On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, now in his mid-thirties, made his way to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door. Originally intended as propositions for public debate, the theses were written in Latin—the language of the scholar, not of the street. Luther could have had no idea that they would echo around Europe and become the catalyst for a spiritual revolution.
Many of those who saw the papers on the Castle Church door—which seems to have served as a public notice board—would not have been able to read Latin. But soon the theses were translated into German and thereafter spread throughout Europe like wildfire—indeed, like an “act of God.”
What were the Ninety-Five Theses? They were statements aimed directly at specific corruptions in the church of Luther’s day, many of them related to issues of pardon, purgatory, and the power of the pope. The first of them was particularly startling:
By saying “Repent,” our Lord and Master Jesus Christ willed that the whole of the life of believers should be repentance. (Dominus et magister noster Iesus Christus dicendo “Poenitentiam agite etc.” omnem vitam fidelium poenitentiam esse voluit.)
Luther had grasped that the Vulgate translation of “Repent” (poenitentiam agite) was open to the misinterpretation “Do penitence (or penance).” And he had also grasped a principle that John Calvin would later expound with great clarity: penitence or repentance is not the action of a moment; it is the turning around of a life—the rejection of sin effected by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. It cannot therefore be a single act completed in a moment; it is a style of life that lasts until glory.
Luther led a full and adventurous life that only an extensive biography can well describe. He was a remarkable man with enormous God-given energy. His speech was direct and plain and not infrequently earthy. He was a teacher of theology, a preacher of the gospel, and an author of some of the most important books in the Reformation period. Notable among his early publications was his On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, which exposed the church’s failures, while in On the Freedom of a Christian he explained how in Jesus Christ believers are set free both to love God and to serve their neighbor. Thus he wrote in a beautifully crafted sentence that captures the paradox of the gospel-centered life: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”
By his preaching, by writing, and especially by his influence in the explanation of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, Luther was used by God to transform the Christian church. The leading Reformers in England and Scotland were influenced by his writings, often smuggled in by merchant sailors. In Scotland in particular, the martyrs of St. Andrews, Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart (whose bodyguard John Knox had been), were disciples of Luther’s teaching. Likewise in England, the heroic William Tyndale left a legacy not only in his English translation of the Bible but in an entire body of literature that echoed the German Reformer’s work.
But what did Luther teach? His chief emphases are aptly summarized in the well-known Reformation solas: (1) sola Scriptura: we come to know God through Scripture alone, not through the traditions of the church as such; (2) sola gratia: we come to receive forgiveness by God’s grace alone, not because we are able to earn merit; (3) sola fide: we receive justification by faith alone, and not by faith plus something else; (4) solus Christus: all of God’s riches are given to us in Christ alone; (5) soli Deo gloria: the goal of all of life is the glory of God alone.
These principles simply underlined the emphases Luther found in Scripture. But in context, what is most significant about them is not only what they stressed but what they bypassed. Neither Luther nor the other magisterial Reformers despised the church. But they saw the church as only a witness to and a powerful illustration of salvation by grace—not the dispenser of that salvation. In a sense, then, the church had not only failed to teach the gospel rightly; it had usurped the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation. It was the reestablishing of the Spirit’s ministry in the application of redemption that brought such a sense of the immediacy of God’s grace and the joy and relief of pardon and new life in Christ. It is to Christ alone and not to the mediation of the church that we need to turn for grace and salvation.
We have not discussed here the other great Reformers—Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin and John Knox, and many others. But even this brief glance at Luther and his influence shows that the sixteenth century was a monumental period in the history of the Christian church. It was not without its faults, nor without its failures. But Christians in those days were bursting with the power and the energy of this great discovery—that the burden of their sins had been taken by Jesus Christ and they, at last, could be set free. These were days, as Knox explained, when “God gave His Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.”
That is what we still need!
This excerpt is adapted from In the Year of Our Lord by Sinclair Ferguson.