It’s not every year that your faith tradition turns 500 years old! You’ve probably heard plenty about the big celebration happening around the world this month. Beside the events happening in Lutheran churches, there have been specials on television, articles written in local and national newspapers, even mentions of Lutheranism on CBS’s hit show NCIS!
With all the hoopla surrounding the celebration taking place, it’s easy to lose track of why October 31, 1517 is an important date. So here’s a refresher:
Legend tells it that Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, posted debate topics (the 95 Theses) on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral on All Hallows’ Eve before services for All Saints Day on November 1. In his time, church doors served as community bulletin boards, so this practice in itself was not unusual. What he posted, however, was. Luther was upset that the Catholic Church had implemented a practice of selling indulgences- a kind of “Get Out of Jail Free” card, which people could buy to assure them that they and their loved ones would enter heaven. Luther was upset by this practice for two reasons; the first, because there was no biblical basis for the claim, and the second, because the Pope was using the money raised to build grand cathedrals- a practice Luther saw as taking advantage of common people.
Whether the Theses were actually posted on the door or sent to the local university to be debated, the Catholic hierarchy found out about the document, and issued a summons to Luther to recant his claims. He responded with a famous quote from Lutheran lore: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” From this point on, Reformation was impossible to avoid. While it was never Luther’s intent to split from the Catholic Church, October 31, 1517 is seen as the date that the Protestant (not just Lutheran) Reformation began. Many theologians took up the cause of proclaiming grievances against the Pope, and the Christian body has never looked the same since.
Eventually, the practice of selling indulgences ended, but the schism was irreparable. Catholics and Lutherans, as well as other Protestant denominations have come closer throughout the years, though they remain distinct entities. Over five hundred years, much has changed, but the main point of the Reformation still serves as a foundation of the Lutheran tradition today: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” (Thesis 62)
Every aspect of Luther’s theology and the heritage we share as people who claim his name can be distilled by quoting Romans 1:17- “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” Luther believed that faith is a free gift from God, and that it was only through God’s work in us that we could live righteously, thus securing salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice, and not our good works. Doing good, then, comes from a deep understanding of the work God has already done through us.
This is why we celebrate this anniversary! It is yet another reminder that God has done those things that we cannot do- provided love and life eternal through the promise of Christ. We have been freed from the bondage of sin, not by what we have done, but by what God has done. Luther’s movement from Catholic orthodoxy in this respect was the first domino that has had massive impact in the course of world history, not just in the church, but in wide-ranging tangents throughout all of society.
On this occasion of remembering the 500th year of this massive shift in thinking, it’s only appropriate for us to ask: how does this affect us today? How does knowing you are loved by God apart from anything you do change the way you view yourself and God? How does this freedom from sin free you to serve your neighbor? How does this gift of grace change the world?
These are important questions that I hope we ponder every day, and especially on such a momentous anniversary.
Blessings upon you as you seek answers!