When Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on October 31, 1517, it was just ten short days before his 34th birthday. He had been a priest for ten years who would soon find himself excommunicated by Pope Leo X for challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s authority, ideas, and practices.
His life was about to change, and with it, so would Christendom. This highly entertaining story is told in the award-winning documentary Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer, and it is available for free through 10/31/21.
Luther had dropped out of law school, joined an Augustine monastery, and over the years completed a theological doctorate as he searched and grew. Luther used his sharp mind and diligence combined with a fear of the Lord to study Scripture for years.
In 1516, Erasmus had completed a Greek New Testament that clarified and improved the Latin Vulgate version. According to the documentary, Luther received one of these copies, and then came the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517.
Sometimes our faithfulness and obedience yield results we don’t expect like God’s will being done even as our lives are turned into apparent turmoil.
In this case, obedience led to the Protestant Reformation. The heart of it was a crisis of authority where the Bible is given the authority to command and direct the church as opposed to various councils, edicts, and even the Pope dictating what the Bible says. Luther’s love of the Bible always came back to his love of God and his salvation from understanding the gospel.
“One of the things that Luther actually feared most was that the church would forget the gospel,” said Stephen Nichols, President of Reformation Bible College. “His fear was that the gospel would be distorted or that the gospel would be neglected.”
The salvation offered by the Word of God had been corrupted by the Roman Catholic Church, and Luther could not remain silent.
Luther didn’t seek to start a new church or divide it but to call the one to which he belonged to repentance especially regarding the use of indulgences or monetary payments as a means of salvation. He realized people were seeing this as a way for them to buy their way into heaven. He felt indulgences “…built up cathedrals and tore down souls.” (12:57 in Luther).
Luther’s first thesis or proposition needs as much discussion and obedience today as it did in 1517:
“1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent' (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (See 47:35 in Luther for a deeper explanation of this related to the difference between repentance and ‘due penance’ as the translation that led to indulgences.)
Some might think the original language was German, but it wasn’t. Some might think nailing it to the door was an act of civil disobedience to the church, but it wasn’t. The language was Latin, and the door during those times, according to the documentary, was the equivalent of a community board where announcements were made.
Luther chose Latin because he was looking for debate with his colleagues, and this was the written language they used. Students, however, translated the Ninety-Five Theses into German.
That translation sped off the printing presses so within just two weeks the spark had turned into a flame that spread across all of Germany. Every generation faces the challenge of letting the Bible reform and transform them through the gospel into a new creation or the evil task of reframing the Bible to suit their personal desires.
As Steven Lawson, President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, says in Luther, “Every great movement in church history has been based upon the sole authority of Scripture. [In reality,] the Reformation was a back to the Bible movement.”
Dr. R.C. Sproul shares about Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the documentary:
"With a holy boldness Martin Luther took his stand contra mundum, against the world. With hammer in hand he posted the Ninety-Five Theses. He withstood emperor, princes, and the papal legates as he declared his conscience to be captive to the Word of God alone. He blazed the rediscovery of justification by faith alone, and he restored the church's focus to Christ alone. This documentary takes us back to these definitive moments. We see Luther in full color and larger than life. This documentary also brings us right to the present day, challenging us to take our stand with the same boldness so that we might have a new Reformation and again see the light of the gospel dispel the darkness."
By God’s grace, through His Word, through faith in Jesus alone as the author and finisher of our faith, may we live and praise God alone.
Lord, let us hear and follow your Word regardless of the pressures of the world around us. Let us not worry about how we influence the world but instead let us be influenced by your Word and the Holy Spirit to obey you. Let us see how you work through your sovereignty to create the change you desire so more may be saved. Let us give you glory always with a thankful heart, even if our lives seem turbulent. Let us seek refuge in you knowing that Jesus is the Rock of our salvation. Amen.