On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg. On the eve of All Saints day he posted these items for debate, which was a common event in the academic environment of Wittenberg. All Saints Day would be one of the busiest days at the Castle Church as many pilgrims would arrive to view the large relic collection that Frederick the Wise had collected. The posting of these 95 theses was both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Luther sought an ordinary academic debate that pursued the freedom of Christians from the tyranny of power. Luther was also doing something extraordinary because the power that he protested was being exercised by the church itself through a system of penance that kept Christians in doubt and despair.
There are a number of great resources developed over the last few years because of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Concordia Seminary in 2017 prepared an hour long documentary to illustrate the power of Martin Luther's actions on October 31, 1517. This documentary took four years to make, with portions shot on location throughout Germany where the actual Reformation events occurred.
Luther desired there to be a debate on the topic of the indulgences. Indulgences were sold for money or distributed in reward for pious works. A person that received an indulgence gained forgiveness and so release from the sufferings of purgatory. The church, under the authority of the pope, distributed indulgences to people. The indulgences transferred the merits of the saints to other parties, above all those in purgatory.
The sale of indulgences were a means for the church to obtain financing for large projects. They were like selling bonds and the payoffs of the bonds were found in the reduction in time from purgatory. Luther initially stated that he was not attacking the system of indulgences but only their abuses. The pivot from attacking abuse to attacking the system did not take long. The system of indulgences bypassed salvation by faith in the grace of Christ and instead supported a system of merits that could be earned by pious works.
On October 31 we remember the moment when a hammer and a nail broke down the institutional controls of power and restored the confidence that salvation is in Christ.