Oct 31, 2023

Martin Luther


Today is Reformation Day, but who are we kidding? Today is Halloween! There’s a division in the house among Christians as to the origins of Halloween. Some contend it has Christian roots since Halloween means “holy eve,” the evening before All Saints Day on Nov. 1. Others trace its beginning to a pagan Celtic festival from the Middle Ages. On this date in 1517, Martin Luther posted on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany the “Deputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” We call them Luther’s 95 theses of debate on the sale of indulgences, a practice by which believers could purchase forgiveness from the church. Johann Tetzel was commissioned by Pope Leo to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel was most remembered for his quote, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” While Luther believed forgiveness was an appropriate priestly function to extend to repentant people, the practice of purchasing it was abhorrent to him. Take Luther’s thesis number 86, “Why does not the pope whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus (ruler), build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than the money of poor believers?” Luther’s choice of October 31 had nothing to do with Halloween. He knew November 1 was All Saints Day, so people would read his post as they assembled for worship. These 95 articles of debate created a firestorm. With the aid of the printing press, the articles circulated through Europe and set the Reformation in motion. The following prayer has been called “Luther’s Gethsemane.”  It was prayed on the eve of his church trial at the Diet of Worms:

O God, Almighty God everlasting! How dreadful is the world! Behold how its mouth opens to swallow me up, and how small is my faith in Thee…Oh, the weakness of the flesh, and the power of Satan! If I am to depend upon any strength of this world–all is over…The knell is struck…Sentence is gone forth…O God! O God! O thou, my God! Help me against the wisdom of this world. Do this, I beseech thee; thou shouldst do this…by thy own mighty power…The work is not mine, but Thine. I have no business here…I have nothing to contend for with these great men of the world. I would gladly pass my days in happiness and peace. But the cause is Thine…And it is righteous and everlasting! O Lord, help me! O faithful and unchangeable God! I lean not upon man. It were vain! Whatever is of man is tottering, whatever proceeds from him must fail. My God! My God! Does thou not hear? My God! Art thou no longer living? Nay, thou canst not die. Thou does but hide Thyself. Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it!… Therefore, O God, accomplish thine own will. Forsake me not, for the sake of thy well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, my defense, my buckler, and my stronghold. Lord–where art thou?…My God, where art thou?…Come! I pray thee, I am ready…Behold me prepared to lay down my life for thy truth…suffering like a lamb. For the cause is holy. It is thine own!…I will not let thee go! No, nor yet for all eternity! And though the world should be thronged with devils–and this body, which is the work of thine hands, should be cast forth, trodden under foot, cut in pieces…consumed to ashes, my soul is thine. Yes, I have thine own word to assure me of it. My soul belongs to thee, and will abide with thee forever! Amen! O God, send help…Amen!

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.