This year marks the 500th anniversary of the generally recognized beginning of the Protestant Reformation when, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The purpose of the 95 Theses was to invite local scholars to a disputation on indulgences and was intended to be an academic exercise.
Luther was prompted to write the Theses as a result of a special jubilee indulgence instituted by Pope Leo X. The purpose of this particular indulgence was to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. This was a plenary indulgence which meant that all sin and eternal and temporal punishment would be forgiven to those who purchased them. Luther was not the only one to question indulgences. Many throughout Europe had complained about them which explains in part why the Theses spread so rapidly and found such enthusiastic support. Luther was the first to think through a Scriptural response to indulgences so thoroughly. Prior to this Luther was only known locally, but the Theses catapulted him to international fame.
The main topics of the Theses are repentance and good works. However, Luther made several startling statements about the Pope, which later brought him into conflict with the Roman Church. This contention drove Martin into an incessant search of the Scriptures which resulted in the formulation of a theology that was often contradictory to official Roman doctrine. In medieval Europe the church and state were so thoroughly intertwined that to speak out against one was to criticize the other. Consequently, in time Luther was outlawed by the church and state, condemned by the pope, the emperor, the universities and cast out of human society. In spite of the venomous rhetoric and hatred that was hurled at Luther, the appellation of “popular preacher” was his as well. Heinrich Heine, a pro-Catholic writer, says of Luther: “He was a dreamy mystic and a practical man of action…a cold stickler for words and an inspired, divinely intoxicated prophet…full of the most awful fear of God…full of consecration to the Holy Spirit…a complete man; I might say an absolute man.”
In answer to anyone who might be seeking for the cause of the upheaval that followed his tracks, Luther said: “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing….the Word did it all.” “Do not think,” he said at another time, “that the Gospel can be advanced without tumult, trouble and uproar.” As a practical theologian Luther excelled all men of his day. He had full command over the vocabulary of his times. He used common sense, irony, vituperation, and abuse, resorting at times to coarse and vulgar expressions which even in that age offended men of culture and taste and set “a bad example for his admirers.” He could express the deepest thought in the clearest and strongest language, and he had abundant resources of juicy and forcible epithets which he used constantly. He employed the proof-text method to a large extent in preaching. “Scripture itself is its own best interpreter” according to Luther. He felt that Scripture alone “should reign.” He spoke of the Bible as “the Holy Spirit’s own peculiar book with God in every syllable.”
Luther’s strong suit was his preaching, not his theology. At Erfurt, on the way to the Diet at Worms, his preaching “melted the hearts as the vernal sun melts the snow…neither Demosthenes nor Cicero nor Paul so stirred their audiences as Luther’s sermon.” (Schaff, VII, p.297) Luther was absolutely without fear in the face of all opponents, ecclesiastical or political. He roared against Henry VIII: “…he openly and deliberately lies…now that damnable rottenness and worm deliberately and consciously concocts lies against the majesty of my King in Heaven. Granted that he is the defender of the church, yet it is of the purple-clad harlot, drunken and mother of abominations.” (Newman, p.67)
Luther’s preaching against unfaithful preachers is as contemporaneous as though written yesterday morning. He combined exposition with application in his preaching. When he preached Luther hit the nail on the head…he was bold and brave and spared neither the Devil, Kings nor the Pope. He was never dull nor tedious, and you couldn’t possible remain neutral after hearing him.
This year thousands of Protestant pulpits will eulogize Martin Luther in glowing terms, heaping praise on him as the guiding light of the Reformation, but precious few would dare to emulate his courage or convictions. A desire for denominational prestige, fear of offending prominent church members, or the loss of a comfortable salary inhibits many clerical voices.
Could it be that today’s silence is due to a lack of head-on collisions with the Scriptures? Martin Luther’s personal conversion experience was the result of his inability to circumvent Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” The obvious conclusion was that no amount of good works were sufficient to accomplish justification. Complete faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the only critical ingredient for salvation from sins. A faith that saves is a faith that motivates, even compels the beneficiary to action. “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1).