It is customary to date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to October 31, 1517, the day on which a young German monk and Bible scholar named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg church.
In many ways, that was the beginning of the Reformation. Luther’s document attacked the common Catholic practice of allowing people to pay for their sins by buying indulgences. His 95 theses also gave the first inklings of his major personal and theological breakthrough: the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Luther needed a breakthrough because he had long been troubled by his sins.
How could an unrighteous man like himself serve a righteous God? As he later wrote:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God [Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-76), 34:336-37].
What especially troubled Luther was Paul’s announcement at the beginning of his epistle to the Romans: In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last (Rom. 1:17a). This verse was a terror to Luther because the only righteousness he had ever heard of was the kind that destroyed sinners like himself.
Then Luther had his breakthrough:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’.” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates [Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-76), 34:336-37].
That was the beginning of the Reformation, but only the beginning. Luther soon attracted the attention of the pope, not so much for his doctrine of justification as for his criticism of the church. But during the next several years, it would still have been possible for the church to have been reformed without being divided. It was not until the Diet of Worms that the break between the Reformers and the Catholics became final, which is why I have selected that meeting, which took place in April of 1521, as the most significant event in the church history of the sixteenth century.
Luther had been summoned to Worms by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Charles V. When the Reformer entered the imperial chamber, he found his writings spread about the table. These were the writings the emperor wanted Luther to recant, declaring publicly that everything he had ever written about the gospel and the church was mistaken.
The Reformer hardly knew what to say. Some of his works were devotional writings which no one would wish to recant. Others contained criticisms of the Roman Catholic church which no one could deny. Yet Luther was aware that some of his other writings contained harsh criticisms he perhaps ought to recant. But this he would only do on one condition: namely, that someone expose his errors “by the writings of the prophets and the evangelists.” “Once I have been taught,” Luther went on to say, “I shall be quite ready to renounce every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire.”
This was hardly the answer the emperor and his counselors were looking for, especially since they did not have the theological expertise to refute Luther themselves. Again they pressed him to repudiate his doctrine. Finally, Luther spoke his famous words:
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 I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise [For the full account of Luther’s trial, see Luther’s Works, 32:103-31].
With these words, Luther staked all his theological claims on the second great principle of the Reformation: Scripture alone. For the churches of the Reformation, the Bible and the Bible alone was the final authority for Christian faith and practice.
When Luther refused to place the authority of the church on a par with the authority of Scripture, he was taking a stand which would end up dividing the church. And rightly so! The church can only be the church when it preaches the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as it is taught in Scripture alone.
The great doctrines of the Reformation are as badly needed today as they were in the sixteenth century. Pope John Paul II recently announced that he will grant an indulgence to anyone who makes a pilgrimage to Israel during the year 2000. This is just one example of the way the Roman Catholic church still encourages its members to pay for their sins by doing good works.
The world still needs to hear the voice of Martin Luther, who wrote this paraphrase of Psalm 130 [Luther’s Works, 53:223]:
From trouble deep I cry to thee, Lord God, hear thou my crying; Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me, Open it to my sighing. For if thou mean’st to look upon The wrong and evil that is done, Who, Lord, can stand before thee?
With thee counts nothing but thy grace
To cover all our failing.
The best life cannot win the race,
Good works are unavailing.
Before thee no one glory can,
And so must tremble every man,
And live by thy grace only.
[Historical details for this Window on the World were drawn chiefly from Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 151-74; among the best biographies of Luther is Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon, 1950)].
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