Five hundred years ago today on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Nintey-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His words shook the Christian church to its core and the earthquake continues to this day. Here is the story of his life and how his discovery about God’s grace impacts your life.
As a young man, Luther was almost struck by a bolt of lightning. The terror caused by this incident led him to change his vocation—he chose to become a monk, rather than the lawyer his father had hoped he would be. Luther was scared of God, and becoming a monk was part of a quest to become holy, pleasing to God, and a recipient of His grace.
Luther tried every means of grace that the Catholic Church offered: sacraments, indulgences, going to mass, confession of sins to a priest, pilgrimages, and the intercession of the saints. Yet despite his efforts, he continually fell short of God’s standard of holiness. He went to confess regularly, yet he felt no relief from his sense of sinfulness. At the encouragement of a mentor, he pursued an academic career. He advanced rapidly but he continued to suffer from an overwhelming sense of sinfulness.
Because of his failure to do right in the eyes of God, Luther became depressed. He called this “Anfectungen” which could be translated as “spiritual depression.” It has also been translated as a spiritual trial, or despair. In Martin Luther, this feeling was caused because he became extremely aware of God’s holiness and at the same time he was depressed because he was completely unable to appease God’s sense of justice with his religious works or through self-discipline. He saw God as an angry vindictive Judge.
One story of how he tried to resolve the “anfectungen” illustrates the futile nature of trying to earn salvation through human works. When he went to Rome, he visited many of the great churches. It is said that when he visited each church, he got down on his knees and kissed each step that led to the church. Yet despite his earnest desire to please God, he knew he still fell short.
Luther confessed his sins to the priest every day, on one single occasion for as long as six hours straight. He searched his memory for every sin he had ever committed. He believed that “Sins to be forgiven must be confessed. To be confessed they must be recognized and remembered. If they are not recognized and remembered, they cannot be confessed. If they are not confessed, they are not forgiven.” Yet, despite all this effort, he still felt sinful in front of a righteous Judge.
As he studied Romans and Galatians, Martin Luther became disturbed by the church’s emphasis on keeping religious rules. Even though he tried hard to follow all of the rules, finally he realized he would never be able to earn salvation through his own works. He read in Romans 3:28, “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (NKJV). Luther received the revelation that believers are saved by faith alone (sola fide) and by grace alone (sola gratia).
Luther discovered his “Reformatory Discovery” also known as “the evangelical breakthrough” during his study of Galatians and Romans. The Church thought they could impart righteousness through doing good works, merits, achievements, and the sale of indulgences. But Luther taught that righteousness comes through the finished work of Christ, not through any of one’s own actions. “The doctrine of justification is not simply one doctrine among others but, as Luther declares, the basic and chief article of faith with which the church stands or falls, and on which its entire doctrine depends.”
Luther went from working hard on pleasing God to resting in the work Jesus accomplished on the cross. Good works are not something that lead to salvation, instead they spring from salvation. Luther said, “The Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the good works do not make him more holy or more Christian; for that is the work of faith alone…”
An example of how the Late Medieval Church abused the grace of God was the sale of indulgences by Johann Tetzel. Pope Leo X needed money to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Albrecht, Archbishop of Brandenburg needed money to pay down his debt to the Pope that he had given in exchange for a special dispensation. The Pope issued The Jubilee Indulgence that promised the forgiveness of sins. Albrecht and the Pope hired John Tetzel to go sell the indulgences.
The theological reasoning behind the sale of indulgences was that the church had a large store of grace available. This grace came from the prayers of the saints. Since the church had so much grace available, they were able to dispense it at will in exchange for cold hard cash. This proved to be attractive to illiterate, uneducated peasants across Germany who were told by their priests that they and their loved ones were going to hell or purgatory because of their sins. People flocked to hear Tetzel preach and to purchase his indulgences. A saying famously attributed to him goes like this: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."
Luther’s main problem with the sale of The Jubilee Indulgence is that he witnessed the hardship of the people who sacrificed everything in order to purchase an indulgence. His study of Galatians had convinced him that salvation comes by grace, not by purchase or human works. Because of his understanding of grace, he challenged the practice of selling indulgences by writing The Ninety-Five Theses and nailing them to the door of the Castle Church.
When Luther published his Nintey-Five Theses he was not intending to start the Reformation. He originally wrote it in Latin, the language of scholarship but when it was translated into German, the language of the common people, it began to spread rapidly. It quickly became a rallying cry for those who felt the church was abusing its spiritual authority in order to raise money.
At first, Luther had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church. He intended to bring reformation to the church from within. But, events quickly got away from him and he was excommunicated. Luther did not know that Tetzel was operating with the blessing of both Pope Leo X and Albrecht, the Archbishop of Brandenburg. He mistakenly thought that the Pope would welcome his involvement in pointing out the abuse of the selling of the indulgences. Luther did not know that the Catholic Church was against his teaching. He thought they only wanted to debate the issue. He was willing to change his position if it could be proven that he was wrong. The church sent Cardinal Cajetan to arrest Luther in 1518. However, Maximillian, the Holy Roman Emperor was close to death. His successor was likely going to be Frederick the Wise. The Pope did not want to arrest Luther at that time because he feared that it would offend Frederick. During this time, John Eck, a professor of theology debated one of Luther’s followers, Andreas Karlstadt at Leipzig. During this debate, Luther made some statements that further enraged the church.
In 1519, Charles V was chosen as the new Holy Roman Emperor. Since Frederick the Wise was not chosen to be Emperor, this allowed the church to pursue Luther with greater vigor. Still, Frederick continued to protect Luther at Wittenberg. In 1520, Pope Leo issued a bull that demanded that Luther’s books would be burned. The bull gave him sixty days to come to Rome for a trial. Luther remained true to his convictions, and publically burned a copy of the bull, thus severing himself from the church he once served and loved. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther refused to recant his position.
Luther’s new theology became the basis of the Protestant Reformation. He taught that justification comes through God’s grace, not from one’s own works. Christ did all the works that purchase the believer’s justification. The only way to be saved is through faith, not through works. Salvation is a free gift from God, it is not earned. These ideas led to the Protestant Reformation because they were incompatible with the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church at that time.
Luther’s greatest contribution was his teaching that salvation is not earned by good works but by grace through faith. Luther is also remembered for making the Bible available in the common vernacular of the people of Germany. Luther will always be remembered for his Nintey-Five Theses that he nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg. With his critique of the sale of indulgences, Luther became the spark that started the Reformation.
About Daniel King
Daniel King is a missionary evangelist who has preached the Gospel in over sixty nations. He has led over one million people to Jesus in the past ten years. Daniel and his wife Jessica live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His latest book is Grace Wins! The Ultimate Battle Between Religion and Relationship.