While October 31 is normally celebrated as a time to get candy from strangers, dress up in awkward costumes, and embrace the feelings of fear we would normally try desperately to avoid—not my favorite holiday if you can’t tell—the day is significant to many of the world’s Christians for a different reason.
It was on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, sparking the Protestant Reformation and changing the course of Christian history.
It’s important to note, however, that Luther never intended to do any of that. He simply desired to correct what he saw as clear evidence of clerical abuses and faults within the Catholic church.
The most egregious of these wrongs related to the selling of indulgences, which were essentially blessings from the pope that came with the promise of reducing or eliminating a deceased person’s time in purgatory.
And while we may now look back on that practice in disgust, the truth is actually worse than you might think.
Why indulgences were so significant
Indulgences had long been part of Catholic theology, but seldom had they been emphasized to the same degree as in the early 1500s.
The idea sprang from an unbiblical belief inherited from the Montanists—a fringe group of radicals during the early church period—that separated sins into venial and mortal. Venial sins did not put a person’s salvation at risk while mortal sins would lead to a person’s damnation even if they had already put their faith in Jesus.
However, sins of both varieties had to be atoned for before a person could reach heaven. This distinction is also the reason the Catholic church has taught that suicide leads to damnation since murder is a mortal sin, and you can’t atone for it if the person you’re murdering is yourself.
Consequently, it was believed that there must be a place between heaven and hell where those who are saved can pay for any unatoned sins at the time of their death.
Yet the church also taught that the pope had the authority to remit that spiritual debt and allow a person to enter heaven. This belief came from their interpretation of Christ’s statement to Peter in Matthew that “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
However, few profited from the sale of indulgences to the same degree as Pope Leo X.
By the time Leo became pope, the Church in Rome was running precariously low on money, and the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica—begun by his predecessor—was in danger of halting. As a member of the famed Medici family, who owed much of their fortune to the banking industry and the “opportunities” that lifestyle presented, Pope Leo X had few qualms about using all of the resources at his disposal to rectify the situation. As such, he began encouraging the sale of indulgences throughout Italy while other church leaders across Europe followed his example.
Albert of Brandenburg, the archbishop of Magdeburg, was chief among them.
The spark of Reformation
Albert owed a large sum of money after bribing the pope to let him also become archbishop of the neighboring region of Mainz. It was against church law for someone to hold that office over two areas, so Albert needed a special allowance from the pope to do so. In order to repay that debt, he employed a man named Johann Tetzel to travel through much of Germany and sell indulgences, with half the proceeds going to the Vatican and the other half going to himself.
However, when Tetzel arrived at Wittenberg, where Martin Luther was teaching, Prince Frederic wouldn’t let him enter the city, so Tetzel set up shop outside of town. Now, to what degree that initial denial was the result of an agreement with Luther, who had already written strongly against indulgences, or more because Frederic feared Tetzel would take money away from his church, we can’t know. Either way, though, Tetzel drew large crowds from the city, which angered Luther greatly.
In response, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door, in which he questioned not only the sale of indulgences but also the pope’s power over purgatory, ultimately concluding that the heir of St. Peter must not understand how indulgences were being presented because surely, if he did, he would put a stop to such a clearly unbiblical concept. After all, if Pope Leo really did have the authority to release people from purgatory, Luther argued that he would do so without requiring people to pay for that blessing.
Now, if all of this had occurred a century before, it’s likely that Luther would have caused a bit of a local stir that would have remained confined to Wittenberg and, perhaps, the surrounding cities. However, by this time the printing press had been around long enough to gain widespread use, and Luther’s 95 Theses were quickly translated and distributed throughout much of Europe. And though the pope did not initially pay much attention to the development, expecting it to go away on its own, within two years Luther would be excommunicated and the Protestant Reformation would be beyond the Vatican’s power to stop.
Therein lies the lesson we should take from Luther’s example.
One of the least understood passages in Scripture
Luther was hardly the first to point out the flaws within the Catholic Church during this period of history, and he would not be the last. But his ideas were allowed to proliferate in a way that the reform efforts of his predecessors did not. As such, it was harder to prevent the truth from influencing the thoughts and lives of countless others.
Truth still has that same power today.
It may not always seem like it, and truth is often silenced more by being drowned out than contained in our present world. Yet, where truth is heard, it still has the power to change people.
One of the most often cited yet least understood passages of Scripture in our culture today is Christ’s statement that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). But the key to that promise lies in the preceding verse, where our Lord declared that such freedom is only available to those who “abide in my word” (8:31).
As Christians, our job is to share that word with others and allow God’s truth to transform their lives in ways we cannot.
With whom can you share God’s truth today?