Grace and peace, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
To understand the Reformation, we need to go back in time to the life of Martin Luther. He grew up in a time when the church had teachings that went outside the Bible. In fact, the church had invented new doctrines and practices that were not even found in the Bible. And its leaders were sometimes worse sinners than those who came to them for knowledge and forgiveness.
Martin Luther came from a well-to-do family and was a brilliant scholar. Martin was studying to be a lawyer, but it is said that a pivotal change in his life came during a thunderstorm. He was walking back to the university after visiting his parents when a lightning bolt actually knocked him onto the ground. He apparently said, “Save me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!” He was saved. He considered this a sign from God, and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt against his father’s wishes.
As he did with everything in his life, he gave his all to his studies. He prayed hard and studied even harder. But instead of giving him peace, it only created despair. The harder Luther tried to keep God’s commandments, the more he felt he was failing. He even visited Rome at one time, thinking this would help him in his struggle. But the behavior of the pope and cardinals only caused him more heartache.
Once home, a benefactor came into his life by the name of Frederick the Wise. And Luther was sent to Wittenberg to become a professor at a new university. While there, he was influenced by Johann von Staupitz, who led Luther to the Bible for the peace he was searching for. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther found the answer to his search. Paul stated that righteousness was not found in perfection, but instead, it was something that God gave freely to people who were sorry for their sins and believed in Christ. Luther discovered, in these words, that Christ was the path to the righteousness that had long evaded him. Christ had suffered and died, paying the penalty for sin. Through him, we could all have peace—through Christ’s company in our life, and a resurrection, like his, through our deaths.
Luther was excited to share this good news, but found the church, at this time, had different ideas. It was teaching about a place called purgatory (a place in between heaven and hell) where sinners would spend their afterlife. AND… the church had a lucrative business in selling indulgences, which were a ticket out of purgatory and supposedly erased sins! This was a good source of revenue for the church, and a way to keep all believers in line.
But Luther searched the Bible, and could not find any mention of purgatory OR of indulgences. This created a problem that angered Luther. A man named Tetzel was selling these indulgences in Wittenberg where Luther was located, so Luther saw his opportunity to share his concerns with the public. On October 31st, 1517, he nailed his 95 concerns (called theses) about purgatory, indulgences and other teachings of the church that he disagreed with, right on the Castle Church door. At this time, this was where most important writings would be posted. And he offered to debate anyone on any one of his written concerns. This one act began the Reformation and changed the world.
Of course, his theses were startling and controversial. All of Europe was soon talking about them. Luther was almost arrested for his bold move. He also took part in a great debate at Leipzig, and afterword was expelled from the church by the Pope. Thankfully, his benefactor, Frederick the Wise, once again came into his life and protected Luther.
Still, history was not finished with him yet. In time, Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V, at a city called Worms. Here, it was demanded that he take back all he had written. And Luther’s famous words at this time were, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Luther was proclaimed an outlaw and someone to be killed on sight. As he traveled somberly back to Wittenberg, he was kidnapped--- but to Luther’s surprise, the kidnappers had been sent by Frederick to save him and he was hidden away at a fortress in Wittenberg called the Wartburg. While there, sheltered away, Luther immersed himself even more in his belief about salvation through Christ. He realized if others were to know and believe, they needed to read God’s Word for themselves. So Luther began the work of translating the Bible, which at this time was only written in Latin, to German, so it was available to more people. And through a new invention – the printing press—more and more people eventually came to read the words of the Bible for themselves.
At about this time, Luther left his secluded hideaway. And he was astonished to see and hear the disorder all around him. People had vandalized religious art, music, stained glass, and statues of saints. Others proclaimed their own “revelations” from God with no reference to Scripture. It was chaos everywhere!
Luther began to preach against these actions that were not grounded in Gospel. But applauded other changes—like a liturgy the people could follow—and music that enabled all to sing their praises of God and Christ. Luther proclaimed the forgiveness of sin without indulgences and wrote many of his own catechisms, essays, books and hymns---including the hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Thanks to Luther and others of the Reformation, many eyes were opened to the glory of God and His Word, through the Bible and writings based on Biblical knowledge and Scripture.
Luther continued to be a work-aholic, but he was in a good place at this time. He wrote the Small and Large Catechisms for children and adults, as well as many other works. He loved music, and wrote many hymns. Most importantly, he met his future wife, Katherine (a former nun who escaped her convent with some other nuns by hiding in an empty fish barrel and travelling to Wittenberg—but that’s a story for another day). Together, they had six children.
As the Reformation was growing throughout the world, other Protestant church bodies were created. The term Protestant actually came from a time when Charles V threatened the Lutheran princes if they did not return to the Catholic Church. They all boldly refused and sent their protest to Charles in a document that began, “We protest…” and thus the Protestant name stuck!
Luther, once again, was called to a meeting in Augsburg. There, a fellow Reformer, by the name of Philip Melanchthon, presented a statement of beliefs from the Reformers of the time. This statement became known as the Augsburg Confession. It is a formal expression of Lutheran teaching, used even today.
So began another crazy busy time in Luther’s life. Students came to him from all over, to study under him and take his teachings back to their own homelands. His dinner table was always full with these students, and all enjoyed many lively debates. It was said that Luther had a great sense of humor. And his table discussions were so valuable that students would write down everything he said. These writings were published in a book called, “Luther’s Table Talk.” Over time, Luther wrote an assembled collection of his works that can be found in almost 100 large volumes.
Luther had his difficulties at this time, also. His health was not always good, and his life was in danger if he left Germany. He was not shy in voicing his displeasure also, and it earned him some enemies. But he never backed down from his Scripture-based teachings.
Eventually, “Five Solas” (Solas—meaning alone) which were linked to the doctrine of salvation (also the five principles of the Reformation), would become a backbone of not just Lutheran, but many Protestant religions even today. You will probably recognize these teachings.
Salvation comes through:
Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Christo – Christ Alone
Sola Deo Gloria – to the Glory of God Alone.
Luther died in 1546 and was buried beneath the pulpit of the Castle Church at Wittenberg… the same church where he nailed his 95 Theses so many years before. His life had come full circle. And his Scripture-based teachings brought peace to many around the world, through centuries. Amen!