It was 500 years ago when a young man of conscience and conviction posted a number of comments (95, to be exact) for public debate. Earlier calls to reform the Western Church had not gained much traction—often because of harsh reaction and persecution. A century before, the Czech priest, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake for raising objections to what the church had become.
October 31, 1517 became the tipping point.
But let’s go back just a few years, back to a brilliant, 21-year-old young law student who was beginning to struggle with personal doubt. He took a break from his law studies to travel home and visit his father, who worked in the copper mines.
On his way back to the university, walking through a fierce thunderstorm and drenched by rain, a bolt of lightning slammed to the ground mere feet away. Terror-stricken, the young man begged for mercy from St. Anne, the patroness of miners: “Help me, St. Anne!” There in the rain, fearing for his life, he made a vow: “I will become a monk.”
And so a lightning bolt altered the course of history.
Martin Luther abandoned his law studies and fulfilled his vow. He gave away all his possessions and became an Augustinian monk and later a priest, much to the displeasure of his father. With all those changes, however, one thing had not changed: Martin Luther was still gripped by fear: He lived in fear of not being good enough. He lived in fear of hell and punishment. He lived in fear of the devil.
Martin Luther was like a lot of us—he wanted to be good; he wanted to please God; but he felt so inadequate, so unworthy, so sinful. He knew he could never be good enough, so he kept trying harder.
Luther didn’t just go through the motions of religion, he embraced it: He prayed. He fasted. He engaged in asceticism (going without sleep, for example, or enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, or flagellating himself with a whip). While visiting Rome, Luther paid money to buy the release of his grandfather’s soul from purgatory by climbing the 28 steps of the Scala Santa on his knees, saying the Lord’s prayer at each step.
Luther was a loyal, devoted priest in the Catholic church, but even his extreme religious fervor could not bring him peace of heart. No matter how hard he tried, he knew he could never be good enough to please a holy, righteous God.
Then he was assigned to become a professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenburg, Germany, where he began to study the Bible in earnest.
Here was a young priest—earnest and committed—who did not yet grasp the core teachings of the Bible. He knew church doctrine; he followed religious traditions; he did good works, but all his religious efforts came up empty. That only changed once he opened God’s Word and let its truth soak into his heart and mind.
As he studied, Luther asked God for understanding, depending on the Holy Spirit to give him insight. Later he described what happened:
I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans…but to that moment one phrase in chapter 1 stood in my way. I hated the idea, “in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” …I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners….
At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I…began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith…. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open. [Christian History, Issue 34 (Vol XI:2), p 15 (1992)]
Martin Luther’s personal awakening spilled over into his teaching and preaching. As he challenged the heavy religious obligations that the church had imposed on people and promised freedom through faith in Christ alone, he became increasingly popular among the people.
Then one day a priest named John Tetzel arrived in town selling “indulgences” to help fund the ongoing building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgences were like “Get Out of Jail” free cards—but you had to pay for them. It was taught that you could buy pardon for sin with money. You could escape the punishment of purgatory (or reduce your time there) by buying an indulgence. This led to all sorts of abuse and corruption. Some men, for example, going on a trip, would buy indulgences ahead of time because they planned to visit a prostitute or two while they were away.
For his part, Tetzel was a marketing genius. He claimed, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the rescued soul from purgatory springs.” He even created a chart that listed a price for each type of sin. So John Tetzel created quite a stir when he arrived in town.
Big mistake! Luther became incensed at the way the poor and the uneducated were exploited to fund the extravagances of Rome—angry that people were enslaved by a legalistic doctrine of works. Not only was it bad theology, it was bad politics. These were Germans! Why should they have to pay for a church in Rome?
Luther had already become increasingly frustrated that the church had become encrusted with institutional greed and a corrupt, immoral priesthood. Tetzel’s actions became the last straw for Luther. So on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a list of concerns to the community bulletin board—the front door of the church in Wittenburg.
His list—95 theses—was intended for scholarly discussion. He wanted to renew and reform the church. But somebody took his 95 theses to the printing press and they spread across the country. Luther didn’t mean to start a revolution, but that’s what happened. Events were set in motion and Luther’s personal awakening spilled over to awaken the entire continent.
Martin Luther did all this at great personal cost. By questioning authority, he put himself at risk of excommunication—even execution. It was not easy to stand alone against his accusers, knowing that if he listened to his conscience he would likely be killed.
Pope Leo X put Martin Luther out of the church in 1521, saying he was a “drunken German who will change his mind when he is sober.” His decree branded Luther “the slave of a depraved mind” and called his followers a “pernicious and heretical sect.” Yet Pope Benedict XVI spoke at Erfurt in 2011 (where Luther studied theology and celebrated his first Mass) about Luther’s concern for sin, noting its significance now when mercy is highlighted at the expense of understating sin and judgment. Benedict said:
“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of [Luther’s] whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today—even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. [From “Hovering Over Rome” in the World Catholic Report.]
Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote, “We have much to learn from Luther, beginning with the importance he attached to the word of God.”
Martin Luther wasn’t perfect, of course, but he left a huge mark on history. Today, it’s not just Lutherans who value his influence. Those who protested against the religious abuses of the medieval church became known as Protestants. As Protestants, we value the theological truths that young priest stood for 500 years ago.