Reformation Day party, then you should actually dress up like Johann Tetzel – you will be the hit of the party (not really). By the way – I’m allowed to make Lutheran jokes; I went to Lutheran school growing up – Missouri Synod baby. That’s right.

Anyway, obscure Lutheran references aside – I am thankful for the work of the reformers. Men like Luther and Calvin, and Hus and Wycliff before them. I’m thankful that we have been given the freedom to read the Bible for ourselves, in our own languages – and consider for ourselves what God says to us in the scriptures. I am thankful for the return to Biblical theology that these men worked for.

I used to speak at an annual Reformation Day gathering in Hungary, and what was always said at those meetings was that we must remember that the reformation of the church is never over; it is a continual need, that we come and examine every practice and every doctrine according to the Word of God, even in our protestant churches. The Word of God must always remain our standard and our guide in all things.

I hope you have a great October 31st, and remember today that the fact you can have a Bible in your own language, that you can read any time you want, and have God speak to you personally through it – that’s not something to be taken for granted! The teaching of grace that you (hopefully) hear in church – that’s not something to be taken for granted. These things were fought for – and we reap the benefits. Keep that in mind while you eat “fun size” candy bars for the next several weeks, and give thanks to God for what happened on October 31st, 1517.