The Gospel: Trick or Treat?

The day is finally here! Today marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! Unfortunately, Reformation Day also falls on the same day as Halloween, so it gets overshadowed every year. Whilst we Lutherans remember the heart of the Reformation on this day as being justification by faith, kids are running around in their costumes, knocking door to door, and exclaiming, “Trick or treat!” An interesting phrase, if you think about it. It’s an exclamation, but it’s also a question: “Trick, or treat?” Where did this come from?

Halloween originates from an archaic, pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain (about 2,000 years ago). On the night of October 31, the Celts believed the dead returned to earth on this day, so they gathered to light large fires and offer sacrifices in order to appease the dead. Sometimes the Celts would wear costumes composed of animal skins in order to ward off evil spirits. The Celts believed they tricked the evil spirits and the “treat,” so to speak, was not being harmed by them. Several centuries later, going into the Middle Ages, this costume wearing developed into people dressing likes ghosts and demons and other creatures whilst performing tricks in trade for food and drinks. They exchanged tricks for treats—hence trick-or-treating. 

So, in a very brief history, that’s where trick-or-treating comes from. There’s more to it, but that’s the basic origin of it. Today, children don’t perform a trick in exchange for treats, but the purpose of Halloween today is, in a way, to “trick” a person into thinking you’re Frankenstein, Michael Myers from Halloween, or a Power Ranger. And as a reward for your “trick” you get a treat—candy, unless you stumble across the cheapskates who give you an apple and some floss. In other words, you get free candy—free treats—in the trickery of pretending to be something you’re not. It sounds weird when I put it that way, but that’s what Halloween is.

What does this have to do with Reformation Day aside from it falling on the same day as Halloween? For Lutherans, at the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith, which is the core of the Gospel message. But this message is awfully difficult to believe. I’m not talking about the belief in Jesus being a real person or that He was resurrected from the dead, but the belief that Jesus actually died for our sins and by his death justifies us before God. The Gospel message of justification by faith is: The evidence against you is great; the only thing you can do when you stand before God is to plead guilty of all your sins and face its punishment of death and eternal condemnation. But God sent His only dear Son, Jesus Christ, to take your place; on Him your sins were laid, and on you He laid His righteousness with the cost of His body and blood. By the redemption of His blood all your debts have been paid in full.

That’s crazy. Would God really send His only Son to die for us? Did God really die in the God-man Christ? That’s the Gospel? Is this some sort of trick? Or is it a treat? The Gospel seems like a trick. Christianity seems like some kind of tricky scheme. Pastors and evangelists seem like those annoying salesmen walking door to door—or those annoying telemarketers—trying to sell you something cheap in order to make you feel better about yourself. There is (false) Christianity out there that’s like that, but that’s not the Gospel. The Gospel is that your life has been redeemed by God’s own blood in the God-man Jesus Christ, who has set you free from sin and you now have complete freedom to no longer live as a slave to sin and freedom to live for your neighbour (Romans 6; Ephesians 2:10).

The Gospel seems like a trick to us because we are suspicious of anything that comes free. To us, anything that’s free comes with strings attached. When someone gives us free coffee we squint our eyes and say, “What have I done to deserve this,” or, “What do I have to do to deserve this?” The answer, as far as the Gospel is concerned, is NOTHING! You have done nothing to deserve eternal life in Jesus Christ and there is nothing you can do to earn it. Eternal life has been given to you as a treat—a free gift. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

It’s not a trick; it’s a treat. Faith is not synergism, as Arminians claim. That is a trick—that we somehow have some participation in our salvation. No, salvation is a treat (monergism)—that sweet forgiveness of sins we taste in the Lord’s Supper given to us freely at no cost of our own and no effort on our part. We are too fickle and weak to do anything, for we were dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1). God does all the work, for His Word is efficacious to bring about His will in our lives. So, on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, if you are in doubt, remember that the Gospel is no trick. It is the sweetest treat you will ever taste upon your lips as you partake in His Supper as an eternal member of God’s family.

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