Most people dislike any kind of fighting or controversy in the church—including me. But in his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul says some things are worth fighting for because they are the difference between life and death. He uses the strongest language imaginable to say that preachers and teachers (and even angels!) who distort the gospel should be cursed.
Martin Luther understood this. In fact, he was willing to risk the split of the church over it.
In 1501, Luther was a German law student. One day as he was walking home, he got caught in a terrible lightning storm, and he thought he was going to die. So, he cried out in terror to St. Anne, his family’s patron saint (like most Germans at the time, Luther’s family was Catholic), and told her that if she would spare his life, he would become a monk.
Luther did survive, and, to stay true to his word, he left law school to enroll in a monastery. There he began to obsess about what was going to happen to him when he died. This obsession grew so intense that he experienced something he later called Anfechtung, which best translates as extreme anxiety—maybe even depression. His Anfechtung came from thinking he was rejected by God.
He desperately wanted to know he was right with God and wouldn’t go to hell, so he began to do everything he could to try to gain an assurance of salvation. He would fast for days on end, sleep on the floor, spend hours in confession trying to remember all his sins, and even beat himself with a whip as a way of trying to show God that he was sorry.
The church taught that all of these things were helpful to help make you right with God—but Luther wondered how he could know that he had done enough. Trying to remember every sin in confession, Luther said, was like trying to mop up the floor with the faucet running.
Luther’s mentor at the monastery had a novel idea. He suggested that Luther start teaching the Bible. Luther, not thrilled at the suggestion, obeyed anyway, taking up a volunteer Bible teaching post at the local university. It was then, in his study of Scripture, that he started to see things that at first confused but then delighted him.
When he started teaching Romans, he couldn’t get out of chapter 1 and past the phrase “the righteousness of God.” I love his account of studying this book:
I hated that phrase “righteousness of God,” which I had been taught to understand is the righteousness with which God punishes the unrighteous sinner. Thus, I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat relentlessly upon Paul at that verse, most earnestly desiring to know what St. Paul wanted from me.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith.
In other words, the righteousness of God that Paul speaks of is not a standard we have to live up to; the righteousness that God gives us is a free gift in Christ when we receive him as Savior. Therefore, it wasn’t about Luther confessing enough or feeling sorry enough or beating himself enough—Jesus had done enough! This is where Luther developed the phrase sola fide, or “faith alone.” Christ did everything necessary for salvation; simply putting faith in him is what saves us.
“Here,” Luther said, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
“I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
But Luther’s paradise was about to become a lot more tumultuous. Because at the same time, over in Rome, Pope Leo was eager to finish a construction project he had begun on St. Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, he was out of money, so to raise a little more capital, he started selling something called “indulgences.”
Indulgences were basically merit tokens you could buy from the church that would earn you extra credit for heaven. The idea was that the path to heaven was contingent on good works. If you accrued enough of them, you were let right in. If you fell short, you essentially had to earn the rest for a couple centuries in purgatory. But the extra good Christians—the saints, like the Virgin Mary—had lived such extraordinary lives that they had merit to spare. So if you wanted to cut your time in purgatory short, you could buy some of their leftovers (the indulgences) and have them applied to your account.
So, the Pope sent preachers throughout the Holy Roman Empire to preach fiery sermons about hell and get everyone scared so they would buy indulgences to shore up their chances of getting into heaven. The Pope even taught that you could buy indulgences for the dead to help them get released from purgatory early. (And you thought scam preachers were a new thing!)
All of this angered Luther. He wondered, “If the Pope has this credit to give out and he really loves us, why not just give it to us?” Secondly, and more importantly, he asked, “Isn’t the righteousness of Jesus Christ complete? Do we really need to add the Virgin Mary’s obedience to it?”
Luther listed out these and many other grievances in a document we now refer to as the “95 Theses” and nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg, where he lived. He wrote them in Latin because he intended for them to begin an academic conversation among the elite of the city, but they struck a chord with the German people. Apparently resentment had been growing toward the Pope for putting all this tax and obligation on them. Luther had lit a match, and Germany was the powder keg.
When the Catholic Emperor King Charles V learned about the fuss Luther was causing, he wanted to put Luther to death as a heretic. The problem was that Luther had grown so popular among the Germans that Charles couldn’t do that without provoking a riot—at least without a trial first.
So Charles V invited Luther to come recant his beliefs at the Diet of Worms. (Now that would be a pretty effective diet, right? “Diet” just means an assembly.) Luther got the summons and publicly burned it saying, “Why would I need to go all the way to Worms to recant what I can recant here in Wittenberg? If you really want me to recant, then here you go: Previously, I said that the pope was a representative of Jesus. Now I say he’s an apostle of the devil. There’s my recantation.” I’m not exaggerating. No one ever used the word “subtle” to describe Luther.
Luther was brought to Worms, where the officials had spread out the 95 Theses and all his other books in front of him. They repeated their order: Recant or perish. Luther asked for a day to think about it—not because he was unsure but because he was scared! He knew if he refused he’d be put to death.
The next day, Luther walked into the courtroom again. It was even more packed than the day before. When the bishop pressed Luther to confirm that he was holding onto the “ridiculous idea” that we are saved by faith alone and that the church had been wrong for hundreds of years, witnesses said that Luther got really quiet.
Then Luther looked the bishops in the eye and said,
Since you want a simple reply, I’ll give you one without “horns or teeth.” Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—for I do not accept the conclusions of councils of popes because they contradict each other—my conscience is held captive by the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
The courtroom descended into chaos, and Luther slipped out.
As part of the deal to get Luther to agree to come, Charles V had promised Luther safe conduct to Worms and back. So he had to let Luther walk out free. But as soon as Luther left, Charles V immediately published the Edict of Worms, in which he declared that once Luther got home, anyone could kill him without punishment.
So, on the way home, some of Luther’s friends abducted him along the way. They took him to a castle at Wartburg, where he changed his name to Sir George, grew a beard, and lived in secret for several years.
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is held captive by the Word of God.”
Today you can visit the room where Luther stayed. A few weeks ago, during a trip to visit our church planters in Germany, I got to see it. A famous story says that, while writing in this room, Luther threw an ink well at Satan, and savvy tour guides will smudge some soot on the wall and say, “This is the stain left by the ink well.”
But what Luther literally said was, “In this cell I fought the devil with ink”—meaning he fought Satan by writing out the first translation of the New Testament into common German so the people could read it. (I didn’t argue with the tour guide on the spot, but I later wished I had.)
The Reformation—built on the idea that salvation came through faith alone in Christ—began to spread like wildfire all throughout Europe, as more and more preachers translated the Bible into their common language. Not even Luther expected the impact his simple discovery would make. He described it like falling down the shaft of a tower and reaching out to grab hold of a rope to break his fall. That rope for him was the book of Romans, and it rung a gospel bell that woke up all of Germany.
What followed were some of the bloodiest years in history. Scholars say more Protestants died for their faith in the years following the Reformation than all the early Christians in Rome.
But they did it gladly! One historian of the time described it this way: “No human being was able to take out of their hearts what they experienced. The fire of God burned within them. They would rather die 10 deaths than forsake the divine truth. They knew this was about eternity.”
Some things are worth fighting for. Paul knew it. Luther knew it. Do we?
The gospel that they championed in their day is still worth fighting for today, because without it, we cut ourselves off from the presence of Jesus Christ and obscure God’s saving power.
I am grateful for Erwin Lutzer and his sermon preached at Shadow Mountain Community Church in July, “Martin Luther and the Reformation,” from which this post heavily borrows.