Part 1 of three columns
Tuesday, Oct. 31st is Reformation Day, the 500th anniversary of the official start of what became the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk who was the reader at the Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany, wanted a public debate on the Church's practice of selling indulgences, which the Church taught lessened punishment due for sins and thus time spent in purgatory.
Luther's list of Ninety-five Theses — consecutive statements that formed his argument — were nailed to the Church's door as was then customary. The document did not deal kindly with either the need for indulgences or what he considered the excesses of the Pope, who would later excommunicate him.
His rant on indulgences, however, was not the beginning of Luther's quest to reform the Church. He first came to understand that faith and practice are based solely on the written Scriptures. Luther struggled with his faith until Romans 1:17 — a passage he said he once hated — finally captured his heart.
Verse 16 is included for context: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'But the righteous man (the "just" man) shall live by faith.'" (NASB)
This quote from Habakkuk 2:4 is also found in Galatians 3:11 among other passages.
Of this quickening, Luther later wrote, "At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."
His teachings quickly went viral; the Church was not pleased. At a debate in Leipzig in 1519, Luther declared that "a simple layman armed with the Scriptures" was superior to Pope and councils who didn't accept the Scriptures alone. On trial during the 1521 Diet of Worms — standing before the Holy Roman Emperor — Luther was ordered to recant. Instead he said, "Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, distinct grounds of reasoning then I cannot and will not recant, because is it neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Martin Luther, by all accounts, was a difficult person — vain, combative, even insensitive. His interpretations of Scripture, like our own, sometimes were imperfectly applied. Nevertheless, he championed the foundational truth of Sola Scriptura— Scripture Alone. For this we should respect his steadfastness.
Thesis 62 of the 95 nailed to the Wittenberg door that October day 500 years ago reads, "The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God." That Gospel, Luther contended, is found only in the written Word of God.
Gordon G. Hall is a consultant for a human-services consulting firm and a retired religious broadcaster, communications instructor and fundraiser. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.