Professor Martin Luther — the Spark that Changed the World
October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the day that Professor Martin Luther posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg. This act has become universally recognized as the ignition of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. “Why should I care?” you ask. The Protestant Reformation is part of an elite class of the very few seminal events in history that profoundly changed the world for the better. Its philosophical impact on the world was as great as the technological impact of the Gutenberg printing press. Everybody in the developed world has benefited, at least indirectly, from the Protestant Reformation. The very foundations of the relatively democratic, free and stable societies of Western Civilization were born out of the Protestant Reformation. (When you think of the phrase “Separation of Church and State,” think of Martin Luther. Professor Luther advanced this idea about two-hundred years before Thomas Jefferson did.) Tremendous advances in education, the natural sciences, medicine and other academic pursuits, as well as the arts, developed, at least in part, because of the Protestant Reformation. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Luther. He is one of the great characters of history, and he is a fascinating subject to study.
Martin Luther, the son of a minor, slightly upwardly mobile businessman, was born in 1483. When he posted the Ninety-Five Theses, he was a brilliant, but young and relatively unknown, monk and professor of Bible and Theology at the small and obscure University of Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses were more formally entitled Disputation on the Power of Indulgences. Luther sent them, enclosed with a letter, to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz.
Professor Luther had grown concerned about his perception of the abuse of “Indulgences” by the Church of Rome (which exerted complete control over religion and politics at that time). “Indulgences” were certificates issued by the Church of Rome, promising forgiveness of sins, in exchange for money paid by the purchasers of the Indulgences. (The money from these Indulgences, paid by penitents all over the “Holy Roman Empire,” helped pay for the grand building known as “St. Peter’s Basilica” in Rome, construction of which began during Luther’s lifetime.) Such purchased forgiveness of sins, the Church of Rome taught (and still teaches), could be applied to both the living and the dead. Luther believed (as I believe) that sincere personal repentance, from the heart, is required for forgiveness of sins; and that an emphasis on external performance, such as paying cash for Indulgences, has the tendency to distract from and negate sincere heart repentance and therefore hinders and prevents sinners from obtaining actual forgiveness from God. In addition to being a college professor, Luther also taught and preached in a local church, and he had pastoral concerns about the abuses of Indulgences and the effect they had on the members of his congregation and community.
Luther’s act of mailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the archbishop was not a revolutionary act. And he had no intent, or even the faintest thought, of igniting what would become the Protestant Reformation. As a college professor, he was merely calling for a scholarly debate among academics. His act was a normal, customary thing for a professor to do in such a situation. As was the custom, when he mailed his letter to the archbishop, he also posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the doors of the local churches in Wittenberg. This was part of the normal process of publicizing a call for a public, scholarly debate. He posted the Ninety-Five Theses in Latin. Most people could not read Latin. Luther was calling for a scholarly debate among academics, not a widespread revolution among the people. Even a cursory review of the Ninety-Five Theses reveals that Luther was still loyal to the Pope and the Church of Rome at that time. The Ninety-Five Theses were not, in their character, very Protestant or Reformed. They were a far cry from the system of theology that Luther and the other Reformers would later develop.
Without Luther’s knowledge or consent, someone copied the Ninety-Five Theses, translated them into German, the language of the common people, and distributed them widely. This instantly catapulted young Professor Luther into remarkable fame, as well as into the spotlight of the authorities in the Church of Rome, which would, within a few years, “excommunicate” Luther. During the next few years, Professor Luther was invited to speak and debate widely. During this time, he formulated his thinking into a more mature, more consistent system of theology, and he more sharply developed and defined his deep disagreements with the Church of Rome.
Along with the abuses of the Church of Rome, which, over time, disturbed him more and more greatly; another key driver in the development of Luther’s theology was his deep inner torment over his own sin and guilt. Luther correctly understood that the moral requirements of the law of God, as summarized in the Ten Commandments and especially as expounded upon by Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew, chapters 5–7, constitute a standard that no mortal can achieve. (How many of us are naturally really good at loving our enemies?) Luther logically reasoned something along these lines, “If God is real, and the Bible is true, then I am doomed.” The more this realization weighed upon Luther, the more despondent he became, and he developed a severe bitterness and even hatred toward God.
Rather than turning his back on God, Professor Luther continued to wrestle with his thoughts and continued to study the Bible more deeply. Light began to dawn in Luther’s mind when he pondered this statement from Romans, chapter 1, “The just shall live by faith,” as well as other similar statements written by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Luther learned that, contrary to the doctrines of the Church of Rome, the New Testament teaches that salvation is a free gift of God, based on his grace, which sinners may receive through faith. Luther also learned that the righteousness that God requires, he freely gives to those who seek him. And this righteousness is not based on the works of sinners, but rather on the meritorious work of Christ on behalf of sinners. As Luther wrestled with these concepts, he began to formulate what would later become known as the great “Five Solas” of the Reformation:
· Sola Scriptura — the final authority for religious faith and practice is the Bible alone, not the church or teachings or traditions of the church, if they contradict the Bible;
· Sola Gratia — God’s salvation of sinners is by his free grace alone, not the merit or works of sinners;
· Sola Fide — God’s grace and the gift of salvation come to sinners through their faith alone, not their works;
· Solus Christus — the basis of salvation and forgiveness of sinners is the meritorious work of Christ alone, and not the sinners’ works or any merit in them;
· Soli Deo Gloria — all of the credit and glory of salvation goes to God alone, not any at all to forgiven sinners.
Luther also grew in his disdain for Indulgences, confession of sins to a human priesthood, and external works of penance, as mandated by the Church of Rome. Luther helped formulate the Protestant concepts that humans can approach God directly through prayer, based on the work of Christ, and that repentance and faith are primarily acts of the heart.
For his teachings, the Church of Rome branded Luther a “heretic” and forced him to stand trial. Luther was pronounced guilty and “excommunicated” from the Church of Rome. Luther was at great risk of being burned at the stake, but his monarch, Frederick III, or “Frederick the Wise,” protected Luther by stowing him away in his Wartburg Castle for almost a year.
During his hiding in the Wartburg Castle, Martin Luther translated the entire New Testament and part of the Old Testament into German. Back in Wittenberg, he completed translating the entire Bible into German. His translation became the standard German Bible for centuries and is still widely used today. Its influence on the German language and on German speaking peoples has been compared to the influence of the King James Bible on the English language and on English speaking peoples.
Martin Luther founded a new church denomination which rivaled the Church of Rome. The Lutheran Church is one of the main Christian denominations to form as a result of the Protestant Reformation, along with the Dutch Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Anglican Church. The Lutheran Church is still the primary Christian denomination in several European countries, and it has congregations throughout many parts of the world.
Another legacy of the Reformation in general, and Martin Luther in particular, is the resulting widespread emphasis on literacy and education, especially education of children. Martin Luther and the other Reformers were passionate about teaching children how to read. Their primary motivation was for children to learn to read the Bible. But this passion for learning naturally spilled over into other areas and became the impetus for great advances in the natural sciences, medicine, music and many other areas of academics and art. Today, we clearly are beneficiaries of this legacy, and this emphasis on education was part of the founding culture of the United States. The Pilgrim Puritans who founded the first American Colonies in New England were the direct spiritual descendants of the Reformers. The Puritans carried on the Reformation in England and America. The founders of the New England Colonies continued to hold education, especially learning the Bible, as a fundamental value of their culture. They established community schoolhouses from the very first days of the Colonies, and later they founded the Ivy League colleges. Harvard was founded in 1636, and its original motto, adopted in 1692, was “Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesiae” or “Truth for Christ and Church”. Harvard’s “Rules and Precepts” of 1646 hold that “the maine end of life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life…the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” While Harvard obviously has abandoned this mission and vision of its founders, there can be no doubt that the emphasis on education, brought by the Puritan Reformers, has provided great benefits to Americans for the last four-hundred years.
Truly, the legacies of Professor Martin Luther are numerous and great. But his greatest contribution to the world is his deep understanding and clear articulation of the Gospel — the “good news” that God saves sinners by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The light of God’s truth illuminated Luther’s mind, and he shone this light to dispel the “Dark Ages” from the world.
Of course, to honestly assess the history and legacies of Martin Luther, I must admit that there are two groups who do not share my esteem for Professor Luther, but rather abhor him: members of the Church of Rome and Jews.
To members of the Church of Rome I simply say, Martin Luther was right. Your church is wrong, your traditions are wrong, and your Pope is wrong. Open your New Testament, and read it carefully, and think deeply. Let the truth of God confront and annihilate your traditions.
To Jews I say, Martin Luther was wrong in the hateful things he said about Jews later in life. There is no way to excuse or justify his comments. Luther’s comments about Jews later in his life are very disturbing and disappointing, to say the least. To be fair and clear, Luther’s criticisms of Jews was not based on their ethnicity or “race,” but rather on their actions, as he perceived them. Luther blamed Jews for numerous societal disturbances, including the death of his own young daughter. (Luther blamed the Jews for poisoning the well from which his family drank water and thereby causing the sickness and death of his daughter.) Also, Luther could not possibly have known that four-hundred years later, a madman would use his words to justify torturing and murdering six million Jews. Still, Christians regret the words of Martin Luther, written late in his life, about Jews. Those comments are completely unacceptable. Yet, we can still honor the good legacies of Martin Luther, while rejecting the wrong things he said about Jews. We do not worship Martin Luther, but rather Christ alone. Luther, like all of us, was a mere mortal, a sinner in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.
This October 31, 2017, take a break from the costumes, candy and carnival; and contemplate the great legacies of Professor Martin Luther and the Reformation. And especially meditate on these words of the Apostle Paul from the second chapter of the book of Ephesians: “By grace you are saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”