On October 31, 1517 an obscure monk named Martin Luther, desiring to spark theological discussion over the medieval practice of selling indulgences, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That happened 494 years ago today. The spark he set off ignited a flame that spread across Europe and became known as the Protestant Reformation. By challenging the church's authority and its doctrine, Luther reclaimed for Christianity the central doctrine of salvation-justification by faith alone. Here is his own testimony:
"I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,' [Rom. 1:17] because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.
"Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith' [Rom. 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas the ‘justice of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressively sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven…."(see Of First Importance)
Later he wrote the hymn that came to be the "battle-cry of the Reformation," A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. In his book on the history of gospel hymns, Ira Sankey (co-worker with D. L. Moody) tells the following story:
"In 1720 a remarkable revival began in a town in Moravia. Jesuits opposed it, and the meetings were prohibited. Those who still assembled were seized and imprisoned in stables and cellars. At David Nitschmann's house, where a hundred and fifty persons gathered, the police broke in and seized the books. Not dismayed, the congregation struck up the stanzas of Luther's hymn,
"And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us."
Twenty heads of families were for this sent to jail, including Nitschmann, who was treated with special severity. He finally escaped, fled to the Moravians at Herrnhut, became a bishop, and afterwards joined the Wesleys in 1735 in their expedition to Savannah, Georgia." (see Cyberhymnal.)
If Martin Luther had done nothing else but give us this hymn, we would still sing it and be forever in his debt. Those stirring final words put steel into the soul of every Christian because they remind us of what matters most:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
And on the Reformation Day, we pause to give thanks to God for Martin Luther and for the recovery of the gospel truth that we are declared righteous in the eyes of God solely on the basis of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us in his bloody death and victorious resurrection. We are saved
By grace alone,
Through faith alone,
In Christ alone.
To God alone be the glory.
Original publication date: October 31, 2007