On Tuesday 31st October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church and the Christian landscape changed forever – it signaled the birth of the Reformation and changed the course of Western history forever for the better. The Catholic Church had made the Christianity a torrid religion of works and servitude that bore no resemblance to the gospel of the New Testament. In fact, the Scriptures were read in Latin and could not the understood by the masses – the Church therefore controlled the interpretation of the Bible and they used this power to pervert the good news of Jesus to their own advantage.
What troubled Martin Luther the most was the sale of ‘indulgences’ to the church congregations. Read a sample of the sermon given by ‘indulgence salesman’ John Tetzel which gives an indication of the shocking manipulation that took place: ‘Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.’ Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter, ‘We have created you, fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.’ He is a regularly associated with the following catchphrase that was symptomatic of this teaching: ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the souls from purgatory springs’.
The Catholic Church formulated the idea that if you purchased ‘indulgences’, you could reduce the time spent in purgatory (a place of suffering and torment for sins en-route to heaven) for yourself or loved ones. You gave the church money – they gave you a certificate as confirmation of this ‘exchange’, which was obviously a useless piece of paper. It goes without saying that this was a complete perversion of the true gospel but it was effective for raising funds for the church. This corruption of the Christian faith horrified Martin Luther and his 95 thesis are a theological rebuttal to this obscene practice.
Martin Luther used many Bible verses to countered this teaching such as:
For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (Romans 1:17)
But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. (Galatians 3:11)
Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. (Hebrews 10:38)
This led to a break-away from the Catholic church which has remained ever since in the form of the many Protestant denominations. Now it is very important to recognize this seismic shift in the focus of Christianity – Martin Luther’s courageous protest exposed the lamentable corruption of the Catholic church. People were living in the terror and fear of purgatory. Jesus Christ did not die for some of our sins, He died for ALL of them. On the cross, Jesus said ‘It is Finished’ – he completed the job. The existence of purgatory is a fictional notion that has no basis in Scripture – even if it did have Biblical support, this could never justify they way it was used to extort the flock to swell the church coffers. Therefore, Martin Luther’s stature in Christian history is huge and this should be celebrated.
However, despite his immense legacy on ‘justification by faith’, there was a darker side to Martin Luther. For example, after initially supporting the grievances of the German peasants, he then provided support for the quelling of their ‘revolt’ by calling on everyone to kill them – some of his quotes from ‘Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants’ are shocking.
Worse than this, are his quotes about the Jews. In his later years, he became a passionate anti-semite which seems to stem from failed attempts to convert the Jewish community to Christianity. He offers a seven-fold solution to the Jewish ‘problem’ in which he encourages various forms of mistreatment such the theft of their property, the burning of their synagogues and even their murder. Many would argue that Luther’s towering reputation down the centuries provided the theological and spiritual justification for the holocaust. His influence was undoubtedly a factor in the churches deafening silence and passive co-operation during the mass-murder of the Jews during the second world war.
No-one can deny that Luther played a pivotal role in the reawakening of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. He was a brave and principled individual who stood up against the horrific corruption that existed within the church – we should all be thankful for his amazing influence here. However, the reformation only went so far and one could argue that it did not go far enough – Martin Luther retained many other false teachings of Catholicism and tended to favour certain portions of Scripture over others which led to theological shortcomings. Furthermore, he certainly did not live out a life of holiness and piety in keeping with the status of such a theological ‘hero’. Of course, we are all flawed and it could argued that he lived in brutal and violent times. However, this is true of many others ‘saints’ down the ages for whom there are no records of such incitement to violence or hatred.
We should be cautious in our ‘celebration’ of any Christian historical figure – God used Martin Luther mightily but he was a deeply flawed character. We should be thankful for the way he was used by God, but maintain our focus solely on our Lord Jesus Christ and draw all of our inspiration from Him. He is our perfect role model and our eyes should be firmly fixed on Him. We should be very wary of becoming too aligned with any Christian historical figure – we have the incredible privilege of each having unlimited access to the whole of the Holy Scriptures and it is the plain meaning of these that should be our ultimate guide.
Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are your’s; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are your’s; And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:19-21)
And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. (Revelation 21:6 ESV, emphasis added)