There was nothing remarkable about that day in October, 1517, when a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther fastened his now famous ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, Germany. He certainly did not expect to ignite a religious revolution. As a loyal son of the established church, Luther merely wished to engage his university town in theological discussion about certain church doctrines that troubled him. His goal was to try to rein in some of the most grievous abuses of the Church by discussing them openly.
Little did he know that his theses would be copied, printed, and distributed across Europe within days. In the providence of God, Luther’s modest debate propositions ignited a fire that is still burning today. On this five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is fitting to remember how it all began, and more importantly, why.
There are some today who question the validity of this great schism with Rome. They believe that the Reformation, though probably warranted in its day, is no longer necessary. They assure us that the abuses of Luther’s day have been addressed, and it’s time to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and join hands as fellow members of Christ’s body.
Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism after making visits to various parishes in Saxony, in the Fall of 1528. He was apparently astonished and disgusted with what he found. This is evident from the tone of the preface, which is reproduced here:1
Grace, mercy, and peace in Jesus Christ, our Lord, from Martin Luther to all faithful, godly pastors and preachers.
The deplorable conditions which I recently encountered when I was a visitor constrained me to prepare this brief and simple catechism or statement of Christian teaching. Good God, what wretchedness I beheld! The common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.
"While Martin Luther loved to celebrate Christmas with feasting and special church services, the so-called Reformed wing of the Reformation, led by Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, raised objections to such festivities, arguing believers should worship God only in ways explicitly commanded by Scripture and that a festival in December commemorating Christ's birth was not commanded." BPNews