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Luther Openly Debates
Reform in the Church
And Begins Reform

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A New Understanding

Martin Luther was troubled by the age-old question, “How do I know when I have done enough good things in my life for God to save me?” His religious actions as a monk (saying prayers, going to Communion, going on pilgrimages, doing penance and making confession of all the sins he could think of) did not bring him any peace of mind. But, something significant happened as Luther lectured on the Psalms, Romans and Galatians. As Luther studied in the bible in the original languages of Greek (for the New Testament) and Hebrew (for the Old Testament), he came to a “new” understanding of Jesus and salvation. It happened as he studied the word “righteousness.” “Righteousness” (a correct relationship with God) was not only something that God demanded of us like a judge. But rather, it was also something that God gave as a “gift” to those who had faith in Jesus Christ. As Saint Paul said in Romans 1:16-17, “the righteous shall live by faith.” This meant that it was not Luther's religious behavior which saved him before God, but rather it was his “faith,” or trust in Jesus Christ. It was like the difference between trying to push a car up a hill by yourself AND putting the fuel in the car to let it take you up the hill. It was the difference between trying to do it yourself or believing that the death of Jesus had already done everything necessary for you.

A Changed Man & A New View of God

Luther's relationship to God was completely changed by this discovery. Rather than seeing Jesus as a stern and demanding end-time judge, he pictured Jesus as the loving and crucified savior. And there was nothing threatening about Jesus on the cross. It was simply Jesus giving his life for us. Christ Crucified painted by Cranach Luther came to see what his father-confessor, his pastor, John von Staupitz once told him. The salvation that he wanted from a faraway God was already very near and waiting for him through the crucified Jesus. Much later in his life, Luther said that when he made this discovery it was like the gates of heaven opened and he entered paradise itself. The bottom line, Luther discovered, is that we are saved by grace through faith for Christ's sake “Grace” means that God does it all “for free,” gratis, without any work or effort on our part. God doesn't make us pay for it. It is a gift. “Faith” means we take God at God's word. We trust God's promise. And “for Christ's sake” means it happens because of Christ's death upon the cross and his resurrection which followed. Jesus does the work of saving, not us. He is more of a “Savior” than a “judge.”

The Indulgence Controversy

Luther's personal “discovery” that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ would probably have gone unnoticed if it had not flown smack dab in the face of one of the church's biggest money-makers in those days: the selling of indulgences. Pope Leo X Indulgences were declarations signed by the pope. They gave assurance to whoever purchased them that, if they were truly sorry and properly confessed their sins to a priest, then by their “gift” of money to the church they had made a sufficient “satisfaction” for their sins. That is, they had done an adequate good deed to demonstrate the true sincerity of their sorrow. Supposedly, the indulgence they purchased would shorten their time in “purgatory” and get them to heaven sooner. Although not mentioned in the bible or preaching of Jesus, the church of the middle ages developed “purgatory” as a preliminary place that most Christians had to go before they were “purged” or “pure” enough to go to heaven. In the thinking of the time, most Christians would be there thousands, if not millions, of years. Indulgences raised millions of dollars for the pope and church leaders. And the church needed lots of money, especially for the rebuilding of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome and for the ongoing war against the Muslims. One of the worst uses of indulgences occurred near Wittenberg (where Luther was teaching) through a man named John Tetzel. He sold indulgences not only to believers for this life but also for their friends and relatives who were already dead and supposedly in purgatory. Tetzel said in a little jingle, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

The 95 Theses (Debating Points)

Luther was appalled by indulgences. He read nothing about them in the bible. And it seemed to him to be the selling of forgiveness for money. This went totally against his “discovery” that forgiveness is free and we are saved by our faith in Christ. Luther posts the 95 Theses He also thought indulgences robbed the poor German people from their money and gave it the rich of other countries to beautify their cities. And he felt it gave those who bought indulgences a false sense of security. They mistakenly thought that they did not need to worry about their spiritual condition and put their trust in the cross of Christ. They thought they already adequately paid theirway to heaven. And so, Luther wrote 95 Theses (or debating points) to challenge the selling of indulgences. He felt this was his duty as a professor of his theology. Legend has it that he nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517 because doors like that were often the place for public notices before the days of newspapers, radios and television. Consequently, Halloween (All Hallow's Eve or the evening before All Saints' Day) is “Reformation Day” for many Lutherans. In any case, they spread like wild fire. Local publishers translated them from Latin (the language of scholarly debate) into German (the language of the people). And thanks to Guttenberg's recent discovery of movable type for the printing press, what Luther wrote was widely distributed. Many Germans agreed with what Luther said. The sale of indulgences were reduced dramatically. And the sale of other writings by Luther went up. Thus, a serious struggle between Luther and the papal church began. At one point, a third of everything in print was written by Martin Luther.

Rome Responds

Through various representatives, the pope in Rome (Leo X) ordered Luther to “recant,” that is, admit his error and take back what he had written. After all, who was he, a common, German monk, to challenge the pope, the chief representative of Christ on earth. But Luther refused unless he could be shown his error from the Scriptures. No longer was the issue just indulgences, but rather the authority of the pope and many other questionable teachings of the medieval Roman Catholic church. Finally, the pope issued a “papal bull“ (an official pronouncement) declaring Luther a “heretic” (a false teacher in the church) and “excommunicating” him (kicking him out of the church) unless he immediately recanted and ordered that all of Luther's writings across the land be burned. Luther responded by burning the papal bull. Some of his friends and students also threw books of canon (church) law in the fire as a sign of breaking from papal decrees and depending only on the Scriptures.

The Diet at Worms

The pope wanted Luther to be sent to Rome to stand trial. But, instead, his powerful prince and protector, Frederick the Wise, arranged a hearing before the emperor, Charles V, at the Diet (imperial meeting) of Worms (pronounced “Vorms”) in 1521. Luther was given one last chance to admit his error and take everything he had written back. But Luther said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason...I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against one's conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” The emperor declared Luther an “outlaw” (a civil offense) in addition to being a “heretic“ (a religious offense). Once he was declared an outlaw, Luther could be arrested and killed by anyone. The same could also happen to anyone who helped him. But, because the emperor had promised Luther “safe conduct” in order to get him to the Diet at Worms, the emperor had to let him go as a free man for at least 30 days.

Luther at the Wartburg

On his way back to Wittenberg, Luther was “kidnapped” by his friends and taken for his safe-keeping to one of Prince Frederick's castles called “Wartburg” until things could cool down. This had to happen secretly because anyone who helped Luther would become an outlaw, too. Luther was told to grow a beard and dress like a knight. His Wartburg keepers gave him the name “Junker (Knight) George.” While at the Wartburg Luther wrote a series of sermons on the Christmas story and began translating the bible into the German language so that the princes and common people could read the bible and judge for themselves the truth of what he was saying. It was his experience of protection at Wartburg that inspired Luther to write the famous hymn of the reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

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