Luther’s Protests Go Viral


The date was October 31, 1517. Reformation Day. Martin Luther chose that day to make public the disagreements he had with his church.

The major issue dealt with the practice the church had begun regarding indulgences–“a grant by the pope of remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory still due for sins after absolution” (Oxford English Dictionary). The latest iteration of the practice included selling them, something that contradicts what Scripture says about grace being “the gift of God” and salvation “not of works.”

Luther also protested against doctrinal policies regarding purgatory, particular judgment (judgment given by God that a departed person undergoes immediately after death), Catholic devotion to Mary, the intercession of and devotion to the saints, most of the sacraments, the mandatory clerical celibacy, and the authority of the Pope.

In all, his disputation contained ninety-five points and has become known as the Ninety-five Theses.

What’s particularly interesting is that this document, written in Latin, was translated into German by January 1518. Two weeks later, it was printed and passed around throughout Germany. Within two months, it had circulated throughout Europe.

I can only imagine the despair men like Luther and John Wycliffe and Jan Hus felt at the state of the church. Corruption abounded. For example, one Pope, Alexander VI, the head of the church and according to church doctrine, God’s representative on earth, fathered seven children by at least two mistresses. Beyond that one man’s immorality was the systemic corruption which allowed the church to get rich at the expense of the common man and the increasing departure from what Scripture said.

Yet God was at work. Who knew that a little thing called the printing press would be such a powerful tool in God’s hands to bring about sweeping change. People read Luther’s Ninety-five Theses pamphlet and flocked to hear him speak.

His study, lectures, and writing in the years leading up to and shortly after he made the document public, focused on the doctrine of justification.

From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, the books of Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to view the use of terms such as penance and righteousness by the Catholic Church in new ways. He became convinced that the church was corrupt in its ways and had lost sight of what he saw as several of the central truths of Christianity. The most important for Luther was the doctrine of justification – God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” he wrote, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” (Martin Luther)

Why did the Reformation take off? The time was ripe. People were ready for an end to the corrupt practices of the church, more so once the Bible was translated into vernacular languages. In addition, the means was available to disseminate information widely. This was something new. Because of the printing press, people in England or Italy could read Luther’s thoughts about salvation.

It was the Medieval equivalent of going viral.

I find the story of the Reformation encouraging on many levels. No, the men involved in initiating change were not perfect–not by a long shot. But God used them. That’s one of the encouraging things. He also brought change when it looked like the church couldn’t get much worse.

From time to time, I’ve decried the abundance of false teaching that seems to flood Christianity today. Sometimes it seems like revival is the only thing that could stop the tide, and yet revival seems remote and unlikely. As it undoubtedly seemed October 30, 1517. A day later, the tide turned.

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