Late on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a city in Saxony, Germany.
Luther offered the theses for scholarly debate over the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were documents promising time off in purgatory. They were sold by Pope Leo X in order to raise money for himself, and to pay for the large dome being constructed over the basilica of Peter and Paul in Rome. Indulgences were popular because they convinced people they could get by without the Lord’s forgiveness.
The ninety-five theses objected to what the indulgences offered, the power of the pope, and most important–how the spiritual and eternal welfare of sinners was denied by them and those who offered them. Luther was only attempting to correct these grave errors.
Luther did not arrive on the scene to start a different church. On the contrary, Luther had suffered much because of his awareness of sins against almighty God. In those days Christ was not proclaimed as the sinner’s Savior, but as a terrible Judge who sought to destroy the sinner. Through his studies and lectures on the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans, Luther came to believe that the Bible presents the unalterable truth of God, and that Christ is the only Savior of sinners.
In 1518 the Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan of Augsburg with the following demands upon Luther: “First, repent of your errors and recant them. Second, promise not to teach them again. Third, refrain from doing anything that might disturb the peace of the church.” When Luther asked what errors he had committed, Cajetan labeled Luther’s insistence that faith–rather than the sacraments–justified sinners as a “false innovation.”
Everything boiled down to the authority of the pope in contrast to the authority of the Scriptures. Characterizing much of what occurred between 1518 and 1521 is a remark by Erasmus of Rotterdam, who said that although “Luther was too sharp in his criticism, his only crimes were to have knocked off the pope’s crown and to have kicked the monks in their bellies.”
The emperor granted the request of Frederick of Saxony that any meeting of the princes to deal with the matter should be in Germany; this was finally set for 1521 in Augsburg. When the time came, Luther was ushered into the Diet on April 17.
The scene was overwhelming. Emperor Charles V was seated on a raised dais, surrounded by his advisers and representatives from Rome. All around were Spanish soldiers dressed in their parade best. In the middle stood a table piled with books. The Archbishop of Trier pointed to the books and announced to Luther that he had been called to answer two questions: Had he written these books? Was there a part of them he would now recant?
“I Will Not Recant . . . “
Luther was stunned. No debate, not even a judicial hearing! His judges had already made their decision. Luther acknowledged that the books were his, and that he had written more. In answer to the second question he said: “This touches God and His Word. This affects the salvation of souls . . . I beg you, give me time.” He was given one day. He wrote a friend saying: “So long as Christ is merciful, I will not recant a single jot or tittle.”
The next day the meeting was delayed until 6:00 p.m. Candlelight increased the drama. The same questions were put to him. He responded with a short speech about his works, “in which I have taught about the Christian faith and good works in such a proper, clear, and Christian manner,” that even his opponents thought well of them. He couldn’t retract these. There were others in which he had “attacked the papacy and papist teachings.” To retract these would only encourage unscriptural practices. Finally, there were some in which he had attacked individuals. He admitted to have been too harsh in some, but still could not retract them because those individuals defended papal tyranny.
Luther was charged with avoiding the point and was told to answer with simple words the question: Will you recant or not? He responded: “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning–and my conscience is captive to the Word of God–then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” He then added: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
What led Luther from his attempt at scholarly debate to a bold confession before the princes of this world? He had learned what Jesus meant when He said: “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32).
He had grown in his understanding of the Bible as God’s eternal truth and as the sure foundation of faith. “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).
As heirs of the Reformation we gratefully remember what the Lord accomplished through Luther. May we ever rest our faith on the same foundation on which Luther stood: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, All other ground is sinking sand!”
–Pastor Rick Grams