Shortly after noon on Sunday, October 31, 1517, a popular young preacher walked resolutely to the Castle Church in the quiet German universitytown of Wittenberg.
He was Dr. Martin Luther, university professor and sub-prior of the local Augustinian monastery.
It was the eve of All Saints Day (November 1), and already pilgrims were gathering at Wittenberg. The Castle Church, under the patronage of the Duke of Saxony, had become a center for medieval relics–bones of saints, “pieces” of the cross, garments and objects of martyrs. On All Saints Day these relics were displayed, to be venerated by the public. The church had declared that pilgrims to Wittenberg viewing these relics could receive a total indulgence of “127,799 years and 116 days” taken from their stay in purgatory.” (See page 109, Grimm)
Upon reaching the church, Professor Luther took a hammer and nailed a list of “Ninety-five Theses” to the church door–the ordinary place for official university announcements. Written in Latin, they were proposals for theological discussion. It was Dr. Luther’s intention especially to warn churchmen of the dangers of the sale of indulgences. These “Theses” were soon printed in German, however, and became the center of controversy and discussion about the many evil trends in the church.
The church in 1517 was in need of spiritual renewal.
This was especially true of its leadership. Many of its officials had forsaken the holy life. Bishoprics and Cardinalships could be had for a price. Even the highest church office in Western Europe that of the Bishop of Rome, no longer held the unquestioned respect of the people. There had been years in the 14th Century when there were even two and three popes at the same time, each having been elected by the cardinals and claiming to be the rightful authority in the church. (In history, this period is called the “Great Schism” and “Babylonian Captivity” of the church.)
Even the least spiritually sensitive could tell that the church had reached evil days when a 12-year-old boy was elected as Pope Benedict IX–not because of his piety but through the intrigue of his father. And after 13 years of misconduct and scandalous living, Benedict sold the office of pope to his godfather, Pope Gregory VI. The spiritual and moral tone of the church could not help but be affected when a man like Pope Alexander VI, who reigned as Bishop of Rome from 1492 to 1503, brought some of his illegitimate children (among whom were the infamous Caesar Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia) to live at the Vatican.
Perhaps even more discouraging to the pious and learned in 1500 was the growing credulity and superstition in the church. There were churches that had on display what they claimed were parts of the “burning bush” seen by Moses (see page 145, Lucas), or straw from Christ’s manager in Bethlehem (see page 55, Grimm). Other churches claimed to have “pieces of the true cross”. One medieval traveler humorously commented that he had seen enough pieces of the ‘true cross’ to build a ship!
Some of the holy relics were large objects such as the Tomb of St. James at Compostella, Spain (see page 148, Lucas), and the home of the Virgin Mary in Loreta, Italy (see “Time Magazine”, page 96, Sept 21, 1970) which had traveled without human help from Asia Minor to Europe. Each relic was reported by the church to have special spiritual power. Since many were obviously frauds (the medieval writer Chaucer so well describes them in his “Canterbury Tales” as nothing but “pigs bones”), the truly pious and educated became more and more offended with the church of their day.
It was in this time of great need that God called Martin Luther to be the leader of a spiritual Reformation.
Though he was born into a family of rather ordinary economic circumstances, God nevertheless saw to it that Martin received one of the best educations which Germany could provide–so important to his future leadership. Following his father’s wishes, he prepared for a career in law. However, God’s hand was upon his life, and through a series of circumstances–a time of serious personal illness, the shock of the murder of a close friend, the experience of being thrown down by a bolt of lightning which struck a tree near him in a thunderstorm–Luther was led by God to become a clergyman.
Impelled by great concern for his own salvation, Luther tried all the solutions suggested to him at the monastery where he lived–fasting, punishment of the body, taking the sacraments. But the more he sought perfection, the more he became aware that he was not holy; and this drove Luther almost to despair. God knew the sincerity of Martin’s heart. Through the good counsel of his monastic superior, the Vicar-general Staupitz, Martin was guided to Biblical studies, finally receiving his Doctor of Theology degree. It was while engaged in studies preparing for his lectures at the university, that he found himself reflecting on several passages of St. Paul: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The Just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17) “For by grace you are saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9)
Suddenly the young university professor saw clearly what he had so long been seeking–that the believer is saved by Christ’s sacrifice alone, not by trying to make himself holy, but simply by believing in the merits of Christ’s death on the cross.
Soon in the pulpit and in the university classroom, he was inspiring his students and parishioners with the evangelical truth. And on that Sunday 500 years ago, October 31, 1517, God used Dr. Martin Luther to launch a mighty Reformation of the church. This reform and change went beyond Luther’s university, and local church. This Reformation swept to the ends of the earth with the Good News of salvation by grace alone!
Those desiring additional information may wish to consult:
1. The Catholic Encyclopedia.
2. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, New York: Funk and Wagnalls. This work covers individual topics mentioned in the article.
3. The Reformation Era, by Harold J. Grimm, New York: Macmillan.
4. The Renaissance and the Reformation by Henry S. Lucas, New York: Harper.