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Blog


Oct 31

Reformation Day

2017 | by Ryan Kelly | Category: The Church,Worship

It was 500 years ago.

In the year, 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther had been studying and lecturing on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He became fearfully captivated by one word near the beginning of Romans: “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed” (1:17). Luther later explained that he hated that phrase “righteousness of God,” for God’s righteousness, he thought, surely meant God’s righteous punishment of all unrighteous sinners. Knowing himself to be a sinner, he wrestled with “a fierce and troubled conscience” and “beat upon” the text to know what Paul meant.

At the same time Luther had another concern, but this one with increasing clarity. The Catholic Church had for many years sold indulgences. For a fee, one could pay-off the guilt and payment of sins. A new salesman of indulgences, Johann Tetzel, was creatively and aggressively making a bad practice worse. Luther had written against Tetzel’s tactics before, but now Tetzel was coming to Luther’s town of Wittenberg. So on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed to the church door Ninety-Five Theses meant to engender academic debate about such indulgences. At the time, no one could have anticipated—not even Luther himself—the reverberating effects of this moment. While many events, documents, and people were used of the Lord to bring about the Protestant Reformation, for 500 years the church has looked back to the nailing of Ninety-Five Theses upon the church door as a pivotal moment towards the recovery of the gospel.

While Luther’s concerns for indulgences grew in conviction and clarity, he continued to struggle with his own guilty conscience and how God’s righteousness could be good news (a gospel) for sinners. The “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 was of no comfort to him until the context made it clear: “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Like a lightning bolt, it hit him: God’s just-righteousness was a gift from God to those who believe; God’s just mercy is revealed in the gospel of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. “Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light,” he wrote. “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise through its open doors.” That word which Luther once hated—righteousness—had now come to be the source of all his hope and joy. In Romans, he later attested, there is the “very purest gospel; …every Christian should know it…[and] occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”

This is the essence of the Reformation. It’s what we celebrate today.