Martin Luther – Celebrating 500 Years Since the Beginning of the Reformation Part 3

by | Oct 25, 2017 | Articles, Luther 500

In part 3 of his series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson describes the reaction to Luther’s 95 theses

Last month we looked at how 500 years ago Martin Luther rediscovered the central Bible truth of Justification by faith alone. The 95 theses posted onto the Wittenberg church door by Luther on 31 October 1517 helped catapult Luther’s theology across the whole of Europe.

Luther the heretic

Luther’s 95 theses were greeted with widespread acclaim by many German rulers tired of the Pope taking German money for the glory of Rome and interfering in their local politics. The Roman Catholic Church however was less than amused by Luther’s appeal for reform. In June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a Papal bull (a public decree) condemning Luther as a heretic. Luther took the document and burnt it publicly. This burning of the bull increased the reputation of Luther as a new found champion of the people against an oppressive and corrupt religious regime.

Luther’s reforming programme

Luther was determined to see reformation of the church in a number of key areas, but he didn’t want his ideas discussed in intellectual circles alone; he also desired to address the ordinary mass of people usually ignored by clerics. He took the revolutionary step of publishing his reforming ideas, not in the usual academic language of Latin, but in the vernacular of the German people!

Indeed in a pretend ‘kidnapping’ he would hide away in Wartburg castle in 1521 to translate the New Testament for the first time into the German language. The principle that all people should have direct access to the scriptures and Bible teaching in their own language became central to the whole Protestant Reformation. For Luther, the Bible was the foundation and rule of all Christian

belief and practice. Scripture was the judge of all things including the church. The Reformation was basically a ‘Back to the Bible!’ move of God.

Three powerful books in one year!

Luther published three well known works in 1520. The Freedom of the Christian taught about Justification by Faith alone. The Babylonian captivity of the Church attacked Priest craft and Sacramentalism which taught such things as each Mass sacrificing Jesus anew, and that the bread and wine miraculously became the genuine, actual body and blood of Christ during the Priests prayer (transubstantiation).

Finally, Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation proclaimed another fundamental truth at the heart the Reformation namely the ‘Priesthood of all believers’. This teaching proclaims that there is no special ordained Priesthood distinguished from the laity (congregation). The clergy (Pastors) are simply recognised officeholders who can be in, or out of, office as required. Luther recognised that the clergy being exactly the same as other members of the church could therefore marry just like everyone else.

In these early years Luther fully intended to reform the existing Roman Catholic Church from within, not replace it. However as we will see next month’s final part of this series, a breakaway from Roman Catholicism soon became inevitable. ❖

Acknowledgements: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath (SPCK)

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