Halloween or Reformation Day? The Significance of October 31, 1517
October 31st is only four days away and I suspect that preparations are already underway for the celebration of Halloween. Let me take this opportunity to strongly encourage you to celebrate October 31st, but not for the same reason given by most in our society. Although the last day of October is most frequently referred to as Halloween, our focus as Christians should be on the momentous event that occurred in Wittenberg, Germany, in the year 1517. Continue reading . . .
October 31st is only four days away and I suspect that preparations are already underway for the celebration of Halloween. Let me take this opportunity to strongly encourage you to celebrate October 31st, but not for the same reason given by most in our society. Although the last day of October is most frequently referred to as Halloween, our focus as Christians should be on the momentous event that occurred in Wittenberg, Germany, in the year 1517.
Let’s return to the first few years of the 16th century in order to set the stage for what happened. In order to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter's church in Rome, Popes Julius II and Leo X sanctioned the indiscriminate sale of indulgences. In the language of Rome, indulgentia is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment, in particular, the remission of the temporal (not eternal) punishment for sin on the condition that one perform specified good works and make generous financial contributions to Rome. Only God can forgive the eternal punishment of sin, but the sinner must still endure the temporal punishment for sin, either in this life or in purgatory. This latter penalty was under the control of the papacy and priesthood. Thus, for a price, the church can reduce both the degree and duration of punishment in purgatory, both for you and your deceased loved ones who are already there.
Leading the sale of indulgences in Germany was a Dominican monk, well-known for his immorality and drunkenness, by the name of Johann Tetzel. He began his trade on the border of Saxony, at Juterbog, just a few hours from Wittenberg. Tetzel was particularly crude and mercenary in his tactics. He used poetic phrases to highlight the benefit of indulgences. For example,
"When the coin in the coffer doth ring,
The soul out of purgatory doth spring."
Here is one excerpt from a sermon he preached:
"Indulgences are the most precious and the most noble of God's gifts. . . . Come and I will give you letters, all properly sealed, by which even the sins that you intend to commit may be pardoned. . . . But more than this, indulgences avail not only for the living but for the dead. . . . Priest! Noble! Merchant! Wife! Youth! Maiden! Do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss: We are suffering horrible torments! A trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it, and you will not! "
It was difficult for the people to resist Tetzel's ingenious appeals to both selfishness and love for one's parents. The story is told that after Tetzel made a large sum of money from the sale of indulgences in Leipzig a man approached him and asked if he could buy an indulgence for a future sin he planned on committing. Tetzel said yes, and they agreed on a price. Later the man attacked and robbed Tetzel, explaining that this was the future sin he had in mind!
Tetzel had a "fee schedule" for the forgiveness of sins:
Witchcraft - 2 ducats
Polygamy - 6 ducats
Murder - 8 ducats
Sacrilege - 9 ducats
Perjury - 9 ducats
Martin Luther lost his patience when a stumbling drunkard handed him a certificate of indulgence as warrant for his inebriated condition.
Indulgences could also be obtained by viewing or venerating certain religious relics. Luther's prince, Frederick the Wise, owned one of the largest relic collections in the area, over 19,000 pieces, worth more than 1,900,000 days' indulgence. Frederick's collection included a piece of the burning bush, soot from the fiery furnace, milk from Mary's breast, and a piece of Jesus' crib, just to name a few. Cardinal Albrecht's collection of relics was worth 39,245,120 days' indulgence!
Infuriated by this blasphemous turn of events, at noon on October 31, 1517, Luther posted to the door of the castle-church at Wittenberg, 95 theses or propositions on the subject of indulgences and invited a public discussion on the topic. There was little initial response, but rapid circulation of the theses (entitled "Disputation to explain the Virtue of Indulgences") was certain to stir things up. Philip Schaff writes this of the theses:
"They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse. They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter's Church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50). They imply belief in purgatory. They nowhere mention Tetzel. They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther's theology and piety. He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. When the Theses were republished in his collected works (1545), he wrote in the preface: I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submerged in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope."
And the rest, so they say, is history. The Protestant Reformation had been launched, and the recovery of the true gospel of the saving grace of God through faith alone in Christ alone was underway. So make this the reason for your celebration on the 31st and the focus of your gratitude to God.