Luther: Monk, Excommunicant, Revolutionary
As a miner and ore smelter, Martin Luther’s father knew what it meant to forge a livelihood out of backbreaking labor. Like most parents, he wanted better for his son. He dreamed of a future for young Martin in which he would he would provide bread for his family’s table with his mind instead of his hands. Martin, his father decided, would be a lawyer.
But deep within Martin Luther lay slumbering the heart of a revolutionary. At the age of 21, he left his studies to choose the very hard labor and abject poverty from which his father had longed to spare him.
Martin Luther abandoned everything to become an Augustinian monk.
Preparing to Change the World
In entering monastic life, Martin Luther was following an inner call that rang purer and louder than simply the call of revolution. Luther longed to know that God was pleased with his life. It was with the bitterest of disappointment that he realized that the leadership of Catholic Church did not share his passion for purity, personal responsibility of faith, and Biblical truth. The church had fallen into corruption, and even to the low of buying and selling of the priesthood. In 1451 Duke Amadeus VIII orchestrated the appointment of his son to the position of bishop of Geneva. He was a boy of only eight years old. (Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought, pg.2, Blackwell Publishers, 2012)
Most disturbing to Martin Luther was the practice of the buying and selling of indulgences. Priests were teaching that they had access to a “treasure trove” of good works, previously performed by the saints, which they could make available to their parishioners for the cancellation of sins…for a price. Martin Luther was incensed. Jesus had already paid for the sins of the whole world! Man was saved through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice, not by works.
Martin Luther set out to reform the church from within. He composed his 95 Thesis, detailing what he believed to be the major points in need of change. Then, he did the equivalent of posting it online and seeing it skyrocket to the top of Reddit. He nailed it to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany.
Martin Luther was excommunicated for his beliefs. He spent ten months sequestered in Wartburg castle. It was during this time that he turned his attention to another point of reform. Martin Luther believed that each man held both the right and the responsibility for his own faith. For this to be a reality, he knew had to get the Bible into the hands of the common man. So, he undertook the task of translating the Bible into German. This advancement, along with the printing press, fanned the embers of the Reformation into flame. The Catholic Church, and the world, would never be the same.
Why Remember the Reformation?
Each year, at the end of October, we pause to remember the Reformation because it formed the foundation for Christianity as we know it. Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation brought new life to a dying church crippled by corruption, and infected by faulty theology. They reaffirmed justification through faith instead of works, empowered individuals to take responsibility for their own faith instead of depending on an intermediary, and placed God’s word into the hands of ordinary men and women.
But the Reformation also had devastating consequences as well.
“The Reformation was a time when Christians in Europe returned to the basic teachings of the Bible, and began to place an emphasis on the importance of personal faith and salvation through faith,” Bishop Scott Jones said. “But there was also a dark side to the Reformation. It split the church into many different denominations.”
This tragic division of the Body of Christ, is why the UMC stresses unity each year on Reformation Day. We, along with the Catholic and Lutheran churches, are intentionally working to forge a new unity of Believers.
In 2001, the Lutheran and Catholic churches approved a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Martin Luther, they agreed, was correct. Man is saved by faith alone. With the signing of the declaration, one of the main divisions of the Reformation officially became a point of unification. When Bishop Jones heard about the declaration, he reached out to be sure the Methodists had the chance to approve the declaration as well.
This Reformation Day, the congregations of the Texas Conference will remember the importance of Bible study and personal faith. We will give thanks for Martin Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation.
And we will reach out to our fellow believers to celebrate our unity in Christ. There will be a special worship service in Houston hosted by the Lutheran and Catholic churches to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. If you are in the Houston area, please join us this October 25th, Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, 11111 St. Joseph Pkwy, Houston, at 7:30pm.