One of the many reasons that history intrigues me is that it produces evidence upon evidence that God takes imperfect men and women—sometimes messy men and women—and uses them to accomplish His will.
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
As I read history, the time period which Luther was born into seems as if the religious world was in one of its darkest times. The intense dedication of serving God was gone. It was replaced by a religious formalism that was without God. It was a dark time. Roman Catholicism was the religion – it was the only religion that was allowed. The Bible was written in Latin which was a language that no one could understand except the priests, and few of them read it.
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
Luther’s life took an unexpected turn in July 1505, when he was twenty-one. He was caught in a severe thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by a nearby lightning strike. Terrified, he cried out to the Catholic patroness of miners, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk.” Luther survived the storm and made good on his dramatic vow. Two weeks later, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. His father was furious over Luther’s apparent wasted education, but Luther was determined to follow through on his vow.
“What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict…and my austere life?”
In the Augustinian monastery, Luther was driven to find acceptance with God through works. Here are several quotes that he wrote.
- “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.
Here are six samples of Luther’s theses:
- 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?
Man is not saved by his good works but by trusting the finished work of Christ.
Nailing such theses to the church door was a common practice in the scholarly debates of the time. Luther hoped to provoke calm discussion among the faculty, not a popular revolution. But a copy fell into the hands of a printer, who saw that the Ninety-five Theses were printed and spread throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. Luther became an overnight hero. With that, the Reformation essentially was born.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
In the summer of 1520, the pope issued an edict. The document began by saying: “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause. A wild boar has invaded Your vineyard.” With these words, the pope was referring to Luther as an unrestrained animal causing havoc. Over forty of Luther’s teachings were deemed to be heretical and Luther had sixty days to repent or suffer excommunication. He responded by publicly burning the papal bull.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?”
Martin Luther replied,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me, Amen.
These defiant words became the Reformation battle cry.
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.”