Artist Ferdinand Pauwels’ 1872 piece, ’Luther Posting the 95 Theses’ depicting Martin Luther’s act in 1517. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Splainer: What is ‘Reformation Day’?

The ’Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) Yes, Oct. 31 is Halloween, a day of candy, costumes and mischief. But it is also Reformation Day, a time when Protestants celebrate the birth of the Protestant Reformation. In the U.S., Reformation Day is mainly marked by Lutherans and members of the Reformed Church. In some churches it has developed into a holiday meant to rival Halloween. But does it? Let us 'Splain . . .

What does Reformation Day commemorate?

A German scholar and monk named Martin Luther was upset that a representative of the Catholic Church was coming to his hometown of Wittenberg, a little backwater of a town, to raise money for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The church planned to sell "indulgences" -- a way of winning remission from penance in this life or in purgatory by making a donation to the church. There was a popular saying of the time: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Luther wasn't having that, and he wrote down his reasons -- his 95 Theses, or grievances against the pope and the church. On Oct. 31, 1517, he nailed them to the door of Castle Church in the center of town.

Luther's main idea, developed in subsequent years, was this: Man enters heaven not through sacraments like baptism or absolution, but through faith alone -- "sola fide," in the Latin of the church. Luther had five "solas" he believed Christians needed: faith, Scripture, Jesus, grace and glory.

"I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith," Luther wrote. "Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."

It was like a theological bomb going off. Thanks to the newly invented printing press, Luther's theses were printed, translated into different languages and spread around Europe. People flocked to Germany to hear Luther speak, the Protestant Reformation was born, and -- fast forward -- about 70 percent of Americans now identify as some form of Christian.

For all his pain, Luther was excommunicated. But, he married a runaway nun who escaped the convent in a fish barrel, and lived a happy, if poor, life.

Sounds like a party. How is it celebrated?

Some Protestant churches mark the day as Reformation Sunday, and celebrate it on the Sunday just before or just after Oct. 31. More often than not, the hymns sung in church that day include "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," with words and music composed by Luther himself. But most members of Lutheran churches -- the direct descendants of Luther's movement -- wait until Oct. 31. And that, as we know, is also Halloween and has led to some creative celebrations for kids.

A lot of Christians -- especially evangelicals -- don't celebrate Halloween, not because they prefer Reformation Day, but because they are uncomfortable with Halloween's pagan roots. Some churches hold costume parades, but instead of witches and ghouls, kids are encouraged to dress in medieval costumes such as those Luther wore. Others are encouraged to dress as characters from the Bible.

There are lots of Reformation Day-specific activities for children -- some do an apple bob, with apples carved with symbols representing Luther's five "solas." Another game is "pin the beard on the theologian."  There are places where medieval line dancing is part of the fun.

Then there's the matter of candy. Instead of going from door to door, some Protestants hold "trunk or treats" -- walking the kids through the church parking lot, in broad daylight, to collect candy from the trunks of decorated cars.

And while their peers may visit a haunted house, Protestants Lutherans may send their kids to a "judgment house," also known as a "hell house." There, instead of moving through rooms with scenes of graveyards and ghosts, children encounter scenes from the Christian version of hell -- with flames, pitchforks, devils and torments aplenty.

Fun times! But why is Reformation Day worth all this extra-Halloween hubbub?

Because Luther's theses were the Protestant big bang. Scholars rank it as the most successful and important religious movement in the Western world, one that changed music, art, architecture, literature and more. All Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and nondenominational Christians who are not Catholic or Orthodox can trace their denomination's DNA back to that Wittenberg church door. And note the year in which it happened -- 1517. That means next year will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and for that, Germany, Lutherans and Protestants the world over are planning a yearlong party, culminating on Oct. 31, 2017, which just happens to be ... Halloween.




  1. There is no reason that both holidays cannot be celebrated. Celebrate one during the day and one at night. This is how my Lutheran school resolved it.

  2. I have no disagreement that Luther’s 95 Theses were transformational, however he was not the sole reformer of the period, there were competent, thoughtful, and gifted theologians who both preceded and followed him. A little more attention might thoughtfully paid to them.

  3. The author is very uninformed about the Reformation and Martin Luther. This lady lives in fantasy land. Also nothing in this article is true.

    Ask an informed Lutheran to write an article about the Reformation … not an atheist.

  4. Luther’s main idea, man enters heaven not through sacraments like baptism or absolution, but through faith alone, was not developed in subsequent years. It was not developed by Luther, nor by subsequent theologians. It was provided by God.

    Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.
    Romans 5:1

    God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.
    Ephesians 2:8,9

    We are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.
    Romans 3:28

    We know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.
    Galatians 2:16

    Those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.
    John 5:24

    To all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.
    John 1:12

    This is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
    John 3:16

  5. As a Catholic I have often wondered how certain verses from Scripture always seem to be conveniently ignored by Protestantism. And I always ask why did Luther find it necessary to add the word “alone” to his theory that one is saved by faith. In the Gospel of John it quotes Jesus as saying, “The Holy Spirit will be with you always to teach and remind you of all that I have taught you” and “The Spirit of Truth will guide you to all Truth.” Protestantism threw out much of those teachings, those truths. What about 1 Timothy 3:15: “The Church is the pillar and foundation of truth.” Note that it says the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth, not the Bible. These are just a few of numerous verses in Scripture that tend to be avoided. And of course the Church has other sources of Divine Revelation other than Scripture alone, as guided by the Holy Spirit, as promised by Our Lord.

  6. This article shows a profound lack of understanding of the Reformation, as well as Lutheran (and other Protestant) observance of the historical events of October 31, 1517. The author makes it seem as if Lutherans have no regard for the sacraments (they do) and conflates the practices of politically conservative evangelicals (e.g., hosting “hell houses”) and Lutherans — which, if you were to find a Lutheran church hosting a hell house, it would be a rare find indeed. You can do better RNS.

  7. Thank god for the Reformation, otherwise we might find it necessary to pay one’s way to heaven. The RCC would rule the planet, the pope would be a demi god, and those unable to pay their way would know hell long before they died.

    (Semi-satirical. Mostly.)

  8. Luther rightly gets the lion’s share of the credit but Zwingli, Calvin and others played important roles.

    As another commenter said, I know of no Lutherans who do the hell house thing to terrorize children. However, mega celebrations are planned and include, I believe, RCC recognition of the importance of the occasion with the ELCA.

    Luther’s plan was not to break away from the RCC, but to reform it. His goal was to initiate discussion with resulting changes. Unintended consequences brought about the Christian landscape we have today. Interesting the paths that history takes.

  9. The printing press isn’t significant because the 95 theses were widely distributed. It is significant because Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of the people. For the first time, regular folks were able to read the Bible in their own language. The Scriptures were no longer only for the educated elite.

    Halloween actually doesn’t have pagan roots. All Saints Day, wich is celebrated on November 1, typically began its celebration the night before, on All Hallows Eve. Today, some Christians may feel uncomfortable celebrating Halloween because of the pagan connection myth, or simply because of the dark themes that are often associated with Halloween.

    Reformation continues to be an important holiday, not to celebrate Martin Luther and his big bang, but because it always has, and always will, be about Jesus and his free gift oo salvation through Grace alone. Sola gratia!

  10. I think you will find that no verses are avoided by Protestants. Scripture interprets scripture, perple don’t.

    The significance of the word “alone” is the heart of the Reformation. It emphasizes that we are saved through faith alone, byou grace alone, ofeted through Jesus alone. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. It is a free gift of Grace through Christ, aso revealed through Scripture alone ((ot Scripture and man).

    The Church is often used to refer to Christmas. So in 1 Timothy, Christine would be the pillar and foundation of truth. If we add to the Bible ((he completed and inerrant word of God) we add our own sinfulness to it.

    While I can’t speak for other denominations, Lutherans believe that there are no divine revelations other than those given us in Scripture. We don’t need any others. Therefore no doctrine is accepted unless it is found in Scripture. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit is not at work in us. In fact, here is what Luther’s small catechism says

    The Third Article: Sanctification
    I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

    What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.

  11. I think maybe the author should have interviewed a Lutheran pastor about this article. SSeriously writes:

    “Luther’s main idea, developed in subsequent years, was this: Man enters heaven not through sacraments like baptism or absolution, but through faith alone — “sola fide,” in the Latin of the church. Luther had five “solas” he believed Christians needed: faith, Scripture, Jesus, grace and glory.”

    Simply not true.

    His main idea was not that man enters heaven not through sacraments, eto, but that man can not enter heaven through good works. Or, that one can not earn his way onto heaven. In fact, baptism and holy communion remain very important to Luther

    Luther’s Solas are not “needed” by Christians, but they are rather the Reformation in a nutshell:

    We are saved through faith alone (Sola fide), as revealed to us through Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), by Christ alone (sola Christus) and his gift of Grace alone ( Sola gratia). And to God alone goes the Glory (sola Deo gloria).

    Sounds like the author has some splainin to do about her lack of research that went into writing this article. She didn’t splain the Reformation very well.

  12. Christine, Martin Luther added the word “alone” to his translation from the Greek into his German Bible. This directly contradicts the Epistle of James which states that “man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” [James 2:14-26 for the whole explanation]. That all of Divine Revelation is found in the Bible alone does hold up under scrupulous consideration. First of all, in the Gospel of John, he writes, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” [John 21:25]. I once did an experiment. I decided to read for 20 minutes each day from the New Testament. I finished it in about six weeks time. Jesus spent nearly 24/7 with His Apostles for three years. Did He only teach them for 20 minutes a day for six weeks? Obviously He taught much more than was ever written down in Scripture and those teachings have been carried down through the centuries within the Church Jesus founded under the protection of the Holy Spirit and they have also been written down in the writings of the Father’s of the Church.

  13. Reformation Day, huh? You wacky Lutherans. But any reason for a party is a good one, right? As for Halloween, this is a commercial observance in the United States, like Valentine’s Day. It has no religious significance. Why should it? I don’t recall any of the Native American tribes celebrating a day of the dead, or a day of souls. The descendants of Celts have St. Patrick’s Day, and they celebrate it drinking.

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