When Martin Luther (b. 1483) posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church door on October 31, 1517, he unwittingly began what would become the Protestant Reformation, a pivotal moment in church history that we celebrate this time each year. On the anniversary of this occasion, we take a look behind the scenes to see how Luther—and the world—came to this monumental point in time.
On a stormy night in 1505, as Martin Luther was walking to law school at the University of Erfurt in Germany, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near him. His immediate reaction to cry out, “Help me, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk!” Luther followed through on his vow to become a monk. His superiors eventually directed him to pursue his doctorate in theology and become a professor at Wittenberg University. His lecturing led him to the book of Romans, which, in turn, led him to contemplate the bold theological implications of the phrase: ‘the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17).
At the same time, Pope Leo X commissioned the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In order to raise money for its construction, the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel arrived in Germany on behalf of Pope Leo X, selling indulgences (or declarations signed by the Pope that could be purchased for the forgiveness of sins).
Infuriated by Tetzel’s actions, Luther formally objected to the abuse of the selling of such indulgences in his 95 Theses. The printing press had only recently been invented by Johann Gutenberg, and it helped to disseminate Luther’s theses throughout Europe in a matter of weeks. Many readers of Luther’s document saw for the first time in print the great biblical truths that forgiveness and salvation are the free gifts of God’s grace and not the works of man. (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:21-31)
The reality is that Christ’s Church in the 21st century finds itself, once again, in great need of “reformation.” Reformers like Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox saw that salvation was by grace alone (Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide), in Christ alone (Solus Christus). The message of the Reformation and throughout Scripture is that of man’s complete inability apart from the work of God’s Spirit. Man, on his own, is unable and powerless to approach God without the power and working of the Spirit of God.
On this Reformation Celebration Day, let us thank God for the godly men he has used throughout the course of history to accomplish his purposes and bring glory and honor to himself by holding to Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura). Also, let us praise God for the glorious grace by which he has called us, saved us, and made us alive in Christ—to the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria).
- Joshua York is a guest contributer at Elect Exiles, a husband and a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.