Nearly 500 years ago on October 31, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Castle Church in Wittenberg. In so doing, he stamped out Halloween and paved the way for Reformation Day! Well, hardly, but in evangelical and reformed circles that sometimes seems to be how the story goes. No longer do Christians have to miss out on the fun aspects of All Hallows Eve. Now you and your little ones can dress up like your favorite Reformation character, party like it’s 1517 and eat sanctified sugary sweets. Hurrah!
Now I am not saying that a celebration of the Reformation is wrong. Costumes are fun, parties are enjoyable times of fellowship, and candy is a delicious treat. The decision to refrain from or partake in the festivities of Halloween is also one that should be made thoughtfully (some thoughts are here.) Yet in our celebrations, let’s not forget why October 31 was such a crucial day for Luther to post his theses. For what comes after Halloween should concerned us greatly.
Abuse of indulgences were what prompted Luther to pen his theses. What is an indulgence?
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
The idea that those who have not done enough in this life to merit heaven, but haven’t been too bad to be tormented in hell, may have their waiting period in purgatory shortened or absolved by the aid of the living here on earth, is the reasoning behind indulgences. What is purgatory, you say?
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. (Catholic Catechism, #1030)
Luther was upset with the abuses he saw in the selling of indulgences, especially in plenary indulgences.
Contrast these ideas of indulgences and purgatory with the Second London Baptist Confession:
Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf; yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners. (11.3)
Those in Roman Catholicism who have lived “exemplary fidelity to the Lord” receive the title of saint. As such, no one currently living would be called a saint, but a pilgrim. Castle Church (also known as All Saints Church) in Wittenberg was the church to which Luther nailed his theses. It contained a large number of relics that would be exhibited on November 1, or All Saints’ Day. These relics were bits of bone and rope purported to be connected to the life of Christ, the apostles, or the saints. Through viewing these relics indulgences would be granted to the viewer. Many would come out to see these relics, and Luther’s theses would surely be spotted.
Again, compare this idea of special “saints” with the Baptist Confession:
All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.(26.2)
If viewing relics were not enough to grant entrance into heaven for deceased loved ones, then the Sunday after gives another chance. That is All Souls’ Day, where prayers are especially offered for those who have died but are not quite in heaven yet. While Luther did not seem to have an issue with praying for the dead, it is important to note that the dead have no need to be prayed for, as they are glorified or in torment.
These practices of the Catholic Church in Luther’s day seem to be a vestige of the past. We delight in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as well we should. Yet let us remember that those practices of the Roman Catholic Church are still in effect today. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are back-to-back this year. Many believe in this system of works righteousness. As history has shown, though, the Lord has brought his elect out from Rome before, and will do it again. May we be faithful witnesses of His truth.
As we remember Reformation Day, we remember the heroes of the Reformation. We may admire the brave men, women, and children who professed faith in ages past. Learning about those who endured persecution yet remained stalwart in their belief is an encouragement when battling our own trials. Hebrews 11 gives us examples of the many great deeds of those faithful who have gone before us. Yet it does so to point us to something greater: Jesus.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Soli Deo Gloria!