In addition to Halloween, Tuesday, October 31st marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The story goes that the date marks the occasion when the Catholic monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Although the historicity of the event has been debated, there’s no debate regarding the impact (positive or negative) of Luther’s reforming zeal. His central concern was the sale of indulgences. As one site indicates, “The practice of buying indulgences, which quasi replaced confession and allowed people to buy their salvation, was completely repulsive to Luther. He strongly believed that one lived a life of humility in order to receive God’s grace.” The same site indicates that in no way did he intend to dismantle the Catholic Church with his treatise, but to quicken a discussion in the hopes of bringing an end to the sale of indulgences.
There’s no way in the world Luther could have foreseen the impact his 95 Theses had on the future of ecclesial and societal life in Germany and beyond. Luther and his Reformation have been celebrated and/or blamed for a whole host of phenomena. Here’s how one article frames the impact:
“To repeat, Luther did not intend to break from the Catholic Church, but to seek its reformation from within as a loyal critic. History is filled with accounts of Luther and his Protestant Reformation being praised and/or blamed for various matters. One article put it this way: Protestantism has been “credited for restoring Christian truth or blamed for church divisions,” wrote Valparaiso University historian Thomas Albert Howard, author of the new book “Remembering the Reformation.”
But beyond its strictly doctrinal content, Mr. Howard wrote, Protestantism “has been regarded as a cause of modern liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, nationalism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, and so much else.”
A few of my favorite theses among the 95 are the first three:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.
Inner repentance that manifests itself outwardly in concrete actions of love of God and neighbor rather than love of the flesh is what is needed. No purchase of indulgences can take its place. So, too, for Luther, no ceremonial act on the part of a priest (ex opere operato) can take the place of Christ as vicar and the Spirit who alone create the needed repentant faith of salvation in the believer’s life (On penance, see Roland Bainton’s discussion in Here I Stand; see also his discussions in his work Reformation: here and here; refer here as well to Sharon Thornton’s Broken Yet Beloved, and here to Jodi Bilinkoff’s Related Lives; lastly, the reader may find the historical development of Luther’s view along with quotations from Luther on the subject here at this link beneficial).
In any event, Luther’s point on the entirety of the Christian life being one of repentance applies to all of us—to Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and beyond. One cannot simply dress up and play the part of a repentant monk one day a year, as on Halloween or Reformation Day. Nor should one ever think one can discard the church like a relic from the past. Repentance and reformation should take place daily, and always occur for the sake of the whole of Christ’s church. The problem is never simply other people, or this or that institution. The problem of sin exists in all of us. Therefore, after putting away the Halloween costume, tricks and treats, we should get back to business and confess our sins to one another, clergy and laypeople alike, so that we might be healed: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16; ESV).