(The following article was written by Philip and illustrated by our daughter Priscilla and published in the monthly newsletter of the New Zealand Tamil Christian Fellowship)
If you look at your calendar you will find October 31st marked as Halloween. Most calendars do not mention that this day is also celebrated as Reformation day. Reformation day is one of the most important events in all of history although it has been largely forgotten. Is it a coincidence that Halloween and Reformation fall on the same day? No, they fall on the same day because an Augustinian monk planned it that way. On this day in 1517 this monk by name Martin Luther nailed his famous ninety-five theses onto the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg as a protest primarily against the system of indulgences, which was practiced by the church of his day, the Roman Catholic Church.
‘Indulgences’ in the theology of the Roman Catholic Church
The church taught that among the people who are covered by the grace of God, very few would go directly to heaven, but would instead go to a place called Purgatory, which was a place of torment and excruciating fires. Most Christians, according to the Roman Catholic Church, could not go to heaven because, although their guilt has been forgiven, they had not fully paid the debt of punishment for their transgressions.
This debt could be paid off by means of something known as indulgences. The Roman Catholic Church believed that the church’s treasury was rich with an abundance of merit based on the righteousness of Christ and the good deeds of the saints. So when an individual confessed his sins, recited the rosary, did penance, or gave alms, the church transferred some of that merit to pay the debt of punishment or the wages of sin. According to the theology of the Roman Catholic church, not only could you pay towards your own debt, so that you spend less time in Purgatory, but you can also transfer this merit to your near and dear ones who were languishing in Purgatory.
The gospel in the Bible
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23)
Human beings, because of Adam’s sin and their own sins, are lost and spiritually dead, being separated from a holy God. The wages of sin is death.
The church’s treasury of merit cannot pay the wages of sin. The Bible speaks of no treasury of merit that the church possesses, to which the good deeds of the saints can add merit. No human being, not even the holiest person on earth can add to the righteousness of Jesus. His atonement can pay off the debt of everyone who believes in Him and comes to Him with repentance. Indeed, the just shall live by faith, and faith alone. Nothing that we do, neither penance nor prayer, can save us. Those who the Lord saves, He saves completely; when they die, they go to heaven. Purgatory is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Those who are not saved go to hell. The Bible teaches that once we die physically and leave this earth, we can do nothing more to improve the status of our souls. No one on earth or heaven will effect a change in our state.
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, (Heb 9:27)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor 5:10)
This is the word that God has spoken, and let not man doubt its veracity.
Indulgences sold for money—a new low
During the time of Martin Luther, the church first began to sell indulgences for money. Another monk, named Johann Tetzel was in charge of selling these papal indulgences in German places. The proceeds of the sale would go into the building project of St. Peters in Rome that Pope Leo X had set his heart upon. One could pay money and receive the indulgence in the form of a piece of paper, a letter of transfer of merit, which guaranteed forgiveness of sin for himself or others.
In 1517, Johann Tetzel manipulated the emotions of the people with his sermons and speeches. In one sermon, he said:
‘Listen to the voices of your dear relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torments from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears, Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?” Remember that you are able to release them, for
‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.’
Roland Bainton, Here I stand (Lion Publishing plc, 1990), p.78
Is it not painfully clear that the church of Luther’s day had moved far from the plan of God?
But why did Luther choose to nail the theses on Halloween?
Halloween is the day before All Saints Day, which falls on 1st Nov. Just as the evening before Christmas is Christmas Eve, the day before All Saints day was All Saints Eve or All Hallowed’s Eve, which was later shortened to Halloween.
All Saints Day started as a memorial day on which the dead saints were remembered. By the time of Luther, All Saint’s Day became the big day on which people would visit the relics ─ saints’ bones, dirt from holy sites, pieces supposedly from the cross and so on. Wittenberg was like a tourist spot on that day because the Elector of Wittenberg, Frederick had collected hundreds of interesting relics in Wittenberg’s Castle Church. People flocked there to earn a special indulgence for venerating the relics.
In that year of 1517, there was a plan to sell papal indulgences in a big way by proclaiming the introduction of a better quality of indulgences that you had to buy with money. These indulgences could supposedly grant full remission of sins. It was an ideal occasion firstly because of the crowds and secondly because the day after All Saints Day was All Souls Day, when people remembered, prayed for, and “assisted’ their departed loved ones in the purgatory; this would make them more inclined to buy the indulgences.
If All Saints Day was a good day to introduce the new indulgence, then All Saints Eve was ideal for Luther to nail his ninety-five theses on to the door of Castle Church, and this is what he did on October 31st. Nobody was aware of his plan until then.
Gratitude for the Reformation of yester year
During those times the Bible was not accessible to the common man and was available only to the clergy. The gospel was not being preached, but instead the people heard select portions of the scripture, and that too read in a language that they did not understand. Whatever the clergy said was accepted as truth and their interpretations of scripture blindly followed.
Luther who had to flee for his life began translating the Latin Bible into the common German vernacular. It was Luther’s German version of the Bible that inspired great translators like William Tyndale to continue the work of spreading the word of God to common people. Today if you have a Bible in your home, you owe a great debt of gratitude to Martin Luther.
Of course the Reformation was not the work of Martin Luther, or of any other man. Luther, and the other leaders of the movement like Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and John Knox were simply tools in the hands of God. They were human, and they had their faults and shortcomings. Yet they also, like the imperfect characters of the Bible, were used greatly by God. They risked their lives in taking a stand for the gospel.
Responsibility for Reformation today
We may pride ourselves that in our times, we do not buy indulgence to receive false assurances. But do we realize that we too have a number of false gospels available in the market? Tetzel pales into insignificance when compared to modern peddlers of the gospel. For every Tetzel then, there are hundreds of false preachers today. People are emotionally manipulated and made to part with their money by means of sob stories and half truths. In these days when we do not carry cash around, details of credit cards are gladly accepted during promotion campaigns for various schemes that are floated by these evangelists, and for various buildings being built by them.
Too often the gospel is promoted as a pathway to prosperity, wholeness and health and not forgiveness. God is presented as a helpless guest knocking at our doors and not as Sovereign Lord. God is not presented as a righteous judge any more but only as one desperately seeking to hug and kiss people.
No, reformation is not a one-time event. We desperately need another reformation. Perhaps, we need it more today than ever before. Are we prepared to take a stand for the gospel that is found in the Bible?
(Art: Luther nailing the theses on the door – By Priscilla Dhinakar)