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What is Reformation Day?
What was the Reformation?
Why was the church in need of reform?
Who was Martin Luther and what was his role in the Reformation?
What is the liturgical color for Reformation Day?
Why is Reformation Day such an important Christian festival?


Reformation Day is an important liturgical festival that is celebrated by Lutherans and Christians of many Protestant denominations.  It commemorates Dr. Martin Luther's posting of his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517.  This act triggered the movement in world history known as the Reformation.  While the historical date for the observance of Reformation is October 31st, most churches celebrate it on the last Sunday in October.  


While it had profound and lasting impacts on the political, economic, social, literary, and artistic aspects of modern society, the Reformation was at its heart a religious movement.  The Reformation was the great rediscovery of the doctrine of justification, that is, the good news of the salvation of all sinners by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.


For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had been plagued by false doctrines, superstition, ignorance, and corruption.  Since most ordinary Christians were illiterate and had little knowledge of the Bible, they relied on their clergy for religious instruction and guidance.  Tragically however, monks, priests, bishops, and even the popes in Rome taught unbiblical doctrines like purgatory and salvation through good works.  Spiritually earnest people tried to justify themselves by charitable works, pilgrimages, and all kinds of religious performances and devotions, but they were left wondering if they had done enough to appease God's righteous anger and escape His punishment.  The truth of the gospel -- the good news that God is loving and merciful, that He offers each and every one of us forgiveness and salvation not because of what we do, but because of what Christ has already done for us -- was largely forgotten by both clergy and laity.  The Holy Spirit used an Augustinian friar and university professor named Martin Luther to restore the doctrine of justification by grace alone to its rightful place as the cornerstone doctrine of Christianity.


Martin Luther was born in 1483 in the town of Eisleben in the area of Germany called Thuringia.  His parents brought him up in the strict religious environment of the Roman Catholic Church.  They provided for his education by enrolling him in the Latin schools of Thuringia.  The young Luther was a promising student, so his father sent him to the University of Erfurt in 1501 to study law.  He did very well at his studies and graduated with a Master of Arts degree in 1505.  But Luther was a troubled and morbidly unhappy man.  Like many others of his time, Luther was distressed by his sins and lived in terrible and constant fear of God's angry judgment.  After being caught in a ferocious thunderstorm that seemed to threaten his very life, Luther abandoned his plans to practice law and entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in 1505.  He hoped that this serious religious vocation would allow him opportunities to do enough good works to please God and escape eternal punishment.  Luther threw himself into monastic life and was ordained in 1507.  He meticulously followed all the strict rules of his order, impressing his fellow monks with his seriousness and outward piety.  Dr. Johann von Staupitz, the vicar-general of the Augustinian order, took notice of Luther's potential for leadership and assigned him important administrative duties, including a mission to Rome.  But although Luther did everything a devout and conscientious Augustinian friar should do, he did not find the peace of mind he was seeking.

In 1508, Father Staupitz sent Luther to Wittenberg, a town in the part of Germany called Saxony, to pursue a doctoral degree and to teach at the newly established university there.  Luther also became assistant pastor at the Castle Church, a post he held for the rest of his life.  In the course of his preaching and studying (especially his careful reading of Paul's Epistle to the Romans), the Holy Spirit revealed to Luther the love of God in Jesus Christ.  In what is often called his "Tower Experience," Luther came to understand the true nature of the gospel, namely that God has already accomplished our salvation by the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, and that this salvation is ours through faith alone, not on account of our good works.  Luther was astounded by this doctrine and found tremendous comfort in it.  He began to lecture about it in his classes and preach about it in his parish.

In 1517, Luther (now a Doctor of Theology and a respected professor) was drawn into a controversy over the sale of indulgences.  Indulgences were certificates sold by the Roman Catholic Church that promised people release from works of penance for absolved sins, both in life and in purgatory.  Although Luther would in a few years repudiate the entire Roman Catholic system of works righteousness, he was not ready at this early stage in his ministry to completely reject the prevailing teachings on purgatory and indulgences.  But even prior to 1517 he realized that corrupt practices connected to the sale of indulgences were a blasphemy against Christ and a cruel deception on penitent Christians seeking God's grace and forgiveness.

It was the sale of a particular indulgence that spurred Luther to action.  Pope Leo X had authorized the sale of special jubilee indulgences in the cities and principalities of Germany.  Half of the money raised was to help finance the building of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome; the other half was to go to Albrecht, the new archbishop of Mainz (who needed the cash to pay off a loan he had taken to buy his archbishopric).  These indulgences were plenary, meaning that all sin and eternal and temporal punishment would be forgiven to those who purchased them.  Elector Frederick the Wise, prince of Saxony and patron of the University of Wittenberg, had prohibited the traffic of these indulgences in his territory, but they were sold in towns and villages just across the Saxon border.  When some members of his parish purchased indulgences, Luther felt compelled to take action.

Luther drafted a series of ninety-five statements in Latin discussing indulgences, good works, repentance, and other topics, and invited interested scholars to debate with him.  According to Philip Melanchthon, Luther's university colleague and author of the Augsburg Confession, Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church on October 31, 1517.  This was not an act of defiance or provocation as is sometimes thought.  Since the Castle Church faced Wittenberg's main thoroughfare, the church door functioned as a public bulletin board and was therefore the logical place for posting important notices.  Today, a professor might publish an article in a journal or post it on a blog or web site.  By posting his document on October 31, the eve of the All Saints' Day mass, Luther ensured that his Theses would come to the attention of the literate Wittenberg residents and educated visitors who filed into the Castle Church for worship the next day.

Luther intended the Ninety-five Theses to initiate an academic discussion, not serve as the agenda for a major reform of the Catholic Church.  However, events soon overtook him.  Within weeks, the Theses were translated into German, reproduced using the new moveable-type printing press, and circulated throughout Germany.  It wasn't long before they were the talk of Europe.  The publication of the Ninety-five Theses brought Luther to international attention and into direct conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Holy Roman Emperor.  A little over three years later, he was excommunicated by the pope and declared a heretic and outlaw.  This was the beginning of the Reformation, the culmination of which was the presentation of the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the first official Lutheran statement of faith.


Red is the liturgical color for this day.  Red reminds us of the Holy Spirit who descended on Christ's followers in tongues of fire on Pentecost.  It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that Martin Luther came to learn the gospel.  The Holy Spirit moved him to post his Ninety-five Theses and inspired him and his colleagues to work toward the Reformation of the Christian church.  The same Holy Spirit continues to come to Christians in the means of grace to forgive sins and strengthen faith.


Martin Luther and his colleagues came to understand that if we sinners had to earn salvation by our own merits and good works, we would be lost and completely without hope.  But through the working of the Holy Spirit, the reformers rediscovered the gospel -- the wonderful news that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again to redeem and justify us.  As Luther wrote in his explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles' CreedI believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.  This is most certainly true.

On Reformation Day therefore, we glorify God for what he accomplished in 16th century Germany through His servant, Dr. Martin Luther -- the recovery of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith for Christ's sake.  We also earnestly pray that God would keep all of us faithful to the true gospel and help us to joyfully declare it to the world.

The complete text of Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses in English translation is available on the Book of Concord web site.