In 1517, exactly five hundred years ago the Protestant Reformation broke out in earnest and radically changed the shape of the Christian church in Europe. For some considerable time up to that point there had been rumblings of protest and numerous attempts at reforming the corruption in the Mediaeval church, but with Martin Luther the rumblings broke into a full scale fracture between the Roman Church and “Protestants”. He gave the Reformation a huge initial impetus and he gave it its watchwords, “Faith only” and “Scripture Only”. Those watchwords, wherever they were observed, were to release enormous blessing in the Christian church right to the present day.
One particular event has always stood out as marking the beginning of this Reformation; the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses for debate on the church door of the Castle Church in the small town of Wittenberg on Oct. 31st, The Feast of All Saints, 1517. (Hence this blog at this time) Many of these theses were fairly innocuous, but some were not. In particular Luther bitterly attacked the practice of selling Indulgences by which people were pressed into paying money to the Pope so that they could be released from the torments of Purgatory. Luther denied outright that the Pope had any power over the “treasury of merit” on which such indulgences were based. They were actually spiritually dangerous and contrary to the gospel. Even if he did have such power the Pope should give them away freely to set people free. These theses were not just academic in tone; they were written in anger at the injustice and venality of such a money racket, and the language was blunt and direct. This attack on the Pope was dangerous, but the affair might have died out but for the fact that, unknown to Luther, the theses were immediately and widely published and were soon the talk of Germany. The Pope had to make some response and in the ensuing debates and trials over the following years with the Pope’s agents Luther not only showed great acumen and ability but found himself taking more radical positions against the Pope’s authority as he worked out the implications of what he found in scripture. His fearless and rock-like stance in contesting for the truth ensured that his protests could not be quashed. He stood by his words, “Here I stand”! He found widespread support for his position and soon the stream he unleashed became a flood.
The really fascinating aspect in this history lies in what had been happening in Luther’s heart and in his spiritual experience in the three or four years prior to 1517. It provides a remarkable testimony of the changing and motivating power of the truth of God’s word. Luther as a boy had a deep concern for religion and sought the favour of God. The Mediaeval church, however, presented a very fearsome side of God; he was a God who was ready to pick up on every fault and was devoid of any Fatherly love. This is what Luther lived with throughout his young years. He did everything the church told him to do to keep away the wrath of God and to keep his conscience clean, but unfortunately all his penances, all his confessions, all abstinences simply failed to bring him any sense of peace or of God’s acceptance. Getting caught in the midst of a thunderstorm one day he felt he was being pursued by the wrath of God and resolved to become a monk. That, he felt would bring him into favour with God and bring him peace, since he would give up everything for God and spend his whole time in godly exercises. He became an Augustinian novice in 1505 in Erfurt. A short period of relative peace, however, was soon superseded by a resurgence of his problem which was made worse by all his fasting, deprivations and constant daily services. Whatever way he tried to remove the “terror” of the righteousness of God and Christ he found no relief. This went on for some eight long years in the cloister and left him in a morose, depressed state and on the verge of a nervous collapse. Eventually he was placed in the hands of an astute and understanding senior monk, Staupitz. Staupitz, recognising Luther’s very obvious intellectual talents and prodigious energy, hit on a radical possibility as a solution to his problems; he offered Luther a post in the university at Wittenberg where he would teach bible subjects. This he hoped would get him out of his intense inward look.
Luther had not spent much time in his bible at Erfurt, but in Wittenberg he was set to lecture first on the Psalms and then on Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans. He read them with his usual diligence. This was a turning point, way beyond anything Staupitz could have imagined; God began to reveal himself directly to Luther from the scriptures. Reading through Ps.22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ….” Luther was brought face to face with the sufferings of Christ in an entirely fresh way. He began to ask himself why Jesus, who terrified him so much, had to suffer so much himself. The Cross began to demand his attention and the sacrifice of Jesus began to take on a new light. When he approached Galatians and particularly when he studied Romans he saw with acid clarity the simple but all important truth that salvation and forgiveness were not obtained by works of the Law or the legalistic requirements of his own religiosity as a monk, but simply as a free gift from God to be accepted by faith. God was no longer a “Terror” but a God of love who had provided forgiveness of sin through the atoning sacrifice of his Son. This truth broke into his life as a great light and totally changed his spiritual understanding. Instead of fear there was now praise and thanksgiving. He was free in his spirit, he understood precisely what the death of Christ had achieved and he recognised clearly that the only “good works” that came from him were those which came through the Holy Spirit who had shed the love of God in his heart. This was not merely a change of doctrine! It was a profound revelation of God concerning His saving grace. It released a burning fire in Luther’s heart, and he held it with a passion and clarity of one who had been tormented in darkness for many years and was now released. This was the real root of the Reformation – a heart on fire with a totally life-changing biblical truth which had to be spoken out to a world in which it had been lost.
It was this that gave the bite, the righteous anger, the vigour to the 95 theses and which continued to inform the struggles which were to follow. Two things were now clear: salvation was by faith alone, and the only true guide to genuine Christian faith lay in the scriptures. Luther had regained common ground with Paul the Apostle and he was not going to let go. It was these two basic facts and their implications that were to lead to lead Luther to battle with the Roman church and its controlling Papal institutions which had completely obscured them. These two essentials were the bedrock of the Reformed churches that were to emerge and secured a profound spiritual advance in Christendom.
Interestingly enough, it was not a revelationary experience that was peculiar to Luther or his friends. It was something that happened to large numbers of serious and sincere Christians across Europe, and not least in Britain where many leading churchmen had exactly the same experience as, within the same 16th century, they read the new scholarly renderings of the Greek texts of the New Testament and were able to see clearly for themselves the truths that had been obscured for many generations.
The word of God brings light, and that light is the Grace of God in Jesus Christ for our forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit for godly living.