Today marks the 489th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. In honor of this today’s post is dedicated to Martin Luther and his work in the reformation.
In today’s culture there is a darkness that pervades the day. It is a darkness that stems from a lack of moral clarity, a lack of biblical knowledge, and an overall distain for the Creator. The darkness, which is indisputably heavy, seems to be overwhelming at times. One wonders how the Church can possibly deal with this darkness. Can scripture alone really change people? The answer to this question can be found in a long lineage of faithful churchmen.
Despite the current darkness a careful review of church history will reveal a darker age. The medieval age, which may have been the darkest of all, saw the church sink to new lows. The overall illiteracy of the culture caused an overall biblical illiteracy within the church, and the lack of biblical wisdom left both the church and the culture with no moral guidelines. Many of the “church priests” took concubines and engaged in adulterous affairs, while others enjoyed gluttonous lives at the expense of their parishioners. As one looks back at this period it is hard to find even a flicker of light. However, the return to the Scriptures was inevitable. Christ’s bride could not stay estranged from her bridegroom.
There were early attempts to stem the tide of darkness with God’s word. Men like Wycliffe, Hus, and Savonarola all fought for (and with) God’s Word. These men, while never seeing all of the influence they had, laid the foundation for the revival of the reformation. In all of this God sovereignly controlled the events of history so as to keep the promise of Christ:
“…I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
The Light in the Darkness: Martin Luther
As we look back in history at this age of darkness it seems almost as if “the gates of Hades” had surrounded the church, and were closing in quickly. However, God was sovereignly in control. In order to keep his promise, God provided a light to shine in this dark age. That light shined through an obscure Augustinian monk who found a love for Scripture. This now famous monk, none other than Martin Luther, sent shockwaves throughout the world by declaring Scripture to be his sole authority.
Much could be said about Martin Luther’s life; all of which demonstrates the work of God in his life. One of the clearest examples of God’s work in Luther’s life is seen in a trip that Luther made to Rome. As a Catholic Monk of the Augustinian order Luther greatly anticipated his trip to Rome. Rome was the hub of church activity, and the location of many relics that were dear to the church. What Luther found upon his arrival in Rome was not at all what he expected, but it was exactly what God had planned for him. One of Luther’s first impressions about Rome was that it was “but a dead carcass compared with its ancient splendor.” Despite being shocked by many of the unbiblical practices that he saw in Rome Luther’s faith in the teaching of the Roman Church was not yet shaken.
After returning from Rome Luther continued in his personal studies at Erfurt as part of the black cloister. He was then transferred to Wittenberg where he received his doctorate, and became a teacher at the University of Wittenberg. During his time at the University of Wittenberg Luther focused the brunt of his attention on the study of the Apostle Paul’s teaching. In the course of his studies Luther could not stop coming back to one particular teaching of Paul; “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11) Again and Again Luther kept coming to this text, each time more and more troubled by its content. Through this study Luther finally came to realize that by acceptance of the work of Christ God would impute Christ’s righteousness upon the sinful man alleviating the punishment for his sin. In God’s word Luther found the Gospel, and accepted it. Luther looked back on this time as his birthday in the faith. During this time Luther came into possession of Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament. From that point on this was what Luther taught from. Luther continued to teach through the book of Romans, and began to see the discrepancies between the teachings of Rome, and the teachings of the book of Romans. Luther was now motivated by a love for God’s Word, and the newfound discovery of God’s grace. Armed with these tools, and a calling from God, Luther shined the light of the gospel in a dark age. His ministry was accomplished at a great cost due to unimaginable opposition. But at every step of the way Luther’s steps were guided by the hand of God.
As Luther grew in his faith so also did his discontent with the teachings of Rome. Between the years of 1515 and 1516 a note of protest can be found in Luther’s preaching. He was disturbed by Rome’s view of works. He was also concerned with the collection of relics, and the belief that they held some type of spiritual power. This was a particular concern for Luther because his own civil lord, the elector of Saxony, had collected hundreds of relics in the Wittenberg cathedral.
It was in 1517 that Luther’s protest, and call for reform reached its boiling point. In September of that year Luther wrote his 97 theses. This document is largely overlooked because it was on October 31st, 1517 that Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. This, for many, marks the beginning of the Reformation. From here on out Luther would be viewed by the Roman church as a heretic, and by many of the people as a hero.
The Message of Light: The Gospel
It would be a mistake to view the Reformation as the product of one man. In fact, it would be a mistake to view the Reformation as a product of many men. The Reformation was a product of the Gospel of Christ, and the spread of that Gospel through the preaching of the Word of God. Its theo-centric nature was what made the Reformation so powerful. Martin Luther, as well as the other Reformers, saw the necessity of the Gospel and made it the foundation of the Reformation. John Piper, writing on justification by faith, had this to say: “And there was darkness. The Reformation was needed. And the discovery and preaching of justification by faith alone was the center of the lightning bolt of truth that lit the world.” For the first time in many years the common man was taught the Gospel that is found in the Bible. For many it was the first time they had ever heard a churchman teach that “the just shall live by faith.” This amazing truth was the lifeblood of the Reformation.
In Romans 4:5 we read, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” The teaching of this text is what the reformers would eventually call “sola fide.” This doctrine of “faith alone” means that works are not required for salvation, and additionally faith is not a work. Rather, faith is what unites us with Christ. Through our faith God sees us as united with Christ. He literally sees Christ in us. He sees the righteous life that was required of us lived out by Christ. He sees the infinite punishment demanded by our rebellion received on the cross. This is why faith is “credited as righteousness.” Luther had this to say about our justification by faith, “This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot see for one hour.”
The Light of the Reformation Continues to Burn
Luther stood on the shoulders of the “pre-reformers,” like Hus and Wycliffe, and recaptured a love for God’s word. Our responsibility is to continue what Luther started. It was in the spring of 1521 that Luther appeared at the diet of Worms to answer for his teaching. With his life hanging in the balance Luther knew the damage that a retraction on his part would cause. Would he be willing to sacrifice his own life for a re-capturing of the bible? The answer is yes. History is somewhat vague on Luther’s exact reply when asked to recant, but it went something like this:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, God help me. Amen.”
Luther stood on God’s Word and persevered in the faith. Today we must stand on the shoulders of Luther, and the great reformers. Thanks to Luther we are not enslaved by “the authority of the popes and councils.” Thanks to the faithful preaching of John Calvin we have his commentaries on almost the entire bible to learn from. Thanks to William Tyndale, who gave his life for Christ, we have God’s Word in English. There are so many men who sacrificed, fought, labored, and even died so that we might stand on their shoulders. It is my intention, God willing, to honor these men by honoring God, by holding firm the doctrines of Grace, and by loving the bible. Let us never forget the cries of the reformation:
sola fide: faith alone
sola scriptura: Scripture alone
solus Christus: Christ alone
sola gratia: Grace alone
soli deo gloria: To the Glory of God alone
Let me try my own rendition of Luther’s proclamation at Worms:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason I will continue to fight for the biblical doctrines re-discovered in the Reformation – I will not forget what these giants in the faith did for the Church, and the opportunity they gave me to study God’s Word – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not forget the Reformation for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand on the shoulders of the Reformers, God help me. Amen.”