It was 500 years ago today that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door, igniting a spiritual, political, and cultural conflagration that altered the course of Western Civilization.
What became the “Reformation” was inevitable once the printing press was invented. The only way medieval Catholicism could survive with all of its unbiblical and extra biblical practices was the fact that most people in Europe had never heard the Bible in a language they could understand. They heard the Mass in Latin, which almost none of them would understand, and it was a crime punishable by death in most of Europe to translate the Bible into one of the vernacular languages like German, English, French or Italian.
Once the printing press provided the technology to mass-produce books, it was only a matter of time before the explosion that provided the chain reaction that became the Reformation would take place.
The ignition point for the Reformation was in Wittenberg, Germany as Dr. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk wracked by guilt over his personal sin, pouring over the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, came to the spiritual discernment that salvation was in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.
To Luther, God’s Holy Word was the final and supreme authority, — sola scriptura — trumping all other authority. No papal decree, no church council, no confession, no catechism could ever counter the unique and compelling authority of Holy Scripture. The Bible itself was the ultimate authority in matters of faith and conscience.
Luther quickly laid the predicate for what became the “spiritual bill of rights” for individual human conscience. On April 18, 1521 at the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther was called upon to recant his “heretical” views, with potentially fatal consequences for refusing to do.
“Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it . . . Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scripture 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 I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. My God help me, amen,” Luther said.
For Luther, biblical truth was supreme. Consequently, Luther wanted to provide the Scripture in German to as many Germans as possible as quickly as possible. Historians have concluded that within a three-month period Luther had translated and published the New Testament in German and it became the 16th century’s “best-seller” in his native country.
And as we celebrate and commemorate the 500th anniversary of the spiritual shot around the world, faithful Protestant Christians have cause to be greatly concerned. For example, a recent Pew Research study found that a majority of self-identified American Protestants now reject the Reformation doctrines that are the bedrock foundation to the movement: sola scriptura and sola fide. Pew’s research revealed that only 46% of American Protestants believe that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, and only three in ten Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura.
Is it any wonder that another recent Pew research study found that the percentage of Americans who are either “atheists, apostles or don’t really care” has risen from 18% to 25% of the population in the last six years, and it skews higher among younger Americans? Could it be that as Protestant certainty has declined, relativism, agnosticism, and atheism have surged in our society. I doubt the trends are unrelated.
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, all who owe their spiritual heritage to Reformation traditions should thank God for Martin Luther and the other great reformers. We should rededicate ourselves, our families, and our churches to the bedrock planks upon which the Reformation revival was founded and which fueled the great worldwide missionary expansion of the Christian faith. Those are the firm Foundations upon which the great spiritual revival our nation so desperately needs will be launched.
On a more personal note, let us all express admiration and gratitude to that incomparable Christian, Martin Luther.
Several years ago my wife gave me a portrait of Martin Luther framed with an actual signature of the great reformer. My wife said, “I had a choice of Luther, Calvin or Spurgeon. Did I make the right choice?”
I replied, “Absolutely. Luther was the sine qua non of the Reformation, the indispensible man.”
Thank you brother Martin.