By all accounts, Martin Luther was an average man living an average life. Born in 1483, he was a monk who became a priest and theology professor at University of Wittenberg. But God would use him to seek reform in the Church, forever changing the Christian story.
Luther’s reforming story begins with Johann Tetzel’s journey through Germany selling indulgences. The sale of indulgences—a way of alleviating punishment in purgatory—grew in Germany at the beginning of the 16th century, primarily as a method of fundraising for the church. Luther disagreed with indulgences on principle, arguing that the Church should not charge for this gracious gift it could give followers for free.
On October 31, 1517, Luther posted a list of his grievances on the church door. This list contained 95 theses (or statements) against the practice of indulgences, as well as other perceived issues in the Church at that time. Luther made additional copies and sent them to church leaders. Luther’s followers translated the work from Latin into German and mass-producing copies via the printing press.
Luther’s actions would have a ripple effect not only in his life, but in the church as a whole. He continued publishing works challenging flawed practices of the Church, in hopes of seeing reform and change within the Church. But leaders sought to silence his dissent.
Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms in 1521, where he was given a chance to recant. At the end of his testimony, Luther showed he was standing his ground:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason—for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
Luther’s words—both at the Diet of Worms and his translation of the Bible into the common tongue—had a rippling effect throughout Germany. Princes and people alike, no longer seeing Rome as having the final answer to matters of faith, felt empowered to become independent. Revolutions, reformations, and various religious groups sprung up throughout Germany and Europe. While each of these had their own leaders and motivations, many of these movements could trace back to Luther.
And Luther’s actions still shape the Christian story today. Many Protestant denominations, emphasizing justification by faith and priesthood of all believers, reflect Luther’s original challenges against the Church. In turn, the Catholic Church would undergo its own reformation, in part a response to the Reformation started by Luther.
When Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the church door in Wittenberg, he could have never known how his actions would affect the church’s story some 500 years later. But God used his actions to reform the church, and in turn shape the Christian story.
[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]Tweet