Batman. Pirate. Wordgirl. Superheroes plan to invade our house Friday night. Cute as they are, and despite having participated when we were kids, my husband and I still have mixed feelings about the whole Halloween tradition. Like we need any more cavity abetting! More than that, of course, is the uneasiness about supporting a tradition that, in other parts of the world, celebrates evil spirits and pagan rituals. Many Christians feel the same tension, choosing a variety of options on how to, or not to, acknowledge Halloween.
Love it or hate it, October 31 has a greater significance than its identity as the Eve of All Saints' Day. In Slovenia and parts of Germany, people enjoy it as a civic holiday. Some protestant churches celebrate it as a religious holiday, with special liturgies, songs and garments. Both the civic and religious celebrations for Reformation Day remember a particular October 31—the day in 1517 that Dr. Martin Luther chose to post his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
A normally unremarkable event, the posting of this particular document set in motion a conflict that reshaped the history of western civilization. It is hard to overestimate the consequences of the 95 Theses. One man, a monk dedicated to the truth of scripture, challenged the leaders of his Church to debate, among other things, the selling of indulgences.
This practice of selling forgiveness enticed common people, most of whom were poor, to purchase indulgences that would, according to the pope, buy their deceased relatives out of purgatory and into heaven. The proceeds from these sales lined the pockets of various princes and bishops while propagating the myth that forgiveness could be bought. An illiterate populace depended on their educated church leaders to guide them in their faith. In Luther’s mind, the church had deceived her people. He chose to challenge this particular issue, and the theology behind it, at Wittenberg.
Why risk the wrath of his church superiors? As a young monk, Luther struggled with feeling good enough for God. He could not understand how God could or ever would accept him. Fasting, prayer, confession—none seemed enough to please a holy God. He spent years trying, to no avail. During this season of struggle, he began a study of Romans. In the first chapter, he found freedom. Verse 17 reads, "...as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith.'"
"This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification," he wrote, "is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness."
Luther came to understand that he could never earn forgiveness, never earn God’s love and grace, and never do enough to make himself righteous. Consider these truths he found in further readings of Romans:
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (3:22-24).
And again in chapter five:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand (vv 1-2).
Justification through faith. Faith alone. Sola fide. Christ paid the penalty for my sin because he loved me and knew that I could never pay that price outside of hell. All my good works emerge out of a heart of gratitude, not from obligation and certainly not as a means to evening the score between me and God. As if that were possible!
Luther discovered freedom in his study of Romans and other New Testament books. His congregants heard him teach on these truths, other monks began reading his prolific writings about justification by faith, and when the 95 Theses were posted, then copied, the church leaders called him to account. At his trial at the Diet of Worms three years later, Luther stood before a vast assembly of world leaders religious and secular (there was little separation at the time). When the Pope’s envoy listed the charges against him and asked if he would repudiate his teachings and writings, Luther responded:
Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason... my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
"My conscience is captive to the word of God." Luther's words should inspire all Christians to hold fast to the Truth. To study and know it, to meditate on and memorize it. To act in accordance with it—to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. (cf Micah 6:8)
We celebrate October 31 as Reformation Day, recalling the catalytic event that loosed a world-changing revolution of thought and practice. However you choose to observe Halloween, remember that Christ has freed you from darkness and brought you into his kingdom of light, if you but believe. Sola fide!
 Bouman, Herbert J. A. "The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions," Concordia Theological Monthly, November 26, 1955, No. 11:801.
Kelley Mathews, Th.M. (Dallas Theological Seminary), married and blessed with three young children, spends her spare time freelancing as a writer and editor. She served several years as the Women’s Ministry Director at Rowlett Bible Fellowship. Her newest book release is Mixed Ministry: Working Together as Brothers and Sisters in an Oversexed Culture, which can be found on her web site www.newdoors.info.
Dan Graves looks at the aftermath of Luther posting his 95 theses on the Wittenburg door.
What Did Martin Luther Say at the Diet of Worms?
"Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen."
Perhaps the most notable words spoken in the Reformation, this according to early printed reports, was Luther's reply at Worms when urged to recant. He uttered the memorable lines in German on this day, April 18, 1521, and then, upon request, repeated their gist in Latin for those who did not understand his native tongue. He was sweating, said witnesses. With a victory gesture he slipped out of the room.
Frederick the Wise, Luther's supporter was uneasy. Did the scriptures condemn Luther or not? "He is too daring for me," the elector admitted. Nonetheless, on the next day, when asked to stand against Luther with the emperor, he did not sign the condemnation although the other four electors did so.
As for the Emperor, he reasoned that a single friar who went contrary to the whole church could not possibly be right. Descended from a long line of Christian emperors, he felt that to accept Luther's view was to betray the faith of his fathers. He would take prompt action against Luther, he vowed. But since Luther had been given safe conduct to Worms, he allowed him to depart in safety.
Luther did not leave Worms at once. For several days a committee reasoned with him, begging him not to rend the church in two. They pointed out that war would surely come to Germany. Melanchthon, his beloved associate, might be killed. Luther could not help but be moved, but his determination held. God's word must be followed whatever the cost. To this confrontation his stand against indulgences had finally brought him.
There are grounds to doubt that Luther said "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise." Although the earliest printed versions contain these lines, the official transcripts do not. Whether spoken or not, the words convey the brave monk's attitude. When Luther left Worms, the Reformation was irrevocable.
Martin Luther was at his noblest at Worms. His bold words have stirred men's imagination through subsequent centuries, for they have the same ring to them as Peter's famous defiance of the Sanhedrin. "Judge for yourselves whether we ought to obey God or men."
- Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand; A life of Martin Luther. New York: mentor, 1950.
- Durant, Will. The Reformation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.
- Ganns, H. G. "Luther, Martin." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- George, Timothy. "Luther, Martin." Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Timothy Larsen, editor. Downers-Grove, Illinois: Intevarsity Press, 2003.
- "Luther, Martin." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
Last updated April, 2007.
("Martin Luther's Most Noble Words" by Dan Graves published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/MichaelMajor