The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther: A Reformation Day Reflection

The Reformation was an accident.  A happy accident, to be sure. The Church in the late middle ages had lost its way, and every so often throughout the course of the Church’s history God raises up prophets and rebel rousers to call her back to vocation and center. But on October 31, 1517 when Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castel Church at Wittenberg, it was not intended as the kind of revolutionary act portrayed in the movies. The Castel Church at Wittenberg was home also to the University of Wittenberg, and the door on which Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses was something like the university bulletin board. It was common practice in the medieval academy for University professors—of which Luther was one—to publish series of controversial theses that they were willing to defend in a public debate with another member of the academic community. Luther wrote the theses in Latin, so that only a handful of people could read them–academics and a few priests–and nailed them to the University bulletin board.  Luther wasn’t trying to start the Reformation, he was trying to start an academic debate.  In fact, The Ninety-Five Theses were really not even theological in nature.  They say nothing about justification by faith alone. Nothing about the sole authority of the Scriptures in matters of dogma. Nothing about the nature of the sacraments. Luther hadn’t even begun, in 1517 to develop those doctrines yet. The ax Luther wanted to grind with the Ninety-Five Theses was with the implementation of a particular Medieval Catholic social practice–the sale of indulgences. 

Medieval Catholic spirituality owed much to what we could call “the Augustinian paradigm.” St. Augustine taught that life was a journey toward God. What moves you along in this journey is love.  Augustine says “my love is my weight.”  In ancient physics weight could pull you up as well as down. Things that are made of earth are pulled down by their weight to where they belong, on the earth. But fire’s weight pulls it up toward the heavenly bodies where it belongs. So, “my love is my weight” means that we are naturally drawn to God by our love, because it is in him that our true happiness is found. But there are lots of other things that seem to make us happy, at least temporarily: money, sex, food, alcohol, friends, all the pleasures of this life. It’s easy for our loves to get skewed so that we being to desire these pleasures more than God. So what we need is for grace to come along side us and straighten out our loves so that above all other things we can love God.  And God is happy to offer us this grace. This is what Augustine calls being in “a state of grace.” Of course, if you really perverse, you can choose to get off the path for which you were created, decide that what you truly want is money or sex or alcohol, even more than God. And God will let us have what we truly want. This is called being in a state of “mortal sin.”   

Well, by the time you get to the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries there was a trend toward a kind of “hell-fire and damnation” preaching. There was lots of anxiety about whether you were living in a state of mortal sin, and there was really no way to tell. But if you die in a state of mortal sin you would go directly to hell to be tormented for all eternity. And people are terrified. In the modern world when we talk about sin, we usually associate it with feelings of guilt.  But in the middle ages when people talked about the consciousness of sin, the world they most commonly used was terror. Purportedly, doing good works–works of love, as they’re called–were supposed to help straighten out your loves and keep you from mortal sin. And there are all these spiritual practices–pilgrimages to holy sites, fasts, vigils–all of which were supposed to help, but no one knows if they really even work.  

As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, medieval preaching focused on not only the fear of hell but also of purgatory. Purgatory, in Roman Catholic theology, is part of heaven, not hell. It’s a place of purgation, cleansing.  The idea is: if you receive an invitation from a Prince or King to a banquet he is throwing, you don’t want to show up right after work in your sweaty old clothes and with dirt under your finger nails, right? No, you want to go home first and get cleaned up. How much more, then, if you are invited by The King to the heavenly banquet? So purgatory is a place to get cleaned up. The technical language is that in purgatory one earns merit, so that when you get to the heavenly kingdom, you fit in, you deserve to be there. So in the early centuries of the Church purgatory is seen as a good place. Dante’s purgatory is joyful, there’s music, everybody helps each other. But by the time you get to the centuries before Luther, purgatory has become in popular opinion a place of punishment and torment–it’s like a temporary hell to be suffered before you make it to heaven. So one of the purposes for these spiritual practices I mentioned was to get indulgences.  It was believe that the pope possessed a “treasury” from which he could dispense merit for doing good works. The more merit one had, the less she had to earn in purgatory, the shorter her time there would be. Well, by 1517,  Pope Leo X had gotten in over his head on a building project–the basilica of St. Peter, in Rome, which was supposed to be one of the largest and most beautiful churches the world had ever seen. So Leo had the idea that he could offer a service by selling indulgences–selling merit–to the faithful who desired to shorten their stays in purgatory–or even to shorten they stay of their loved ones who had already passed–and he could raise money for money for his building project at the same time. So the pope commissioned an army of preachers to go around Europe selling indulgences on his behalf. One in particular, John Tetzel, whom Luther had interactions with in Germany, came up with a cute little slogan: “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the souls from purgatory flings.”  As you can imagine, many fearful people were taken by this opportunity, especially widows and mothers of deceased children. How could they not do anything in their power to keep their lost loved ones from suffering torment any longer than they had to? The modern parallel would be the kind of televangelist who promise healing or financial blessing, all you have to do is make your check out this address. Well this all mortified Martin Luther, who was himself terrified of both hell and purgatory and wanted no part of anything that would offer a false sense of security. So with his Ninety Five Theses, Luther was attempting, not to start a new Church–in 1517 Luther would have been appalled at the thought of that.  But he did want to argue against the sale of indulgences. 

The Ninety-Five Theses 

Now, if you know anything about Martin Luther you know that he was a blusterous and strong-headed personality. He pulled no punches with his theses. It wouldn’t have been in his nature to do so. 

  • He argues in thesis #5 that the pope cannot remit any penalties for sin, except those that he himself has imposed by canon law. 
  • And then goes on to say in thesis #13 that the jurisdiction of Church over an individual ends at death, so even the pope’s limited power to remit penalties for sin does not apply to people in purgatory. 
  • Further, in thesis #6 he argues that the pope can’t remit any guilt of sin at all. All he can do is declare and confirm that one’s guilt has already been remitted by God. 
  • In thesis #56 he argues that there’s really not sufficient evidence that the pope even has a treasury of merit from which to grant indulgences. 
  • And if the pope does have such a treasury of merit, he asks in Thesis #88, then why is he selling it? Wouldn’t it be a greater good if the pope would give remissions away, a hundred times a day, to any believer whatsoever? 
  • I think he gets to the real heart of the issue in thesis #67: These indulgences which the pope and his salesmen tout as such great favors to frightened believers, are really just a favorite way of making money. 
  • So, if indulgences are going to be sold, he argues in thesis #46, at the very least Christians should be taught that, unless they have more than they need, it is their Christian duty to secure enough money to care for their homes and families before they squander one penny on indulgences. 
  • Thesis #43: What’s more, Christians should be taught that the one who gives to the poor, does a better action than the one who purchases indulgences. 
  • Come to think of it, he says in thesis #86, since the pope’s income is so much more than the wealthiest men in Germany, why doesn’t he build the church of St. Peter with his own money, instead on with the money of penitent believers? 
  • I have no doubt, Luther says in thesis #51 with more than a hint of sarcasm, that the pope himself would be willing, if the necessity should arise, to sell the church of St. Peter, and give, too, of his own fortune to many of those from whom the pardon-sellers conjure money. 

As you can imagine, the pope wasn’t too thrilled about these claims. And his ire was fueled by the fact that this event coincided with the invention on the printing press about 70 years earlier, and so controversial theses were quickly translated into German and disseminated to the common people. They became an instant best seller.   But how did what Luther intended as a mere academic debate, turn into what we now call the Great Reformation?  To understand that, we’ll have to ask how Luther found himself here at the University of Wittenberg in the first place. 

Luther’s Early Life and Theology 

Martin Luther wasn’t supposed to be a Bible professor, he wasn’t even supposed to be a monk. Luther was born in 1483 to Hans and Margaretha Luther in Eisleben, Germany.  Hans was the owner of a copper mine, who has worked his way out of peasantry.  Determined that his son would have a better life than he, Hans sent Martin to university and then to law school. But that all ended in the Summer of 1505, when Martin was caught in a thunder storm on his way back to school after Summer vacation.  A bolt of lightning struck a tree right next to him.  This is a terrifying experience for a medieval person: not knowing if in the next minute you are going to die, possible in a state of mortal sin, and spend the rest of eternity in hellish torment.  So what does a medieval person do in this circumstance?  Well, he prays to the saints.  Luther cries out “Help me, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk!”  And get this: when his life is spared from the storm, Luther does it! We’ve all made bargains with God in desperate situations, but Luther actually followed through. 

So Luther drops out of law school and joins an Augustinian monetary. And Luther is a very devoted monk, he dives right in to the religious life. Most of all, he spends his days praying for grace to straighten out his loves so that he will desire God above all else. Because that’s what your suppose to do, right, to love God more than anything else? But Luther can’t seem to shake the sneaking suspicion that he really only loves God for the sake of being saved, not God’s own sake. And think kind of intense introspection launches Luther into an awful downward spiral. Because if he love’s God, not for his own sake, but for the sake of being saved, then what he really desires most is not God himself, but salvation. But that would mean that he has an anterior motive for his love for God, a hidden agenda of the worst kind, a love turned in on itself. It would mean that he loved himself more than God. But that’s mortal sin. And now God hates me and is going to damn me to hell for being in a state of mortal sin. And the only way not to be damned to hell for all eternity is to love God truly. So now I have to try to love a God who hates me and wants to damn me. But Luther doesn’t love God, he secretly hates God for hating him and wanting to damn him. So now God’s really going to get him for hating him. 

Luther really did think this way as a monk in the early 1500s.  He would have awful bouts of fear and depression—anfectung, he called it—because he really believed that God hated him wanted to damn him because he was living in a state of mortal sin. Luther describes these periods of anfectung being 

so great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them, no pen could describe them, and one who had not himself experienced them could not believe them. And so great were they that, if they had been sustained or had lasted for half an hour, even for one tenth of an hour, I would have perished completely and all of my bones would have been reduced to ashes. At such a time, God seems so terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time, there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse . . . In this moment, it is strange to say, the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed. 

It got so bad that Luther came to believe that if he sincerely desired to be damned to hell, maybe then God would justify him. Luther actually makes this argument in his 1515 Commentary on The Letter to the Romans, he says, if you sincerely desire to be damned, then you are agreeing with God’s judgment, and then God has to justify you. Just image the perverse psychological torment this must be, trying to make yourself sincerely desire to be damned to hell so that God will justify you. 

So Luther countless hours every day in the confessional rehearsing  and analyzing all the inner thoughts of his heart trying to identify and route out any anterior motives or hidden agendas in his love for God, and trying to sincerely desire his own damnation. It went on like this until Luther’s confessor–the priest who listened to his confessions–Johann von Staupitz, got so fed up that he said, “Martin, you’ve got to get a job!”  And that’s how Luther found himself a Bible professor at the University of Wittenberg, nailing theses for academic debate to the church door. And the debate he tried to start on indulgences became so sensationalized that Luther found himself, in the months and years following October 31, 1517, having to dive into the Bible like he never had before in order to make a solid public defense of his position.  And this turn to the Bible was the best thing that ever happened to Luther, because it saved him from his wearisome cycle of fear and depression. 

The Turn to Protestantism 

Think of young Luther. He’s terrified of hell and purgatory, and so he wants more than anything to be saved…but that means that he desires salvation more than he desires God…but that’s mortal sin…because he’s in a state of moral sin God must hate him and want to damn him….so now he has to try to love a God who hates him, but he secretly hates God for hating him…so now God really going to get him…which makes him even more terrified…and down and down he goes. So how do you get out of this cycle? 

Well you get out of it by meditating on Scripture, like Luther had to do to defend his Ninety-Five Theses. Famously, one day in 1519 Luther was meditating on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He said “I had a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in that letter, but what stood in my way was that one phrase in chapter one: ‘the righteousness of God.'”  Luther said “I hated that phrase: ‘the righteousness of God,’ which I had been taught to understand as that righteousness by which God is righteous and by which he punishes sinner and the unjust.”  He said, “I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners…Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments?  Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel by threatening us with his righteousness and wrath?”  He said “I constantly badgered St. Paul about this spot in Romans 1.” Isn’t that a great line? He says “I meditated night and day on those words until at lat, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” “Then I began to understand,” he said, that St. Paul was talking about “a passive righteousness…by which the merciful God makes us righteous by faith.”  Luther says, “that phrase of Paul became for me the very gate of Paradise.” But how is it that God gives us his own righteousness in faith?

Luther learned this by turning to the sacraments. Interestingly, after he had relearned to read the Bible, Luther discovered that he could receive God’s righteousness right there in the confessional booth with Johann von Staupitz, because he finally allowed himself to hear the words of absolution at the end of the sacrament. When von Staupitz said “I absolve you of your sin, in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” he spoke on behalf of Christ himself. (This is Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: that any Christian, when he administers the sacraments, speaks on Christ’s behalf). So what right do Luther have to disagree? If Luther wanted to believe that his sins weren’t forgiven and that he was damned, he would be calling God a liar. As a young monk, Luther thought that he had no right to believe he was in the state of grace. Now he understood that he had no right not to believe that he was in the state of grace. If God promises to absolve your sins, or promises you no less than himself—“this is my body given for you”—who are you to disagree? Luther realized that all you have to do is believe God’s promise, and you receive it. That’s Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone: believe Christ’s word when he says he is giving you God’s righteousness, and you have it. You have to believe the gospel—you have no right not to. Luther’s favorite pastoral aphorism, when his congregants suffered the kind of fear and guilt that he once had, became: “stop calling God a liar! Believe the gospel!” 

Luther’s Legacy

Of course, by the time Luther had figured all this out, he had been deposed as a heretic and the Reformation had broke out almost right under his nose. Luther has this great quote in Some Book, he says, “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip…the Word [did all the work of the Reformation]…I did nothing, the Word did everything.”

And this Reformation, to which Luther says he contributed so little, changed not only the Church, but the entire course of Western history. For instance, since all medieval schools were housed in monasteries, the Lutheran Reformation bankrupt the school system in Germany, and Luther had to deal with it. He wrote an open letter to noblemen asking them to find schools in their regions. So without Luther there would be no public school system. Luther was also a great lover of music and he encouraged congregations to sing together rather only listening to choirs. The Reformation revolutionized the music is the West—it got simpler, more catchy. Had there been no Martin Luther, there would have been no Beatles. Luther taught us to subject everything to the Word of God, and to question every other claim to authority. Had there been no Martin Luther, there would have been no European Enlightenment. But in order to do this people had to know the Word, so Luther recovered the practice of preaching and teaching in the Church. He also set about the major task of translating the Bible into common German. With Luther’s translation, for the first time in centuries, common people could read and hear the Bible in their own language. Luther brought Pentecost to Germany. That was the Pentecostal experience in Acts chapter 2, right? Not speaking in other tongues, but hearing the Word of God in their own language. Luther also wanted people to hear the gospel in the sacraments, so we revived the practice of receiving communion. In the middle ages, Holy Communion was a sacrifice that the priest made on behalf of the congregation, standing in front of the alter with the congregation watching. The average person in the pew would probably receive the elements only once or twice a year, on Easter and possible Christmas. In the Reformation, the priest came around to the other side of the table and offered the body and blood to the people.

Our calling as Lutherans

This is the story that we live into as Lutherans. And it is our unique vocation to preach the good news to all who are plagued by fear and guilt. To tell the world that they have no right to believe that they are unworthy of God’s love and grace, for Christ makes them righteous. And to invite them to the table where Christ offers himself to us.

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One response to “The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther: A Reformation Day Reflection

  1. Pingback: Getting Started with Luther | Theologoholic

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