On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses (or statements of faith) on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was a preacher, a theologian, an author, a professor, a developer of liturgies (worship services), an administrator, a translator of the Bible, and a hymn writer (producing at least 37 hymns, of which his most famous is, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).
Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His parents wanted him to study law which he did but in 1505 he had a close call with death during a terrible storm which changed the course of his life. By his own testimony, he flung himself on the road and cried out in prayer, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!” St. Anne was believed to be the mother of Mary and a patron saint, although this is not recorded in Scripture.
Luther carried out his promise to God and joined an Augustinian monastery. Two years later in 1507 he was ordained as a priest. In 1510 Luther, then 27 years old made a trip to Rome for his monastic order that deeply affected him. Rome was the center of the Christian world but Luther was greatly disappointed when he found the city to be corrupt and the religious lives of the people were dominated by superstition. He was shocked at how careless and lacking in devotion the priests were. Drunkenness and having concubines were commonplace among the clergy.
Luther had entered the monastery to find peace, but he only found further frustration and disillusionment. He was finding increasing dissatisfaction with many teachings of the church and the state that it was in. His supervisor in the monastery was Johann von Staupitz, a godly man who counseled Luther to find comfort in the Scriptures which Luther did. Luther was particularly impressed with the books of Psalms, Romans and Galatians.
Luther was troubled by the phrase in Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed.” He could not reconcile “righteousness” (what he saw as only the idea of judgment) and “gospel” which means “good news.” “How could the revelation of God’s righteousness, which forces humans to see how unworthy they are when set against the perfections of divine holiness, ever constitute a gospel message of good news? How could reconciliation with God possibly come from a display of God’s righteousness?” (Noll, 160). At the time Luther was angry with God but he did not cease seeking a breakthrough to his dilemma. He tells his story, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night . . . I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Luther continued his study of Scripture and he pursued formal theological studies, receiving a Doctor of Theology degree in 1512. Soon afterward he became a lecturer/professor at the University of Wittenberg. During his years of teaching and study, Luther became further convinced of the error of many doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He was particularly offended by the emphasis upon salvation by sacraments and works. The seven sacraments of the church, baptism, confirmation, penance, the Lord’s Supper (Mass), extreme unction, ordination, and matrimony were thought to convey grace and aid a person’s salvation.
The turning point for Luther was when he encountered the glaring practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences were associated with the sacrament of penance. After a person had repented of a sin and confessed it, “It was thought that the guilt of sin and eternal punishment for sin were forgiven by God but that there was a temporal satisfaction that the repentant sinner must fulfill either in this life or purgatory. The indulgence was a document that could be bought for a sum of money and that would free a person from the temporal penalty of sin. It was believed that Christ and the saints had achieved so much merit during their earthly lives that the excess merit was laid up in a heavenly treasury of merit on which the pope could draw on behalf of the living faithful” (Cairns, 282). Luther witnessed the practice of selling indulgences in Rome but after they began to be sold in Wittenberg (mainly to fund the half-constructed St. Peter’s Basilica), Luther felt that he could no longer keep his views private. He therefore posted his 95 theses (statements of faith) on the church door at Wittenberg. This was not an entirely uncommon thing to do. These statements set forth his position on Scripture and his objections to certain practices and doctrines of the church.
The impact of Luther’s 95 theses was dramatic and word spread of Luther’s stand. Soon after he was charged with heresy and in 1520 a papal bull (a formal communication) was issued against him by the pope. Luther publicly burned the papal bull. Finally, in 1521 Luther was summoned to defend his position at an assembly gathered at the city of Worms, Germany. Formal deliberative assemblies were called “Diets.” Thus, this important meeting was called “the Diet of Worms.” Luther refused to recant his views. His response to the Emperor, Charles V was powerful. “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 retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience” (Noll, 154). This was Luther’s “Here I stand, I can do nothing else” moment. Although Luther was excommunicated, he had the support of the German people and of Prince Frederick who arranged to have him brought to Wartburg Castle. From there in seclusion he did some of his greatest work, translating the Bible into the German language and continuously producing writings that reflected the reformed and evangelical position.
Sources: Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George; A Treasury of Great Preaching,
Clyde E. Fant, Jr. & William M. Pinson, Jr.; Christianity through the Centuries, Earl Cairns;
Turning Points, Mark Noll.