Martin Luther’s influence continues to live today
Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther of Germany taught that church practices were not in line with biblical teachings, he wasn’t the first one to speak out on the matter.
Author Eric Metaxas, in his brand new book “Martin Luther, The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World,” explains this quite well.
“We must not tolerate a simplistic view of church history,” he wrote, “as though there had been no dissent until the Great Day of Martin Luther. Many others had done as much to bring the church back to its true and only roots and had failed.”
John Wycliffe of England had taught some of the same things 130 years before Luther. Wycliffe was a theologian and professor at Oxford who helped translate the Latin Bible into English. As a scholar, preacher and teacher, he emphasized the idea that the Bible was the authority in religious matters and that each person should read the Bible for himself.
This was a departure from church traditions at that time, and in the late 1300s Wycliffe was declared a heretic by the church and was to be executed. Wycliffe, however, died in 1384 before he could be executed. The Roman Church dug up his remains and burned them.
John Hus was a Bohemian minister in the early 1400s who opposed certain church traditions in much the same way as Wycliffe.
Inside Hus’ church in Prague, one wall had portraits of the disciples washing feet while the wall on the other side had pictures of men kissing the pope’s ring. Hus wanted the people to see the contrast, because he believed, according to the Bible, that the Christian church had strayed far from what it was intended to be.
Hus was charged with heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.
It is no wonder then, that Martin Luther expected repercussions.
History had made it clear that those who stood against the directives of the church would pay a great price.
Luther, however, never intended to place himself on a collision course with the church in Rome.
As a young man, he had simply sought peace with God and peace within his own soul.
Luther had prayed
continually, confessed sin and was careful to do all the good works prescribed by the church, but none of that made him feel he was in good standing with God.
He saw himself as undeserving of any of God’s goodness and even once asked, “Who am I that I should lift my eyes or raise my hands to the Divine Majesty?”
Luther was disheartened, but he didn’t give up on his spiritual quest. He continued to wrestle with his fears, seeking to know how a person could meet with God’s favor. He wrote, “…I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had not confidence that my merit would assuage Him.”
Luther had searched his Bible carefully as a young German monk, and when he became a teacher of the Bible at the university in Wittenberg, Germany, his scriptural studies became more and more intense.
One day a biblical passage from Romans 1:17 resonated within Luther like a light piercing into darkness. It simply said “… the just shall live by faith.” Luther wrote, “Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by faith … I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on new meaning.…”
With further study, he became convinced that a person’s pathway to God was by faith alone through Christ alone. There were many requirements in the church that weren’t a part of that simplistic way of salvation, and Luther came to believe that such practices were actually keeping people from genuinely coming to Christ.
This led him to post his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, challenging others to debate the issues he had called into question.
It was October 31, 1517, and what started out as a personal search for faith and meaning would soon put Luther at odds with the established church.
Much of northern Europe embraced his teachings, but those in power resented Luther’s influence and charged him with heresy.
At the Diet of Worms in Germany in 1521, he was asked to recant his beliefs and his writings but he would not.
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason,” Luther said, “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. Amen.”
The teachings of Wycliffe and Hus had, in a sense, lived on through Luther, and this time the message would not be silenced by an execution.
Because of various circumstances — or because of divine providence — Luther lived.
And his influence continues to live today. We will consider the implications next week.