A Brief History of the Reformation

In popular culture, October 31 is recognized as “Halloween”, a holiday which is thought by many to be a harmless occasion for children to dress in costumes and collect candy from neighbors.  In truth, though, this is a pagan practice which originated with the ancient Celts, who held the belief that – on this one day of the year – the spirits of the dead can return to earth.  In time, it was determined that the best way to prevent attacks from the evil spirits as they returned was by wearing costumes and masks that disguised the individual as one of those spirits.

The celebration of “Halloween” is recorded as early as 1556, when it was first known as “All Hallow’s Eve” – the day before the Christian celebration of “All Hallow’s Day” (also known as “All Saints’ Day”) on November 1, when Christians historically celebrated the legacy of the Christians who had already died and entered Heaven.  Prior to the establishment of “Halloween” as a secular holiday, though, there was a far greater event which took place on October 31…

For centuries, to be a Christian was to be under the authority and leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.  Growing dissension within the church led to an event known as “The Great Schism” in 1054, when the church divided into two distinct faith traditions – Roman Catholic and Orthodox.  Still, for those who remained members of the Roman Catholic Church and struggled to live according to the teaching of their leaders, something else still needed to be done.  The priests had refused to let the Bible be translated into any other language besides Latin, arguing that nobody but trained priests were equipped to read and interpret the Bible.  As a result, the church members were forced to depend upon the clergy for spiritual instruction and guidance.

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church had become increasingly governed by the superstitious beliefs and false doctrines of their leaders.  For example, the priests were calling upon the church members to purchase “indulgences” (pardons from sin) on behalf of their deceased loved ones who were believed to be in “purgatory”, waiting to be released from their eternal bondage and permitted into Heaven.  Rather than teaching what the Bible truly says about salvation, the church leaders were teaching their parishioners that only by purchasing specific “indulgences” could they – or their loved ones – be assured of an eternity in Heaven.  Each year, on “All Saints’ Day” (November 1), the church members would pay for the necessary indulgences, parade past a collection of spiritual relics owned by the church, and plead to the deceased saints for the release of their loved ones from purgatory.

A growing number of church leaders recognized that these teachings were heretical, and knew that change was desperately needed, but still they remained silent.  They lived in a day when the religious authorities would sentence anyone who spoke out against the Roman Catholic Church to excommunication from the church, or – worse yet – death by burning.  Then – as today – few people were willing to risk their own lives for the sake of what they knew to be true.

In God’s providence, a young monk and theology professor by the name of Martin Luther was assigned to a parish in the German town of Wittenburg.  He drafted a document, which came to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses, which offered a scholarly refutation of these unbiblical teachings, and on October 31, 1517 (“All Hallow’s Eve”), he nailed the document to the door of Castle Church (also known as “All Saints’ Church”).  The Ninety-Five Theses was quickly translated from Latin into German so that it might be more accessible to the people.  Within two weeks, copies of the document had spread throughout Germany; within two months, it had been circulated throughout Europe.

When Luther was brought before the religious authorities, accused of heresy, and called upon to recant, he offered the now famous reply, “…I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  I cannot do otherwise.  Here I stand.  May God help me, Amen.” Luther’s bold stand for the truth of God’s Word helped spark a movement which lasted until at least 1648, known as “The Protestant Reformation”, and it is from this movement that all Protestant churches (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) are originally derived.

Luther additionally produced many excellent books and commentaries, wrote hymns for congregation singing (most notably, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”), and translated the entire Bible into German so that people other than priests would have direct access to God’s Word.  Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation movement (John Calvin, John Knox, etc.) served not only to initiate a new era of church history, but also to call upon all who profess faith in Christ to submit themselves to the true, authoritative teachings of Scripture.  Now that day – the day that God used one faithful monk to call people to Christian obedience – is a day worth remembering and celebrating through all the years!  Praise be to God for Christians like this – past and present – who are willing to risk all in order to stand for the preservation and proclamation of biblical truth!