In October 1517 a little-known Augustinian monk, who was also a lecturer in theology in Wittenberg University, Germany, made his way to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and hammered a document, known as the Ninety-five Theses, on its enormous wooden door.1 This year is the five-hundredth anniversary of those hammerings, which echoed first of all through the vast stone building, then throughout Europe, and then throughout the world. Little did Dr. Martin Luther realize how profound would be the change in Christendom as a result of this document. As a child growing up in Sakeji School, Zambia, I watched several times a year, every half-term for several years, two black-and-white reels of film on the life of Luther that have burned into my memory the image of this humble monk standing alone before the pomp and splendour of the Holy Roman Emperor, the delegation from the Pope in Rome, serried ranks of bishops and clergy, princes and rulers, declaring, when commanded to retract his books and pamphlets on the Christian faith, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God!’ Bearing in mind the conviction of all, that arrest and burning-at-the-stake was certain to follow, Luther’s courage made him a hero to some, though he was a heretic to many.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in humble, peasant circumstances. His father, a miner and smelter of copper ore, wanted him to become a lawyer, thus breaking the working-class traditions of his family. In 1505, however, whilst returning to his university to continue his studies in law, Luther fell to the ground as a thunderbolt during a storm nearly hit and killed him. So frightened was he that he cried out to St. Anne, patron saint of miners, that if he lived he would become a monk. Despite his father’s deep disappointment and vehement opposition, Luther gave up law studies and entered immediately an Augustinian cloister in Erfurt, Germany. Roman Catholic teaching taught that righteousness was something that could be gained. Thus, Luther gave himself whole-heartedly to the austere regime at the monastery, fasting frequently, giving himself to long hours in prayer, wearing horse-hair shirts, beating his back with whips in order to purge himself from his sins, and giving himself to such minute and painstaking confession of sin that he drove his confessor to despair. Yet Luther could not find peace with God. In fact, he later referred to his time in the monastery as one of ‘deep spiritual despair’. Peace with God was not to be found through self-denial and good works. He later wrote, ‘If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, I was surely among them’. Luther was sent on a visit to Rome to represent his cloister, where he was appalled and disillusioned with the godlessness and wickedness of many of the priests he encountered in what was supposed to be ‘the holy city’.
Luther’s Augustinian order was led by a priest called Staupitz, who was deeply anxious about Luther’s state of mind and spiritual agonies. Exiled from the Augustinian cloister in Erfurt to one in Wittenberg, Luther was ordered by Staupitz to give himself to the study of the Bible and to lecture in theology. It was his study of the scriptures that would eventually lead Luther to faith in Christ. He began lecturing on the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians. His biggest struggle was defining the term ‘righteousness’. Luther was also troubled by the expression ‘the righteousness of God’, which he had been led to believe was that attribute of God that compelled Him to judge the unrighteous. ‘I lived without reproach as a monk but my conscience was disturbed to its very depths and all I knew about myself was that I was a sinner. I did not love, nay, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners’. Here was confusion indeed – a monk who outwardly lived for and served God, but inwardly hated and repelled by Him. But continued meditation on scripture led Luther to a profound change in his definition of righteousness. ‘I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the just (righteous) live by a gift of God, namely faith’. It was Paul’s phrase ‘the just shall live by faith’ in Romans chapter 1 that brought him peace. ‘Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open’. ‘That verse in Paul was for me truly the gate of paradise’. It had dawned on him that faith in the work of Christ on the cross alone would bring peace with God, not faith in his own penance. Righteousness with God was not something that could be gained, it was something that was given. Luther preached justification by faith alone with great power and thousands flocked to hear him. The world would never be the same again.
In the year 1516 a Dominican friar, Tetzel, arrived near Wittenberg selling indulgences. These documents, signed by the Pope himself, claimed to give the owner assurances that either he, or someone in whose name he bought them, would be released from purgatory and sent directly into heaven. Tetzel is reputed to have made a fortune in selling these indulgences, the funds for which went to the Pope for him to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His call was, ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’. Luther was appalled at the deception that was being wrought on the uneducated and innocent purchaser of these indulgences. The popular idea is that he hammered his Ninety-five Theses, questioning the sale and legitimacy of these indulgences, on the church door, intending them to be for public debate.1 He also sent a copy of the theses to his archbishop, who forwarded them to Rome. Within a very short space of time, however, they had been translated by his friends from the Latin in which he had written them into German, and they had flooded through Germany. Within two months they had been distributed throughout Europe and there was uproar. Luther was eventually summoned by the Pope to withdraw his teachings in various cities and royal courts throughout Europe. Initially, he never intended to break from the church, only to reform it, but increasing conviction of the fact that the Christian faith was to be defined by the scriptures only, not by popes or church councils, he was led to declare the Pope was in error. Salvation depended upon ‘believing only in the truth of Christ’s promise’. A man could be justified by faith alone, in Christ alone. The inevitable consequence of this was that pilgrimages, masses for the dead, shrines, the worship of relics, spiritual penance, and the buying and selling of indulgences were superfluous. Luther even went so far as to declare that, although the church taught there were seven sacraments, there are, in fact, only two – baptism and the breaking of bread. In 1519, at Leipzig, Luther was driven to state publicly that Christ was the head of the church, not the Pope. In 1520 he went so far as to deny the essence of the mass, saying that the bread and wine did not become the body and blood of Christ. In stating this, Luther undermined the whole structure of the Roman Catholic Church. If God alone could forgive sins, the priest wasn’t necessary. If the priest could not turn the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, then he was not above the people. In 1520 the Pope sent a letter to Luther threatening to excommunicate him if he did not withdraw his writings. Luther publicly burnt the letter of excommunication. He published On the Papacy at Rome, in which he declared there were two churches in the world. One was external and visible and had a hierarchy with the Pope at its head. The other was ‘a spiritual, inner church that acknowledged only Christ’. That same year saw him publish his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in which he taught the priesthood of all believers. Gradually but steadily the true foundation of the Christian faith was being recovered. Luther went so far as to call the Pope the Anti-Christ. In 1521 he was summoned to the city of Worms and it was here that he refused to withdraw his writings. Although Luther had been given safe-conduct to Worms, nobody believed he would be safe. On leaving Worms to return to Wittenberg, Luther disappeared – ‘kidnapped’ by his own prince/elector for his safety. He was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Churches that followed Luther broke away from the teachings of Rome and eventually formed their own denomination, called the Lutheran Church. While hidden away in the Wartburg Castle, Luther began translating the Bible from Latin into German.
Admittedly, much of Luther’s reforming zeal was effective because of politics; the princes of Germany, known as electors, had their own political reasons for protecting him and promoting his views in order to lessen the influence of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Yet God in His sovereignty allowed these men to push religious matters to such a great extent that the power and the authority of the Pope was smashed, and the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith, which Luther had discovered and proceeded to preach, went, as we would say today, ‘viral’. ‘Protestantism’ spread throughout Europe and the world, and the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church was shattered. Martin Luther re-discovered the true teaching of the New Testament – faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone.
There is no doubt that Luther, like other great reformers of his day such as Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox, were men of their times, and they did not turn completely away from Roman Catholic teaching. Luther, for instance, did not accept adult baptism by immersion. Much of what was said and printed was done in what we today would find intemperate language. It may be that we do not agree with all these reformers taught, and we are uncomfortable with the manner in which they worshipped. Yet there is no doubt that we stand today on giants’ shoulders and that we are indebted to men such as Luther, who were led by the Holy Spirit to refocus Christian faith on the Bible, and then stand for the faith which we believe, and in which we rest today, with immense courage in the face of enormous personal danger. ‘Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, and He will win the battle’. And He has!
Richard Marius, Martin Luther, the Christian between God and Death, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
James M. Kittleson, Luther the Reformer, IVP, 1989.
Thomas Lindsay, Martin Luther, the Man who Started the Reformation, Christian Focus Publications, 1997.
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon Press, Nashville Tennessee, 1950.
Some have questioned whether they were so hammered or whether they were merely forwarded to the archbishop of Mainz and then published publicly; Marius, Martin Luther, pp. 137-139; see also Wikipedia, Martin Luther.