The world may celebrate on October 31st for unholy reasons, but I see it as a day of rejoicing. On that day, 498 years ago, a little German monk changed world history simply because he believed the Bible.
As a young law student, Martin Luther abruptly changed course and entered a monastery, believing that St. Anne had protected him from a near-fatal lightening strike. Once he’d become an Augustinian priest, however, he found himself continually struggling to find assurance of salvation. He flung himself into fasting, penitence, and ritual, agonizing in his efforts to appease God. One of his mentors encouraged him to look to Christ alone. That, Luther could not do. He’d been taught, by the Church of Rome, that God’s favor must be earned (just as he had earned St. Anne’s protection in the storm by vowing to become a monk).
Seeing Luther’s bright intellect, his superiors sent him to Rome, where he began noticing that the vibrant faith of early Christians had been replaced by the dead rituals of Catholicism. Disturbed by this observation, he felt further alienation from God, though he continued his priestly duties.
Upon arriving at the monastery in Whittenberg, Germany, Luther earned his doctorate in theology. This degree brought him into a teaching position at the University of Whittenberg. His preparations for his course on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans revolutionized his relationship with the Lord by convincing him that faith was the only criterion for salvation. He wrote:
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning…This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.
Once Luther experienced the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, he grew even more troubled by the Roman church’s practices–particularly the practice of selling indulgences.
Here, I need to pause and give a cursory background on this practice, and how it was being used in 1517. According to Catholic teaching, the saints merited their own salvation, and accumulated a “treasury” of good works. These good works, for reasons that baffle me, were called “indulgences,” Representatives of the pope (such as the Dominican friar John Tetzel of Whittenburg–Luther’s contemporary) sold these indulgences with the claim that they would shorten someone’s stay in Purgatory. (In actuality, Rome had accelerated the sale of indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.)
Evidently, Tetzel was particularly corrupt in his methods, which greatly disturbed Luther. Clearly, both Rome and Tetzel exploited the poor by selling indulgences, which grieved Luther. But the unscriptural assumption of justification by good works troubled him even more than the exploitation did. At this point, Luther still believed in Purgatory, but he stood on the Bible’s teaching that only faith in Jesus Christ brings salvation.
On October 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses to the University’s chapel door. condemning the selling of indulgences as well as promoting the idea of justification by faith. Indeed, he considered the doctrine of justification by faith to be foundational to Biblical Christianity. At one point, he wrote:
In short, if this article concerning Christ — the doctrine that we are justified and saved through Him alone and consider all apart from Him damned — is not professed, all resistance and restraint are at an end. Then there is, in fact, neither measure nor limit to any heresy and error.
Rome, of course, did not appreciate Luther’s theology. It regarded his teaching as an affront to papal authority, demanding that he recant. But Luther considered Scripture, rather than the pope, to be the supreme authority in representing God’s truth, so he boldly accepted excommunication. Along with other Reformers like Calvin and Zwingli, Martin Luther brought much of Europe back to the Bible.
As October 31 approaches, I intend to blog about the Reformation. Luther wasn’t the first to question Rome’s corruption of Biblical Christianity, but his 95 Theses served as a catalyst to the Protestant Reformation. Reformation principles, in turn, draw us back to Scripture. In blogging about the Reformation, therefore, I want to follow the example of one little German monk who risked everything he had for the sake of God’s Word.