“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from the first to the last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”” Romans 1:17
How thankful are you for God’s Word? At anytime you can open your Bible and read words that comfort, encourage and convict you? What if you were born in the 16th Century instead of the 21st?
Welcome to my next installment of The ABC’s of Scripture and Christians Who Lived Them.
“Every time a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs!” It was Father Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, who was visiting a village near Wittenberg, Germany with his processional of monks. The year was 1517.
“Can you hear the cries of your loved ones?” He shouted. “Lessen their suffering in purgatory and hasten their journey to heaven!”
In the 16th Century people feared death.
Probably because it was a daily occurrence. One could die of the common cold, child birth, an infection or the mysterious Black Plague. To add to that, most people saw God as a strict judge demanding perfection while keeping a record of all wrongdoings.
People also feared the pope, for at that time there was only one church. The Holy Roman Catholic Church. According to the Church, the pope had been given the keys of the kingdom by the apostle Peter and he had authority to forgive sins or burn anyone alive as a heretic.
The Bible was a sacred and mysterious text that only priests could discern.
There were very few complete Bibles in print. In fact, Guttenberg had only recently invented the printing press so books were a rarity. Scripture was in Latin and so were church services. Very few knew what was even being said.
So, people did their best to be good.
Salvation was accomplished through the ministrations of the church and by receiving the sacraments (the actual blood and body of Christ). If you sinned you went to your priest to confess. The priest granted you God’s forgiveness, then determined what penance you would do to show how truly sorry you were. It could be a certain number of “Hail Mary’s!”, making restitution, giving an offering or purchasing an indulgence.
But had you done enough penance throughout your life? What if you missed confessing a sin? Then you would spend time in purgatory after you died, which was not to be confused with hell. According to the church, purgatory is a place where souls, who are destined for heaven, can be purged from their sins, through temporary suffering, and prepared for God’s presence.
“Save your loved ones!” Tetzel shouted to the crowd that was gathering. “Remember, every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs. Buy your indulgences today.”
So, the people came forward with what little money they had, crying out for the hand-written document signed by the church, which would release them from the punishment due their sins or the sins of a relative. To them the purchase was worth their peace of mind.
There was another monk who was outraged by the trafficking of indulgences.
Martin Luther, a priest and professor at the nearby University of Wittenberg, was determined to put a stop to it. People were placing their confidence in a piece of paper and the church was benefiting financially. Pope Leo X was building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which was proving to be a huge expense. Selling indulgences helped pay for it.
Luther had learned firsthand that there was no way to earn God’s forgiveness. When he was younger he studied to be a lawyer. He had an appreciation for laws and the consequences for breaking those laws. He also knew God’s laws and as much as he tried, he was painfully aware that he could not keep all of the commandments.
Walking home during a thunderstorm a bolt of lightening missed him by a hair. Luther was afraid to die. Afraid of God’s judgment. He cried out to Saint Anne and vowed he would become a monk; the only way he could think of to earn God’s approval.
“If anyone would make it to heaven by being a monk, it would be me,” Luther later wrote.
He was driven by a passion to experience God’s forgiveness, so he prayed, confessed, went without food, did without basic comforts and even flagellated himself. This merely made him more aware of his own sin and that one day he would have to give an account for every word said and every action done. What if he had missed confessing something?
It wasn’t until he was appointed as Professor of Bible at Wittenberg University that things began to change for Luther. He was lecturing on the Psalms and studying Romans when he had an epiphany. Romans 1:17 was the key that unlocked the true gospel of Jesus Christ for Luther; a gospel that had been hidden away for centuries.
“I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith…Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” No more striving to be righteous. Christ had done it for him. This truth unlocked the rest of Scripture for Luther.
Writing the 95 Theses that changed the Western world.
So, when Luther heard about Tetzel’s selling of indulgences he did what any professor would do. On October 31, 1517 he wrote down 95 reasons (his theses) on why indulgences were not Biblical and posted them publicly and called for a debate.
Church officials didn’t pay much attention to it but Luther’s students did, for it was time for a change. They took the Theses, written in Latin, and translated it into German. Guttenberg’s printing press could barely keep up to the demand for copies that were spreading throughout Germany.
And, so, the reformation of the church began.
Suddenly the church was paying all kinds of attention to Martin Luther and he was labeled a heretic. “I never thought such a storm would rise out of Rome over a simple scrap of paper,” he wrote.
One biographer called Luther “a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization.” A catastrophe that we, the church today, should be very thankful for. One of many of Luther’s accomplishments was to translate the Bible into German, so the common person could read it for them self, and the Gutenberg press made that possible! Others would follow in his footsteps throughout the centuries, translating the Word of God (from the original Hebrew and Greek) into many different languages and dialects.
I, for one, am thankful for all God did through Martin Luther. I am also thankful that, because of him, I can read my own Bible for myself and discover the treasures that are in God’s Word. How about you?