Though Halloween is often associated with knocks on the door and children’s voices saying “trick or treat,” there was one Halloween knock on the door which was heard around the world.
It happened a long time ago — 504 years ago, to be exact — on Oct. 31, 1517. Halloween was then called All Hallows Eve, the evening leading into All Saints Day. The knock on the door wasn’t just on any door but on the church door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, located in Saxony (part of modern-day Germany). And the knocking wasn’t to get someone to answer the door. It was the knocking of a German monk and university professor named Martin Luther as he nailed his 95 Theses (or statements) to the church door in hope that his discussion points could be studied and debated and some abuses corrected.
Luther’s 95 Theses were directed against false teachings and erring practices in the Roman Church of Luther’s day — chief of those being the selling of indulgences, which were church-sanctioned papers offering, for a price, the forgiveness of sins and freeing souls from purgatory (a place, according to the Church of Rome, where the dead went to suffer and pay off earthly punishments for their sins if they hadn’t done enough good works or lived a holy enough life). A man named Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences in Saxony and Wittenberg and, through their sale, raising money for the Roman Church.
Luther learned from the Bible that everyone was a sinner and that forgiveness of sins cannot be earned by good works or be bought and sold. Forgiveness is God’s free gift to sinful mankind for the sake of the sinless life and innocent sufferings and death of God’s own dear Son, Jesus Christ. Forgiveness of sins is received when people who are troubled over their own sinfulness look in faith to Jesus and His cross for God’s pardon and forgiveness and for life everlasting.
Luther pointed out that Christians should listen to the Bible, which is God’s Word, rather than to popes and church leaders. He said people should place their faith and hope in Christ Jesus and His innocent sufferings, death and resurrection rather than in human works and church-sanctioned indulgences. He hoped his theses or statements could be debated and discussed and the errors in church doctrine could be corrected.
But, as I said, his knocking was heard around the world. His 95 Theses, meant for discussion and debate in Wittenberg, were copied, printed, and circulated.
What’s so important about this? It led to the restored teaching of God’s pure Word and forever changed the world!
The world was a very different place in Luther’s time. The nations of Europe were a part of the Holy Roman Empire — kind of a revitalization of the ancient Roman Empire which had fallen — and the Roman Catholic Church and the Roman pontiffs or popes had authority over the emperor and his empire. Thus, people within the empire — except for the Jews — were required to be a part of the Roman Church. If anyone did not accept the teachings of the Roman Church, he could be declared a heretic and burned at the stake — and many Christians were put to death for teaching what the Bible says and believing that the way to be saved was through faith alone in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice upon the cross.
Though it may be hard for us to understand, common people in Luther’s day were not even allowed to have Bibles or read them. The Bible was on a list of prohibited books and the Roman Church said common people should not read the Bible because they would misunderstand it. Instead, they were taught to just accept the teachings and practices of the Roman Church established by its popes and councils.
Luther first began reading the Bible when he was a student. He didn’t at that time own a Bible, but he discovered a Latin Bible chained to a table in the library. A few years later in his life, so that people could read and study God’s Word, Luther translated the entire Bible from Greek and Hebrew into the common language of the people of his land.
Because of his writings proclaiming that Scripture alone is to be the source and judge of all Christian teaching, that salvation is by God’s grace alone for the sake of Jesus Christ and His innocent sufferings and death on the cross for the sins of the world, and that salvation is received by faith alone in Christ Jesus, Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, declared a heretic and subject to be killed on sight. But God protected and preserved both Luther and his Scriptural doctrine.
Luther’s knocking on the door was significant in the early 1500s and remains significant to each of us today, whether we realize it or not. His 95 Theses marked the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation (and also that of the Protestant churches under Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin). It is because of what God accomplished through Luther’s knocking, that you and I have the freedom today to read and study our Bibles and place our faith and confidence in Jesus Christ and His all-atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.
His knocking on the door marked the beginning of a distinction between the roles of church and state. The church, using the Word of God, is to proclaim Christ Jesus and salvation through faith in Him. The state, using the power of the sword, is to punish evildoers and preserve civil righteousness and peace in this world. Churches, when operating within their proper sphere, no longer use the power of the sword to force upon people religious beliefs and practices. States or civil governments, when operating within their proper sphere, no longer tell churches what they may or may not teach or how they must carry out their mission and work in this world.
While many may be ignorant of it, Luther’s Biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms in which Christians live while in this world — citizens of a nation and subject to its laws by naturalization or birth, and citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom and subject to the Word of God by a rebirth of water and Spirit — played a role in our own founding fathers’ Constitutional guarantee of freedom from government encroachment upon the practice of our faith (First Amendment in the Bill of Rights).
Thus, Christians can be thankful for Luther’s knocking on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517 because of the restoration of true Biblical doctrine and the freedom to believe and practice the Bible’s teaching; and even those who would accept none of Luther’s doctrine can be thankful for Luther’s knocking, for without it they might be coerced to practice what they do not believe.