The Coming Reformation

Historians typically date the start of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517 with the publication of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” The key ideas of the Reformation were: (1) A call to purify the church; and (2) The Bible, not tradition or church councils, is the sole source of spiritual authority.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an Augustinian monk and university professor in Wittenberg when he composed his “95 Theses,” which included his protest against the pope’s sale of indulgences. He initially wanted to encourage renewal from within the church by advancing what Augustine had taught in the late 300s—that the Bible was the central authority to discern the will of God and that salvation was granted by faith alone, which meant that good works and the purchase of indulgences were unnecessary--this would not be the result.

Luther was not trying to create a public furor by any means, but within a month, his theses, meant to be items of debate, had spread like wildfire and the Protestant Reformation was birthed. The last thing Luther wanted was a major controversy, but nonetheless major controversy he received. The Roman Church eventually maneuvered Luther into publicly proclaiming that the Pope and the church councils were not infallible. In 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull condemning Luther as a heretic. Luther, protesting the decree, burned the document in a public bonfire, making his defiance a matter of public record.

In 1521, Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms, an authoritative meeting that involved the princes of the church and called by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At this point in time, Luther was an outlaw to the church and nation for preaching and writing against the pope and the Roman Church. For him to appear in Worms was to risk his very life. Emperor Charles V, therefore, gave him safe passage to attend. When Luther appeared the people were amazed and commenced throwing their hats in the air, blowing trumpets, and creating all the fanfare of the arrival of a national hero.

At his trial, his books and writings were stacked on a table, and he was asked, then ordered to recant his writings. Such a demand surprised Luther because he thought he was to have a chance to defend his writings; but this was not the case. He dropped his chin on his chest, muttering something, and when asked to speak up said, “May I have 24 hours to think about it.” Granted a reprieve, Luther wrestled for 24 hours over what to do and say. He cried in loneliness to God,  “O Lord, I am Thine, and the cause is Thine, give me the courage to stand.”

The next day, Luther shocked the court with these words, “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And with that there was an instant uproar—some cheering; some dismayed; some angry. The Emperor regretted giving him safe passage and immediately put a price on his head. To prevent him from being assassinated, Luther’s friends staged a kidnapping to protect him and secretly hid him for a year in Wartburg at the castle disguised as a knight. During that year, he undertook the task of translating the Bible from the biblical languages into German, which made possible the availability of the Bible to common folk. And with that the Reformation was kindled, nurtured, and spread throughout Europe.