The Observance of the Protestant Reformation, October 31, 1517

What was Luther’s world like? Very different from ours in many ways no doubt, but we would recognize the beginnings of our own “civilized” life. By the 1400’s, advancements in communication, exploration, capitalism, humanism, science, and nationalism were creating upheaval in traditional ways of life. And because the Church was the main force for communicating with God, for stability, for order and tradition, the Church began to be impacted by these changes.

Enter Martin Luther, monk. As was the custom of the day, notices were posted on the door of the church for all to see, so that’s what the story says he did. 95 Theses, written by Luther as statements for discussion had two central beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds. Although these ideas had been advanced before by others, Martin Luther codified them at time ripe for religious reformation.

The system of indulgences, or buying merit so that one’s soul could exit purgatory, was Luther’s main target. The money spent by the people to purchase these merits was sent to the church in Rome.

The result of the posting of the 95 Theses eventually became the Protestant Reformation. For Protestants, purgatory is not necessary because Jesus Christ is sufficient.



Preparing for Reformation Sunday

“As Christians we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.”

— Martin Luther (The Freedom of a Christian)


Martin Luther posts 95 Theses

On October 31st, 1517, the priest and scholar Martin Luther approaches the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nails a piece of paper to it containing the revolutionary teachings that would begin the Protestant Reformation.

In his theses, Luther condemned to practice of asking payment – called “indulgences”- for the forgiveness of sins. At the time, a Dominican priest named Johann Tetzel, commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X, was in the midst of a major fundraising campaign in Germany to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Though Prince Frederick III the Wise had banned the sale of indulgences in Wittenberg, many church members traveled to purchase them. When they returned, they showed the pardons they had bought to Luther, claiming they no longer had to repent for their sins.

Luther’s frustration with this practice led him to write the 95 Theses, which were quickly snapped up, translated from Latin into German and distributed widely. A copy made its way to Rome, and efforts began to convince Luther to change his tune.He refused to keep silent, however, and in 1521 Pope Leo X formally excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church. That same year, Luther again refused to recant his writings before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Germany, who issued the famous Edict of Worms declaring Luther and outlaw and a heretic and giving permission for anyone to kill him without consequence. Protected by Prince Frederick, Luther began working on a German translation of the Bible, a task that took 10 years to complete.

The term “Protestant” first appeared in 1529, when Charles V revoked a provision that allowed the ruler of each German state to choose whether they would enforce the Edict of Worms. A number of princes and other supporters of Luther issued a protest, declaring their allegiance to God trumped their allegiance to the emperor. They became known to their opponents as Protestants; gradually this name came to apply to all who believed the Church should be reformed, even those outside Germany. By the time Luther died of natural causes, in 1546, his revolutionary beliefs had formed the basis for the Protestant Church.