It’s widely believed that October 31st, 1517, was the day that Martin Luther, an Augustinian Monk who was a teacher at a university in Wittenberg, Saxony (North Germany) nailed his 95 thesis on the front door of the university.
Luther’s act was simply the result of years of studying the growing practices of “selling indulgences” and other biblically indefensible actions that were widely practiced in his Roman Catholic church.
History records that Martin Luther had no intention of creating a rebellion, rather he simply wanted to propose some reforms to bring the church back into alignment and to reduce, if not eliminate, the corruption that was widespread on this and some other issues such as nepotism and other means of control.
What Luther could not have foreseen was that his 95 Thesis made their way to the Pope himself and perhaps more importantly, was duplicated by the thousands because of the recent invention of a device called the printing press. (It’s fairly certain that nothing would have become of these 95 Thesis had they been posted just 50 years earlier.)
As a result of Luther’s stance and his unwillingness to recant, it is fair to say that the greatest upheaval in the history of the Roman Catholic Church had been instigated. Luther himself is pretty widely acknowledged as the most significant figure of the last millennium; high praise indeed when one considers the progress of humankind from the years 1000 – 2000 AD.
It’s impossible to explain in any detail the complex nature of the relationship of the Catholic Church with the existence of nations throughout all of Europe especially, but also in other nations around the world.
The Holy Roman Empire was still a major power in the eastern half of Western Europe. It was essentially a federation of smaller states, whose princes elected the overall king, who as a matter of course would then be crowned emperor by the Pope in the time honored fashion. Luther had no idea what his simple action would precipitate. His intention was to have a scholarly debate about how indulgences should be properly administered, if at all. But as he later wrote, “What I did toppled and consumed earth by fire.”
Over the next years, Luther moved in and out of hiding and for good reason. People who had been declared heretics (as Luther was) usually paid for such grievance through torture and death. In fact, during the next century, slow expansion of the “Reformation countries” brought with them a myriad of clashes, battles and even wars.
The Reformation movement which had unwittingly been started by Luther spread throughout Eastern Europe and eventually all of Europe and Great Britain.
At the heart of Luther’s position was his conviction that he had formed while studying Paul’s letter to the Romans during his time as a teacher at Wittenberg. This doctrine, justification by faith, was at the heart of his theology. The central message of Christianity, according to Luther, was that people are not saved by what they do – whether by good works, pilgrimages, paying money to the church or any other “act;” but by the free gift given through Christ’s sacrifice and accepted by the believer through faith.
Lutheranism spread quickly in Eastern Europe and particularly the Scandinavian countries because of another priest by the name of Ulrich Zwingli.
When we keep in mind that communication 500 years ago was basically done by delivering messages on horseback, it’s not difficult to understand why things took years, and in some cases decades, to be fully embraced.
None-the-less, what Martin Luther did forever changed the dynamic of the Catholic church and the rule of the nations throughout all of Europe including Great Britain and other nations. (England had one of the most convoluted transitions as King Henry VIII sought to put himself in the position of the Pope in England, thus being the head of the church as well as the head of state.)
There are so many things to contemplate when we think of the Reformation. However, just two points to make today. The first, never underestimate what one simple act of obedience could mean in effecting organizations, institutions and even nations; let alone individual human hearts.
Second, the door that Luther opened quickly burst forth as men like John Calvin followed in his footsteps and further developed Reformation theology and the creation of thousands of Protestant denominations around the world.
Thankfully, though it’s been a long time in coming, Catholics and Protestants are communicating once again. In many places old traditional postures that looked down upon any relationship of Catholics and Protestants have begun to give way to embracing one another for our common beliefs in the Lordship of Jesus and the practice of loving one another as clearly taught in the Word of God.
We have not only the privilege but the responsibility to clearly promote such conversations and relationships. The Church of Jesus Christ, Catholic and Protestant, is the largest spiritual body in the known world. In a time when other religions are making converts and in some cases compelling obedience, it is the responsibility of the Church of Jesus to continue to spread the good news, the gospel, which is that we can be accepted before God and declared justified by Him, not because of what we do but because of what Jesus has done.