October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This reformer was born in 1483 to a wealthy German mining family. He attended a Latin school run by a medieval lay group dedicated to the study of the Bible and graduated from the University of Erfurt, where he reportedly studied the Biblical commentaries of Nicholas de Lyra, a Christian scholar who heavily borrowed from Rashi, the famed Jewish scholar of the eleventh century. His father wanted him to become a lawyer and he was disappointed that he entered an Augustinian monastery.
The Sell of “Indulgences”
In 1506 the Church of Rome undertook one of the grandest and most expensive projects to date: the building of a new St. Peter’s Basilica as the centerpiece of the Vatican. The church was to be so lavish and huge that, when completed 150 years later, it was the largest church ever built and remained so until 1989. This project was too expensive to fund by normal giving, so as a source of fundraising, the Church turned to the sale of indulgences.
This practice of granting indulgences, which was the remission of the punishment for sins through the intercession of the Church, already had a long history. Early on indulgences were granted when a sinner performed some hazardous duties for the Church.
For example, going on a crusade to the Holy Land got an individual forgiveness for all sins ever committed. Later it became possible to buy indulgences on one’s deathbed, which meant a person would enter heaven immediately, bypassing purgatory. Pope Sixtus IV’s fundraising campaign touted indulgences that would free your deceased loved one’s suffering from purgatory as well.
Engaging in emotional extortion, Church envoys resorted to imitating the anguished wailing of parents who, in the throes of holy purification fires, pleaded with their children to buy an indulgence and ease their torment. Auctioning of indulgences to the highest bidder—on the basis of “buy now, pay nothing later”—was another favorite tactic.
The state of the affairs was so shocking that in 1512 Johann Geiler, the famed preacher from Strasbourg, predicted that God Himself would see to the much-needed house cleaning: “Since neither pope, nor emperor, kings nor bishops will reform our life, God will send a man for the purpose. I hope to see the day…but I am too old. Many of you will see it: think, then I pray you of these words.”
The reformer whose coming Geiler foretold was none other than Martin Luther. The Holy Spirit moved upon the heart of this man, opening him to the truth that no one can earn salvation by his or her own personal works or merit as Rome had taught.
As an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther involved himself in a movement to revive stricter discipline in the church. He traveled to Rome in 1510 and once there he was shocked to discover the self indulgencies and worldliness of the Vatican clergy. Unfortunately, his appeal to holiness was uncalled for. He returned and later he wrote:
I did not love, indeed I hated this just God, if not with open blasphemy, at least with a huge murmuring, for I was indignant against Him, saying, “as if it were really not enough for God that miserable sinners should be eternally lost through original sin, and oppressed with all kinds of calamities through the laws of the Ten Commandments. Thus I raged with a fierce and most agitated conscience.
In his days as a monk, he sought to save himself by following what he understood to be appropriate practices. He prayed to three saints every day and flogged himself until he fell unconscious on the cell floor. He went on a pilgrimage and climbed the holy steps in Rome on his knees. But he found no peace.
His father superior asked him, “If you take away relics and pilgrimages and prayers to saints and all the devotional practices, what will you put in their place?” Martin Luther replied, “Christ, man only needs Jesus Christ.” This is how the Protestant Reformation began.
The Lord’s plan was that people could be eternally saved from the guilt of sin by simply trusting in what the Lord Jesus Christ had done on the cross to atone for their sins. The scales fell off the eyes of Martin Luther and he realized he was now truly born again, which revolutionized his spiritual experience.
He believed that humans could not reach salvation by their own acts, but that only God could bestow salvation by his divine grace. In earlier times the Catholic Church taught that salvation was possible through “good works,” or works of righteousness, that pleased God.
Luther came to share Augustine’s two central beliefs, which is the just man lives by the gift of grace that is by faith. That salvation could be reached through faith and by divine grace only. This would later form the basis of Protestantism.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s practice of granting indulgences to provide absolution to sinners had reached a fever pitch. Indulgence-selling had been banned in Germany, but the practice continued unabated. This difference of viewpoint was what caused him to break with the Roman Catholic Church.
Acting on this belief, he wrote the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” the now famous 95 Theses,” a list of questions and propositions for debate and posted his protest on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.
The consequence for this was that his protest reached Rome, and he was asked in no uncertain terms to recant. He refused, proclaiming his famous defense, “Here I stand, and I cannot do otherwise.” He was excommunicated four years later from the Church of Rome.
Frederick III Elector of Saxony
Frederick III Elector of Saxony (1463-1525) alias Frederick the Wise played an important role in the Protestant Reformation by using his political power to protect Martin Luther and other German Reformers from being executed by the Papacy.
Luther’s conduct and writings were reprehensible to the Roman Catholic Church, and normally he would have been put on trial as a heretic and burned alive. But Frederick III, decided to give protection to Luther.
Frederick also just happened to command the largest army in Europe and his military might played a big role to the Reformation’s success. In 1502 he founded the University of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther taught. During Luther’s lifetime Wittenberg was the home and intellectual centre of the Reformation movement of which the Emperor was a reliable protector, although only active in the background.
He protected Martin Luther from the Pope’s enforcement of the edict, by taking him into custody at Wartburg Castle following the Diet of Worms (1521), which put Luther under the imperial ban. He saw him as unjustly persecuted because Luther could not be found guilty of any crime. Frederick, however, remained a Catholic, although he gradually inclined toward the doctrines of the Reformation.
Frederick never married but will be remembered as the man who saved Martin Luther from the fury of the Catholic Church. The final outcome of this was that the land of Saxony removed Roman Catholicism as its official state religion and Luther was given free rein to establish a whole new state religion from ground up.
New Printing Press
His Ninety-Five Theses which were an indictment of the Roman Catholic Church was now printed and widely distributed with the help of the new printing press which was first used in Germany between 1450 and 1456.
This amazing printing machine was applied to Luther’s protest and thereafter Luther went on to translate the Old Testament from the original Hebrew into German vernacular and the New Testament from the original Greek, also in common German.
It was around this time that he emphasized the primacy of the Bible rather than Church officials as the ultimate religious authority. This growth in production of Gutenberg’s presses provided the world with the knowledge of knowing the Bible for themselves and this knowledge would be used to reduce the corruption that existed in the Church.
Changing the Ecclesiastical Structure
Luther had before him a nation filled with empty, ex-Roman Catholic Church buildings. Earlier, many Catholic priests had read Luther’s writings and had left the Catholic ministry. Most got married, and many came to Luther’s home seeking teaching and direction. He performed no small number of marriages between ex-priests and ex-nuns, and ordained a host of “Lutheran” ministers. Luther himself had no problem marrying Katharina von Bora, a former nun in 1525.
During these incredible times, Luther produced an entire ecclesiastical structure out of bare bones, created a flood of Lutheran literature and got it distributed. He single-handedly created a Protestant catechism for children, a Protestant hymn book, and a Protestant Bible, which he translated, published and distributed.
Luther was also the first modern writer to urge public compulsory education and proposed that the state should pass legislation and enforce it. His idea of compulsory education spread to the Prussians, and, as a result, all of Europe developed theories of mandatory public education.
While doing all this, he taught and trained ex-priests to become Lutheran ministers and Bible expositors. Wherever possible he was sending these men to serve as Protestant ministers too those empty church buildings all over Saxony.
Those Lutheran ministers were looked upon as a Protestant version of a priest. Up until that time the pastoral role of the Protestant world, did not exist. The modern day pastoral concept began in Wittenberg, Germany. So did a lot of our other “New Testament practices.”
Luther Quit Too Soon
Notable writers like Gene Edwards and James Rutz contend that Luther quit too soon, of which this is an extract from their book, The Open Church:
People got saved and lives were changed. But the love of the brethren was not the keynote because the protestant Reformation was primarily a doctrinal, intellectual, and ecclesiastical event. It set the foundation for the great evangelical and charismatic movements of the 200 years, and yet it was lacking in many practical aspects.
For one example, the Catholics were sending out far more missionaries than the early Lutherans ever thought about. So when Catholicism lost half of Europe during the Reformation, it still grew in size because of its missionaries going out all over the world.
Luther often declared that those Catholic feelers or mystics would never gain a toehold in his Lutheran world. Consequently, the Reformation, according to some analysts was primarily a theological and intellectual movement. It was woefully lacking as a revolution of spiritual maturity and lacked in giving people a practical grasp on a deeper and intimate walk with the Lord. Since that time, Europe has fought hundreds of wars over doctrinal disputes. This bloodshed came from intellectual, rational, logical, and doctrinal differences of the thinkers. Today we have 23,000 denominations, each with its own pet doctrines, the logical offspring of the Reformation.
From all Europe, men who had read Luther’s writing were moving to Wittenberg to sit at his feet. Luther, in turn was training, speaking and writing volumes, and working to fill those empty church buildings with Protestant ministers as fast as he could. Those converted ex-priests from Wittenberg who followed Luther’s teachings, took off their priestly robes and got married to ex-nuns. They set up pulpits were the Eucharist was once located, and preached the Word every Sunday morning at 11:A.M. Why 11 A.M?
Luther had preached every Sunday at dawn. The hour was the same that the Catholic mass had been scheduled for centuries. However, Luther did not enjoy getting up early, so before long, he moved the Protestant worship service to 9.00 A.M., then to 10 A.M—to the tune of more complaints. Finally, he found even 10 A.M. to be uncomfortably early and last possible hour he could set for the service and call it morning worship was 11 A.M.!
Until that time, communities were accustomed to having priests in their city who were carrying out seven pastoral duties of a priest. They were used to seeing them:
- Marry the young
- Bury the dead
- Hear confession
- Bless community events
- Baptize their babies
- Visit the sick, and
- Care for and collect money for the poor and the church.
Luther instructed these men to continue the pastoral duties of a priest–with only a tiny alteration. He changed one particular Catholic duty, that of “hearing confessions.” This gave way, thankfully, to spiritual counsel and preaching the Bible.
Also, tragically, Luther felt that the laymen around him were so backward, illiterate, and ill-prepared to minister that he was afraid to move ahead to the next logical step of restoring open worship, sharing, and lay ministry. Writing of the sort of laymen he would need, he said, “I cannot find them.”
The modern concept of the pastor grew out of Wittenberg, Germany, and was but an adaptation of the pastoral duties of a priest, which led to dividing up the body of Christ into two parts: overworked leaders and sedentary serfs.
The Just Shall Live By Faith
The emphasis on doctrine and intellectual pursuits, to the exclusion of other spiritual matters stood as a barrier to a restoration of a live encounter with Jesus Christ in church life. Furthermore, the Reformation, though, very important wasn’t really understood. Christians are justified by faith, but they will be judged by works, because works are the fruit of faith.
Nevertheless, this experience of his new birth sparked a movement on the Continent which became known as the Reformation. It spread from Wittenberg to Geneva, began to take root in Scotland, and then came to England. Within a space of ten years it had spread so rapidly that it overran the whole Continent.
The most famous verse from Habakkuk, which has become the ‘Magna Carta’ of Protestantism, is “The just shall live by faith.” This statement of Habakkuk is quoted three times in the New Testament: in Romans 1:17, in Galatians 3:11 and in Hebrews 10:38. It would be difficult to think of any sentence as short and simple as this which has produced as great an impact upon the history of the human race. The proclamation of this simple message by a tiny, despised minority changed the course of world history.
Within three centuries it brought to his knees the great Caesar himself, the head of the most powerful, the most far reaching and the most enduring empire that the world had ever seen.
About twelve centuries later this same sentence, quickened by the Holy Spirit to the heart and mind of Martin Luther, provided the scriptural lever that dislodged the power of papal Rome and, through the Protestant Reformation, once again changed the course of history first in Europe and then, by its outreach, the world at large.
The man largely responsible for the Reformation, Martin Luther, came to understand the vital importance of justification by faith through this statement. There is no doubt that, still today, this same simple sentence, when once apprehended and applied by faith, contains within it the power to revolutionize the lives of individuals or the course of nations and empires.