Reformation 500 (1517-2017)

lutherThis weekend many churches will be marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The trigger date is 31st October 1517 when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  This was a list of 95 points against the iniquities of the practice of selling Indulgencies (forgiveness from the Pope for sins in exchange for cash to help rebuild St Peter’s in Rome) and the aim would have been to trigger debate.  There is some doubt on whether he actually did nail the document to the door.  The church concerned was destroyed by fire in 1760, so we can’t check for nail holes today.

The story is based on one reference by Luther’s friend and fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) in a collection of Luther’s works.  Luther himself does not mention it.  As a stunt there is no evidence that it triggered a debate and what was more effective was his sending a copy to the Archbishop.  Luther refers to the date as being one of significance and it came to be taken by Lutherans as the beginning of his reforming.  The Reformation, however, was a movement, not a single event, it had deeper roots and a significantly longer period of development. So, 31st October is more a symbolic date than one marking the actual beginning of the Reformation.

The Theses are a list of 95 statements, challenging Indulgencies in the context of salvation theology, and they invite a debate. In summary, God forgives the penitent, to whom he gives a humble heart. If any penance is paid for sins this is not so much the fee to receive forgiveness but a sign of true repentance.  So to charge in advance is the wrong way round.  Luther argues that the Pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory, so the Indulgences are useless as a means to shorten any time to be spent there; they are a con, and later reformers removed purgatory itself as a doctrine.  A better use of the money would be to give it to the poor, for charity increases charity.  And what is more, if the Pope can forgive then he should just do it. St Peter’s would be better left in ruins than built on the back of this lie and shameful practice.  The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God, and expressed in devotion to the cross, the means of forgiveness. Luther encourages Christians to endeavour to follow Christ, the true head of the Church, and thereby hope with confidence to enter heaven.

This prayer draws on Luther’s 95 Theses and I have written it to mark the 500th anniversary of their creation and the Reforming focus which followed.


Reformation 500

God of grace,

our hope and confidence are found

through the cross of your Son.

You give to the penitent

a humble and contrite heart

and the assurance of sins forgiven.

May we live this indulgence

in acts of charity

and show our true treasure

to reside in the Gospel of glory and grace.

As we endeavour to follow Christ, our true head,

so may we come to the joy of your eternal kingdom;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


© Ian Black 2017



About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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