The son of a copper miner, Martin Luther was an exceptionally bright young man. He began studying law at the university level when he was only 13, and he completed his degree in the shortest amount of time allowed. When he was 21, Luther nearly died in a severe thunderstorm. He thought God was threatening him so in the middle of pouring rain and booming thunder, Luther vowed, “I will become a Monk if you save me!”
After becoming a Roman Catholic monk, Luther grew to be terrorized by God’s wrath because of his sin. Luther had a tremendously sensitive conscience. Sin tormented him so much so that he tried to justify himself before God by any means possible. Prayers, extreme fasting, self-flagellation, and even staying in the freezing cold were all attempts to get God on his side. Luther’s entire life was one, grand self-salvation project. He once said, “If anyone would have gained heaven as a monk, I would have been among them.”
Luther’s self-salvation project eventually waned and ultimately dissatisfied his soul. While he pursued a doctorate in Bible, he began to see how the gospel reveals justification is by faith, not works. This doctrine became the hallmark of Luther’s theology. After God revealed this to him, primarily through Psalms and Romans, Luther stated: “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” God’s salvation transformed Luther’s life and led to one of the most courageous, individual acts in Western history: nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Because of Luther’s new birth in Christ, he grew restless with the Catholic Church’s position on a number of issues, including justification, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. He particularly opposed the church concerning indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by church clergy that was believed to remove or satisfy the punishment for sin. A person could purchase an indulgence to ensure that they would spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. This communicated that sin was excused and salvation could be purchased with money. As a matter of fact, if you read Luther’s Theses, you’ll see that this issue of indulgences was Luther’s primary concern.
On All Saint’s Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther marched to the Castle Church to nail his theses to the door. Church doors in those days doubled as community message boards. Due to the next day (All Saint’s Day) being a church holiday, nearly everyone in Wittenberg would have seen his post within 24 hours as they arrived for worship gatherings. Luther did not want to start a revolution. He intended for the discussion to be primarily an academic affair, for Luther was an academic theologian at the time. Posting something on the church door then was like writing a blog post today. But he did not expect it to gain much traction alongside all of the other “postings.” However, what ensued was a city-wide, public discussion of the church’s practices. Luther wrote in Latin, which only academics and other educated people would have understood. But because of the newly invented printing press, his Theses were translated to German.
They didn’t spread as quickly as a viral video on YouTube, but they were distributed all over Germany within two weeks and around Europe within two months. Not bad for the sixteenth century.
Luther’s Theses called the church to repentance. Luther’s first thesis set the tone for the Reformation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indulgences had become treasured in the church, but Luther pushed back with perhaps his most majestic contention of all: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62). Luther proclaimed that those who sold indulgences within the church were false prophets who declared peace, when there was no peace (Thesis 92; an allusion to Jer. 6:14). True confidence was found not in works or trying to buy salvation, but through faith in Christ (Theses 94-95). In Luther’s thought, justification by faith was the center of the gospel.
With his protest and with the independent work of other faithful people all over Europe, Luther helped sparked the greatest church movement since the end of the first century: the Protestant Reformation. Luther was called to recant of his beliefs in 1520. He did not recant, and he was excommunicated, exiled, and outlawed by Charles V in 1521. He went on to translate the Bible to German, wrote the Larger and Small Catechism, and became an accomplished hymn writer. Luther’s theology centered on Christ as the Word of God, the finished work of Christ on the cross, the relationship between law and gospel, and justification by faith.
Luther was not without flaw of course, but his legacy continues today. Any community of believers who proclaim the good news that we are justified by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus and not our works can thank God for Martin Luther’s efforts. It was God, after all, who gave Luther the grace to recognize error, point to the Scriptures, repent of sin, and stand for truth. It was God who gave Luther strength and endurance and courage to stand up against man-made teaching.
On Reformation Day, let’s not praise Luther. Luther’s legacy does not lie in his boldness or theology or being a revolutionary. His legacy lies in the fact that he testified to and trusted in One greater than himself, the Lord Jesus, the One on whom our salvation wholly depends.