Reformation Day, Oct. 31

Reformation Day is a religious holiday celebrated on October 31, alongside All Hallows’ Eve, in remembrance of the Reformation, particularly by Lutheran and some Reformed church communities. It is a civic holiday in some German states.

It celebrates Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg in Germany on Oct. 31, 1517. The event is seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation. There are some questions of fact. The event was not publicized until 1546 by Philipp Melanchthon and no contemporaneous evidence exists for Luther’s posting of the theses. 

The liturgical color of the day is red, which represents the Holy Spirit and the Martyrs of the Christian Church. Luther’s hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God" is traditionally sung on this day. 

Luther had earned his Doctor of Theology degree in Wittenberg and was a respected professor there, as well as the assistant pastor of the Castle Church. Luther chose October 31 because it was the day before All Saints’ Day. The Castle Church’s front door opened on a main street of the city, and it was a good place to post a notice for public viewing. Luther knew that on the next day, November 1 — All Saints’ Day — the church would be filled with worshipers, many of whom were educated and literate. His act of posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door was the equivalent of publishing a journal article, taking out a newspaper ad, or putting up an Internet website today. Reformation Day is most often observed today on the Sunday prior to October 31.

Why Did Luther Post His 95 Theses?

There were numerous reasons identified in the theses. Luther addressed a number of objectionable teachings and doctrines, including salvation by works and the practice of selling indulgences. These were actual certificates that people could purchase from the Church that absolved them of their sins and promised their salvation and eternal life. Pope Leo X called for the sale of indulgences in Germany to help raise money to complete the construction of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The Pope said that those who purchased these indulgences would be absolved of all sin. Some of Luther’s parishioners purchased these indulgences and asked Luther about their validity. This led directly to his posting of the 95 Theses.

Reformation Themes

Luther argued that salvation could not be obtained by purchasing indulgences, through works of charity, by making a pilgrimage, or by performing other acts of piety and devotion. He argued that salvation was an act of God, given by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. God has already provided for our salvation by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and salvation is ours to accept through faith, not to achieve through works. A second major theme of the Reformation is the priesthood of all believers, meaning that Christians do not need an intermediary between them and God. It was the right and duty of all Christians to enter into their own personal relationship with God, to read the Bible and worship in their own language, and to pray directly to God rather than through another’s efforts

This law student turned Augustinian monk became the center of a great controversy after his theses were copied and distributed throughout Europe. Initially protesting the pope’s attempt to sell salvation, Luther’s study of Scripture soon led him to oppose the church of Rome on issues including the primacy of the Bible over church tradition and the means by which we are found righteous in the sight of God.

His last issue is probably Luther’s most significant contribution to Christian theology. Though preached clearly in the New Testament and found in the writings of many of the church fathers, the medieval bishops and priests had largely forgotten the truth that our own good works can by no means merit God’s favor. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and good works result from our faith, they are not added to it as the grounds for our right standing in the Lord’s eyes (Eph. 2:8-10). Justification, God’s declaration that we are not guilty, forgiven of sin, and righteous in His sight comes because through our faith alone the Father imputes, or reckons to our account, the perfect righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). 

Martin Luther’s rediscovery of this truth led to a whole host of other church and societal reforms and much of what we take for granted in the West would have likely been impossible had he never graced the scene. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German put the Word of God in the hands of the people, and today Scripture is available in the vernacular language of many countries, enabling lay people to study it with profit. He reformed the Latin mass by putting the liturgy in the common tongue so that non-scholars could hear and understand the preached word of God and worship the Lord with clarity. Luther lifted the unbiblical ban on marriage for the clergy and by his own teaching and example radically transformed the institution itself. He recaptured the biblical view of the priesthood of all believers, showing all people that their work had purpose and dignity because in it they can serve their Creator.

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