On October 31, 1517, 500 years ago this month, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, beginning the Reformation and leading the church to greater faithfulness to Christ as revealed in Scripture. To prepare for our celebration of this significant anniversary, we are telling the stories of Luther and his movement to reform the church.
How do we know that God loves us?
In the 1400s in Europe, that was a question on people’s minds. Death was an everyday occurrence. Plagues, wars, famines, and even simple accidents swiftly took the lives of loved ones. God’s power seemed to be the only thing that could save a person, but how can anyone know if God will be merciful? People wanted to know, “What must I do to be saved?”
The church’s answer was simple: if you are not sure, just try harder to please God. Go to mass more often. Confess your sins more completely and sincerely. Give more honor to the saints. Go on more pilgrimages. Do more good works. You can even pay more money to the church for the forgiveness of sins.
A bright, young German monk named Martin Luther anguished over these questions himself. Born in 1483, he grew up relatively privileged as the son of a merchant, but he always worried over whether he was worthy of God’s love. Trying to assuage his fears, he became a monk against his father’s wishes. Because he showed so much promise and passion, at the order of his superiors, he became a respected scholar of theology, joining the faculty of the University of Wittenberg in 1512. But all of his knowledge did not relieve his anxiety. He recalled later, “though I lived as a monk without reproach…I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”
As he studied and meditated on Scripture, he found himself focused on Romans 1:17: “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith.’” Then, he understood: no person is saved by anything that person does, but only by God. What wins God’s favor is faith, which he described later as “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.” He saw the same message repeated in all of Scripture: “faith alone makes a person righteous,” and God alone gives this faith.
The idea was radical: God’s favor comes to us as a free gift. Nothing we can do, and nothing we can say, will help us earn God’s favor. As one historian has said, for Luther, “salvation is not the goal of life, but the foundation of life.” We do good works as a sign of our joy and gratitude for God’s perfect gift of grace which we have received, not to make ourselves worthy of God’s mercy and love. And we live in confidence that in life and in death, God will save us from anything we need to be saved from.
Luther’s study of Scripture, and his insight that God’s love is a free gift which cannot be earned by any human work, was so compelling that he and his colleagues reformed the curriculum of the theology program at the University of Wittenberg. No longer did the students study the work of medieval theologians or the doctrinal statements of the church. Instead, the new instruction plan was based solely on the Bible and the works of St. Augustine, who was the founder of the order of monks of which Luther was a member.
But Luther was not only a professor; he was also a pastor. He continued to be concerned about the anxieties of the people in his parish about what they must do to be saved. He became more and more dissatisfied with the church’s answer: “just try harder.” That dissatisfaction led him to a far more radical challenge.