He had the very best money could by. With his high education, his father had hoped that he could advance to a position of wealth and prestige. Yet before even turning 22, this young man’s life was changed forever. The story, as it is often told, is of this young man trapped outside during an electrical storm – an experience he would later compare to Saul’s Damascus conversion. It was there, hugging the ground, believing himself near death, that he struck his bargain with God. Should he survive the storm, he would live his life in the Lord’s service. And so on July 17, 1505 Martin Luther entered into a monastery.
What significance does this young man’s life have for each of us? Was his choice worth the life he walked away from, or the shame of parental disapproval over throwing away the promise of career for a merely religious vocation? To understand these questions, we must sift the sands of history to uncover the joy and beauty known as the reformation.
SETTING THE STAGE
In the late 15th century the Catholic Church had seen better days. Enshrouded in corruption, the church offered a ritualistic system by which one could supposedly build one’s “treasury of merit,” earning God’s favor through religious ceremony.
Yet this same church had become corrupted by its own power. Clergy were known to bribe their way to higher positions. Of particular offense was the sale of “indulgences,” money paid for the remittance of sin, which the church boldly promised would make the buyer “cleaner than Adam before the fall.” Indulgences were arrogantly equated with the cross of Christ in their efficacy. The masses were deluded into believing indulgences could remit the sins of deceased loved ones, exploitation immortalized in the slogan, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Meanwhile the money was being funneled into the task of completing St. Peter’s Basilica under Pope Leo X, ironically making the majesty of this structure built on the shameful corruption and decadence of a church that had long parted from her first love.
A GLORIOUS REDISCOVERY
And it was in this context that we find a troubled monk by the name of Martin Luther, a man whose conscience was in constant torment from his own beliefs. For Luther, God was a God of justice, and Luther was tormented by fears over unconfessed sin, and living up to God’s standard of righteousness.
Yet it was while he was lecturing on the Book of Romans that his life and thinking began to be shaped by the sharp edge of scripture, and in the pages of the text Luther found a message that lifted the scales from his vision to reveal the truth of God’s grace.
Luther had discovered that justice was not about earning God’s favor, but receiving God’s mercy purchased through the redemptive work of His Son. Luther commented,
“I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”
The start of the reformation came not from protest against corruption, but it was, in the words of Alister McGrath, nothing less than “the glorious rediscovery of the gospel.”
THE WITTENBURG DOOR
It was only 12 years after he had entered the monastery. And yet on the day of October 31, 1517 Martin Luther went to the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral to nail his “95 theses,” words that would change history forever. Originally written in Latin, the language of the educated elite (and the clergy), the document was soon translated into the common language of Germany and disseminated among the people. Luther’s revolution had begun.
“SO HELP ME GOD”
Luther’s defiance was based entirely on his conviction that scripture alone was the word of God – not the countless other historians and theologians upon which the Catholic Church so much of its thinking.
Luther held fast to this ancient text, even when brought before a council known as the Diet of Worms where his fate and career within the church would be decided. Presented with a small sample of the literature he had been circulating, he was offered the chance to recant – to take back the words that he had so boldly been speaking.
The accusation was this: how could Luther dare contradict the church? Luther countered by observing that throughout history, theologians and writers within the church have contradicted one another – the church has hardly spoken from a singular voice. And with words now etched in the pages of history texts, he boldly spoke these words:
“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of. God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”
Luther was banned from the church that day through the Edict of Worms. Yet his legacy reaches far. Through him, the Bible was placed into the hands of the average person, and the gospel of grace was liberated from the corrupt clutches of church authority. Few owned a Bible, despite the recent invention of the printing press, and even if they had the Latin text was indecipherable to the common person.
It was Luther who said:
“If you could rightly consider the incomparable price, you would hold as accursed all those ceremonies and merits…and throw them all down to hell. For it is a horrible blasphemy to imagine that there is any work that could pacify God since there is nothing which is able to pacify Him but his inestimable price: the blood of the Son of God, one drop of which is more precious than the whole world.”
And so we celebrate this truth – separating ourselves from the ostensible moralism that so often distorts our view of God’s grace, and clinging fast to the truths found in the pages of His text. And yet one can’t help but question our easy familiarity with these same pages, having forgotten the long journey of love taken by men like Luther. Instead we must thoughtfully reflect on these facts, conscious of the eternal signifiance of the words given to us. We must take every measure not to slide backwards into the inconquerable mountain of religion, and to live within the grand scope of God’s amazing gift of grace and freedom.
It was Luther who is so largely responsible for the shape of the gospel as we now know it – a treasure gleaned from a man who had walked away from his parents’ dreams of material prosperity, a man banished by the church, and a man who became the father of Protestantism and the countless men and women who have labored faithfully for the sake of the gospel.
And so I dedicate this post to all the faithful who have followed after Luther, abandoning lives of affluence and influence to instead pursue this pearl of inestimable value, and to those who have left so willingly lost these temporary things to gain an eternal inheritance.
Happy reformation day.