The Historical Setting of the Lutheran Church

The Historical Setting of the Lutheran Church

By Rev. Matthew W. Crick

On November 10, 1483, nine years before Columbus landed in America, Hans and Margaret Luther had a baby. They baptized him and named him Martin. Hans Luther was a miner who supported his family well. He planned to put Martin all the way through the university. He wanted his son to become a lawyer. In January 1505 Martin Luther entered law school. But one night, as he was traveling to the university from his parent’s home, Luther was caught in a severe storm. Lightning nearly struck him. Luther was certain that he about to die. In fear he cried out: “Help St. Anne! Save me! I will become a monk!” He survived the storm. He sold all his books. He entered the monastery.

By entering a monastery Luther angered his father and also lost out on a lucrative law career. What inner fear led him to make and follow through on the decision he made that stormy night? Luther was afraid of God’s judgment. His church primarily pictured God as a judge who forgave sins only after good works of penance were accomplished. This was a false teaching , but Luther didn’t know that. Luther was certain that he could never complete enough penance to appease God. In Luther’s day, the monastic life was seen as the best way to appease God. This was the path Luther chose. He hoped that his life as a monk would cause God’s judgment to subside against him.

In 1506 Luther entered the monastery. His cell was cramped and unheated. It overlooked the monastery cemetery where he knew one day he would be buried. To assure himself of his salvation, he outworked all the other monks. He out-fasted them. He out-prayed them. He slept in his cold cell without blankets. Luther was determined to escape purgatory and hell!

But his life as a monk gave Luther no peace or confidence. He remained certain that God’s anger still burned against him. His church had taught him that “God would never withhold his love from anyone who did the BEST that was in him,” But Luther kept returning to the same issue: “I have not done my best. I am a miserable sinner. What hope do I have? When I die, God will not be merciful to me!”

But God had mercy on Luther! He caused the light of the Gospel to shine in his dark, fear-filled heart. God used Dr. Johann von Staupitz, the head of Luther’s monastery, to bring him his first glimpse of Gospel light. “Read the Bible and trust in Jesus,” Staupitz said.

A few years later, Luther had become a doctor of biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg, in Germany. As Luther prepared his lectures on various books of the Bible, God brought Luther to faith by the Gospel he was studying. The word Gospel means “good news.” The good news was this: Penance and holy living could never remove sin, but they didn’t have to. The blood of Jesus Christ, shed on the cross, had already done it, once for all. Through repentance and by faith in Christ there was full, free salvation!

Once God brought Luther to trust in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of sins apart, and that he could leave behind the works of penance and monastic life, Luther exclaimed: “Immediately I felt that I had been reborn and that I had passed through the wide-open gates of paradise.” This was no longer the Luther who, ten years earlier, had been driven into the monastery by his fear of God’s judgment. In the classroom he began to teach the Bible in this new light. He correctly taught that the central message of the Bible is the Gospel, which is the message of free and full forgiveness received through faith alone in Jesus Christ, who is God’s eternal Son, born in sinless human form. Jesus lived an innocent life, died a sacrificial death at the cross for all sins, and then rose again from death to permanently establish this good news promise for all people to receive through faith for forgiveness and salvation. His students were relieved to hear this!

Sadly Luther’s church, the Roman Catholic Church, had not been teaching the Gospel for many centuries now. Over the years, many false teachings had crept into the church. Some of these teachings predated the Roman Catholic Church itself. The false teachings added conditions to the Gospel: God will forgive and save you IF….” People lost their confidence in Jesus. A storm began to build on the horizon as Luther taught about the full and free forgiveness of God which is received through faith alone in Jesus.

The storm broke in 1517. It broke over the church’s sale of indulgences. At Luther’s time, indulgences had become a great money-maker for the church. In 1507, Pope Julius II commissioned indulgences to be sold to generate funds to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The super salesman of indulgences was the monk John Tetzel. “Indulgences,” he would say, “are God’s precious gifts. When your money rattles in the chest, your sins are forgiven. Pay for the sins of loved ones who are dead, and they will escape from purgatory to heaven.”

Whenever Tetzel would enter a city to sell indulgences, he would be dressed in gorgeous robes. The drums would beat. The torches would blaze. The bells would ring. A long procession would follow him. He set up a great red cross and put down beside it a huge money box. Tetzel would preach on the fires of purgatory and hell. He would teach that indulgences were God’s sure way to avoid these terrible places of judgment. Tetzel’s money box quickly filled. When the people purchased these special indulgences, Tetzel had secretaries in purple robes make out receipts that were printed in red and gold. Each one was tied with a ribbon and had the big seal of the pope attached.

Luther knew that God’s forgiveness could not be purchased with money. He preached against indulgences. On October 31, 1517, as Tetzel drew near to Wittenberg, where Luther was teaching at the University, Luther acted. He nailed 95 “theses” or statements to the church door in Wittenberg. Many of these spoke out against indulgences. Some spoke against other false teachings promoted by the church. One of these theses read: “Pardon for sin is from Christ, full and free!” Reformation had officially begun.

For Luther, reformation was never about revolution. He never wanted to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He never set out to overthrow the church. But he knew the church was teaching many things not found in God’s Word, such as penance, veneration of the saints, purgatory, and the supremacy of the pope. These false teachings were not leading people toward Jesus, but away from him! The “95 Theses” were hugely popular among the German people because they were leading them led back to Jesus Christ again.

But Tetzel, the indulgence salesman, raged against Luther. For a while, the pope paid no attention. He thought it was just another quarrel between monks. In fact, he said early on: “To tell the truth, a pretty good head rests on Brother Martin’s shoulders.” The small blaze started by the Theses spread throughout Germany and enflamed all of Christendom. The pope finally came down hard on Luther and sent out a decree that Luther’s writings should be burned. He declared Luther an outlaw unless he took back what he said.

Soon afterwards, Emperor Charles V—a secular ruler over much of Europe who strongly supported the pope—called a Diet (meeting) to solve this growing tension between Luther and the pope. The Diet was held in Worms, Germany, in 1521. A representative of the pope first spoke to the Diet for three hours demanding that Luther be burned without a hearing. Despite the calls for his burning, the Emperor promised Luther protection to and from the Diet. But this promise of safety worried Luther’s friends. A hundred years before a man named John Hus criticized the church’s teaching on various matters, like Luther was now doing. Hus was promised protection to and from a council to hear his views. But when he arrived, he was taken by the emperor and burned at the stake without due process. But Luther said, “Though there should be as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I will go.”

After 14 days of travel, Luther reached Worms. Once there, Luther was asked to retract his teaching. He asked for time to prepare his answer. After a night of prayer, he appeared before the Diet again, and gave his courageous answer concluding with these words: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and reason—for I neither trust in popes nor in councils since they have often erred and contradicted themselves—unless I am thus convinced, I am bound by the texts of the Bible. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”

God did not allow Luther to be burned. He had further use for Luther as a faithful spokesman of the Gospel. Although Luther remained a church outlaw for the rest of his life he never stopped preaching the Gospel. How could he? It had given him peace in his heart and confidence of salvation. The preaching of Luther and other Lutheran pastors was so centered on the Gospel of free forgiveness that reformers of other persuasions nicknamed them “evangelicals,” which means “carriers of good news”! Martin Luther and his fellow believers risked their lives. Some shed their blood. God’s Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ was worth the sacrifice to them!

In 1580, 34 years after Luther’s death, the evangelical Lutheran church published The Book of Concord containing the church’s official confessions. When you read it you find that Martin Luther did not invent a new religion. He simply began to teach the what the Bible has always taught. Salvation is by God’s grace alone in Jesus, through faith alone in Jesus, by the power of God’s Word alone.