Anyone who has ever heard of the Superstition Mountains of Arizona has most likely also heard of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine. This legend, which most experts agree is based on distorted facts, is the stuff of movie plots and fantasy. Many have searched for the riches of this lost mine, some even losing their lives in the effort. However, without a clearly marked map (“X” marks the spot) the mine, with its promise of wealth, is still lost to all.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was a man in search of treasure as well. He, however, was not looking for earthly gold, silver, or jewels. His search was for the spiritual wealth of the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins. Luther was a learned man. He had immersed himself in the teachings of the Roman Catholic faith and still could not hit pay-dirt. You see, the “map” that the church of Luther’s day provided was not clearly marked. Surely, the correct path was there, yet it was so obscured by other markings and distortions that it was no longer easily discernible.
It is true, Luther had been taught to revere the Holy Scriptures. However, as the Roman Catholic Church became accustomed to leading the people not only spiritually, but also socially and even politically, the Scriptures alone no longer seemed sufficient to guide the masses. As time went on, the church not only added to the map of Scripture (as the Pharisees of Jesus’ time did), but also obscured, and in some cases totally obliterated, the path to heaven itself. This was accomplished by elevating church doctrine, the writings of early church fathers, and the pronouncements of the Pope not just to equality with the Holy Bible, but to functional superiority over it. The primacy of the Pope, prayers to the saints, masses for the dead, the sale of indulgences, and works contributing toward salvation were only a few of the church doctrines that added layers of confusion and misdirection to the pure and simple path of the Gospel.
The visible church was now itself touted as the savior. A man-made organization, built on man’s teachings, legends, and ideas, led by a fallible man, was being presented to the masses as the one true path to heaven. And it wasn’t working. Even before Luther, many had begun to question the primacy of the pope, adherence to the church fathers when they contradicted the Scriptures, and other questionable church practices. When these contradictions arose in Luther’s life, he was led by the Holy Spirit to search for the truth by immersing himself more deeply in the Holy Word of God.
As Luther diligently searched for God’s answers in the Scriptures, he made an astonishing discovery—the Scriptures themselves were the treasure! Whereas man’s opinions and even those of visible churches may change with the tides and time, God’s Word stands the test of time, unchangeable.
Jesus tells His followers, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” (Matthew 24:35) Luther discovered that the writings of man could never equal nor exceed the importance of the Scriptures themselves. This is why Luther proclaimed Sola Scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”) as an integral part of the battle cry of the Reformation, along with Sola Fide (“by faith alone”) and Sola Gratia (“by grace alone”).
In the Scriptures, Luther had found his spiritual treasure map. And “X” does mark the spot—when the “X” stands for the cross on which Christ paid our debt, thus earning eternal salvation for all who believe.
David W. Bernthal is the principal of Luther Memorial School in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.