As I write this, today is the 500th anniversary of a turning point in Church and world history. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, a monk and priest in the Catholic Church, and Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Wittenburg, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Saxony. So began the Protestant Reformation.
If this seems like an unlikely beginning to a revolution, then Luther himself would probably have agreed. He did not set out with the intention of forming a breakaway church, or even of changing power structures in the Catholic Church. His sole concern was that people had radically misunderstood God’s purpose and plan of salvation and he had to speak out against what he saw.
The trigger for this was in a practice called Indulgences. Leo X became Pope in 1513 and set out to complete St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. To do this he needed money and so he began to push the sale of Indulgences, a paper guarantee that all past, present and future sins would be forgiven. When the commissioner selling these indulgences, Johann Tetzel, came to town, Luther refused to accept the certificates that his parishioners brought him and refused to accept the Pope’s authority to determine the eternal destiny of individuals.
Luther had been reflecting for some time about the nature of faith. He concluded that it was the Bible and the Bible alone that was the authority for our lives and salvation. He came to understand that it was repentance and not doing penance that was the key to new life in Christ. In the first of his Ninety-Five Theses he wrote this: ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.’
No acts of good works could repair the effects of sin. Our salvation depended entirely on God’s grace expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His incarnate Son. Only by scripture, only by faith, only by grace became his mission statement. He went on to express the idea that every true believer is a priest, needing no other mediators except the one true Mediator, our Lord Jesus.
I won’t give you the whole of reformation church history – it might take a while. Suffice to say that although Luther was the touchstone for the Reformation, God had placed in the hearts of many others truths that came together at this point in history. John Wycliffe in the 14th Century had said similar things; Jan Hus (executed just 2 years before Luther’s protest), Ulrich Zwingli, a contemporary of Luther’s. Then in various places across Switzerland, Austria, The Low Countries and Moravia came the Anabaptists, expressing the view that baptism was for believers only. Out of this cauldron of theological reflection came our own tradition when English Separatists exiled in Amsterdam founded the first Baptist church.
Luther was also wrong about many things and it has been argued that his terrible anti-Semitism resulted in attitudes in Germany that would have awful consequences. Yet without Luther’s ideas and his courage in expressing them the world would be a much worse place. As he stood on trial at the Diet of Worms (yes it’s a place in Germany!) he declared that he would not retract any of his writings: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’. I pray that we have Luther’s conviction as we live as ambassadors of Christ in a needy and hurting world.
Yours in Christ