Let There Be Light - Part IV
For Martin Luther, salvation could not be found in the membership within an institution or in the hands of human beings. Rather, he saw it as a spiritual gift directly from God to the individual. Salvation was grounded in faith, and this faith was what led to salvation through the grace of God. God’s grace was a sovereign gift that was available, irrespective of one’s actions or good deeds. Grace was that enabling power given by God that would allow a person to receive salvation. According to Luther, that grace was not predicated on church membership or earthly works. It was a gift that had been established on the cross by the death of Jesus Christ, only attainable through one’s faith in Christ and that finished work.
Luther concluded that the Roman Catholic Church had lost its fundamental understanding of salvation. In fact, the church had lost sight of several central, spiritual truths. He realized that a major reason for his lifelong spiritual torment was false teaching from the church. How can any man know when he’s done enough to please God? It was all beginning to make sense. With joy in this new revelation, Martin Luther began teaching that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, received by faith in God’s promise to forgive us because of Christ’s death on the cross.
In 1517, Pope Leo X announced a new round of indulgences to financially cover the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The selling of indulgences even became a full-time profession for some within the Catholic Church, and although discouraged throughout Germany, the practice continued unabated.
A Dominican priest named Johann Tetzel was appointed to sell these indulgences in Germany. Tetzel was zealous about his job, and he commissioned wholesale retailing of these indulgences. And while these new indulgences for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica were not sold in Luther’s province, his parishioners began to flock to Tetzel. Luther became outraged when his own congregation began to present indulgences they had purchased as documentation of their forgiven sins. Forgiveness could not be bought. It was a free gift of God’s mercy. He resented the exploitation of his people and saw this as an outright offense to salvation.
But, the controversy was much more involved than just the sale of indulgences. Fury mounted in Luther’s heart over the brazen attempts of the church to sell salvation. Committed to the idea that salvation could be reached through faith alone, Luther translated his convictions to the tip of his pen. Hoping for discussion and ultimately change, Luther came up with 95 points of contention that would need to be resolved for the church to be purged of this great fallacy. These 95 points became more commonly known as Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses started a religious revolution. From the time Luther first began to question church authority to the moment he laid pen to paper, all he really wanted was answers. His goal was to expose the errors that had taken hold of the church, plead for reform, and spark a debate. Revolution was not entirely on his mind. He merely yearned for a spiritual revival, but you can’t have revival before you have a reformation.
One could think of the Ninety-Five Theses as a map to the truth that Luther himself had re-discovered. He wasn’t bringing about something new or unchartered; he was merely uncovering the truth that had been hidden for so long.
Romans 1:17 says, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” And then, Ephesians 2:8 states, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”
Martin Luther used these verses of Scripture as his compass to the truth. He was hoping to light the way for the church to follow and return to that truth—the truth that justification is by grace through faith alone and not by works. He wrote with fervor, but he also wrote with hope—the hope of change.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther boldly nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, unveiling a collection of 95 scathing attacks against the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the pope.
Although the document contained a humble and academic tone, Luther’s accusations were rigid, and it laid out a devastating critique of the Catholic Church. At the forefront was the sale of indulgences, which turned salvation into a commercial transaction rather than a genuine repentance of sin.
The Ninety-Five Theses posed questions that many wanted to ask, but few had dared to proclaim publicly. It also became a tangible foothold for those growing discontented with the Catholic Church. Did the church hold the keys to heaven as they claimed? Was the pope infallible? Did indulgences remove all sin? Was excommunication the same as eternal damnation? Luther had called the church into account, and for many, they would be hard-pressed to answer in a convincing manner.
Martin Luther held two advantages that previous reformers had lacked: The recent invention of Gutenberg’s printing press and a rise in literacy throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Luther published thousands of pamphlets that set forth his position against the Catholic Church. These pamphlets quickly spread throughout Europe, inevitably making their way to Rome.
When this document came into the hands of Pope Leo X, its reception was cold. He ordered the vicar-general of the Augustinian Order to silence its monks, but Luther would not go quietly.
After several months of continued protest against the church, Pope Leo X grew tired of Luther’s antics, knowing he must put an end to this act of defiance.
This article is continued from the November issue, and will continue in the January 2020 issue of The Evangelist magazine.
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