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.
1. 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.
2. A Challenge
Martin Luther, a monk, pastor, and university professor in Wittenberg, Germany, anguished over the question, “What must I do to be saved by God?” He came to realize through his study of Scripture that God’s love is simply a gift. Based on his insight and fervor, he and his colleagues began emphasizing the free gift of God’s grace in their teaching and preaching.
The leaders of the church in the early 1500s, though, promoted different ideas. In response to people’s anxiety about whether or not they had done enough to be saved, the church encouraged believers to just try harder. “Indulgences” were one way believers could assure themselves that they and their family would receive God’s favor and go to heaven when they died. These were certificates issued by the church in exchange for a contribution.
The contributions given in exchange for indulgences helped the church with building programs, especially the massive St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which was built beginning in 1506. These building programs were intended to strengthen the position of the church in Europe at the time. Conflicts and changes in political and economic systems had significantly weakened the church’s power in the 1300s and 1400s. Kings did not like the pope’s interference in their affairs, and large church buildings rivaling the kings’ palaces would symbolize not only the spiritual power but also the political strength of the pope and his church.
Luther wrote his 95 Theses to challenge the practice of selling indulgences. The Theses were formatted as a standard invitation to debate, and Luther sent a letter to his archbishop with his challenge. Luther imagined that his superiors in the church would hear his reasoning based on Scripture and institute changes. He simply wanted the church to become more faithful to the witness of scripture that God’s free gift of faith alone, and not any human contribution or church-issued indulgence, could assure believers of God’s love and care.
Luther was proven naïve. His superiors sent his complaints to the Pope, and a decree came out accusing Luther of heresy. Rather than traveling to Rome, where he could be killed if deemed a heretic, the ruler of the region which included Wittenberg, Prince Frederick, arranged for an interview with a cardinal from Rome in Augsburg, Germany. In the interview, Luther said he was willing to not pursue the issue any further. However, he refused to say he was wrong, stating, “I cannot recant… I cannot abandon the Scriptures.” The cardinal became angry and refused to respond to Luther’s further explanations. Luther escaped from Augsburg with help from local friends and officials.
Luther’s challenge probably would not have gone far in an earlier time. But the printing press, first developed by a fellow German, Johannes Gutenberg, in the mid-1400s, allowed his ideas to spread. His 95 Theses, originally written in Latin, were published but not widely distributed. However, as the controversy developed, some of his responses to official decrees as well as his sermons and other statements were published as pamphlets in German. Many people began to support Luther and his ideas in opposition to the official positions of the church. As his ideas, and his popularity and power, began to spread, his conflict with the leaders of the church in Germany and Rome deepened, until he finally had to make a choice that could cost him his life.
3. “I cannot do otherwise, here I stand.”
Martin Luther had a choice: recant his writings, or face excommunication and death. At issue especially were statements he made challenging the authority of the pope. He asserted that we are saved by God’s free gift of faith alone, not through any human work, including declarations of the pope or the church.
In June, 1520, almost three years after his conflict with the church began, Pope Leo X gave Luther 60 days to recant or he would be excommunicated. In the statement condemning Luther, the pope also ordered that Luther and his supporters be detained him. Further, the pope ordered Luther’s writings burned and forbid anyone to read, print, praise, or otherwise share Luther’s ideas.
But Luther had become a hero to many Germans, including scholars, political activists, clergy, and common people. To them, his ideas supported their desire to overcome the oppression and corruption of the church as well as feudal relationships with rulers and landowners. Students were flocking to the University of Wittenberg, where he was a professor of theology and preacher. The university was founded by the ruler of the region, Prince Frederick, in 1502.
Instead of recanting, Luther cited Scripture to challenge his opponents, asserting that all believers have the right and the duty to interpret Scripture. He advocated other reforms, such as the freedom of priests to marry and the right of all children, including girls, to be educated so that they could “know the entire holy gospel by the age of nine or ten.” He questioned the church’s teachings on the meaning and practice of communion and baptism. In response to the pope’s final declaration of excommunication, issued in January, 1521, Luther’s colleagues and students burned the pope’s declaration and other papal and church documents.
The pope urged Emperor Charles V to arrest Luther. Regional rulers, including Prince Frederick, chose Charles in 1519 to rule the Holy Roman Empire. His election was supported by the pope. But German law required that Luther be given an impartial hearing. The hearing was held before the Emperor himself in Worms, Germany, in April, 1521. Luther was again asked to retract his writings. If he refused, he would be declared a heretic, a charge which was punished by death. After taking all night to consider carefully his response, he declared to the Emperor:
“I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”
Luther was given a three-week period to go home and reconsider. Prince Frederick was sympathetic to Luther and aware of his popular support. He intercepted Luther on his journey home and gave him a safe refuge in Wartburg Castle. While he was there, he translated the New Testament from Latin into German and continued his other writing. He returned to Wittenberg the next year after hearing of violent insurrections there in the name of the reforms he had instituted. He was able to restore calm in that city and continue to build the reform movement. Soon, though, the effects of the movement, both positive and negative, spun wildly out of his control.
Martin Luther was convinced by Scripture that we are saved not by anything we do, nor by anything the church does, but only by the grace of God given freely as the gift of faith. His conviction caused him to be excommunicated by Pope Leo X and labeled a heretic by Emperor Charles V. If not for the protection of Prince Frederick, he would have been arrested and probably executed. As controversial as his ideas were in the church, they caught hold quickly in Germany and throughout Europe. Some regional princes, including Frederick, declared support for Luther’s reforms. They protested the Emperor’s attempts to outlaw Lutheranism and became known as “Protestants.”
In the decades following Luther’s protest against the church’s practices and theology, other movements arose across Europe building on Luther’s ideas. As early as 1519 in Zurich, Switzerland, a priest named Ulrich Zwingli began objecting to church practices like selling indulgences. Later, a French lawyer and scholar named John Calvin built on Zwingli’s and Luther’s movement, becoming a leader in the city of Geneva, Switzerland, when it accepted the Reformation in 1536. The Swiss movements of Reformed theology differed slightly with Lutheran theology, mostly around the understanding of Communion church organization. Other groups, such as the Anabaptists, broke off from these reform movements over disagreements related to the nature of the church, Baptism and Communion, and other issues of theology and authority. In England, Luther’s ideas were talked about as early as 1520. King Henry VIII formally declared that the King of England, not the Pope, had authority over the church and clergy in 1534, starting the Church of England, or Anglican, branch of the church.
The Roman Catholic Church also undertook reforms in the years following Luther’s challenges. New movements within the church called believers to greater personal piety and discipline such as the Jesuits, an order of monks sanctioned in 1540. From 1545 – 1563, the Council of Trent issued numerous sweeping theological statements responding to the assertions of the reformers. Those teachings shaped the beliefs and structures of the Catholic Church for centuries.
In modern times, Christ’s followers have sought reconciliation among the branches of the church. Beginning in 1965, the World Lutheran Federation, a global association of Lutheran churches, entered into dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, the groups have issued several joint statements detailing points of congruence in theological understandings.
Historians have claimed that Luther’s reforms have been essential to the development of everything from modern educational systems to movements for civil rights to the individualistic work ethic central to capitalist economic systems. Whether or not those links are truly direct, Luther’s conviction that Scripture alone can inform our understandings of Christ, his courage in pursuing truth for the church and for individual believers, and his unwavering devotion to the worship of God and the ministry of the church continue to shape and inspire us today.