Five hundred years ago – October 31, 1517 – one single event changed all of Christendom.
A young Catholic monk, priest, and professor named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. Known today as The Reformation, his act is considered the breaking away from Catholicism; the beginning of Protestantism.
Born in 1483, Luther was raised in severe circumstances. Excessive punishments inflicted by his parents were precursors to whippings at school for which he often didn’t know his crime.
These experiences in part shaped a man who struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety as an adult. His world was one of rules and rigidity, underscored by concepts like salvation and damnation.
By the age of twenty-two, Luther’s fear of death and hell led him to join an Augustinian monastery where he could most fully pursue life everlasting.
He started this new journey at peace with God. His superiors quickly recognized the young friar’s abilities, and insisted he become a priest.
As Luther served communion at his first mass, the belief that he was holding the blood and body of Christ overwhelmed him. The all-too familiar feelings he experienced as a child of not being good enough crept back. Believing he was neither worthy of God’s love nor doing enough to be saved consumed him.
A tormented Luther did everything the church offered to be saved, including service, confession, even bodily punishment. None of these means offered him reassurance of grace. Instead, he became all the more aware of his sinful nature. His anxiousness and desperation escalated.
When his spiritual advisor suggested that all Luther need do is love God, he struggled further. If God the Father was in any way like his own father, mother, or teachers, Luther struggled to love Him. For Luther, love equated to hate.
Aware of his angst, Luther’s superior suggested another change of post, sending him to teach Scripture at the University of Wittenberg.
Equipped with a doctorate of theology, Luther set to preparing lectures about the Bible. Having to teach the Word forced his sharp yet troubled mind to explore biblical meaning for himself. When teaching from the book of Romans, Luther finally got the reassurance he’d been so desperately seeking.
Romans 1:17 says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
Luther couldn’t get past the phrase “righteousness of God”. He’d been taught that God’s “righteousness” or “justice” referred to punishment. How could it be good news when God’s justice and potential eternal damnation was Luther’s greatest fear?
Then, the passage opened up to Luther in a different way. Rather than seeing God’s justice as a threat to sinners as had been taught to him, Luther saw it as a gift given by God to those of faith.
As Luther stated, “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”
This shift in understanding – this “justification by faith” as Luther called it – became foundational for what became Protestantism. Over time, Luther’s change in thinking gained popularity amongst colleagues at Wittenberg.
Challenging traditional views, he drafted a ninety-seven theses to be debated within academia. Luther expected the theses to cause upset. It didn’t, and conversation of the document stayed within the university.
With more thoughts and points to express, Luther then wrote a second theses, the Ninety-five Theses. Because the first theses kindled little interest, he expected this second piece to be equally underwhelming. Instead, it forever changed Christianity throughout the world.
In the Ninety-five Theses, Luther denounced the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. At the time, indulgences could be purchased to absolve parishioners of their sins. An indulgence could also be purchased on behalf of a deceased loved one in order to free their soul from purgatory thus advancing them into heaven.
At the time, Pope Leo X, one of the most corrupt popes, was in cahoots with the House of Hohenzollern, one of the great German empires of the time. Albert, a member of the house, had already gained control of two ecclesiastical jurisdictions. He sought to control a third over the most important archbishop in Germany.
The pope struck a deal whereby Albert would gain the acquisition for ten thousand ducats. To raise the funds, Albert put indulgences on sale throughout his expansive territories. Fifty percent of all proceeds went to Pope Leo X in order to complete the building of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome.
Luther did not remain quiet over such exploitation. Through the public display of the Ninety-five Theses, Luther not only challenged the church, he exposed corruption of the church and the empire. The consequences could be nothing short of extreme.
Thus began a series of meetings and hearings over the next several years in front of monastic and governmental groups.
When called to his first meeting with Augustinian figureheads, Luther feared for his life: If condemned a heretic, he expected to be burned at the stake.
Luther’s extensive biblical knowledge and understanding helped him debate and defend his thoughts and claims at each meeting when necessary. It wasn’t his knowledge base, however that kept him from recanting; it was his conviction of truth.
In 1521, four years after nailing his theses to the church doors, Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, a gathering of the great lords of the German Empire including the Emperor. When Luther was asked to recant, Luther responded, “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just nor safe.”
At that point, Luther was finally excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was willing to face defamation, being pronounced a heretic, and excommunication, because he could not deny his own truth.
After years of torment about salvation and damnation, Luther had experienced assurance when studying the “justice of God”. He could not let that shift within his being go, because it was a part of him.
Such is the way of truth. Luther’s restlessness, his unsettled nature, his constant questioning, are indicative of not being in one’s own truth. Rather than give in to his struggles, Luther tried different approaches. He tried different posts. He studied. He worked. Eventually, he found his truth.
Truth is not a thought. It’s not an idea. It doesn’t reside in your head.
Beliefs can change; truth remains. Truth is a part of your being. It is in you and it is you. That is why, even with such high stakes, Luther couldn’t stray from his truth – it was part of him.
Luther didn’t know when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church doors that they would create conflict. He couldn’t have guessed that he’d reshape Christianity in doing so.
Luther’s act defines him within the pages of history. However, his response to the theses’ controversy – his insistence of speaking his own truth regardless of consequence – is equally compelling.
Luther’s story is not just of religious nature; it’s a story of bravery.
And, it’s both historical and timeless.