Today I will walk where Luther walked. I will roam the streets of Wittenberg. I will walk to Castle Church. I will stand where Luther stood. I will ponder things he pondered. I am praying that what grips me is not religious nostalgia, historical wonder, or architectural awe. I am praying that my heart is stirred by the same theme that stirred Luther so many years ago, specifically #62 of his famed 95 Thesis:
For this to happen, I suspect I will need to wipe away some of the varnish that is obscuring this event. Earlier this week, our group from Lancaster Bible College was in the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden, Germany. There hung works of art from the likes of Raphael, Giorgione, Rembrandt, and Vermeer.
Many of these splendid pieces have been restored. With varnished removed, the colors from the Old Masters take on their original vibrancy. In the same way, I will try to remove some of the varnish the years have added to events of October 31, 1517. Thanks to scholars who have guided me I see more clearly that when it came to posting the 95 Thesis:
1. It was a quiet act.
Luther was not "posting truth onto the front-page of history." He was simply (or not so simply as it turned out) requesting an academic debate on issues that mattered to him.
2. It was a humble act.
If we are not careful our minds will conjure a defiant Luther boldly taking hammer in hand and BANG, BANG, BANG, announcing a defiant protest. Actually, Luther was quite humble. In a letter addressed to Archbishop Albert he writes:
Most Reverend Father in Christ, Most Illustrious Sovereign: Forgive me that I, the least of all men, have the temerity to consider writing to Your Highness. The Lord Jesus is my witness that I have long hesitated doing this on account of my insignificance and unworthiness, of which I am well aware . . .
Luther was becoming increasingly convinced that things in Saxony -- things in the church in Germany -- were not right. John Tetzel, the pudgy Dominican friar was selling indulgences on behalf of Archbishop Albert and under the authority of the pope.
Luther was incredulous. How could someone offer a pardon for sins that could only be pardoned by the blood of Christ? How could true repentance be so flippantly reduced to "Come right up and buy your forgiveness"?
3. It was not about a date and a door.
There is much made of October 31, 1517 and the door of All Saint's Church (Castle Church). Luther did post a letter to Archbishop Albert on that date and included a copy of the 95 Thesis. But whether he (or someone else) posted to the door at Castle Church and whether it was October 31 or some other date is suspect. Philip Melanchthon, Luther's collaborator, recalled that as the date, though he himself was not there. Additionally posting on the church door was akin to posting an announcement on a bulletin board. Castle Church was the center of the community and the door was the center of attention; of course he would post his notice there.
Silent No More
What makes more noise than any hammer and nail and is more significant than any supposed act of defiance was the determination of Luther to speak up. In the same letter to Albert he writes,
Under your most distinguished name, papal indulgences are offered all across the land for the construction of St. Peter. Now, I do not so much complain about the quacking of the preachers, which I haven't heard; but I bewail the gross misunderstanding among the people which comes from these preachers and when they spread everywhere among common men. Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are then assured of their salvation. . . . Therefore I can no longer be silent on this subject.
As I examine Luther's articles for debate, these three themes stand out:
- God has done something for us we cannot do for ourselves, we must treasure that.
In thesis #62, Luther writes, "The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God." The salvation of people gripped Luther's heart, mind, and life.
- Indulgences make a mockery of true repentance, we must reject that.
Thesis #1 says, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent' (Mt 4: 17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." In other words, don't reduce a "life of repentance" to a game of indulgences. In thesis #75, Luther writes, "To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness" reveals the extent to which indulgences were being hocked.
- The souls of the church are more important than the building of a church, we must live like that.
In thesis #82, Luther (on behalf of the laity) asks: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial. Where the pope saw money, Luther saw people. This was about eternity, not a cathedral.
There is a reason the 95 Thesis stands out like a brilliant marquee against a coal-black night. Luther's thesis was the scalpel of God that lanced a boil of corruption within the church. But Luther's thesis did more than condemn; it celebrated. It celebrated the cross of Christ, the goodness of God, and the privilege we have to come before him apart from any priest or pope.
What is more, Luther's 95 Thesis highlighted the inestimable value of the human soul. This was what the debate was about. This was what Luther was working out in his own soul.
As he noted in his letter to Archbishop Albert, this entire debate was part of what it meant for him to fulfill the words of God, given by Paul in Philippians two:
Today I will walk where Luther walked. I will roam the streets of Wittenberg. I will walk to Castle Church. I will stand where Luther stood. I will ponder things he pondered. I am praying that my heart is stirred by the same themes that stirred Luther so many years ago.
- The Word of God.
- The treasure of the gospel.
- The infinite value of the human soul.
And as I go, I am praying this prayer, "Lord, help me to be silent no more."
About this post: October 5-15, Shannan and I are traveling on a 500th Anniversary Reformation Cruise with friends from Lancaster Bible College, our educational partners for their Master of Arts In Ministry in Church Planting, which we offer at Spanish River Church. As part of our daily activity, I deliver a brief historical devotional with a view to adding value to our minds, hearts, souls. You can click the links below to read previous posts:
- Luther was not "posting truth onto the front-page of history" from Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God And Changed The World, chapter six.
- Thanks to scholars who have guided me . . . I am indebted to Roland Bainton, Stephen Nichols, Eric Metaxas, Martin Brecht, and a host of others who directly and indirectly are shaping my thinking on this subject.