Reformation 500

Published On: 

Tue 31 Oct 2017 — 10:20 am
Martin Luther

Today is October 31st, Reformation Day in the church calendar.

Why are we still celebrating this 500 years later? Read this excellent short article by Michael Reeves, entitled 3 Things Every Christian Should Know About the Reformation.

And why October 31st? Well, here's a bit of history for you. James, our vicar, writes:

On October 31st 1517, an obscure German monk posted a document on the ancient equivalent of a noticeboard. His name was Martin Luther. He was a minor figure at the University of Wittenberg, itself a backwater institution in Germany at the time.

This event is widely considered to have launched “the reformation”, a religious and political movement that was to sweep through Western Europe for the next 150 years. That makes this year the 500th anniversary.

Not only did the reformation reshape the face of Western Europe in ways still applicable today, the issues involved are also extremely relevant today. Let’s start with the document Martin Luther posted.

He was concerned with something called the sale of indulgences. The church in his day believed in a place called purgatory, which was where the forgiven went when they died. Wicked people went straight to hell, but those who were forgiven went to be “purged” or cleansed in purgatory, until they were clean enough to enter heaven.

Speaking personally, I do not believe purgatory exists – the Bible does not mention it, but instead says that those who die knowing Christ proceed directly to heaven. Luther probably came round to this view, but in 1517 he was concerned to criticise not purgatory but indulgences. An “indulgence” was a document, issued by the pope, that granted someone who had died a reduction of the time they must spend in purgatory.

In Luther’s day, these were being sold, literally for money. Luther’s nemesis was a man called Johann Tetzel, who exaggerated the practice and added quite a sales pitch. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”, he famously used to say. Who could resist paying up, if your dead relatives might have their anguish eased?

Luther posted 95 theses, or sentences, building a case against the sale of indulgences. This is not the place to discuss them at length – they’re available online. In a nutshell, they undermined two main things:

  1. The death of Jesus is sufficient for all our sins to be forgiven. Asking your living relatives to pay undermines the wonderful truth that forgiveness is free at the point of delivery.
  2. The forgiveness Jesus offers is total. When we turn to Christ, we are freed from the penalty as well as the guilt of our sins. To say that something else must be done, or worse paid, undermines the wonderful confidence we can have that our sins have been dealt with in full.