Thursday, October 22, 2009


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on Reformation Day

Q:  What is Reformation Day?  How is it remembered?

Reformation Day is a Christian holy day commemorating the events of the Reformation.  Traditionally, Reformation Day was celebrated by most Lutherans, as well as some Calvinist (Reformed or Presbyterian) churches, with an evening service, a meal, and other festivities on the evening of October 31.  On the campuses of many Lutheran and Reformed colleges and seminaries, and in some congregations, this is still the case.  Recently, however, it has become more common for most congregations to simplify their calendars by celebrating Reformation Day on the Last Sunday of October instead. 

This date of October 31 was chosen because it is the day in 1517 when the Martin Luther, who was a Roman Catholic monk and theology professor, nailed the 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg Germany so that they would be seen the next morning by the people arriving at Mass for All Saints Day. 

At that time, the Roman Catholic Church was the only religion in most of Europe, and also held a large degree of political power.  The 95 Theses were statements of belief which opposed many practices which were common in the church at that time—most importantly, the selling of Indulgences. 

Indulgences were certificates that could be purchased for varying amounts of money to get forgiveness for sins or reduce a person’s supposed debt in purgatory, either for the purchaser or for his friend or relative.  In spite of many common misconceptions, the Reformation was primarily a theological event.  Although it had far-reaching results in culture and politics, the central focus of the Reformation was Christian Doctrine—specifically, whether sins are forgiven by God’s grace (the position of Martin Luther and the Lutherans) or by human actions, such as charity, financial contributions, or moral behavior (the position of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church). 

Similarly, the Reformation was not really about the Pope or the artistic and ceremonial practices of the Roman Catholic Church, as another misconception portrays.  Lutheran leaders were prepared to acknowledge that the Pope could be considered the rightful leader of the earthly church by human authority (although not by divine authority). 

Lutheran leaders also did not object to stained glass, statues, burning of incense, bowing, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, wearing of robes by priests, or even use of the title “Father” for clergy, although there were some fringe groups who held differing opinions.  Regarding worship, Martin Luther intended to keep as many of the Roman Catholic worship practices as he could, except for those which clearly contradicted Biblical doctrine.  This is why a person, even today, would see so many similarities between Lutheran and Roman Catholic services in most congregations. 

The result of the Reformation was that there were now several different types of Christian churches, each with its own theological ideas, in Europe rather than only one, and the connection between church authority and government was broken.  Many things we know today, such as individual rights, freedom of religion, and the ability to read the Bible in our own language are direct results of the events of the Reformation, but the central theme of the Reformation and of Reformation Day is that people are rescued from God’s punishment for their sins “by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone,” and not by their own ability or worthiness and that "Scripture alone" was the only source of religious truth.

Q:  Wasn’t Martin Luther a leader in the civil rights movement?

People often confuse Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin Luther was a German monk and theology professor who lived from 1483-1546 in Germany.  He is known as the “Father of the Reformation” because he was the leader of a movement to correct the theology of the Church of his time (as further explained above).

Martin Luther King Jr., who lived from 1929-1968 in the American South, was also a preacher, but was not a Lutheran.  He was a leader in the civil rights movement during the mid-twentieth century, seeking racial equality in America

Thursday, October 8, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines on Halloween:

Q:  How should a Christian approach Halloween?

There is frequently disagreement among Christians about the suitability of Halloween festivities for Christian families.  The responses can be anywhere on a range from unexamined acceptance to fearful rejection. 

On one hand, Halloween does have a sometimes excessive preoccupation with death and evil.  It can have the effect of trivializing evils of the spiritual realm, such as Satan, demons, and witchcraft, and this is an appropriate concern for Christians.  Critics may even be correct that some American Halloween customs have their origins in the ancient pagan harvest festivals of Western Europe. 

On the other hand, the name “Halloween” itself, as well as the date of its celebration on October 31, actually have Christian origins.  November 1 has long been celebrated by Lutherans, Catholics, and many other churches as All Saints Day.  This day was an occasion in the church for remembering all of the saints, both known and unknown, that is all people who have died with faith in Jesus and are saints because their sins have been forgiven and who now await the Resurrection in the presence of Jesus. 

In times past, Christian churches began celebrating festivals the evening before their date.  As a result, festivals, such as All Saints Day actually began the preceding evening, resulting in church holidays like Christmas Eve and All Hallows Eve (a.k.a. Halloween).  The name Halloween is an old word that really means “the evening before All Saints Day.” In Lutheran and Reformed congregations, October 31 is also remembered as Reformation Day, because it is the day Martin Luther nailed 95 statements of belief to his church door, beginning the Reformation. 

The first generation of Christians encountered a similar question to the one today’s Christians face regarding Halloween.  In the Roman Empire, the temples of Roman gods doubled as meat markets.  After animals were sacrificed to the false god, the meat was then sold in the market.  In 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14, the apostle Paul answers the question of Christians at that time.  He says that, although it would not be acceptable for Christians to worship in those temples, it is not a sin for them to eat meat from the meat markets, because the gods of those temples were really nothing.  At the same time, some Christians, out of weakness, were fearful that eating this meat might be a sin.  He instructs them that they should not go against their conscience by eating the meat. 

This Biblical example is an excellent guide for Christians today in many situations.  Where God has made a command, we seek to follow it.  This means that Christians should certainly avoid any type of witchcraft, destructive pranks, or aspects of the holiday which glorify death and evil, and parents should wisely guide any costume selections made by their children.  On the other hand, there is no harm if children dress like princesses, sports heroes, or what they want to be when they grow up.  Even the carving of pumpkins is nothing more than an innocent art project, which Americans were already doing decades before the Irish brought the superstition of the Halloween Jack-o-Lantern (made from a Turnip) to American shores.  Christians should certainly avoid aspects of Halloween which go against God’s clear commands, but others are a matter of judgment or conscience.

The most important message a Christian can remember about Halloween is that we do not need to fear.  We do not need to fear the power of sin, death and evil because Jesus has conquered all of these by His death and resurrection.  For all who trust in Jesus, even death, demons, and Satan himself are powerless to overcome them because they stand under the protection of the Lord of all creation.  Neither do we need to fear overstepping the regulations of an angry God, because, even though we do desire to please God by our actions, salvation does not rely on our own ability to know and follow a set of regulations.  Paul told the Christians of his day, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)  Likewise today, the Kingdom of God is not a matter of carved pumpkins, costumes, and miniature candy bars, but of the peace which comes from relying on Jesus alone for to forgive our sins.