The ROAD TO REFORMATION
In preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we have presented a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther leading up to
the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses. The series culminates in this month’s issue.
A disgruntled child stomps away when angry. You decide to tackle projects alone rather than with impossible people. Life’s problems often seem easier in isolation.
By 1517, Luther thought he had tucked himself away from trouble. He grieved that the Bible commentaries he read were filled with men’s babble, but he could always close them and teach Scriptural truth in his tiny lecture hall. In Rome, he had seen gross doctrinal error; but far to the north, with the Alps in between, he could just focus on his little world enclosed by Wittenberg’s walls. And although confusion abounded among the people, he could take the time to counsel them one by one.
But then Tetzel arrived.
A Dominican monk with a flair for the dramatic, Johann Tetzel brought Rome’s very worst to nearby Jüterbog, where many people from Wittenberg went to purchase his indulgences (Frederick the Wise had forbidden him from entering Saxony). A sales slogan Tetzel used best illustrates his guile: “As soon as the gold in the coffer rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.”
Luther learned that many residents of Wittenberg were flocking to Tetzel. Souls he knew and loved fell for the lie that a few coins got them closer to heaven. In private, Luther had sought to convince them of God’s love. In public, they had the fear of God pressed back upon them. The ringing of coins in the collection box would have sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard to poor Luther.
With All Saints Day looming, the fevered pitch of Tetzel’s false preaching grew, deceiving the people into believing that purchasing his pieces of paper could finally release their loved ones from purgatory. The day before that feast, Luther produced his now-famous Ninety-Five Theses. They outlined the inherent contradiction of burdening already-repentant souls with relentless fear and dread.
Although these theses were publicly displayed, Luther purposely wrote them in Latin. They were not meant for everyone to read, just the educated and ruling class.
Luther did not intend to agitate the people with his Ninety-Five Theses. They were a statement directed to those who tried to impose Rome on Wittenberg. In a way, their posting was meant to shout, “Just leave us alone!”
The Ninety-Five Theses spread like wildfire. God’s hour had come. Luther could no longer hide.
The Savior Himself had hidden away at times, but only to allow His Word to work on the hearers’ hearts. And He was completely alone when forsaken on the cross. But when Christ rose triumphant from the grave, there was no more hiding. His resurrection was the public declaration that the forgiveness of sins won by His blood is the immediate ticket to eternal life.
From 1517 on, Luther ever more openly proclaimed this good news. God had used the events of that year to force His chosen instrument out of hiding, “having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth.” (Rev. 14:6)
Luther’s 1517 lectures on Hebrews reveal a personal reflection on God’s work in his life. He talked at length about the duty of a “preacher of the Gospel” to point a burdened soul away from the Law and to Christ’s work alone.
What followed was a very public Luther. No more private lectures. Instead, a German Bible to be heard and read by the people. Countless letters sent throughout Europe expounding what the Scriptures truly teach. And as a traveling preacher, he openly proclaimed God’s Word wherever called, right up until his final journey home.
This everlasting Gospel brings you out of isolation, too. Christ crucified gives you the comfort of freedom from all that makes you want to hide away. And wherever God leads you, He takes you there to share your hope with other souls burdened by sin. May the good news in Jesus’ name carry you on each day until His promised heaven is yours.
Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.