Five hundred years ago today on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door.
Contrary to modern impressions, the Augustinian monk’s action was not a defiant and revolutionary gesture, but rather a dispassionate invitation for his fellow academics to debate the power of indulgences, and especially their abuse under the salesmanship of John Tetzel. The theses begin and end in this way:
1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said, “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.
2. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells;
95. And let them thus be more confident in entering heaven through many tribulations than through a false assurance of peace.
In the years that followed, Luther’s struggles to reform the church prompted him eventually to strike at the heart of the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation, as he embraced the doctrines of sola Scriptura (the Word of God cannot be subordinated to human tradition), sola fide (justification is by faith alone and not dependent on works-righteousness), and sola gratia (salvation is a gift of God’s grace and not earned by human merit). Though his rediscovery of the gospel took shape over the course of years, it was foreshadowed in the posting of his 95 Theses. Thus it is fitting for all Protestants, including Orthodox Presbyterians, to commemorate October 31 as “Reformation Day.”