For Luther, the storm began in his own troubled heart in the monastery at Erfurt. He learned quickly enough that his best efforts and sincerest attempts at devotion were not enough to erase the stain of sin from his heart. For that he needed Christ. And Christ is whom he found when Dr. Staupitz sent him to study the Bible, to teach theology at the new university in Wittenberg, and to serve as pastor and preacher at the Town Church there.
The young doctor of theology maintained that the forgiveness of sins was not something that could be earned by human effort or bought and sold like melons in a market. As pastor of the souls in his care, he was fed up with the rotund, Dominican monk, John Tetzel, who was luring Luther’s flock to the other side of the Elbe River to buy indulgences, papers promising pardon and a get-out-of-jail free card from purgatory. The money-grubbing fundraiser marched into town with his little dog and pony show to the banging of a drum, and announced to the peasant farmers and shopkeepers: “As soon as the coin in the coffer clinks, the soul from purgatory springs.” It was all for a good cause, they were told. Half of the money went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The other half went to pay off the bank loan which Albert of Mainz took out to buy his archbishop’s hat from Pope Leo.
Luther knew this was not how the forgiveness of sins and friendship with a holy God was attained. This is not what gives a man peace to lay his head on his pillow each night. Others sensed this too. But Luther did something.
He did something not uncommon in those days. He proposed a debate on the subject among the theologians. On the eve of All Saints Day, October 31, 1517, he made his way to the main door of the Castle Church. There, alongside a dozen or so other notices and bulletins, he nailed up his 95 theses or statements in Latin which he proposed for the sake of debate.
Who could have guessed that these would become the hammer blows heard round the world? Within months, the 95 theses were translated and circulating throughout Europe. Pope Leo X, who was building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome off the proceeds of the indulgences, noticed that sales were down and demanded to know: “What drunken German wrote these?”
It soon became clear that the tacky financial schemes of the church were only a symptom. The virus was something else. The infection went to the bone and the lifeblood. It had to do with the forgiveness of sins, people’s right standing with God, the righteousness of God – what it is and how to lay hold of it. Was forgiveness of sins something that could be bought and sold, something that could be earned by our own feeble attempts to keep the law of God or worse yet, the laws of men? Or was this forgiveness, as the Bible clearly says, a free gift of God’s undeserved love which becomes personally ours through a God-given faith in Jesus Christ who lived and died in our stead, and rose again from the grave to give us life unending?
It was for this issue that Dr. Martin Luther went on trial at Worms in 1521. It was on this Biblical truth – that “the righteous shall live by faith” – that Luther stood before the princes of Church and State with the defiant words: “My conscience is bound to the Word of God…Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me!” For this saving truth, restored to us in the Lutheran Reformation, we today give thanks. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God!