For Lutherans and many other Protestants in America, the last Sunday in October is celebrated as Reformation Sunday. Reformation Sunday honors Martin Luther's bold action on October 31st, 1517. On that date Luther posted his statement of faith, known as the 95 Theses, on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation. In some parts of Europe, Reformation Day is a civil holiday celebrated on October 31st, a day to commemorate the vast social and political change that resulted from Luther's actions.
Who Was Martin Luther?
Martin Luther, born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, to a devout Catholic family, was a scholarly, serious man. He attended the university in Erfurt and studied the law, but instead of working as a lawyer, he entered an Augustinian monastery and was ordained as a monk in 1507. Luther was tortured by his fear of hell, which drove him to endless good works and acts of piety, as well as self-flagellation and other acts of penance, such as lying in the snow for long periods of time on winter nights. Through reading the Bible, however, Luther came to believe people were saved not by good works or acts of penance, but through their faith in Jesus Christ.
Papal Indulgences and Other Issues
Luther was troubled by the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the selling of indulgences. The Catholic church sold papal indulgences which they claimed would eliminate the need for acts of penance in this life and in the hereafter. He was especially bothered by the sale of jubilee indulgences, which Pope Leo X sold, in part to pay for St. Peter's Cathedral. Luther became increasingly convinced that salvation came through faith alone, not works.
The 95 Theses
Martin Luther was a professor of theology. He was a monk and a devout Catholic with no intentions of starting a new church. He did, however, want to reform the church, and with that goal in mind, Luther wrote the 95 Theses, which detailed his objections to the selling of indulgences and its effect upon the people. He posted them on the door of the church because that was a common place for posting public notices. Within weeks, however, word of the theses had spread. Consequently, Luther was viewed by the church as a heretic, threatened with burning at the stake, and excommunicated by Pope Leo in 1520. Many theologians agreed with Luther, however, and the Protestant Reformation began.
Reformation Sunday Today
Reformation Sunday in the United States is celebrated as a day to honor the root beliefs of Protestant Christianity: that faith in Christ is all that's needed for salvation, and the Bible, not any human leader, is the true authority in matters of faith. As Luther said when questioned about his views, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
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