Luther, the 95 Theses, and the Birth of Protestants Part 2

About the history of the reformation of the Church and a biography of Martin Luther who posted 95 theses on the Church leading to the Protestant split with the Roman Catholics.


WHEN: October 31, 1517

"The just shall live by faith." These words from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans were quite literally the answer to Martin Luther's prayers. "All at once I began to understand the justice of God as that by which the just live by the gift of God, which is faith: that passive righteousness with which the merciful God endures us in the form of faith, thus justifying, rendering us just. . . . At this I experienced such relief and easement, as if I were reborn and had entered through open gates into paradise itself."

God saves not those who do good works but those who believe in Him and in His saving grace. That is all He expects from corrupt humanity. Therefore, the Roman Catholic Church's emphasis on holy relics, contributions, and all sorts of other vehicles to assure one's salvation was not only useless, but also deceitful in that it prevented people from recognizing what God truly required of them for salvation.

Thus, the stage was set for revolt when the Dominican friar Tetzel launched the great indulgence campaign throughout Germany to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter's basilica in Rome. Tetzel promised the indulgence purchaser just about anything and everything, but the main thrust of his pitch was that a contribution to this holy cause could free souls from purgatory and win forgiveness for transgressions committed by the indulgence buyer.

Luther's 95 theses were merely his reasons for opposing the overblown claims for indulgences, claims which could not be reconciled to his belief that man is saved by faith alone. Posting his theses on the castle church door, Luther never expected the explosion that soon followed. To his amazement, he was flooded with letters of praise from all over Europe where the theses had been printed and disseminated; in Germany, Luther became something of a folk hero. He had intended his theses only as a theological challenge, but they had become a revolutionary document. His call for a debate on a question of religious orthodoxy turned overnight into a movement destined to take the meaning of the word "catholic" out of the Roman Church.

Emboldened by his support from the German people and nobility, Luther refused to recant. Three years after posting his theses, he burned--in public--the codex of the canon law, thereby excommunicating the Church before he himself was excommunicated. Pope Leo, no longer willing to consider this contrary monk as merely a nuisance, directed the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to execute the heretic. The Emperor ordered Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms in 1521, thereby creating one of the truly dramatic moments in the history of Western civilization.

"I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. Here I take my stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me God." With that, Martin Luther left the assembly hall to face arrest and probable execution. Instead, however, he was captured by knights sympathetic to the new theology and anxious to diminish both the power of the Emperor and the taxes of the Church. During his year in hiding at a castle in Wartburg, Luther began his translation of the Bible into German and the codification of his beliefs into what would become the Lutheran religion.

When he emerged from his protective custody, Luther was the acknowledged leader of the Reformation. The protester was no longer an insider, but rather the spiritual head of a new Church that recognized only 2 sacraments: baptism and communion. He married, raised 6 children, and tried to direct the struggling Protestant movement. At Luther's death in 1546, however, the outcome of what had started with his 95 theses was still very much in doubt.

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