October 31, 1517
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, at the time a Roman Catholic monk and theology professor, nailed a protest letter to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, where he taught at the local university.
The letter is known as his 95 Theses, a protest against the sale of indulgences, among other things. Essentially, indulgences could be bought from the church as spiritual credits that would go toward helping a loved one get from a place called Purgatory to heaven. To buy an indulgence was like paying off their remaining sin-debt.
NOTE: Protestants believe the concept of Purgatory to be an unbiblical doctrine. No offense intended to my Roman Catholic friends. Just don’t want to confuse our Protestant brothers and sisters.
The Purpose of Indulgences
One of the driving purposes behind the sale of indulgences was to generate funds with which to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the Pope. Luther, who had recently come alive to the wonder of the gospel through a personal re-discovery of grace, saw indulgences not only as a direct assault on the grace message of the gospel, but also as evidence of spiritual corruption in the leadership of the church at the time.
Originally, Luther’s theses were intended merely to reform the church. However, his protest created a theological and ecclesiastical firestorm. He eventually was excommunicated by the Pope, barely avoided assassination, and the Protestant Reformation (from which “protestant” denominations find their roots) was on.
All Hallows Eve
For our context, is important to recognize that October 31 was known as All Hallows Eve, the eve of the day when the church was to hallow all the dead saints. All Hallows Eve morphed into what we now call Halloween (notice how Halloween sounds like All Hallows Eve).
Although death was part of the day’s commemoration, it wasn’t the focus. Nevertheless, we can see how the death part has attempted to overshadow the life part, since Reformation Day was the dawning of new light upon the church as the heart of the gospel was rediscovered by folks like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the boys.
So, as we celebrate the Protestant Reformation this October 31, feel free to dress up and plunder your neighbors for loads of sweets, but don’t forget the real and sweetest reason for this special day — the rediscovery of grace.
Dr. McKay Caston is a writer/pastor/professor/husband/dad whose passion is to help people come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace in Jesus by tethering all of life to the cross.