Many years ago, a young man in Germany named Martin Luther was very unhappy because he was worried about his sins. He had been taught by his church, the Catholic church, that Jesus, instead of being a loving Savior, was an angry judge who wanted to punish sinners. But the church said that a person could get help and protection from Jesus’ anger by praying to saints, Christians who had died and gone to heaven, and especially to Jesus’ mother, Mary. It also said that, in order to get to heaven, a person had to do good works, obey the church, and even pay money to earn God’s forgiveness. Because, just like us, Luther was a poor sinner, he was afraid of God and even punished himself, hoping that God would feel sorry for him, forgive him, and take him to heaven someday. But Luther knew that he could never be perfect, as God demands in His Law. And even though he had given his life to God and had become a pastor, he knew that he could never earn his way to heaven; and he was constantly afraid of going to hell.
Then one day, while reading in the Bible, Luther suddenly discovered the good news that Jesus had been perfect in his place, had paid for all his sins on the cross, and that God had forgiven all sinners in the whole world because of what Jesus did for them! Luther learned that heaven is God’s free gift to poor sinners! All they have to do is trust His merciful forgiveness, and they have peace with Him through their Lord Jesus Christ! The Catholic Church and its leader, the Pope, were wrong about the true way to heaven and were really leading poor souls to hell! And still today, the Catholic Church teaches the very same things.
On October 31, 1517 Luther made a list, in Latin (the official language of the church), of ninety-five statements about certain teachings of the church and nailed them to the front door of his church in Wittenberg for other pastors and professors to read and to study, so that together they could talk about them in a special meeting. But the meeting never took place. Instead Luther’s statements were copied down, printed in German (the language of the ordinary people), and spread all over Europe. The leaders of the church were very upset with Luther because he dared to question what was being done in the name of the Pope, and they thought that Luther was trying to cause trouble among the people so that they would no longer obey the Pope’s teachings. But Luther only wanted the pastors to teach the truth of God’s Word, especially the good news of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, without the deeds of the Law. But they told him to be quiet, burned many of his writings, threw him out of the church, and even threatened to kill him. But God protected Luther and helped him to bring back to the Christian Church the precious truth of God’s pure Word.
Even though Luther was at first only beginning to learn about the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus, and his Ninety-five Theses were only a start for him in his search for the truth in his study of the Bible, we count the posting of those statements as the beginning of the Reformation, which we celebrate each year on October 31st. This year we specially rejoice as Lutheran Christians that, as “children of the Reformation,” we can celebrate together five hundred years of God’s grace because of Luther’s work. With the Lord’s help and protection, and by His wondrous grace revealed in the Gospel, Luther, like Gideon in the Bible, was a real hero for Jesus’ sake! Let us thank God for this faithful pastor!
God’s Word they still shall let remain
and not a thank have for it!*
He’s by our side upon the plain
with His good gifts and Spirit!
And take they our life,
goods, fame, child and wife,
let these all be gone!
They yet have nothing won!
The kingdom ours remaineth!
*Original German words (TLH 262, 4)
— D. T. M.