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The Real Meaning of October 31

Do you have the candy ready for tonight? Is your costume ready to go? The most popular costumes will be witches, dinosaurs, Spider-man, Cruella de Ville, fairies and cowboys. But for some of us October 31 has a totally different meaning than what everyone else is thinking about today. I want to speak to the true meaning of today which has nothing to do with Halloween.

As Americans certain dates stand out for us: July 4, 1776. Dec. 7, 1941. Nov. 22, 1963. Sept. 11, 2001. October 31,1517 is a date that every Christian, especially every Protestant Christian should know by heart. Here’s why…[1]

In the 16th century – that’s 500 years ago - if you went to church you were Roman Catholic. With the exception of some parts of the world where the Easter Orthodox Church was dominant, the Roman Catholic Church was all there was.

There was a lot of frustration building within the church. There were problems and corruption in the leadership. Priests were known to get drunk or have concubines. Teachers and preachers were too academic and spoke way over people’s heads. Bishops and cardinals enjoyed great wealth and power but really didn’t serve the people. People saw the church as becoming more and more irrelevant.

Of course, the Roman Catholic Church has as its leader a Pope. Popes five-hundred years ago spent more time collecting art, building huge cathedrals and living in luxury than nurturing the spiritual life of the church.

The word “reform” means change, and people wanted reform.

Into this social and religious climate came a man named Martin Luther. Luther was from Germany and received a very good education. He studied to be a lawyer but through some circumstances became a Catholic monk.

Throughout his life, Luther was plagued with a sense of unworthiness before God. He felt like he could never please God. He kept a list of his sins and confessed them again and again. He practiced severe spiritual discipline and punished himself in hopes that he would feel better, but his conscience kept saying, “You fell short there.” “You were not sorry enough.” “Oh, you left that sin off your list.” Everything he tried only made his torment worse. He even grew to see God as cruel and unable to be satisfied.

Martin Luther felt God loved everybody but him.

Luther earned a degree in theology and received a position in the university in town of Wittenberg as a Bible teacher. As he read and studied Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther came to a life transforming – and really a world transforming – experience. God’s Word began to speak to him like never before.

Romans 1:16-17 were the verses that really caught Martin Luther’s attention.

In these verses Paul says that the gospel is the power of God to save anyone and everyone who believes it. The gospel is God’s plan of rescue. In this message God reveals his way of making us, who are sinful, rebellious human beings - right with him. The gospel has the power to save.

Salvation has two sides. We are saved from the judgment of God, and saved to a right relationship and eternal life with God.

Paul writes in Romans that “in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed.” What does that mean? Righteousness means to be right with God. It means to be accepted and at peace with God. This being right with God is “by faith from first to last” or some Bibles say “from faith to faith”.

We become right with God when we have faith.

There are three components to faith. The first is trust. Trust is a relational term. You don’t trust something but in someone. In the New Testament that someone is Jesus Christ. Second, faith involves belief: belief that what God has done in Jesus Christ is true and will be true whether anyone responds to it or not. Third, faith is commitment. We commit ourselves to God whether it is easy or hard. It is a decision, and each one of us has to make that decision.[2]

Jesus Christ is the content of this gospel message. Anyone who responds to him with faith – trust, belief and commitment - that what he has done is what makes us right with God and saves us, that anyone is set right with God. It isn’t how much good we do. It isn’t about earning enough points with God that he saves us. It is simply having faith that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is the only thing that is going to make us righteous before God.

Luther thought the phrase at the end of v. 17 that “the righteous will live by faith” means that only righteous people can have faith. Luther believed he was not righteous and therefore could not have faith and therefore was not saved before God. He said, “I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.”

Then one day he saw something he had never seen before. He realized that “the righteousness of God” meant the gift of righteousness that God freely and lavishly gives to sinners. He came to realize that where it reads “the righteous live by faith” means that faith in what God has done is what makes people right with God.

Faith is not something we do so that God will accept us, but faith is the trust that God has accepted us in Christ.[3] The gospel is that God has done what needs to be done and has acted first. What we do is just a response to his love and grace.

There is nothing to earn. There is no work you can do. There is no spiritual ladder you can climb. There is no living that is good enough to save yourself before God. Salvation is a gift. All we can do is receive it, and say, “OK. I accept this gift.”

The idea that we were right with God simply by faith was way different than what people were hearing in the churches of the day.

There was a great deal of spiritual fear at this time and the Roman Catholic Church played upon this for its own purposes. One of the main ways it did this was through the system of indulgences. An indulgence was a sum of money you paid for a priest or the church to assure you that you were forgiven. At its simplest, the sale of indulgences was selling forgiveness.

The Catholic Church taught the belief (nowhere found in the Bible) that after death people went to a place called Purgatory to completely work off their sins before they could go to heaven. Priests taught that if you paid certain sums of money – bought indulgences - you could earn credit against your own sins, therefore making your time in Purgatory shorter, and you could get your loved ones out of Purgatory right now.

One of the most effective salesmen of indulgences and relics was Johann Tetzel. He was so good the Pope hired him to fulltime to do this.

Tetzel went around asking the crowds to imagine hearing the voices of their dead relatives, calling out to them to have pity, pay the money and get them out of the torment in which they are currently suffering. He would preach that as soon as people put their coins in his coffer, the souls of their loved ones would be freed from the suffering they were experiencing. People bought up indulgences like we bought toilet paper at the beginning of this pandemic. They did this to have their sins and the sins of their loved ones forgiven. They didn’t know any better.

The money was used by the priests for all kinds of luxuries. It was a racket going on.

This type of corruption made Martin Luther burn. Remember he was a priest within this church and he was a teacher of the Scriptures. Having come to realize that Scripture said the only way forgiveness of sins and right relationship with God comes is by faith, Luther knew what the Pope, archbishops, cardinals, and priests were giving the people was wrong.

On October 31, 1517, Luther took a list of 95 statements or theses, as they were called, that he had written against the system of indulgences and nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg for all to read. The 95 theses were really a call for a debate. He was calling out the church authorities.

Luther was convinced that the Bible taught we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, and nothing else. This is what he said,

“…we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and the truth of God, which cannot deceive.”

The 95 theses were statements of challenge to what the Roman Catholic Church was doing. Luther wrote them because he was so convicted that it is only God’s grace by which we can be saved.

Luther engaged in several debates with authorities in the Roman Catholic Church over the next three years. He publicly and loudly challenged the authorities solely on the Bible. Understand, that Luther was not the first to raise these questions. It’s just that up to this time anyone with the courage to take on the dominant religious leadership had been killed. Finally, Luther was excommunicated. He was thrown out of the church.

In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor summoned Luther one final time. Luther was given one final chance to take back all he had been teaching, preaching, and writing.

This is what he said to them, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”

People all over Europe were taken by Luther’s teaching. Tired of the corruption in the church, and the spiritual wasteland it had become, people were hungry for the Word of God and the promises of God’s grace.

Luther exposed the error that human beings had the ability to get themselves to God, or even get near enough for God to accept them. Luther also realized that it was not a matter of God being far from us and us having to strive to reach him. The reverse was true. People were distant from God, and God came in Christ all the way to meet us.[4] It wasn’t really new. It was just a reclaiming of the gospel of grace.

When Luther posted those 95 Theses to that church door it began what we know as the Protestant Reformation. It was fueled by the Word of God. Thus began the Protestant church movement. It was called “Protestant” because they were “protesters”.

Some people left the Catholic church and joined new Protestant churches that began to spring up all over Europe.

At the same time a new piece of technology had been invented: the printing press. Now Bibles, which previously had to be copied by hand, could be copied in mass. Before only churches and priests had copies of the Bible. Now the common person could get their hands on parts of the Bible and read it for themselves.

Up to that time the Bible was only in Latin. Luther translated the Bible into German – the common language of the people so that all could read and hear it in their own tongue. The Bible was printed as widely as possible. People read it and heard the preaching of the Reformers. They came to understand themselves in relation to God in a new way. They understood that being right with God comes by faith.

Hence, this is who we are today. The Presbyterian Church is a branch off of the tree of the Reformation movement. We read Scripture from what is called a Reformed perspective, that is to say, that we hold to that Reformation Scriptural conviction that salvation comes through faith in the mighty work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection from death.

We still have not gotten over Oct. 31, 1517 when Luther first nailed those 95 Theses to that church door. This is part of our tradition and our history.

The Reformation really opened things up. No longer was the Pope or any human the authority. Scripture was the authority. Forgiveness wasn’t something to be earned, but something that came freely by the grace of God. No longer were priests the only ones who could serve and minister. The Reformation reclaimed the New Testament teaching that all believers were priests. People could have a direct relationship with God, unmediated by any other person. Now people heard messages directly from the Bible as the Reformers gained a reputation from teaching the actual words and verses of the Word of God.

October 31 celebrates the Protestant Reformation. There are three significant things I highlight about the Reformation:

1. The emphasis on the Word.

Martin Luther and the Reformation reclaimed the power of the Word of God. Sola scriptura became one of the mottos, meaning scripture alone.

There is a reason over the centuries people have taken such pains to translate, write and preserve what we have in the Old and New Testaments. There is a reason it is read and preached in churches all over the world. There is a reason it is the authority of the Christian life. Paul writes in 2 Timothy,

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”[5]

The Reformers believed that the Bible is how God has spoken to humanity. There is no growth in the life with God without the Scriptures. And the more we dig into it, the more we will grow. Nothing beats time spent in God’s Word when it comes to true spiritual growth. The nutrients for the Christian life are in the Bible. It is to be read, studied, meditated upon, taught, preached, memorized, and heard.

I suspect that the spiritual shallowness and lack of faith that characterizes our day is the result of biblical illiteracy and poor interaction with God’s Word. We cut off the main way God speaks to us and then wonder why we feel so far from him or don’t have any strength in our faith. You show me a person who regularly reads and studies his or her Bible, and I will show you someone who has a life the reflects Jesus.

There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t get myself into the word of God, and not just for my duties as a pastor. I do it for myself because I don’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

It was the preaching, the hearing, and – because of the printing – the reading of the Word of God that set off a Reformation throughout the world. It will also reform us.

2. The power of the gospel

If you have ever felt that you just can’t cut it with God, or that you aren’t religious or spiritual enough, or have wondered if you can ever be good enough in his eyes, there is good news. God has done what we could never do. Our sin creates astronomical distance between us and God, but he has forgiven us and has brought us to himself.

I know our modern times explains all our behavior away to psychological, sociological, or genetic factors. We say we are too sophisticated to believe in sin, yet our lives are filled with more alienation, pain, and brokenness than ever. We say sin is too pessimistic, and what we really need is to feel better about ourselves, not worse.

The good news of the message in Christ is the freedom that comes when someone is honest. The power of the message is that it doesn’t make excuses or rationalizations, but in honesty says, “I am wrong before God”. And then accept by faith that God in his grace gives us a right relationship with him in exchange for such honesty.

There is a freedom when you are finally able to say, “I don’t have to carry this anymore. God forgives and helps me.” And saying that everyday.

The power of the gospel is not only the diagnosis of the problem but the cure for the problem. God has come to us himself in Jesus Christ, lived the life that we should have lived, and died the death that we should have died, and has given us his righteousness. Romans 1 “…in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith…”

You might say, “but I don’t feel like I’m right with God.” It’s not our feelings that determine the reality of our relationship with God. It is what God has said about us that matters. And he has said that he sees us as forgiven, right and loved by him. It is a free gift of grace through Jesus Christ to all who have faith.

This is the gospel message that we as Christians believe and stake our lives on. In his Word

3. The flourishing of Protestant Christianity.

The Protestant tradition which was set off by Martin Luther leading the Reformation, has given birth to a number of churches. One of those is our Presbyterian church. Each church within Protestantism took the Reformation in a little different direction, but we all grew out of this. That is why this date is significant for us. When Luther posted those 95 Theses the church changed.

One of the interesting things about Martin Luther is that he was a song writer. One of his favorite things to do was to take popular bar songs and change the words so that they became songs of faith. Imagine taking a song by The Rolling Stones or Lady Gaga and putting Christian words to it.

Many of us know “Away In A Manger.” That is one of Luther’s songs. But the most-sung hymn of Luther’s is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. The title comes from the opening of Psalm 46 which we used to open our worship this morning: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. The original title of the hymn was “A safe stronghold our God is still”. It has kind of become the anthem of the Reformation.

There are two words we will sing that I want to clarify so we will know what we are singing.

The word “bulwark” means “strong defense” or “support.” We will sing also sing “Lord Sabaoth.” Sabaoth is from the Hebrew word for “hosts” as in Lord of Hosts. Lord of Hosts refers to God as the leader of the angel armies of heaven.

As we sing this great song of the faith, pay attention to the words. They are very strong words. Let them lift your faith and heart to the Lord.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for Martin Luther, whose courage and faith but a spotlight on your grace. Thank you for your Word that tells us who you are and how we can be in relationship with you. Thank you for the good news that you came into this world in Jesus, to save us. Help us to believe the gospel and live by faith. Amen.

[1] Resources that have helped me in this sermon: Water From a Deep Well, Gerald Sittser; The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History, Curtis, Lang and Petersen; The Reformation, Owen Chadwick [2] See James Edwards, Romans, p.42 [3] People’s Commentary, p.471 [4] Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 364 [5] 3:16

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