For us to understand a man like Martin Luther, we must first understand the world in which he lived. In the early 1500’s, the strength and power of the Roman Catholic Church had reached its height, and so had corruption, spreading even to the Pope himself. The dominion of the Pope was world-wide. While he ruled circa sacra (concerning sacred matters), Emperor Charles V ruled worldwide circa civilia (concerning civil matters.) It was widely believed that while the King ruled men’s bodies, the Pope ruled men’s souls. The King had the power of the sword, and the Pope had the power of the Keys to Heaven and Hell.
The Catholic Church was strong and immensely wealthy. Priests owned large estates, (Also at this time, priests owned 1/3 of all European land). They had the right to require 10% of all other property as a tithe. They received money for baptisms, marriages, attending deathbeds, conducting funerals and saying masses. They were very wealthy, yet none wealthier than Pope Leo X.
In those days, Bibles were inaccessible. Each town was given one, large Bible chained to a pulpit for the town to use. However, common people could not make use of the Word of God, because the Catholic Church only allowed the Scriptures to be produced in Latin, which common men and women could not read. As a matter of fact, it was illegal for Bibles to be translated in any language other than Latin, forcing thel town’s people to rely on what the Priests told them. That was how the Pope kept so much power throughout Europe. He did not want anyone challenging his teachings, but ultimately, he did not want anyone challenging his authority and power.
So while the winds of change were beginning to take place, true reformation would come through an unlikely person, a Roman Catholic Monk named Martin Luther. This year, we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of his stand against the Catholic Church and its abuse of power.
Luther was already struggling with many of the practices of His beloved Church. He could not find Biblical evidence for much of what the Church was teaching. He struggled with the doctrines of penitence after visiting Rome and the Vatican. He could not accept the teachings that required praying to Mary or other dead saints, nor could he accept the teaching of Purgatory, the worshipping of relics, nor the Pope being the sole authority. As Luther began to read and understand more of the Scriptures, particularly the doctrine of Justification by faith alone, his tolerance for the teachings of the Catholic Church were beginning to change.
What caused Luther to challenge the powerful Church and its Pope was the selling of what was called, “Indulgences.” An Indulgence was a certificate the Catholic Church sold that promised to remove people’s loved ones out of purgatory into Heaven if they paid enough money. In other words, it was a Salvation certificate. The Catholic Church believes that the Pope has the power to transfer a soul from Purgatory to Heaven. This troubled Martin Luther and he began to speak against it.
The Pope claimed the money was going toward wars being fought in the name of the Church. Yet in reality, the money went toward constructing St. Peter’s Church in Rome and collecting expensive art and artifacts for the Pope. A man named John Tetzel was commissioned by the Pope himself to go from town to town selling these certificates to the poor. When he came to the towns near Wittenberg, Germany, Luther’s people began going and purchasing these certificates though they were poor farmers. This outraged the righteous soul of Martin Luther!
The 95 Theses
The purpose of Luther’s 95 Theses, or 95 challenges to the Catholic Church, was to address the abuse of power within the Church. Oddly enough, Luther loved the Church and never wanted to see it split. Yet as we look back 500 years, it is evident that God was leading a man like Martin Luther to bring about the permanent Church.
On October 31, 1517, Luther took his list of 95 challenges (written in Latin as was the custom) and nailed them to the Church doors in Wittenburg, Germany, thus sparking the fires of what would be the Protestant Reformation. (It is called Protestant, because Luther “Protested” the abuses of the Catholic Church). In many people’s view, the Protestant Reformation in 1517 is second only to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, as significant church history events.
It is important to know that Luther did not rebelliously nail his challenges to the Church doors. First, most towns centered around the church in those days, so it was common to nail announcements to the front church doors, because it was the place of all public announcements. Secondly, as mentioned above, he wrote them in Latin to where only Priests could read them. His intent was to bring reform to the Church, not destroy it.
Diet of Worms – 1521
Even though they did not have social media, it did not take long for Luther to get noticed as word quickly came to Pope Leo X in Rome of the young monk’s actions. Furious, the Pope called on Emperor Charles V to put an end to this. Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms, a Council of 200 princes and the Emperor himself.
In 1521, Luther stood before this mighty Council. They demanded that he recant actions and beliefs. He was intimated, as they had the power to allow him to live or die. He requested for a day to think and pray. The council granted him one day to think about his actions. He returned the next day full of the Holy Spirit, faith, and boldness. They demanded again that he recant or he would be condemned a heretic of the Church.
With great resolve, Luther boldly said to the council, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the Popes and Councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” That day they condemned Luther a heretic.
The Reformation Spreads
Looking back through the lens of history, it is fascinating to see how God had His perfect timing. The Reformation had the ability to spread throughout Europe largely because Johann Gutenberg had invented a movable type printing press in Germany some year before Luther’s reformation. This gave the ability to print and publish ideas, teachings, and Scripture like never before. While Tyndale hand wrote his translation of the English Bible, now it had the ability to be printed and distributed. Actually, the first publication Johann Gutenberg chose to print was a Bible. This was the world’s first Bible printed by a machine. A copy of it sits in our nation’s capital in the Library of Congress!
God was not only moving in Germany through Martin Luther but at the same time, He was working in Switzerland through a man named Ulrich Zwingli. In France, God was using a young man named John Calvin and because of the moveable type printing press, their ideas could spread like wildfire throughout Europe. It would not be long and true reform would spread through Hungary, Scotland, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Great Britain in an unprecedented way.
Every Person Should Own A Bible
At the heart of the Protestant Reformation was the belief that ordinary people should be able to own and read the Bible. The Catholic Church wanted to keep the Scriptures locked up and reserved only for their Priests. However, it was the brave actions of men and women to translate, publish and distribute the Word of God that changed the world.
Men like Erasmus who dreamed of families owning a Bible, “from the farmer in the field to the weaver at the loom.” This belief caused these great men to risk their lives to preserve the Word of God. It was serious business and it took serious faith to accomplish this great task. Looking back over 500 years, we can be thankful for men like John Wycliffe, (The Morning Star of the Reformation), John Huss (who was burned at the stake for challenging the Pope), Martin Luther (The Protestant Reformer), William Tyndale (Translated the first Bible into the English language) John Calvin, John Knox and many others. These men and many others who shared their faith and passion courageously smuggled Bibles all over Europe, across the English Channel, through the Swiss Alps, Down the Danube River, and into Scandinavia. God’s story of Redemption continued to grow with each generation, because the Fathers of the Reformation fought for such a cause.
The Church of today owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Church. We are stronger today because of their firm convictions and brave actions. One day, the global, universal Church, comprised of people from all ethnic groups, will be gathered around the throne of God. John describes that day in Revelation 7:9-11, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’”