The pounding of a single nail into the wooden Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517, announced the doom of the old-world order and marked the dawn of a worldwide revival. With those 95 theses firmly attached, Martin Luther thought he was stirring up a debate on indulgences, the “getting out of purgatory free” card, for money; but he unleashed a typhoon, suggesting the church had it wrong, and the infallible Pope was on the wrong side of Scripture. Luther insisted that only God could forgive sins—not priests or Popes. Here is just a spattering of the 95:
- Only God can give salvation – not a priest.2
- Only God can forgive -the Pope can only reassure people that God will do this.
- The priest must not threaten those dying with the penalty of purgatory.
- An indulgence cannot save a dead soul.
- The Pope should give his own money to replace that which is taken from pardoners.
- Relics are not the relics of Christ, although they may seem to be. They are, in fact, evil in concept.
- Indulgences bought for the dead should be re-paid by the Pope.
- Let Christians experience problems if they must – and overcome them – rather than live a false life based on present Catholic teaching. (1)
Truth Snuffed by Superstition
Until Luther, the light of Christ radiating from the Christian Church only flickered; it sparked but would quickly die out; it was snuffed by superstition and church tradition. There were luminaries like Wycliffe, Hus, and Jerome who for a time enlightened the people; they taught of God’s love and grace and total forgiveness, but their light was beaten back by influential dignitaries drenched in pride and ignorance and vice. It seemed like Satan was winning the war, not Christ, for all those looking on. So for over a millennium, the truth was chained to monastic library walls, written in Latin, a language few understood.
Christians living in the Middle Ages were taught to fear demons and devils. They were terrified of ending up in hell, burning and writhing in unimaginable pain, or landing in purgatory and suffering just a little less and a little shorter. They were tormented with the idea that all men were hopeless sinners in the sight of an unforgiving, arbitrary God and were unworthy of salvation, at least until Luther.
Martin Luther was humble, courageous, a master of many languages, and brutally intelligent. He went to the University of Erfurt, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Theology and later a Ph.D. from Wittenberg.
He lived almost 200 years after England’s reformer John Wycliffe and 100 years after Hus and Jerome, who were martyred for defying the church. Luther thought he would be martyred next when he publicly destroyed the Papal “bull” sent from Pope Leo, summoning him to Rome to defend himself.
Parenthetically, every year or so, the Emperor of Germany, Charles the fifth, would organize a meeting, called a Diet, inviting German princes and bishops. In 1521, the Emperor summoned Martin Luther to Worms to recant.
Charles was a devout Catholic, but his princes were sympathetic to Luther, so Luther was given safe conduct to and from the meeting to defend his teachings. Upon arrival, Luther was shown a table with a pile of his books and other writings and was offered the opportunity to reject his own writings and recant, but he refused. Luther’s reply was epic:
Luther’s Famous Response
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” And added, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” (2)
True to his promise, the Emperor allowed Luther to leave Worms, but as an outlaw, he was branded a heretic and sentenced to death. He planned on arresting Luther quickly after releasing him, except Luther was “kidnapped” by Frederick the Wise of Saxony. Luther would have been taken and burned at the stake had Charles found him first. Instead, he was taken to the Wartburg Castle, where he wrote furiously, translating the Latin text of the Bible into the common man’s language—German—changing the world forever.
Luther coined several great sayings: The just will live by faith and Sola Scriptura—the Scriptures alone. These, along with the 95 theses, changed the course of history. The Christian world took a giant step forward thanks to Martin Luther, but unfortunately, it didn’t continue to advance; like the Roman church, it too became formal, and additional reforms took place. Truth advanced through Europe and eventually the New World through Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and others.
And truth is still advancing: six more theses can be nailed to the church door. To be continued.