Fresh from his studies in Scripture, Luther composed a series of statements for public debate. He wrote ninety-seven “theses” where he “attacked several of the main tenets of scholastic theology. “As was custom, he nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther expected a great response but found his theses made very little splash beyond the academic community of the university. Luther then wrote another set of statements, what is called the ninety-five theses. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This action would be what many consider to be the very beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Why were Luther’s ninety- five theses so explosive? Because in them Luther denounced key practices of the Catholic Church including the selling of indulgences. Indulgences were sold to finance various enterprises of the Catholic Church. People were told that in buying the indulgences they received a measure of grace, or “merit,” that sufficed for their act of penance (penance is a sacrament of the Catholic Church whereby a person confesses their sin and is given some task to absolve their sin). In Germany, a monk named John Tetzel had been preaching on behalf of Rome to raise money for the building of Saint Peter’s basilica. His preaching included the idea that you could buy or earn your way (or someone else’s way) out of purgatory. (In the Catholic view, purgatory is an intermediate state after death where the redeemed soul is “purged” of sin). He told people, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” In Luther’s ninety- five theses, he sharply rebuked and debunked such an idea. As scholar Mark Noll writes, “It was only when Luther began to protest current church practices, which he thought obscured the free gift of grace to be found through faith in Christ, that his private discoveries led to public antagonism.”
The church in Rome called Luther to recant his allegedly heretical teachings or face excommunication. Refusing to do so, Luther burned several documents of the Catholic Church. The pope declared him a heretic. Then Luther was called to appear at the Diet of Worms. The Diet (an assembly of the empire) of Worms was held in the city of Worms in Germany. There Luther was to go before Charles V, the king of Spain who was also the newly crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and “was under oath to defend the church and remove heresy from the empire.” Before the assembly, Luther was told he needed to turn from his teachings and recant. After asking for a delay to consider how he might respond, Luther appeared the next day before the assembly, where he was asked again to renounce his teachings. Luther replied: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
From there a series of events unfolded that combined political and religious factors and motivations. Following the Diet of Worms, Luther bene ted from the protection of Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony and was taken safely to Wartburg Castle. There Luther remained in hiding for the time being. Meanwhile, Charles V was ready to wipe out Luther and his movement, but found himself unable to do so because of his ongoing distractions with rival powers including the pope and the king of France, Francis I. Because of this, Luther was able to avoid death and his teaching spread. With Charles V distracted and unable to enforce his earlier decree, a later assembly, the Diet of Spire, actually negated the verdict reached at the Diet of Worms. It was decided that each region in Germany, could determine whether they would follow Catholicism or Lutheranism. This opened up new possibilities for the reform movement in Germany. But then the Second Diet of Spire reversed this decision and affirmed what had been decided at Worms. Lutheran princes protested this decision.
This is, in fact, where the name “Protestant” comes from. Ongoing conflict remained in the ensuing decades. Eventually, war broke out between the Lutherans and Catholics in Germany. This was only resolved through the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which said that each prince could determine the religion of the area of Germany they ruled.
This is simply a snapshot of the events unfolding in Germany because of the work of Luther and his followers. In this we see the influence of Martin Luther and the unleashing of a movement whose impact was felt well beyond the Holy Roman Empire. Consider the lasting legacy of Luther and his teaching. In 2017, we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther was a man who had studied the Scriptures, was convinced of the doctrine of grace by faith alone, and did something about it knowing the cost might be great. Why? Because Luther valued the words of God more than the words of men, and because it was God’s words that had set his soul free from anxiety.