On October 31, 1517 one of the most important events of the last 500 years took place. It was on that day that a German Monk, whose name was Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. For us that not only seems like a really, really long time ago but it also seems like a rather insignificant act.
In Luther's day, the door of the church was a place where important information would be displayed. Martin Luther had seen corruptions in the Roman Catholic Church of his day and believed that by pointing these things out that he could be an agent for change. This is a big part of why Martin Luther posted these theses to the door on the 31st of October. We know October 31 as Halloween, which is our way of saying "All Hallows Eve". Halloween is the night before the church holiday known as All Saints Day. A day when the church gathers to remember the saints who have gone on before us. While we do not get too excited about celebrating this day in 21st Century Edgerton, it was a very big deal for the people in Luther's day. People would be going to the church and they would see that this monk had made a post to the church door regarding the corruption in the church.
In our day we get worked up over social media posts but this posting was far more than just Martin Luther putting his opinion out there on Twitter or Facebook. This act was a statement against a very powerful entity. The church held power that our modern churches just do not carry. The power was centralized and it had significant influence alongside the government. Not only was what Luther had posted significant for those who would have approached it at the castle church in Wittenberg on that All Saints Day, but this message ended up being spread around to many other places. With the advent of the printing press information could be reproduced and disseminated around the Empire.
This is important because if it would have just been a group of people in Wittenberg the voice of Luther could have been very easily silenced. Others had spoken out against the practices of the church but they were quickly silenced because, at best, the concerns expressed were limited to a very small geographical area because information was not able to be spread as quickly. When that is the case, it is very easy to put down a resistance. By the time the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire were able to try to do something about Martin Luther, he was a bit of a celebrity. He had voiced concerns that resonate with the people and to kill him would make him a martyr and perhaps even increase awareness of his cause.
While the 95 theses are seen as the beginning of the Reformation, they were not the primary focus of the Reformation. The primary concern that was addressed in the 95 theses was concerning the selling of something called indulgences. These were essentially "Get out of Purgatory" cards. While the practice of selling these had been around for some time, the money needed to build Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican increased the practice. Luther was outraged that the church was selling these and this led to the posting on the door of the church but the selling of indulgences was not his only issue with the church. He believed that they had mixed the free gift of God with the works of humans. For Martin Luther this was a gospel issue. The church had stepped away from salvation as the gift of God solely by faith and had mixed in other requirements in order to be saved. In other words, the good news was not really good news. You had to do something and there was very little assurance of salvation.
This is the important message we need to remember regarding the history of the Reformation. It is easy for us to see some of the more obvious differences between historic, confessional Protestants (Reformed, Presbyterian, and Lutheran) and the Roman Catholic church. We get stuck on the teachings of purgatory, the veneration of Mary, and the fact that they have seven sacraments instead of two. While all of these are important differences, the biggest difference between confessional Protestants and the Roman Catholic church is doctrinal. Confessional Protestants teach that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ's work alone. We do not mix the grace of God with any of our works. We are saved solely by God's radical rescue of sinners through the perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That work is sufficient and we do not need to add anything to it. Ever.
This is the primary message of the Reformation. While there are many things that distinguish Protestant and Roman Catholic piety and practice, the issue was ultimately a doctrinal issue centered on justification by grace alone through faith alone. Just as our Reformation forefathers were adamant about getting the gospel right, we too must remember the importance of that saving message. It is the message that we are to hear, believe, and proclaim.