By R. Kevin Johnson
Associated Baptist Press
(ABP) – Reformation Day is Oct. 31. Considering this day in light of our Nov. 1 remembrance of All Saints, the
Reformation takes on special meaning for Protestants as we remember the life and the ministry of Martin Luther.
On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. His aim was to protest the assertion by the Church that God’s favor could be gained by the purchase of indulgences. Luther taught that salvation and the remission of sin are available by grace through faith in Christ alone and that no monetary offering or good deed would or could achieve the same result. With this bold act of conviction, Luther set in motion a full revolt against the Church known as the Protestant Reformation.
Luther challenged church doctrine by teaching that all Christian believers have both the right and responsibility to carry forth the gospel (a principle we call “the priesthood of the believer”). To prove his point, Luther looked to the scriptures and cited 1 Corinthians 4:1, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries;” Revelation 5:10, “you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth;” and 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Luther also taught that no extra-biblical means was necessary to obtain divine truth.
Pope Leo X issued a papal bull in 1520 calling for Luther to retract his statements – a document that Luther burned in public in December of that same year. Three weeks later, on Jan. 3, 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the pope.
Christians (and society as a whole) owe a lot to Luther. His translation of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular made the scriptures accessible to the masses. Luther’s German translation served as a forerunner to the King James Bible. Also, his hymns are replete with profound bits of theology that have both instructed and inspired generations of believers:
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his Name, from age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.
On this Reformation Day, I will be taking a few moments to remember Martin Luther, a saint of God who has had a profound impact upon me and my development as a church musician, as a student of theology, as a Protestant pastor, and especially as a believer in the message of the Scriptures – that salvation comes as a free gift through grace by faith in Christ.
R. Kevin Johnson is a chaplain at Columbia University Medical Center and a freelance author based in New York City. He is a contributor to The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (December 2011, Wiley-Blackwell).