Every culture has its own fall feasts and festivals. Some are sacred, some are not. For example, I was once in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival the second most important festival in China after Chinese New Year. I was unfamiliar with the holiday that is celebrated with the making and sharing of mooncakes that symbolize completeness and reunion.
Similarly, I was unfamiliar with the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah until this month’s attack on Israel by Hamas. Simchat Torah is Hebrew for “the joy of Torah” and is a joyful celebration that marks the completion of the annual reading of the first five books of the Bible. Holidays play important cultural and religious roles in our lives.
However, the true meaning of a holiday can be forgotten or minimized with a secular replacement as in the case of Easter and Christmas. And holidays like Mid-Autumn Festival or Simchat Torah, maybe unfamiliar to us because our culture or traditions don’t emphasize them. And then there is the forgotten holiday of October 31st, Reformation Day, that is overshadowed by the costumes and candy of Halloween.
Reformation Day commemorates the events of the 1500’s that transformed Western society and brought about changes in the Christian church. Reformation Day is remembers when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. The Ninety-Five Theses were the foundation upon which the Protestant Reformation was built.
Luther’s theses were written in a humble and academic tone; they were questioning the church of Rome rather than accusing it. The central ideas of the theses were that God intended people to seek repentance and that faith alone, not deeds, leads us to salvation. Luther’s posting also criticized the church’s practice of selling indulgences.
The selling of indulgences was approved by Pope Leo X in 1516; it provided, for a price, a way to reduce the amount of punishment one need to endure because of their sins. In June of 1520, Pope Leo X condemned forty-one of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. At his subsequential hearing, Luther gave his famous “Here I Stand” speech where he stated that he would only yield his position if he was proven to be wrong by the Holy Bible.
Yet, possibly Luther’s greatest contribution was his translation of the bible into German in 1534. Luther translated the biblical text to the contemporary language of the people so that everyone could not only understand it but to also take their stand in it. Luther’s translation of the New Testament has been called “the most important and useful work of his whole life” because by it he brought the teachings and example of Christ into the hearts of the common German people.
Another corrective that came from the Reformation was the reformer’s emphasis of the “priesthood of all believers.” The biblical basis of this is found in Peter’s promise to those who believe, “You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Peter 2:4–5) Through Jesus, we no longer need a person to intercede for us with God; now every believer has access to God.
From Luther’s stand, the reformation of the Christian church was born. One of the fruits of the reformation was the Five Solas of the Christian faith. The solas were statements that further defined the distinctions between the early Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. The word sola is the Latin word for “only” and defined the biblical pleas of the Protestant reformers: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone and to the glory of God alone. The Five Solas offered a strong corrective to the faulty practices and beliefs of that day and remain relevant for us today.
Reformation Day is not about any one historic person; it is about a corrective that brought the church back to the bible as the only sure foundation for our faith. It’s essence can possibly be captured in the question, “Where is it written?” As Luther modeled, rather than trusting in the institutions of man, we’re to trust in scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone and to the glory of God alone. In practicing these, we too might spark a new reformation in our life, in our church and in our culture.