Note: This post originally appeared in October 2005 as a 3-part series. It appears here as a single post.
The moment October arrives the Halloween displays appear. You may or may not notice them tucked into an obscure corner of the Christmas decorations at most retail stores (that’s another topic) but they are there. Many churches take the opportunity to rail against the evils of Halloween. Others provide alternative “harvest parties” as a means of keeping youngsters from mischief. But October is an extremely significant month for Protestant churches and we miss an incredible teaching opportunity by focusing our attention in an “anti-Halloween” manner. In fact, October 31 is one of the most significant dates in the history of the Church. We should seize a golden opportunity and focus our attention backwards to that date in the year 1517 when…
The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was Leo X. He wanted to build the grandest cathedral ever constructed and dedicate it to the apostle Peter. Money was an issue. So he authorized the selling of indulgences to help fund his project.
Now, it was a Roman Catholic belief that the good deeds performed by the Saints was more than enough to secure their places in heaven. The good deeds they performed over and above those necessary to get them into heaven were stored in a “treasury of merit” held in trust by the Church. An indulgence was a document issued to a member of the Church whereby some of the merit held in trust in the treasury was credited to them or to a loved one. This merit would reduce the time they or their loved one had to spend in purgatory. The indulgence pictured above reads, “By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days.”
Pope Leo X authorized the sale of a special indulgence (pictured at left), one that would allow the buyer to forego purgatory altogether. He sent representatives out to sell the indulgences to raise the money necessary for building St. Peter’s Cathedral. One of his most effective salesmen was a man named John Tetzel. Tetzel played on the sympathies of church members. He told them they had an opportunity to free their loved ones from purgatory immediately. “When the coin in the coffer rings,” he would say, “The soul from purgatory springs.”
All of this shameless salesmanship and bartering with God’s grace caught the attention of a young Augustinian Monk who intended to speak against the practice. His name was Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who struggled deeply with his condition before a Holy God. He observed all of the ordinances of the Catholic Church and was a model monk practicing asceticism and living in poverty. Yet, he could not find peace. His superiors sent him to the town of Wittenberg to be a professor of theology. During his intense studies of the Scripture Luther discovered, for the first time, that salvation comes by grace through faith alone.
He was awakened not only to the precious Word of God but also to the deep distortions and corruption within the Church. He was particularly incensed at the practice of selling indulgences. Why, Luther wondered, when the Church supposedly has access to a treasury of merit would the Pope extort money from believers rather than dispense the grace freely? Luther considered this practice a horrible perversion of God’s grace. He expressed his specific objections to the practice in a document he entitled the 95 Theses and, on October 31, 1517, nailed it to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
This single act was the spark that touched off a firestorm with an intensity Luther could not have anticipated. It is considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
After posting the 95 Theses Luther began a prolific career as a writer. He began to put in print his views on the corruption of the Catholic Church and on the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. His works became widely circulated and caused quite a stir. Pope Leo X referred to Luther as “a wild boar loose in God’s vineyard.” It was something the Catholic Church could not overlook.
In 1520 Leo X issued a Papal Bull (pictured at right) excommunicating Luther from the Church and ordering him to Rome within 60 days to recant. Luther responded by burning the Bull at the gates of Wittenberg on December 10 of that same year.
In 1521 Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet (Assembly) of Worms to recant. To help insure his appearance he was guaranteed safe conduct to and from the Diet. Seeing it as an opportunity to defend his positions, Luther agreed and traveled to Worms. After hours of study and prayer Luther refused to recant saying, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I Stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
He was declared both a heretic and an outlaw. While he had been guaranteed safe passage a conspiracy had been hatched to kill Luther on his return trip. Luther’s friends, apparently, were aware of the plan, because they donned masks and “captured” him while he traveled through the forest on his way back to Wittenberg. They galloped away in the darkness with Luther and thwarted the efforts to kill him.
He was taken to a castle known as the Wartburg in the Black Forest. Here he hid from the Catholic authorities. He used his time to translate the Bible into German, as it was his firm conviction that the Word of God belonged to everyone, not just religious scholars.
Eventually he left the Wartburg disguised as a knight named Junker Jorg (pictured at left). He continued to write and preach, producing hundreds of volumes and thousands of sermons over the course of his ministry.
It is my hope that churches will focus more attention on educating members about the wonderful historical legacy we have in the foundations of the Protestant Reformation rather than spending time focused on the pagan origins of Halloween. October can be a wonderful time of exploring an incredible story, one filled with courage, conviction, daring escapes and rescues, horsemen dashing through forests, hiding in castles and, most of all, the restoration of biblical doctrines on salvation. October is our month to celebrate reformation.