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The Word on the Week

Martin Luther 500

It is generally reckoned that the 31st October 1517 was the date Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church triggering the reformation. This was the usual method of drawing attention to a subject and normally would lead to a public debate. Luther chose the subject of purchasing indulgences which, it was said, released the dead loved one’s soul from hell.
John Tetzel was the salesman for Luther’s area of Germany. He was backed by the Pope (who needed money to rebuild St Peter’s in Rome) and the local Cardinal (who had debts he had to clear). Tetzel would enter a town with his followers and after some fiery preaching required the congregation to put money into his wooden chest. To encourage them he would recite, ‘As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs’.
This was the setting of Luther’s thesis. An example of one of them reads “He who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath,” thesis 45.
Matters came to a head when Pope Leo X in June 1520 issued a Papal Bull excommunicating Luther which the latter publicly burned along with volumes of canon law, papal constitutions, and works of scholastic theology. This led to an order to have Luther’s writings burned. (He wrote 60 books and hundreds of pamphlets).
Luther was summonsed to renounce his writings before the lawyers of the church at the Diet of Worms with Emperor Charles V presiding. He asked for 24 hours to reflect and pray. The next day the charge was again put to him and he responded,
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in Councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.
While the Diet were considering Luther’s fate his friends took him away and kept him in hiding until popular opinion, which was always on Luther’s side, ensured his safety.
What was it that enabled this Monk to stand against the might of Rome? All through his youth he had been keenly aware of his sins, an awareness which increased when he took holy orders. He saw himself as unrighteous, under condemnation by a holy God and no amount of penance could clear his debt.
It was reading Romans Chapter 1 verse 17 “The just shall live by faith” he saw that God has offered to us the holiness of his Son as a covering for our sin so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
God changed Luther in that moment from a despairing sinner to a justified son. From someone trying to create his own righteousness so as to become acceptable to God, and failing miserably, to discovering that his righteousness was in Christ alone.
May God grant a like understanding to free you to serve Him!