Five Hundred years ago an Augustinian monk turned professor named Martin Luther nailed a document to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Nailing documents to the church door was not an uncommon practice in Wittenberg at that time, it would have been akin to posting something to a blog or public forum today, or perhaps writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper. But this document was different, it included 95 statements or theses against the corruption in the church. This was a time when the church had both religious and political authority. Jesus warns in Matthew 10:28, “do not fear those who can destroy the body but not the soul, rather fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Well the church at that time claimed to have the authority to do both. In 1415, an English reformer of the 14th century, John Wycliffe, was declared both a heretic and anathema having his body exhumed and his bones burned. That same year a reformer in Prague, Jon Hus, was burned at the stake for saying that scripture had more authority than the pope. All this to say, that Luther knew what he was up against, but boldly and willingly posted his 95 Theses anyway. What ensued was a reformation of the church that has changed the church and the world forever.
There are many amazing details of Luther’s life and the Protestant Reformation that I urge you to study. It is good for Christians today to know something of the life of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, and so many others but what I want to think about with you in this post is the deep impact that Luther’s courage has had on all of our lives. All of our lives are different now because five-hundred years ago a monk was willing to speak up with conviction and courage.
Are you a member of a protestant church? Are you a Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.? You do realize that all of these traditions in some way stem from the Protestant Reformation that began in Wittenberg. These traditions of course all represent different branches on the Protestant tree but they are all rooted in the courage of Luther 500 years ago today.
Are you a Roman Catholic? Even Catholics should be grateful for Luther, and most Catholics that I speak to today are grateful. It was in a response to Luther’s Reformation that the Catholics called together the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) which really defined the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today. Before Luther of course the church recognized the papacy and his seat in Rome but the order, uniformity, and definition of Catholicism has its roots in the Council of Trent, a direct response to Luther’s courageous act.
Do you speak English? The reformation in Germany and continental Europe stirred a similar reformation in England which eventually led England away from the church at Rome (a tradition that had dated back to the 3rd century) to form its own church, the Church of England. So many of the wars that we saw in Europe in the 16th and 17th century were religious wars including, The 30 Years War, The Eighty Years War, and the Anglo-Spanish War. In the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) the Spanish Armada was defeated (1588) securing a Protestant England and turning the balance of power away from Spain to England. It was this power that led England toward colonialism, which of course eventually led to colonies such as Virginia, New York, and Georgia. Of course, these colonies today are our own English speaking home. This all would have been very different were it not for the winds of Reformation that started blowing 500 years ago today in Wittenberg.
Do you live in the United States? The Reformation didn’t stop with the Lutheran Church but the idea that the church must be semper reformanda, or “always reforming” carried on long after the life of Luther. One hundred years after Luther a group called the Puritans separated themselves from the Church of England, believing that the work of the Reformation was not yet complete. They desired for the church to continue pursuing a “pure” devotion to the scriptures and this desire eventually led them to boldly leave England and to colonize the “New World.” As previously mentioned, eventually the United States was born. In many ways the history of the United States as a land of liberty has its roots in Wittenberg and the desire of Luther to set the people free from the rule of the church.
Do you believe in the separation of church and state? Do you believe in individual liberty? Do you believe in the freedom of conscience? Do you believe in human rights and the value of every soul? In so many ways all of these ideas were developed through or at least rediscovered in The Reformation. From the church doors of the Castle Church in a town of about 2,000 residents in 1517 all of our lives were changed by the bold action of on man and a lot has happened in the last 500 years.
I am writing this post from Wittenberg, Germany humbled by the opportunity to be here on this historic day.
Dr. Jason Dees is the pastor of Christ Covenant Buckhead and guest instructor at the Kanakuk Institute.