In the early 1500's, a young German monk named Martin Luther underwent a deep crisis of faith. He came out of this dark time after reading Romans 1:17 and understanding its implications: No longer would he be plagued with doubts about his right-standing before a wrathful God. The righteousness he so desperately sought was not a result of his striving but God's declaring righteous those who believed in Christ. This changed Martin Luther's life. This changed the world.
In 1517, a man named Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg to sell indulgences. At this time, the Church taught that the souls of dead Christians must spend time in a place called Purgatory, doing penance for sins, until they were worthy to enter heaven. This totally unbiblical teaching in effect trampled the atoning blood of Christ underfoot.
Someone had come up with the idea that indulgences might be sold not just for the living, but to release those souls trapped in Purgatory. Tetzel even had a catchy jingle to illustrate this: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.” Some within the Church had felt that this was similar to the Pharisee’s burdening of the people that Jesus had condemned in Matthew 23:4.
Luther was angered and saddened at this exploitation of the people’s fears and superstitions, fears and superstitions which had been taught to them by the very Church which Christ had entrusted with the care of their souls (Matthew 28:19-20).
On October 31, 1517, Luther posted 95 theses (or points) in public (the story goes that he posted them on the chapel door of Wittenberg castle), challenging anyone who disagreed to debate him publicly. The theses attacked the selling of indulgences. Luther stopped short of blaming the pope, but instead blamed the advisors who surrounded him.
As we have seen, God works, in the fullness of time, to accomplish His ends. So between the time when Wycliffe distributed hand-written copies of his Bible translation and the time Luther posted his 95 Theses, something wonderful had happened.
In about 1440, a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, making possible the mass production of printed matter. The result of this was that Luther’s 95 Theses were spread across Germany in a few weeks, and across Europe in a matter of months.
Of course the Church got wind of this and was very displeased. The pope himself compared Luther to a wild hog in a vineyard. In days gone by, Luther might have been very quickly burned at the stake. Here we see another working of God’s providence.
The ruler of Saxony was a devout man known as Frederick the Wise. Though he had never met Luther, Luther had a reputation across Germany as a learned man and a skilled preacher and teacher. Frederick was quite proud to have this man as head of the theology department at Wittenberg’s university. He blocked all attempts to have Luther brought before the Church authorities.
The Church’s efforts to silence Luther reached their climax at the Diet of Worms (a council of the German princes) in 1521. This was a meeting called by the Holy Roman Emperor to discuss mostly civil matters. It must be noted that the pope tried to use this council for his own purpose: to stop Luther.
When asked point-blank by the council to recant (take back) his words, he refused. He stood by all that he had preached or written. “My conscience is bound to the Word of God,” he said. He stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and refused , on the authority of Holy Scripture and his own conscience, to back down.
Finally, the Diet ordered Luther to return to Wittenberg and not to preach. The Church had lost in its efforts to have the state silence him. It is a testimony to man’s fallen nature that, instead of ceasing to persecute Luther, Church officials set a plan in motion to kidnap and arrest him. Frederick beat them to the punch and had his own men grab Luther and place him out of harm’s way in Wartburg Castle, in a remote part of Frederick’s realm.
For the next ten months, Luther remained at Wartburg and spent most of his time writing. He finished his German translation of the Bible during this period. Meanwhile, across Germany, his works had ignited the flames of the Reformation.
Across the rest of Europe, as well, the news spread and men began to read and preach the Word of God again.