Help for Today — Hope for Tomorrow
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[Gary Petty] This is the Wittenberg Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. On October 31, 1517, a disgruntled and relatively unknown Catholic monk, named Martin Luther, posted his 95 Theses on the front of this church.
The average German couldn’t read what Luther posted because it was written in Latin. Luther intended his work to be read by priests and monks. The 95 Theses listed changes he felt were needed in the Catholic Church. Within a short time, Luther’s Theses were translated into German and—in addition to members of the clergy—a number of lay people began to agree with him.
Little did he know that this simple act of defiance would spawn not just an attempt to reform Catholicism, but a revolution that would break the church’s imposing power over the spiritual life of Europe. Within a few years, Western Christianity would begin to split into competing denominations. The world would really never be the same.
Martin Luther and other Protestants—reformers who protested the Catholic Church—had enormous influence on the development of the western world.
One of Luther’s primary goals was for the church to return to the Bible as the source of Christian teachings. He felt that the church had become mired in human traditions and non-biblical doctrines.
We’re going to explore some of the life and teachings of Martin Luther here in Germany where he launched the Reformation. We will also seek to answer, “Did his religious revolution totally restore the Bible as the source of truth in Christianity? Or, are there aspects of biblical truth that many Christians are still missing?”
Join us on this very special edition of Beyond Today as we examine: “Martin Luther: The Unfinished Reformation.”
The Wittenberg Castle Church is the epicenter of the Protestant Reformation. At the core of theological thought in the Middle Ages was the absolute terror of going to hell.
Religious teaching emphasized original sin and that every human being is a corrupt, evil sinner damned to everlasting torment. Salvation was introduced to humanity through Jesus Christ—but they were plagued by a nagging question, “what if a person in this life wasn’t totally cleansed from sin?”
To die while still in “mortal sin” was terrifying. If a priest wasn’t present to perform last rites, a person could end up being eternally tormented by demons.
And then there was the problem of venial sin. Venial sins are sins that are not worthy of eternal damnation but do require punishment. To deal with this problem, the Medieval Church became obsessed with the concept of purgatory.
Purgatory was a place where Christians would go after death for punishment and purification. Now, it wasn’t hell—where the eternally damned had no hope of escape—but it was a place of unthinkable anguish where the souls of Christians faced punishment for venial sins. You can imagine the anxiety experienced by pious Medieval Catholics obsessed with thoughts of loved ones bound in a moment-by-moment torturous existence waiting to be freed to join Jesus and the saints in heaven.
Was there anything a person could do to help a loved one who was being tormented in purgatory?
Well in fact, in Catholic theology there was. In Luther’s day, priests could perform private mass. People paid for these sacraments as a means to lessen the time their loved ones had to spend in purgatory.
Other practices included the selling of “indulgences.”
In the sixteenth century, an indulgence was a promise by the church that when a person performed a pious act like saying a prayer at a shrine—and paid a sum of money to the church—well, he could reduce the amount of time a loved one spent in purgatory. A person could even buy an indulgence for himself—a kind of spiritual debit card.
Paying for masses and selling of indulgences were so common that the Catholic Church in Rome became extremely wealthy. One of the issues Luther attacked in the 95 Theses was the sale of indulgences.
When many Germans read Luther’s post, they began to question the validity of the church to demand money as a way to get loved ones out of purgatory. The result was that the entire economy of the Catholic Church—the way the Vatican financed building projects and maintained military power—was under attack.
This unknown monk was on a collision course with the Pope.
In 1508, eleven years before he posted the 95 Theses, Luther arrived in Wittenberg. He was a very troubled man.
Earlier in his life, he had no intention of joining the clergy. Luther grew up in a rough and tumble mining town. His father was a well-respected copper smelter. His desire was for young Martin to attend school and achieve success as a lawyer.
But a dramatic event changed the course of young Martin’s life. In his early twenties, Luther was almost struck by lightning. Now at the time, most people believed that lightning was caused by the Devil or by demons. The idea that he could suddenly die without receiving the sacrament of last rites was terrifying. In Luther’s mind, he could be lost forever. He cried out to St. Anna—the patron saint of miners—and made a promise to become a monk if he survived.
Well, Luther joined a monastery, took a vow of poverty, received a doctorate in theology and was ordained a priest. His days were filled with prayer, ceremonies, self-denial and religious studies.
But he struggled with the concept of sin and how a person could be accepted by God. He was wracked with guilt, depression and a sense of self-loathing. He concluded that God would only forgive a sinner who was consumed with self-hatred.
In 1511, Luther goes to Rome. The journey involved walking hundreds of miles—crossing the Alps—facing hardships and danger. But for Luther, this was a chance of a lifetime. It was an opportunity to see the Eternal City—visit the holy sites—and obtain some indulgences. He is so excited that when he saw the city he shouted, “Hail! Holy Rome.”
It wasn’t long though before the idealistic monk began to experience some grave disappointment. He was shocked by how priests hurried through mass so that they could get paid for the next one.
There was a staircase in Rome that was reported to be the very steps Jesus climbed to appear before Pontius Pilate. Luther wanted to help his grandfather spend less time in purgatory. So he climbed the steps on his knees—stopping on each step to kiss it and say a prayer.
Later, he would say that while climbing the steps, he wondered if anything in this ritual was true. He was also disillusioned with the opulence of Rome and the immorality he witnessed in Roman clerics.
Luther undertook the difficult trip back to Germany, but something had happened. The naive and idealistic monk—who thought that the way to God was through self-hatred and rituals—was now plagued with doubts about the teachings of his church.
His posting of the 95 Theses was only the beginning of Luther’s battle with the papacy. His disagreements with Catholicism would eventually lead to Luther’s exile to the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach.
This is the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. This place would be very important in Luther’s battle with the papacy.
Posting the 95 Theses back in Wittenberg gained Luther notoriety, but as far as Rome was concerned, he was still a rather unimportant monk in a German backwater.
When Luther returned, he continued to struggle with his guilt and how he could earn God’s love and forgiveness. He concluded that the buying of indulgences wasn’t the answer.
Over time he developed a new understanding of the gospel and how he could be accepted by God. He concluded that God’s good news is that Christ has been sent as payment for human sins. To be accepted by God, all a person has to do is believe God’s promise in Christ. Justification—how a person becomes free from guilt and sin—comes through faith—not in the elaborate ceremonies of Catholicism or by any human work. Luther concluded that we come to God through His grace exhibited in Christ. Therefore—just believe.
Finally, the self-loathing that consumed Luther could be partly alleviated by what he saw as the love of God in Christ. There was no need for Mary or the saints to act as intercessors between Christians and God. Christ was the intercessor.
Luther was a prodigious writer. His books became popular and Rome began to take notice. Especially a book published in 1520 titled, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church . In this work, Luther claimed that the papacy was antichrist.
Of course, the Pope couldn’t stand for this and condemned Luther’s writings and commanded that his books be burned. Luther responded by publicly burning the Pope’s decree. He had now burned his bridges and all ties with the Catholic Church.
The next year Luther was called before the German emperor and was condemned as a heretic. The unknown monk was now famous. He was also faced with the reality that there were a number of very powerful men who wanted him dead. And that’s how he ended up here in the Wartburg Castle.
After being declared a heretic, Luther was now a wanted man. Not long after he was declared a heretic, it was reported that Luther had been kidnapped. It was quite sensational. People wondered: Where was he? What had happened to him?
Well in truth—the kidnapping was staged and he was brought here to this castle to hide out. He grew a beard and dressed as a nobleman going by the title of Knight George.
And it was here—between 1521 and 1522—that Luther would undertake a project that forever changed the Western world. Here he translated the New Testament from Greek into German.
In our world of books and internet access to information, it is difficult to understand just how monumental it was for Luther to complete this translation. For over 1,000 years the Catholic Church had maintained power by making sure the Bible didn’t get translated into common languages. The study of the Bible was mainly reserved for monks and priests either in Latin or the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Even the mass was said in Latin. This meant that most people throughout Christendom didn’t even understand the words of the mass.
Less than a hundred years before Luther’s translation, the printing press had been developed here in Germany. The first book printed—the Gutenberg Bible. Now this relatively new technology was used by Luther’s supporters to publish many copies of his New Testament. It was now possible for literate people throughout Germany to obtain a copy of the Scriptures in their own language. They read the Bible for themselves instead of relying entirely on being told what to believe.
And this was just the beginning. The Reformation would spread across Europe. Throughout the sixteenth century, there were numerous translations of the Bible into English culminating in 1611 with the Authorized King James Version.
Most of his life Luther was plagued by what he called battles with demons and with Satan himself. He claimed that these battles were the reason for his rather severe mood swings.
Now according to legend, it was here in this room where Luther drove off the devil by throwing a bottle of ink at him—represented by this figurine here hanging in this room. Modern scholars tend to think that what Luther meant was that he drove Satan away by writing—putting ink to paper.
After spending less than two years here in the Wartburg Castle, things finally quieted down and Luther could return to Wittenberg to publish his translation of the New Testament. In a strange twist, he would return to live in the very monastery that he had left to carry out his religious revolution.
In 1524, German peasants revolted against the princes. Luther chastised both sides but in the end, he felt he could not justify rebellion and sided with the princes by saying that they had the authority to stop the revolt. The Peasant’s War ended in catastrophe. At least 100,000 peasants died.
Now during the war, this monastery was abandoned—and since Wittenberg was the epicenter for Lutheranism—the building was given to him.
The next year, Luther did something else that shocked the Catholic world. In spite of his priestly vow of celibacy, Luther married. And he didn’t just marry a common local girl—he married a reformed nun named Katharina von Bora—or Katy as Martin called her. They seemed to have enjoyed a happy marriage and had six children together.
It would seem that Luther could finally settle down to pastoring and enjoying family life, but his break with Rome had other serious consequences. More Protestants began to stand up to Catholicism. Most Protestants shared many of Luther’s biblical interpretations—but they also had some different biblical views of their own. Luther would now spend his time not only defending himself against Rome, but attacking other Protestants with the same vigor he used against the Catholics. Let’s go inside.
We are here in probably the most famous room in Luther House. It is here where Martin would meet with his friends and have long discussions about the most important topics. And he would do his famous table talks.
Luther’s most lasting legacy is his teaching that justification—being made right before a righteous God—is through faith alone. Since all human beings are sinners—and our very nature is corrupted by sin—no one can come and earn eternal salvation through any good works or rituals before God.
Now one passage that was foundational to his teaching is in the book of Romans where the apostle Paul wrote: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:23-26, NKJ).
Here Paul presents the good news that our sins are forgiven because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as our substitute. Since no human works can forgive us of our sins—or earn God’s forgiveness—then we are justified when we have faith in God’s promise and embrace Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Luther concluded that to be justified all one has to do is believe. Salvation requires nothing more than belief in the sacrifice of Jesus for your sins. He again began to point to Paul’s writings in Romans where the apostle used Abraham as an example.
In Romans, Paul wrote that God promised Abraham descendants in number like the stars in heaven—even though Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless—and well beyond childbearing years. Paul quoted from a passage in Genesis that states, “And he [speaking of Abraham] believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3).
Paul taught that Abraham was brought into a relationship with God through his faith not because of any actions or works on Abraham’s part. For Luther, this produced an open and shut case. Believe and you are justified. Once justified—you are saved—and remain saved without any influence of works—good or bad.
But Luther had a problem—the New Testament book of James teaches something different than faith as simple belief. James wrote, ‘Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:17-20).
Luther saw this as an affront to Paul’s teaching. In his Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude , Luther claimed that James’ letter is “in direct opposite to St. Paul, and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes justification to works…” ( Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings by John Dillenberger).
James wrote in his letter, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:21-24).
James used the same quote from Genesis to make his point that Paul used in Romans to make his point. Luther saw these two statements as incompatible. “Scripture alone” was one of Luther’s guiding principles, and yet here he was with a problem. How does he take the writings of Paul and the writings of James and put them together to make sense?
Was Luther right? Are Paul and James incompatible? Are they promoting two ways to be justified?
The answer lies in the way both writers used the example of Abraham. Paul is writing to the church in Rome to explain how both Jews and Gentiles can come into a relationship with God. Both are justified by God’s grace and faith in the work of Christ. Paul clearly teaches that no one can earn God’s favor because of good works.
God initiates any relationship through His favor, His grace. None of us can knock on heaven’s door and demand a visit with God. Abraham was called by God. Abraham believed and entered into a relationship with His Creator.
Paul was dealing with the issue of whether gentiles had to convert to Judaism before then could have a relationship with God (Romans 3:29). He shows that all come to God through faith in the work of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22).
James now is dealing with a different problem. He is dealing with the wrong idea that faith and belief are exactly the same thing.
Remember what we read just a minute ago, he wrote that Satan and the demons believe in God and fear His awesome power and glory (James 2:19). Our faith must be much more than Satan’s belief. Faith involves trusting God—and trusting God is a motivation for obedience.
Let’s think about James’ argument. Abraham believed God’s promise that his son Isaac would give him descendants. Then God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. God’s promise and command for obedience seem inconsistent—to say the least.
Think about this. What if Abraham would have said to God, “I believe your promise to give me descendants through Isaac—and since that can’t happen if I sacrifice him—I have decided to disobey you. But I still believe in your promise.”
James argues that if Abraham had refused to obey God then his belief would not have been real faith.
If a person truly trusts God then his actions will be rooted in that trust. We can’t erase our own sins or somehow impress God enough to earn salvation, but belief is not the same as faith. Faith must submit to God’s work in us. In our submission, real, living faith, produces works. Paul was correct. James is correct. Faith without works is dead.
Martin Luther exposed the greed, ritualism, and non-biblical dogmas of Catholicism. He stood up to a religious system that had misinterpreted and misused the Scriptures. It was an awakening that unleashed the Protestant Reformation. Five centuries after Luther posted the 95 Theses, it is time for Protestants to examine the unfinished Reformation.
Consider this on a personal level: How many times do Christians excuse living with a boyfriend out of wedlock—disregarding one of the Ten Commandments—or living a lifestyle like unbelievers with the simple argument, “I’m justified without works, I’m saved by grace, God loves me just the way I am”?
This way of thinking is nothing more than using God’s grace as a license to sin, and it has serious consequences. Jesus gives this warning in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
This is a terrifying statement. Jesus will use these words at His return to some who claim to believe in Him.
Paul and James aren’t contradicting each other. When we combine the teachings of these inspired writers, we see that living faith is more than simple belief. It is the surrender of the will and body, heart and mind, thoughts and works to the sovereignty of God and His power in us. When a person surrenders his will to God, and in faith accepts Christ as Savior and Master, then God will guide him with His power to do good works.
Salvation is more than God’s forgiveness. Salvation is God’s work in human beings to create eternal children. It is a work that we participate in as we faithfully submit to His working in us.
The world needs a spiritual awakening. We need to return to the Bible as the guiding Word of God. Pick up the Book and prayerfully ask for God’s guidance. Let God’s spiritual revolution begin with you.
For Beyond Today I’m Gary Petty. Thanks for watching.
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