Tomorrow is the 503rd anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. So, I thought I would take today and tell you a bit about Luther. Luther was born in 1483, 9 years before Columbus discovered America. At 18 he began to study law. It was what his father wished for a profession for him. He became a priest at age 23 and a Doctor of Theology at age 28. At age 33 Luther took a stand for reform. By age 38 he had been excommunicated from the Catholic church and was a fugitive in hiding. While he was in hiding, in the Wartburg castle, Luther translated the entire Bible into German. He was 40 years old. Luther died at age 63.
It was shortly after beginning his law studies that Luther was caught in a violent storm. A lightening bolt knocked him to the ground, and he cried out to Saint Anne for help, promising that if she helped him, he would become a monk. Shortly after, Luther joined the Augustinian Cloister in Erfurt, Germany…much to his father’s dismay. Luther was ordained in 1507 and began teaching at the University of Wittenberg but in 1510 he traveled to Rome on business for the Augustinians. He found great spiritual laxity in Rome and was shocked by it. His teaching in Biblical Theology at Wittenberg brought him wide acclaim, and he was appointed district vicar for the Augustinian order.
But throughout his career, Luther was tormented. If man was ruled by sin, how could he hope to gain redemption in the eyes of God? He continually sought peace by doing good works… to no relief. He fasted and punished his flesh. But his failure to cleanse himself drove him to the edge of despair. Luther’s crisis continued until the study of the Holy Scripture brought a new conviction…salvation is not earned by works! It is a divine gift from God. See Ephesians 2:8-9. Finally, Luther’s eyes were opened, and he saw that there is no way in which we can gain credit with God to try to merit His favor. BUT we can receive through faith God’s divine gift of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then our sins are forgiven by the sheer mercy of God. This is called the doctrine of Justification By Faith. And it came to be the basis of Luther’s religious thought.
Luther watched as the church sold indulgences. Originally these indulgences were earned by making a pilgrimage and paying a small sum. These indulgences would shorten the time loved ones spent waiting in purgatory. Over time small pieces of bones, thought to be from saints were also sold. The church was getting rich and the poor folks being abused. So, Luther protested. He wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz. “Papal indulgences are hawked about under your illustrious sanction. I regret that the faithful have conceived erroneous notions about them. They believe that if they buy a letter of pardon, they are sure of their salvation. They also believe that indulgences free them from all guilt of sin.”
As time wore on Luther found other issues he wanted to discuss, until his list included 95 things. The church door was like the community bulletin board and Luther chose that to share his concerns. The 95 theses were translated into German and were widely circulated. Many people agreed with Luther. The reaction from Rome was swift. Luther was ordered to appear in Rome to answer charges of heresy. But Luther’s benefactor intervened to insist that Luther’s hearing be held on German soil. At that hearing, held in Augsburg in October 1518, Luther refused to recant. And fearing he might be taken in chains to Rome he fled. He continued to debate with scholars, arguing that the papacy was of human origin, not Divine origin. He quickly became a national figure.
Luther’s ideas began to spread. The pope’s response was to issue an edict threatening Luther with excommunication unless he recanted. Luther publicly burned the edict and was excommunicated in January 1521. He was just 38 years old. In the following years Luther reduced the number of sacraments in the church from 7 to 2, baptism and the Lords Supper. He wrote, only these 2 sacraments had visible signs of outward grace and were instituted by Christ Himself. Luther wanted to bring the whole congregation into the worship service, so he wrote the German mass. He also instituted that both clergy and lay people should partake of both bread and wine, a communion with fellow believers. He wrote of the supremacy of scripture, saying the Word of God received in faith and revealed by the Holy Spirit, was the true path to salvation.
Luther also taught that the individual conscience is answerable only to the word of God. Christ alone is the intermediary between man and his creator, and through baptism we are all members of the priesthood of all believers. Many times, in his life Luther was called to appear before authorities, religions and governmental. At the diet of Worms in 1521 Luther stood before Charles V., emperor of the holy Roman Empire. He was to answer to charges of heresy and subversion. His response was this: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture or by right reason…I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen”
Luther eventually returned to Wittenberg…writing, teaching, and preaching. He married Katherine von Bora, a former nun and they had six children of their own and another eleven orphans they took in. Many an evening found Luther and several of his students gathered around the Luther table, discussing, and debating theology. Despite the ban of the church, Luther was able to carry on. He published nearly 400 works during his lifetime, including Biblical commentaries, catechisms, sermons, and tracts. He wrote many hymns…both words and music so that the common people could partake in worship too. He wrote about ethics, stressing our responsibility to Christ and our fellow man. Above all, Luther called people to be faithful to their God.
In 1546 Luther traveled to Eisleben to arbitrate a dispute. Here in the town of his birth, he died of a stroke at age 63. His body was interred in the castle church in Wittenberg, where he had posted his 95 theses almost 30 years before. Perhaps one of Luther’s most famous hymns used Psalm 46 as its foundation. We sang it last Sunday. A mighty fortress is our God.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W