Nearly five hundred years ago Pope Leo X issued a papal bull, calling for a single monk to recant of his writings or face excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, which was essentially a threat of eternal condemnation. The opening words of this bulla entitled Exsurge Domine read, “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause. A wild boar has invaded Your vineyard.” Upon its arrival in Wittenburg, Germany, this same monk announced that he would publicly burn the pope’s bull. Following through on December 10, 1520 before a crowd of his students and citizens of the city, he ignited a fire of reform that set the whole empire ablaze.
The monk was Martin Luther and this was not his first encounter with controversy nor would it be his last. With the nailing of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517, as was customary of those seeking debate, Luther sparked what is now called the Protestant Reformation. Initially desiring only to debate the validity of indulgences (a certificate of pardon issued by the papacy, transferring the merits of saints to sinners in Purgatory, releasing them from temporal penalties and hastening their souls to heaven), not to separate from the Roman Catholic Church, the German monk had no idea what he would soon be involved in or the lasting influence and effects that his actions would have on us today. Much could be and has been written concerning the historical events that surround this wild boar and the birth of the Reformation but our focus will be upon the fruit, which sprang up with Luther and came to maturity with the formation of Protestant theology. In other words, what did Luther, as well as others before and after him, recover that is the bedrock of our faith today?
The Primacy of Scripture
For over a thousand years before Luther, the Roman Catholic Church was considered the final authority on all things concerning life and godliness, including the interpretation of Scripture. Only the Catholic Church could say what the Word of God said and how it was to be understood and applied. Popes, councils, theological tradition, and the history of the Church as recorded by its officials were seen and upheld as infallible, authoritative, and untouchable. Further control by the Church was made possible as the only official copies of the Scriptures were in Latin, as well as in Greek and Hebrew, leaving the vast majority of people without the ability to even read the Word of God for themselves.
Martin Luther, following in the footsteps of others before him (John Wycliffe and John Hus), sought to recover the primacy of Scripture. This emphasis can be seen in several events of Luther’s life. Under God’s providential hand he became professor of Biblical Studies at Wittenburg (1512), which forced him into the Word, lecturing on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews for the next several years. Not only was he a professor but he became the pastor of the Castle Church (1514), preaching several times a week, furthering his exposure to the Scriptures. The more he studied and meditated upon the Word the more his soul was vexed. In 1517 he posted two sets of theses on the door of the Castle Church. The first, the 97 Theses against Scholastic Theology, received little attention. Then, in response to the selling and abuses of indulgences, Martin Luther posted the well-known 95 Theses on the church door on October 31, 1517. The basis of his theses was the Word of God. A few are as follows:
27. There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.
35. It is not in accordance with Christian doctrines to preach and teach that those who buy off souls, or purchase confessional licenses, have no need to repent of their own sins.
53. Those are enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid the word of God to be preached at all in some churches, in order that indulgences may be preached in others.
54. The word of God suffers injury if, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is devoted to indulgences than to that word.
Especially in the debates that followed, Luther stood firm, amazing his opponents with his knowledge of and use of the Word of God.
The next event that highlighted Luther’s recovery of the primacy of the Scriptures is his summons and hearing at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Standing before the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, several Catholic officials, princes, and fellow Germans, Martin Luther was asked to recant of his writings or face condemnation as a heretic, subsequently placing a bounty on his head. The next day, April 18, Luther gave his response founded upon the authority of the Scriptures. He said:
Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of Scripture or by clear reason – since I believe neither the popes nor the councils themselves, for it is clear that they have often erred and contradicted themselves – I am conquered by the holy Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not withdraw anything, since it is neither safe nor right to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.
Already excommunicated, Luther would now be condemned as a heretic before the diet and become and outlaw.
After leaving Worms, Fredrick the Wise, Luther’s prince, ushered him away to the Wartburg castle in Eisenbach for 11 months to protect him. There he completed his German translation of the New Testament (1522) and in 1534, he would go on to finish translating the whole Bible into the language of the people, furthering the emphasis of the primacy of Scripture. This principle of the ultimate authority of the Word alone, Sola Scriptura, became the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation and all their theological heirs. While not ignoring the importance of doctrinal writings and biblical commentaries, the Reformation solely elevated the Word of God to the highest position, judging all other sources. All who can open up a Bible and read the Word or hear a sermon in their language are indebted to this wild boar.
Justification by Faith Alone through Grace Alone in Christ Alone
Flowing out of Luther’s emphasis on the primacy of Scripture is the recovery of the gospel from the traditions and rites of the Catholic Church. From the beginning of his monkery, Martin Luther was haunted by the righteousness of God. He saw this righteousness as that active righteousness by which God brings justice and wrath upon sinners. But through his study of the Scripture and with the help of his friend, Philip Melanchthon, he began to understand how it was that a sinful man could be made right before a holy God. His focus was on Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” In 1519, Luther had his famous “tower experience” while studying this verse. This is what he wrote of that experience:
I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.
But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “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 and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.
I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
Luther rediscovered the Gospel that had been covered for so long by the commandments of men. He saw in the Scripture that sinful man is made right (just) before God not on the basis of man’s work but only on the basis of Christ’s work in the atonement. Our righteousness before God is an alien righteousness, being that is not our own but Christ’s, and we are partakers of His righteousness by faith alone, not by any work or merit. All this comes to us only by the grace of God. Hence, the other slogans of the Protestant Reformation became Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), and Sola Christus (Christ alone), summarizing the glorious gospel of God.
Theology of Vocation
In 1525 Luther abandoned his monastic life and married a former nun, Katherine Von Bora. No longer a monk, how could Luther serve God as well as he did before? This question arises from the common thought imbedded in the formation of the Catholic hierarchy in Rome. The thought was that you could become holier and serve God better as a monk or Church official than you could as a husband, a wife, a miner, or anything else common to man. The concept of vocatio (vocation), a calling from God to serve Him, was seen as exclusive to those dedicated to the work of the Church. Luther, with his emphasis on the primacy of the Scriptures and a renewed understanding of the Gospel declared that all saints (believers) of all professions and roles have a calling. This calling was to glorify God in all that you do (1 Corinthians 10:31). This last cry of the Protestant Reformation, seen here in Luther, is Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone).
We have much to thank Martin Luther for. To ignore his accomplishments and the accomplishments of other Reformers like him, for whatever the reason, is not merely to refuse to recognize the work of men, but it is a refusal to acknowledge the hand of God faithfully at work, keeping, building, and strengthening His people, the church. And while we rightly honor the men God used to recover the Scriptures and the Gospel itself, we must not neglect honoring God for his faithfulness. Luther sets for us an example as he seeks glory not for himself but for God and His Word, declaring, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept…the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such loses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
Soli Deo Gloria & Happy Reformation Day!