Four hundred-ninety years ago today, a revolution was launched in Wittenberg, Germany. It began quietly, as God chose a pious and somewhat belligerent Augustinian monk-turned-professor of theology -- Martin Luther -- who, on this day in 1517, pounded his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" -- which later became known as the 95 Theses -- on the church door at Wittenberg. With every pound of his hammer he sent echoes through the Christian world, and he got noticed, and soon he found himself targeted as a “wild boar” to be hunted in the “vineyard” of the Church of Rome.
Luther did not set out to break away from the Church of Rome. He merely saw in the Church’s behavior what he believed Scripture proved to be error, and called on Rome to repent. His primary dispute was with the sale of plenary indulgences, which supposedly granted the buyer a free pass out of purgatory into the gates of Heaven; "when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” goes the saying attributed to Johann Tetzel. The money Tetzel and others were collecting from the poor peasants was being used to facilitate the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As an example of Luther’s style, his Thesis 86 asks, "Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?"
For all his well-documented faults, it seems that Luther understood the depth of his sin to a great degree. He was a pious monk who could find no solace in any of his rituals or confessions. In fact, it is said he wore his abbott out with confessions; he always felt he could have done things better. In fact, he wrote: “If ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If it had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.” The analog to Paul is painfully obvious, as one is reminded of his words in Phillippians 3:
“If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
And Luther understood that this -- the resurrection from the dead unto glory -- was exactly what was at stake. He came to understand Paul’s words in Romans, that the “just shall live by faith,” meant that no one is saved by works or law-keeping. It is not the purchase of an indulgence that will allow one to stand before God at the final judgment, but instead the truths found in what are known as the “five solas” of the Reformation: eternal life given is only by the sovereign grace of God (sola gratia) to those to whom He has granted faith (sola fide) in Jesus (solus christus), as taught in Scripture alone (sola scriptura), to the glory of God(soli deo gloria). It was this convicting knowledge that allowed Luther, knowing he would very possibly die, to stand before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (who wanted Luther to recant, to go back on his writings), at the Diet of Worms in May of 1521, and say: “Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason ... I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Today, my friends, I encourage you to remember the sacrifices made by Luther and others, as we commemorate the glorious return of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into Western Christendom. We simply cannot fathom how different our lives would be if God had not raised up people such as Luther, Calvin, and others like them. Our modern understanding of the Bible as the sole infallible guide for faith and practice can be traced directly back to the Protestant Reformation. Quite frankly put, if you are not a Roman Catholic, this is your heritage, and to ignore the teachers God has provided to teach his people throughout history is downright disrespectful.
If this topic interests you further, I’d encourage you to give the latest Apologetics.com Radio Show a listen, as it covers this very topic: The Reformation Show.
I leave you today with the first two questions (and their answers) from the Heidelberg Catechism, a confession springing up out of the Reformation. In my mind, they capture some of the best, most important truths in all of Scripture.
Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
Question 2. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?
Answer: Three; (a) the first, how great my sins and miseries are; (b) the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; (c) the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.
much thanks to christopher neiswonger for inspiring some of the phraseology above