It was one of those seminal moments in human history, a time when we can look back and say with wonder and humility, “The world was never the same after this event.” Tomorrow, Tuesday, October 31, is not only the eve of All Saints Day, but it is the 500th anniversary of the day when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) came from peasant stock. His father was a miner in southeast Germany and wanted a better life for his son by urging him to become a lawyer. Luther was on track educationally until July 1505, when he was caught in an intense storm that threatened his life. Luther prayed to the patron saint of miners, St. Anne, crying out, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk.” Luther’s life was spared, and he joined the strict monastic order of St. Augustine.
Life as a monk was not easy for Martin, whose father was greatly disappointed in his career change. During his early years in the monastery, Luther’s motivation seemed to be fear of the wrath of God more than love, and he was often obsessed with his sin. Thus began Luther’s quest for salvation by being the very best monk he could. Starting his day at 3 a.m., Luther tried to purify himself through practices like confession, reading scripture late into the night, and silently praying at almost every moment. For penance, he fasted to the point of emaciation and would even strike himself with a whip. Luther was a monk for almost twenty years.
In 1510, Luther was selected to participate in a church conference in Rome and was greatly distressed by the corruption and immoral behavior he witnessed among some priests. He was shocked to see how they would sell indulgences, essentially pardoning the sins of others in exchange for money. Not only was Luther deeply grieved about the practice of “selling salvation,” but he also began to question the role of grace, good works, salvation, and the relationship between clergy and laity in the Catholic Church.
In his anguish, Luther decided to enroll as a theology student at the University of Wittenberg, where he received his doctorate and became a theology professor. Luther’s distress at the state of the Catholic Church continued, however, and culminated on October 31, 1517. On that day, Martin Luther tacked up on the church door of Wittenberg (which served as a community bulletin board) his 95 theses, ways in which the Catholic Church needed reformation.
Luther’s savvy capitalization on the advent of the printing press enabled his writings and influence to spread far beyond Wittenberg.
I am not a Reformation scholar, nor did I grow up as a Lutheran. However, I did receive a bachelor of music degree from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and was very active in the Lutheran chapel as a student. I also studied organ and church music for a year at the Spandauer Kirchenmusikschule in West Berlin, Germany. I became steeped in the Evangelical Church in Germany, which is a federation of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant church bodies, and would occasionally serve as a substitute organist.
Martin Luther’s influence is pervasive in Germany as well as in the US and other countries around the world. I have come to appreciate how the Reformation of the 16th century shapes us still today and lift up two ways in particular.
The Five Solas
Five Latin phrases have come to summarize the Reformation movement and Martin Luther’s theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.
- Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
- Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. We cannot be saved by anything we do.
- Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord and Savior.
- Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our greatest authority.
- Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.
The priesthood of all believers
- The Reformation movement begun by Martin Luther was grounded in the belief that Christians are not mere spectators but participants in worship. We don’t simply watch the priests others “do church” for us, read the Bible for us, or forgive sins for us. We have direct access to God.
- Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular from the original Hebrew and Greek. He encouraged literacy so that laity could read the Bible for themselves.
- Luther also translated the Latin Mass into the everyday language of his people and made congregational singing a regular part of worship. His love for singing influenced Lutheran composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Felix Mendelssohn.
Martin Luther’s movement marks the beginning of the Reformation and the subsequent birth of other Protestant churches. John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli were leaders in what became the Reformed tradition. Anabaptists, the radical wing of the Reformation from which Mennonites and the Amish trace their roots, refused to baptize babies, insisting upon confession of faith as entrance into the church. King Henry VIII, challenging the Roman Catholic Church over politics and progeny, started the Reformation in England and set the stage for the Wesley brothers and the Methodists to emerge.
It was Martin Luther’s influence that precipitated John Wesley’s “warmed heart” at Aldersgate when he heard a reading of Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.” John and Charles shared Martin Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. However, they also provided a corrective by emphasizing holiness of heart and life, that justification leads to sanctification. In an effort to counter the unscrupulous practices of “buying” salvation that led to the Reformation, the Wesley’s felt that Luther had gone too far in the other direction by emphasizing only “faith alone.” Personal and social holiness go hand in hand. A genuine faith will always express itself in love and good works.
The Reformation has forever changed the religious landscape of our world, reminding us of the importance of a deep, personal faith lived to the glory of God. At the same time, the shadow side of the Reformation spawned many a conflict over theological issues, not only between Luther and the Catholic Church but between the hundreds of Protestant denominations that exist today.
Despite all the good that Martin Luther did and the reformation he started, he had a shadow side. Luther was not only vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church of his day, but he also published scathing rhetoric against the Jews, which included these words in On the Jews and Their Lies, “And so, dear Christians, beware of the Jews… you can see how God’s wrath has consigned them to the Devil, who has robbed them not only of a proper understanding of the Scriptures, but also of common human reason, modesty and sense…. Thus, when you see a real Jew you may with a good conscience cross yourself, and boldly say, ‘There goes the Devil incarnate.’”[i]
Luther’s anti-Semitism was embraced by Nazism in Germany and led to unthinkable genocide, but it was also reflected in the complicit attitude of the Evangelical Church in Germany and their inability to call out the unspeakable evil perpetrated against the Jews.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation gives us the opportunity to pause and question our own faith.
- When are we reluctant to speak out against evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
- If we are saved by faith alone, what is the role of good works?
- When Jesus so clearly yearns for his followers to be one, why are there so many different denominations?
- How might Jesus be calling The United Methodist Church to be One in the midst of our diversity?
- What needs to be reformed in our own lives today and in the next 500 years?
[i] “On Luther and His Lies,” Noam E. Marans, The Christian Century, October 25, 2017, p. 10.