Do you know what happened five centuries ago on Tuesday, October 31? No, it was not the first Halloween, but millions around the world will celebrate it.
People were getting tired of the corruption in the Catholic Church in 16th century Europe. Some believers had refused to go along with the Pope for years, but a Catholic monk named Martin Luther went more public with his protests. On October 31, 1517 he nailed 95 theses against the Catholic practice of indulgences to the door of a church building in Wittenburg, Germany and issued a challenge to debate. Many today recognize this as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation Movement. Protestant denominations around the world will pay special tribute to Luther on the 500-year anniversary of his breakaway from Catholic tradition.
It is hard to overstate the impact of this religious revolution. It paved the way for the establishment of democracy and religious freedom in America over 200 years later.
In one way we can appreciate what Luther did 500 years ago. He risked his life for religious liberty. Can you imagine what our country would be like if we were under the grip of a church state like the one in his day? Luther lived in a time when it was against the law to have a different interpretation of the Bible than Catholic officials gave. To his credit, the German reformer set many free from the shackles of Roman theology.
But Luther went too far. He was determined to prove that men are saved by faith, not the works Catholic priests performed or prescribed. His zeal took him farther than the Bible. He ended up saying that works of any kind have nothing to do with salvation and that we are saved by faith only. That was a plain contradiction of James 2:24: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” What did Luther say about that verse? He was considered a Bible scholar, so he knew it was there. His answer? He said James contradicts what Paul said in Romans 4 about faith, so the book of James is not really inspired and does not belong in the Bible!
A lot has changed in politics and religion in the last five centuries. On the anniversary of his famous dispute, what should we say to people who ask what we think about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation? Perhaps we should respond with a question of our own. After all, Luther was a man. He was right about some things, but wrong about others. He was not inspired like Bible writers were. That question is:
“What does the Bible say?”
We need to go back more than 500 years if we want to know the Truth that truly sets us free.