It seems like only yesterday that we marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and with it the dawning of the protestant reformation on October 31, 2017. But, we are now almost 4 years on and 2021 marks another 500th anniversary, one arguably more seismic and definitely more dramatic than the last.
An undramatic stand
In 1517, the reclusive yet soul-troubled monk, Luther, had taken his 95 Theses and posted them on the church door in Wittenberg. This was the 16th century equivalent of pinning it to a notice board or maybe writing a blog post. Far from being a rallying cry to reformation, the Theses contained little of the core truths of the reformation. They did not contain the doctrine of justification or the authority of the Bible. Rather, they were written in the academic language of Latin and were a call to debate the issue that was troubling Luther, that of indulgences.
At this time, indulgences functioned by giving individuals and their families reduced punishment in purgatory in return for money. Luther saw this as an insult to the ordinances of the Roman Catholic Church and no doubt saw himself as doing his catholic duty in seeking to clean up the church.
The pope or the Bible?
Although he couldn’t have known it at the time, Luther had started down a road from which there would be no return. Predictably, those pushing the indulgences weren’t pleased with the 95 Theses and wanted Luther declared a heretic and condemned to a fiery end. This didn’t happen. Instead, a more subtle opponent rose to meet Luther. This Machiavellian foe came in the form of Johann Eck and a debate in Leipzig in 1519. Eck’s goal was to see Luther finally condemned. To achieve his ends, he concocted a plan. He would pose a question. Which is the ultimate authority, the Bible or the pope? Eck hoped that Luther would tie a noose for his own neck and he was not disappointed. Luther argued in response that one could interpret Scripture without the pope, and more shockingly, against the pope! Eck immediately declared Luther a heretic and made for Rome and the pope to ensure he was dealt with appropriately.
Luther vehemently refuted the charge of heretic, but the seeds of reformation were continuing to be sown within him. As time passed, Luther realised that what he was finding in the Bible was at odds with what he found in the Catholic Church. But, if the pope trumped the Bible and was the only one allowed to interpret it, how could the church ever be reformed? Luther realised God’s Word must be supreme.
The main disagreement that Luther saw between the Catholic Church and the Bible had to do with salvation. The Catholic Church was trusting in a righteousness that was one’s own, achieved through good works and conferred through mass, penance, confession, indulgences and other ordinances. In this framework, even faith was something that you ‘did’.
Luther found Scripture to be vastly different. Righteousness could be found nowhere but in Christ. Salvation could only be found through simple faith in the life, death and resurrection of Christ for sinners. Furthermore, Luther recognised that faith is not ‘doing’ but ‘receiving’. As Michael Reeves says of Luther’s discovery of biblical faith, ‘Faith is a passive thing, simply accepting, receiving, believing Christ – taking God seriously in what he promises in the gospel.’
At this point, we must ask ourselves some questions. Is the faith of Luther and the faith of the Bible, our faith? Or are we trusting in what we do to save us? Is our security and comfort directly related to how strong we feel our faith to be on any given day? Luther found a better way, a way presented clearly for us in God’s Word.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
It is not the strength of our faith which saves us, but the object of our faith, that is Christ.
A dramatic stand
By this point, Luther’s theology is recognisably reformational and he’s firing out books from his pen quicker than the recently invented printing presses can print them. Now he wasn’t writing in Latin, but in German, the language of the people, and his books were causing a stir across the Holy Roman Empire. As far as the pope was concerned, something had to be done, and quickly!
A papal decree was issued, demanding that Luther take back everything he’d written within sixty days or be excommunicated. Luther responded by publicly burning the decree.
Next, Luther was summoned before an imperial council to be held in Worms, southwest Germany, the unfortunately named, ‘Diet of Worms’. Luther duly appeared before the Diet on the 17-18 of April, 1521. He went convinced that he would surely be walking to his death if he did not renounce everything. He stated:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
In early accounts this is followed with the famous words, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.’
Whether he uttered those famous words or not, one thing is clear: stand, he did. In the face of death, he stood firmly on his conviction that God and his words in the Bible are the ultimate source of truth and authority on all matters of salvation, faith and practice.
This surely sealed Luther’s fate and when he was kidnapped on his return to Wittenberg many thought that he had been executed. Instead, however, he had been taken to a place of safety at Wartburg castle.
An imperfect stand
It would be tempting to look at Luther and to think that he was an exceptional saint, a man so fearless that none of us could ever do what he did. However, remember how Luther had been a young man who, during a thunderstorm, had been so afraid of dying in his sins that he cried out in terror to a saint, swearing that he would become a monk. This terrified young man had developed into the man who stared death in the face at the Diet of Worms and did not renounce his faith.
What made the difference? A confidence in the Word of God, in the gospel it contains and in Christ himself, who takes away our sin and gives us certainty of an eternity with him. That’s the confidence we can all share as we mark the 500th anniversary of the Diet of Worms.