by Robert Booth
Martin Luther is one of those imperfect, messy individuals that God used to fan the flames of reformation and revival across Germany and beyond. Luther was a man whom you either loved or hated. His contemporaries called him a renegade, bigamist, anti-semitic, and even insane. But In 1520 and 1521, Luther was the rage in Germany. He was practically a celebrity. Posters of Luther (single-sheet woodcuts) sold out as soon as they went on sale, and many were pinned up in public places.
The Worst of Times
During this time period, Martin Luther was born. He was born in the little town of Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. His father, Hans, was a copper miner who eventually gained some wealth from a shared interest in mines, smelters, and other business ventures.
His mother was pious but religiously superstitious. When one of her infant children died, Margaretta Luther accused one of her neighbors of witchcraft. Martin was brought up believing that one should wear charms, recite incantations, sprinkle the hearth with holy water, and employ such other resources as the Church provided to ward off their attacks.
Luther’s dad wanted Martin to be a lawyer. So he pursued education at Eisenach and then at the University of Erfurt.
No Rest For His Weary Bones
- “What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict…and my austere life?”
- “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me…”
- “What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life?”
- “I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ.”
- “I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow.”
In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. When he celebrated his first Mass, as he held the bread and cup for the first time, he was so awestruck that he nearly fainted. “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken,” he confessed. “I thought to myself, “Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.”
In 1510, Luther went to Rome, where he witnessed the corruption of the Roman church. He climbed the Holy Stairs, supposedly the same stairs Jesus ascended when He appeared before Pilate. According to legend, the steps had been moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and the priests claimed that God forgave sins for those who climbed the stairs on their knees. Luther did so, and paid money to climb the steps while he said the Lord’s Prayer.
But somewhere on the steps, he looked back and thought, “Who knows whether this is true?”
A Voice Against Corruption
In 1517, a Dominican itinerant named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenberg with the offer of the forgiveness of sins. This practice had been started during the Crusades to raise money for the church. People could purchase from the church a letter that supposedly freed a dead loved one from purgatory. But in this case, the proceeds were intended to help Pope Leo X pay for a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome that he wanted built. The same St. Peter’s Basilica that exists today.
This enraged Luther. He determined that there must be a public debate on the matter. So on October 31, 1517, he nailed a list of Ninety-five Theses regarding indulgences to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
- Thesis 1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, says “Repent ye,” etc., He means that the entire life of the faithful should be a repentance.
- Thesis 2. This statement cannot be understood of the sacrament of penance, i.e., of confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priesthood.
- Thesis 27. They preach human folly who pretend that as soon as money in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.
- Thesis 32. Those who suppose that on account of their letters of indulgence they are sure of salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers.
- Thesis 36. Every Christian who truly repents has plenary [full] forgiveness both of punishment and guilt bestowed on him, even without letters of indulgence.
- Thesis 82. Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love … for after all, he does release countless souls for the sake of sordid money contributed for the building of a cathedral?
“Every Christian who truly repents has plenary [full] forgiveness both of punishment and guilt bestowed on him, even without letters of indulgence.”
In the midst of his spiritual struggles, Luther had become obsessed with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Man is not saved by his good works but by trusting the finished work of Christ. Justification by faith alone became the central tenet of the Reformation.
But, justification by faith alone clashed with Rome’s teaching of justification by faith and works. So the pope denounced Luther for preaching “dangerous doctrines” and summoned him to Rome.
But Luther refused, so he was called to Leipzig in 1519 for a public debate with John Eck, a Catholic theologian. In this dispute, Luther affirmed that a church council could err, a point that had been made by John Wycliffe and John Hus. Luther went on to say that the authority of the pope was a recent creation and that it contradicted Scripture. By taking this stand, Luther took on papal authority.
The Reformation Battle Cry
The theses that were nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, gave way to an assembly room in the city of Worms. The year was 1521, and Luther was summoned to appear before the newly crowned king. The young Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms in Worms, Germany. He was flanked by his advisor who was a representative of the Pope. When Luther entered the room, he was faced with a table on which were stacked books and pamphlets. He recognized them. They were his writings.
Then came the question. “Luther, you have written, you have preached, but faced with the gravity of this situation, will you recant? Will you take back everything you have said to have acceptance of the court?” Luther asked for an evening to pray. He was granted it. The next day. the miner’s son, an simple village priest walked back into the assembly room. And in my imagination, the entire world was waiting his reply. John Eck, the spokesman for Rome said, “I ask you Martin Luther, will you recant?”
As Luther stood against the wrong that was being taught, so must we stand against evil and wrong. Yes, times are different, it is 500 years since Luther nailed the 95 theses. But God still needs men and women to stand in the face of evil and say, “some things are just not for sale.”
About the Author
Robert Booth is husband to Arlene, father of three little girls, administrator and Bible teacher at Hobe Sound Christian Academy. He has an MAR from Evangelical Seminary in history and theology. He is also the creator of Kids Bible Travels, which teaches kids how to study the Bible. You can connect with him on Twitter @rwbooth and at kidsbibletravels.com.