The Story of Luther and His 95 Theses

The following is Jordan’s sermon from October 1.
You can listen to the sermon by CLICKING HERE.

The date was October 31, 1517. A relatively unknown professor, Martin Luther, nailed 95 arguments or theses for academic debate to the doors of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, where he lived, taught, and preached. This should have been an unimportant moment. In fact, this Augustinian monk had posted theses to that same door a month before that got no response. But that simple act and that ordinary date, the eve of All-Saints day 500 years ago this month, would be the match that lit a fire to the world, and that fire continues to impact your life every day, though you probably don’t even realize it.

There would be no Presbyterians without Luther and no Protestants. We might all be Catholic. Worship would be in Latin without Luther. Pastors could not marry without Luther. That means there would be no Rimmer children without Luther. In fact, the great importance you probably place on marriage and some of your views on marriage are developed by Luther. Luther developed the printing industry. You have pretty books because of Luther. Law and Education are different because of Luther and his movement. There would be no United States of American without Luther. In fact, the idea of a nation-state would not exist without Luther. People did not emphasize following their conscience before Luther. There would be no Bible in English, let alone in German, without Luther.

Certainly one could argue that someone else would have had this impact if Martin Luther and his movement had not. And it is true that there were other factors that made Luther’s timing perfect and spurred on his efforts. And, as we will see, the movement has had some long-term negative impact on not just Germany, but the whole world. Still, the impact of Luther’s life and work cannot be denied. Others could have done it and society was moving a certain way, but it was Luther that lit the match.

And the first match was a piece of paper on a door 500 years ago. This is the story of that page.

Let’s understand the context. Europe is coming out of what would be called the Dark Ages. It was a time with bad living conditions and the plague. There was extreme poverty. But the Dark Ages were giving way to the Enlightenment. There was a renewed interest in books and ideas. The printing press, first invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, was developing into a network of publishers that could get books across Europe. The Americas had been discovered and were starting to be explored.

This is also a moment of great political struggle. The Roman Empire still ruled over most of Europe, but was being pressed by the Turks to the East, and their influence was weakening. They relied on regional rulers to handle much of the governance, and all was controlled from Rome itself.

So here is the struggle. On the one hand, you had scared people who faced death every day and tried to make sense of it. They were greatly worried about hell and the afterlife. These views often included thinking that demons or evil spirts were lurking in the world to get them if they were bad. And what is the nature of God? Is God good? Does God care?

On the other hand, you have many in the Church, though not all, in their own insecurity, and perhaps sense of entitlement, capitalizes on the times. They used people’s fears to collect money for time out of purgatory for them and their loved ones. The printed blessings were called “indulgences.” This money was then used to fight wars and build buildings, such as St. Peter’s Bascilicca in Rome during Luther’s time. And the Bible was in Latin. Most priest could not read let alone did they have a copy to read. And the common person only knew of the biblical truth whatever was told to them.

This struggle is exactly Luther’s personal struggle. He was a man of fear. The story goes that Luther was pinned down in a lightning storm and promised to leave the study of law and instead become a monk if he would survive. He did survive, and followed through with his promise.

Luther joined that harshest order of Augustinian Monks. He shaved head into a ring, prays 7 times a day, works hard, and lives and eats simply. Luther also used to harm himself. He would beat himself with whips. He could not come to grips with his sin and how angry God must be at him

He wrote: “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me… . What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow.”

Luther once said, “If ever a monk could get to heaven by his monkery, it was I.”

The head of his order was concerned with how self-focused and self-obsessed Luther was. His idea was to send Luther to learn theology and give him something else to focus on. He would be so busy that he would not have time to focus on his own sin.

Luther went to the University of Erfurt where he learned Latin and studied Bible and theology. What he discovered was a different understanding of God and what it meant to follow God. He was especially moved by the book of Romans, beginning with Romans 1:16-17
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Here we have the core of Luther’s theology. It is not Luther’s righteousness that is important, nor is it yours or mine. It is God’s righteousness given to you. It is the sacrifice of Jesus that makes you holy. You don’t get God’s love and forgiveness by being good enough or by getting granted righteousness from the church. It is yours by faith. Not by punishment, purgatory, or paying. Only By faith.

In the months leading up to that October 500 years ago, a major campaign of indulgence sales ratcheted up across Germany, led by a man named Tetzel. When Tetzel came to town, he would set up plays depicting torture in Hell, and then put on a rousing speech to sell indulgences to protect your lost loved ones from this torture. He famously said, “When coin in coffin rings- a soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel traveled and attempted to raise the equivalent of millions of dollars.

Luther was against this for a number of reasons, in fact, 95 reasons. Part of his complaint is as a pastor for his people, who are being pressured into buying these indulgences. Part of his complaint is as a theologian for a better doctrinal basis for the acts of the church. And part of it is as a person who suffered guilt and fear in a system that he escaped only as he learned of grace.

Early on argues against repentance as a sacrament and tying it to money. Line 1 begins: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite,[57] willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” So the entire life of the believer should be a life of repentance. He develops that idea, claiming that indulgences actually move people away from true repentance. Then he makes some arguments against the way indulgences were being sold. In Thesis 50 Luther says, “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”

But then it heats up, and he questions the Pope himself. In #82: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.” In other words, if the Pope can free people from purgatory, why not empty purgatory instead of doing it for money? Then, in thesis 86: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Why doesn’t the pope use his own money to build St. Peter’s Basilica?

These theses struck at the heart of a number of theological problems that had developed primarily during the Middle or Dark Ages. And it was like a tower of cards. And when that happened, it was like what business author Malcolm Gladwell would call a “tipping point.”

Those 95 Theses were quickly printed and were spread around throughout Germany. And it got a lot of people excited, so much so that the Pope in Rome had to respond. They tried to silence Luther, but his voice and platform only got stronger.

One of Luther’s strength was that he was quite a prolific writer, and he did not write in Latin like other academics and church leaders did. He wrote in German, and many were hungry for his writings. This made the publishers very happy, even as he was cutting into the money they were making printing indulgenes.

After repeated attempts to argue with Luther and silence him, he was finally called to the Diet of Worms in 1521. This was a trial in the city of Worms where Luther was asked to recant, or say that he no longer held the beliefs that he wrote in his books. Luther had to know going in that he was likely to be burned at the stake if he did not recant.

He stood strong at the Diet of Worms, saying this in conclusion: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Luther was excommunicated from the church and was not given protection in the Roman Empire. For the rest of his life, wherever he went, people could capture him and bring him before authorities to be tried and punished as a heretic, which would mean he would be burned at the stake.

It was not Martin Luther’s intention to star Protestantism outside of the Catholic church. He wanted to reform it and shape it. But the clash was too strong.

Luther spent more than a year in hiding, both for his own protection and to try to lessen the strong opposition of the Catholic church which was now a movement beyond Luther. During that time, he set to work translating the New Testament from Greek and Latin into the common German language. Luther wanted people to read the Bible for themselves, so that they could, like he had done, could see for themselves the amazing grace of God.

Luther would spend the rest of his life writing, training other pastors, and advising Germany’s political leaders, all the while preaching and pastoring in Wittenburg. He would decide that priests could get married, and would get married and have children himself. He would spend much of his time trying to define the theology, governance, and worship practices of this new German church.

The movement would move beyond Germany, in books and in great leaders. Many of the reformers faced persecution and were forced to leave the places of their birth. Some would even try out this new world for a chance at Freedom. A Catholic Reformation also followed, to the point that the Catholic church does not look much like the church of that day.

And it all began, 500 years ago, with 95 Theses on the door.

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