The date of October 31 really means only one thing for us Lutherans – no, not “Halloween” with its trick-or-treating (though there is a connection), but rather Reformation Day.
On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther posted these “theses” (statements) for scholarly debate among his fellow professors and theologians, much as a university professor might challenge his colleagues to a debate on a certain academic topic even in our day. What did Luther want to discuss and debate? The practice of the medieval Roman Church called “indulgences.” Indulgences were pieces of paper that a person could buy from church officials in order to ensure that a person’s time in purgatory would be decreased. Of course, the more one paid, the more time was deducted from the time in purgatory.
Luther chose October 31 because it is the eve of All Saints’ Day. (That’s also the meaning behind the word “Halloween” – all halloweds’ eve – that is, the eve of All Saints’ Day.) It was customary in Luther’s day for relics of certain saints to be honored on All Saints’ Day, and another part of Luther’s concern was over the abuse of praying to such relics. Thus, Luther timed his “95 Theses” and his debate to coincide with this aberrant practice of his day.
However, Luther never expected or planned that his “95 Theses” would cause a big fuss, let alone a whole “Reformation.” He simply wanted to address some abuses in Church teaching and practice. Luther never intended to “break away” and “start his own church,” as many mistakenly think. No, he wanted to work on reformation, that is, toward correcting and reforming certain faulty teachings and practices that had crept into the Western Church through the Middle Ages. He wanted to reform the Church based on the Scriptural message of God’s mercy, life, and forgiveness revealed and given in Christ Jesus.
That’s why we celebrate “Reformation Day”: to thank God for the light of the Gospel that He shed on the Western Church through the monk named Martin Luther. No, “Reformation Day” is not about rallying the troops to rejoice that we’re not Roman Catholic. No, “Reformation Day” is not a pep rally to make us proud to be Luther’s heirs. Rather, “Reformation Day” is a time for us to rejoice that our gracious God makes His Gospel – His forgiveness, life, and salvation – known through His Church on earth. Yes, sometimes that Church on earth needs to be reformed and called back to the Gospel message. Yes, each of us personally needs to be “reformed,” that is, brought to realize, rely on, and rejoice in God’s mercy shown in Jesus Christ.
So, if we truly want to celebrate “Reformation Day” in the spirit of Luther posting his “95 Theses,” we can take a good lead from his first thesis. As someone once said, the Reformation was really about repentance. And sure enough, that’s what we see in the first of Luther’s “95 Theses.” Here’s how it reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther wanted the Church to focus more on repentance than on seeing how much money it could raise by means of indulgences.
Now, we may want to ask ourselves: “What is repentance?” Since repentance is what sparked and fueled the Reformation, it’s most helpful to know what it is. Thirteen years after Luther posted the “95 Theses,” the Lutherans made a good, bold confession of faith in the city of Augsburg, Germany. This Augsburg Confession is the chief doctrinal statement of what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess, and it gives us this explanation of repentance:
Our churches teach that there is forgiveness of sins for those who have fallen after Baptism whenever they are converted. The Church ought to impart Absolution to those who return to repentance. Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven” (AC XII:1-5).In other words, repentance means 1) having sorrow over your sins, and 2) trusting God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. That’s what marks every individual Christian. That’s what marks the whole Christian Church. Celebrating “Reformation Day,” then, means celebrating God’s gift of repentance.
On a personal level, this certainly entails a daily and constant repentance – a daily and constant routine of confessing one’s rotten sinfulness and pleading for God’s rich mercy. The tax collector in Luke 18 serves as our best Biblical example. He prayed to God saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) Jesus commended him and said that he went home “justified,” that is, made right, forgiven, and vindicated before God. When we routinely confess our sinfulness and rely on God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, we also go home justified, forgiven, and vindicated before God.
This also leads us to treasure Private Confession and Absolution. No, Luther did not seek to “get rid of” it during the Reformation. Actually, he kept it, and he routinely went to Confession himself, even later in life, long after the Reformation teaching had spread. In fact, in 1537 (20 years after the “95 Theses”!), Luther said this,
Absolution, or the Power of the Keys, is an aid against sin and a consolation for a bad conscience; it is ordained by Christ in the Gospel. Therefore, Confession and Absolution should by no means by abolished in the Church….Perhaps the best and truest way to celebrate “Reformation Day” is to see your pastor for Confession and Absolution. In fact, I’m certain that would be the best way to celebrate “Reformation Day”! A sharp increase in people coming to Confession would show that we are increasingly living in repentance.
But the listing of sins should be free to everyone, as to what a person wishes to list or not to list. For as long as we are in the flesh, we will not lie when we say, ‘I acknowledge that I am a miserable sinner, full of sin.’ ‘I see in my members another law,’ and such. Since private Absolution originates in the Office of the Keys, it should not be despised, but greatly and highly esteemed, along with all other offices of the Christian Church (Smalcald Articles, VIII:1-2).
One final thing of “Reformation repentance” comes to mind. Not only do we repent personally, but we also repent as a whole body of Christians. Of what do we repent? Many things, to be sure, but let me focus briefly on one. “Reformation Day” also reminds us of the sad reality of a divided Christendom. Yes, we need to live in repentance for this! Yes, we need to beg God’s mercy for our personal and collective sins that cause and continue breaches in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Yes, we can even pray – on “Reformation Day” – that God would graciously reunite us with our brothers and sisters in other Christian churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and other Christian groups.
Am I saying that we should repent for Luther and the Reformation of the 1500s? Not at all. What I am saying is that we do face the tragedy of a divided Christendom. We can repent for that, and we can beg for God’s mercy to mend the rifts between churches. After all, didn’t Jesus Himself pray “that they may be one” even as He and His Father are one (John 17:11)? This “Reformation Day,” perhaps we need to take the same mind as Luther. We merely want to address and reform problems that have crept into the Church over time – sad divisions being one of them! – and we want the Gospel of Jesus Christ to predominate and rule the day. That’s what Reformation repentance is all about!