A blue touch-paper was lit 500 years ago which brought about an explosion that changed the course of the world. Martin Luther, a German monk and university professor, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in Germany.
The Theses were points Luther was making that were indirectly questioning Roman Catholic teachings and practice.
Who was Martin Luther?
He was born in Eisleben in1483 and was baptised a Roman Catholic. He studied at the University of Erfurt, which he described as ‘a beerhouse and a whorehouse’, even though the discipline was such that he was made to get up every day at 4.00am. He got his BA and MA from there.
Returning from his home to university on horseback, on 2 July 1505, there was a thunderstorm. A lightning bolt struck right next to him.
Terrified of death and of being judged by God for his sin, he made a rash vow to become a monk. He felt he had to keep the vow, despite it being a decision made in haste. So, against his father’s wishes, he left law school, sold his books and entered a closed Augustinian friary with the intention of never emerging again.
In 1507 he became a priest and so began hearing people’s confessions. He was later transferred by the church to the University of Wittenberg where he became the professor of biblical theology.
However, all through this time Luther was wrestling with the issue of how he could be at peace with God. He was aware that he, like all of us, was a sinner, and he longed to find forgiveness. He fasted, prayed, went to confession and Mass, paid penance, made a pilgrimage to Rome, but remained in spiritual despair. He needed to know that his sins were forgiven by a gracious God.
Gradually, through reading the Bible and Christian books, he saw that salvation, or forgiveness of sin, did not come from what he could do, but through what Jesus had done on the cross for him.
He eventually understood the Bible’s words, ‘The just shall live by faith’, grasping that to be declared ‘just’ or to be forgiven, comes through faith in Jesus alone. He turned to God, being sorry for all his sinfulness, and understanding that Jesus had carried the sin of the world on Himself.
He said, ‘God sent his Son, Jesus, into this world in order to proclaim to terrified sinners, the mercy of God’. While meditating in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg, he saw that the ‘righteousness’ which God demands is not earned, but received as a gift from God.
Soon he was preaching and writing about Jesus, and the free gift of salvation through faith in Him. As he did, his understanding of what the Bible taught became clearer to him.
What did he do?
On the momentous day when he nailed the 95 Theses on what was regarded as a public notice board, Luther had no intention of confronting the Catholic Church. But he was objecting to indulgences, which were being sold by the Catholic Church at the instigation of Pope Leo X.
Indulgences were wrong, in that Rome was taking money from the poor to raise funds to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but also because they were described as freeing people from purgatory. Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was selling these indulgences with the patter, ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’. There was no mention of repentance or forgiveness through Jesus.
Martin Luther knew that salvation is offered as a gift from God because of Jesus, and is not earned or bought. It was not in the power of the pope, or a priest, to determine whether someone went to heaven or hell after death. ‘Heaven is not a reward but a gift’, said Luther.
So the day before a festival in Wittenberg, where people would come to see various relics, Martin Luther sought to call attention to the terrible abuse and corruption within the church. The 95 Theses were questioning several basic Roman Catholic beliefs.
Why did he do it?
Luther’s desire was for the church to go back to the Bible (Sola Scriptura) and not rely on tradition, popes and councils. He wanted people to ask, ‘What does the Word of God (the Bible) say?’ He knew that the church is not the sole interpreter of the Scriptures, believing that anyone, with God’s help, is able to read and understand the Bible.
Rejecting the idea of priests having special powers and authority, Luther underlined the Bible’s teaching that all true Christians are priests in God’s sight. He said that a poor serving girl sweeping a room with a brush is in as good a position as the pope himself to understand the Bible, if she has the Holy Spirit to help her.
He spoke against monks in their orders, saying that the only way into the church was through trusting Jesus Christ, not by making solemn vows to the church.
Fundamental to all he was teaching, was that the sacraments are not magical: there is no such thing as the Mass. Because the Bible does not teach that the bread and the wine, taken in memory of Jesus, become the actual body and blood of Jesus, he denounced this doctrine of transubstantiation.
Jesus had died once and for all, for the sins of all people, past, present and future. And he is the only foundation of the true church (1 Corinthians 3:11). God alone could declare a person ‘just’ or forgiven, and willingly does so to all who will trust Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
What impact did Luther have?
With the aid of the printing press, Luther’s Theses spread throughout Germany within a few weeks and, after a couple of months, had spread throughout Europe. But the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church became focused on him.
The pope and papal envoys turned against Luther. He was accused of heresy, but refused to recant. He was summoned to Rome, but did not go. He feared that he might be kidnapped or killed.
Despite threats on his life, Luther continued to argue that the pope was neither infallible nor the sole interpreter of the Bible. In January 1521 he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo X.
On 18 April 1521 Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms. The ‘diet’ was the imperial parliament, which moved from city to city, but on this occasion was in Worms, a town on the Rhine. When asked if he stood by what he had written, he famously 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 will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against my conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me’.
As a result, Luther’s literature was banned, and it was made a crime for anyone in Germany to give him food or shelter. But on his return to Wittenberg, his supporter, Frederick III, had him ‘taken captive’ by armed, masked horsemen, who in reality were taking him to Wartburg Castle for his own safety.
There he translated the New Testament into German, and continued his writing. Later, with the translation of the whole Bible into German (in 1534), the Scriptures became ‘the foundation against all the powers of hell’.
Luther wrote several hymns (possibly even ‘Away in a manger’). The hymns were sung to tunes of drinking songs of his day. He married an ex-nun, Katharina von Bora, and they were known for the happy family life they enjoyed.
Of course, Luther made his mistakes and had his regrets. There are aspects of his life and example from which all Christians would want to distance themselves. Nevertheless, Luther was a kind man who, for example, when all others rejected Tetzel, visited him when he was dying.
Why does it matter?
500 years after Luther’s historic act, it is easy to think all this was a religious dispute in the Middle Ages which has no relevance to us today. We have become impatient with religious disputes. Yet the issues are not far removed from our lives.
The questions, ‘How a person can be made right with God?’ and ‘Can we know that after death we will be received into heaven or lost from God in hell?’ are still big issues with which thinking people grapple.
There are still major differences between the teachings of the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the gap has widened since Luther’s day, as the Catholic Church has added doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary (in 1854), Papal Infallibility (in 1870), and the Assumption of Mary (in 1950). The Bible, though translated into modern language, has remained truth unchanged and unchanging.
Religion teaches that by doing good and following religious duties we can try to reach God. The Bible teaches exactly the opposite. What we do merely cuts us off from God, but he has taken the initiative and come into the world to reach and rescue us.
Religion based on our efforts is powerless to change us and enable us to live as we should. God gives those who trust him the strength to consistently follow him.
Martin Luther saw very clearly the Bible’s teaching that everyone needs forgiveness, and that no individual or church can ever make themselves good enough to be acceptable to God, who is absolutely holy and just.
Rather, God has taken the initiative and come into the world to reconcile us to himself. God clothed himself in humanity as Jesus was born. Living a sinless life, Jesus was going towards the cross to die in our place, carrying on himself the sin of the world. Because of his great love for us, the judgment which should be ours, Jesus took.
The drama of the Bible goes further. The cross is no longer carrying Christ. He died and was buried, but his tomb is empty. Jesus has risen and ascended to be seated on the throne of heaven. Jesus has done what no pope, priest or person could ever do.
The finished work of Christ is available to all who will turn from their own way and trust him. God’s grace — his infinite love — means we can be declared just, or forgiven, and brought into an eternal relationship with God.
So Christians are people who have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Or, as the Bible puts it, ‘For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works lest anyone should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
God wants us to confess our sins to him, and put our trust in Jesus alone to be our Lord and Saviour. He will take us through life, death and into eternity with himself. We will have God’s guaranteed promise that we are his for ever, which Jesus’ disciple, Peter, describes as ‘an inheritance … reserved in heaven for you’ (1 Peter 1:4).
Roger Carswell is an itinerant evangelist and a member of the Association of Evangelists