This Tuesday (Oct. 31) marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Specifically it was 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany. The theses, written in Latin, attacked the practice of selling indulgences on the supposition that penitent sinners could purchase the forgiveness of their sins by making a cash donation to the church. Luther intended his theses to be an invitation to scholarly debate, but others translated them into German and distributed them to the press. Probably no one at the time could have foreseen what would happen as a result.
The theses touched on just a small part of a much larger issue, viz., how can a guilty sinner find forgiveness from a holy and just God? The Roman Catholic view, as it had evolved over the centuries, was that one’s sins are initially washed away in baptism, but that sins committed after baptism had to be dealt with through the sacrament of penance. The sinner must make confession, show contrition, and make satisfaction. This, in turn, could involve spending a lengthy period of time after death in purgatory.
But how can a guilty sinner make satisfaction for his sins? That was the question that plagued young Luther during his early years. Originally destined to become a lawyer, he was nearly killed one day by a bolt of lightning. Terrified, he took a vow to become a monk and joined an Augustinian monastery.
But the monastic life brought him no peace of mind. Try as hard as he might, he could not convince himself that he had won God’s favor. But as he studied the Scriptures, especially Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, he slowly came to realize that we are “justified,” i.e., made righteous in the sight of God, through faith. Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins, and we receive forgiveness by placing our trust in Him as our Savior. For Luther this was an eye-opening understanding.
This is why Luther became so alarmed when Johann Tetzel came through the area selling indulgences, proclaiming “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther posted his theses, and the controversy was on.
Luther went on to write books, participate in debates, and make his famous stand before the Holy Roman Emperor. He had to go into hiding, and while there he began his translation of the Bible into German. Returning to Wittenberg he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and preaching, all the while under the ban of both the Catholic Church and Empire. He wrote catechisms, reformed the liturgy, and composed hymns, including his famous “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
Luther was a very capable and talented theologian. But he could never have gained the insight he had or achieved the results that he did if God had not been at work achieving His own sovereign purposes in history. Luther’s key insight (justification by faith) came about through an intense spiritual struggle. And it was often Luther’s opponents who forced him to see the implications of his doctrine. And in the end it was larger historical forces beyond Luther’s control that achieved the final result – the Protestant Reformation in all of its breadth and diversity. But in the providence of God it fell to Luther to strike the first blow.
Was Martin Luther a perfect human being? By no means. He could be irascible, and intemperate in his use of language. He was subject to bouts of depression. In his later years he became increasingly hostile towards Anabaptists, Jews and Roman Catholics. Even his fellow Reformers sometimes found him difficult to work with at times. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (II Cor. 4:7; NKJV). The remarkable thing about church history is that an infinite, holy, all-powerful and all-wise God could choose finite, mortal and fallible human beings to accomplish His purposes here on earth.
The Protestant Reformation resulted in the recovery of the Christian gospel – the message of salvation by grace through faith. Not that it had entirely disappeared; but during the Middle Ages it had been buried under layers of tradition, canon law and scholastic philosophy. But it was during the Reformation that it reappeared in all of its power, grace and glory. It has since then spread to the distant corners of the world, and untold multitudes have found salvation, the forgiveness of their sins, in Christ. And in the providence of God it was Martin Luther who sparked the flame.