Over 500 years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his theses – a set of 95 propositions for debate to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This was to spark the Protestant Reformation. The reformation is about much more than that one act of protest though. At its heart was the rediscovery of what Scripture had to say about justification by faith.
How pertinent then this weekend has been the debate on English social media about original sin. That debate hasn’t been without its problems and tensions not least because essentially a piece of Christian doctrine has been co-opted by different sides in a socio-political debate about pedagogy. On the one side are those who want to emphasise strict rules and teacher led instruction, they are keen to talk about original sin arguing that we need to be taught to do good, on the other are those who believe in innate goodness, children simply need to be nourished and encouraged to find their own path. We need to be careful when leaping into a debate to support either side because we think they are closest to our theological position. You see, they may simply be using our language to drive home a point that we may or may not find ourselves in sympathy with.
However, I hope that this debate about sin and goodness is one that we see as an opportunity to point people to what God really says about those things. That’s where the reformation and what people like Luther and Calvin re-discovered. To them, it was obvious from their own experience that we are not born innately good. Rather, they knew from their own lives the only too real pull of sin and temptation. At the same time though, they also recognised that the idea that we can simply reform ourselves through teaching and discipline was hopeless. The Bible says that we are dead in our sin. You cannot teach and discipline a dead body.
For Luther, it was this dawning realisation that helped him to see that God’s righteousness is a good thing. Initially he read about this with dread. To him, God was holy, righteous and perfect. This meant that we as sinners were under his inescapable judgement. Reading Romans, he saw that righteousness doesn’t just describe who God is but something that God gives to us – a righteousness from God. He discovered that at Calvary, Jesus took our place and received the condemnation and judgement we deserve. He took our sin, guilt and shame on himself. In exchange, Jesus the spotless, perfect, righteous son gave us his righteousness so that we are now justified and adopted into God’s family.
Today is more famously known as Halloween, the even of “All Hallows” or “All Saints Day.” Halloween is a confused festival that has grown up around a confused Christian calendar day. All Saints Day was/is the day when all saints were remembered. This has a kind of catch up feel to it doesn’t it – like the tomb of the unknown soldier and the altar to the unknown God. In Catholic theology the belief is that we need to in some way either pray to the saints to get help here or pray for souls to help them through purgatory. Associated with that comes the idea that some souls are somehow trapped here, hence the superstitious idea that the dead come back as ghosts to haunt. This has led to the revival of a pagan festival with a morbid interest in ghosts, spirits and evil.
Reformation Day reminds us that we don’t need to fear evil. When you die you are not going to find yourself trapped in some kinds of mid-point. When you are alive, the devil can have no power or authority over you to scare, harm or control. If you have been justified then you are now in Christ and safe in him.
So celebrate today. Give thanks that all saints-every believer who has been set apart from sin and death by Christ is safe in him, including you and me. We are forgiven and justified. Take time to give thanks to God for this precious hope today.