As I sit down to read Martin Luther’s book, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, I am reminded how much I enjoy Luther. He is a man liberated from sin, from the devil, from the tyranny of the papacy and from political correctness, and not always in that order. He was a man of his times as well as a man for his times. This can be seen in Luther’s great strengths as well as in his great weaknesses.
Nevertheless, reading Luther always encourages me toward a more whole-hearted devotion to follow Christ. One thing that I appreciate about reading Luther is that while the words may be black and white, the message is clearly in living color. He was a man possessed by God and passionate for the gospel. It would rightly be said of Luther, “zeal for Thy house has consumed me.”
And this zeal was not without personal cost. Luther suffered much in his proclamation and defense of the true gospel. He sought to reform the church and was rejected by the ecclesiastical leaders who were more interested in preserving their traditions than preaching the truth.
Luther’s break with Rome did not come all at once, however. The writing of the 95 Theses, which he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, was certainly a decisive event but his theological convictions were still forming at this point. Luther had begun a journey. His conscience would hold him to his course in the days that would follow, though all the forces of hell would try to divert him. His written works trace the transition and development of his thinking. An example of the development in his thinking can be seen in his relation to the Pope. At the outset he still regarded himself as a loyal servant of the Catholic church and of the Pope, even writing in defense of the Pope against what he assumed was a misrepresentation of him. Included in the 95 Theses were statements like the following:
“50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”
“81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it difficult, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questions of the laity.”
“91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.”
Even as late as 1528, Luther could still say:
“We do not reject everything that is under the dominion of the Pope. For in that event we should also reject the Christian church. Much Christian good is to be found in the papacy and from there it descended to us.” Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, p. 81.
Yet as time went on, Luther came to hold a more severe opinion of the Pope. In response to the question, “Are the Pope and his associates truly members of the Church?”, Luther sharply responded:
“Yes, as much as spit, snot, pus, feces, urine, stench, scab, smallpox, ulcers, and syphilis are members of the body.” Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, p. 88.
Ultimately, Luther came to regard the Pope as the Antichrist because in usurping the authority of the Scripture, he took authority away from Christ himself. Luther was convinced that God would grow and purify the church through his Word. In this sense, the essence of Luther’s mission could be captured in a well-known phrase that would emerge later: “the church reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God.”
Someone has well said that the statement, “But we’ve always done it that way,” contains the last seven words of the church. This is true in every age. The church will not and cannot survive where traditions (or anything else) trump the truth of Scripture. The Roman Catholic church had positioned itself in authority over the Scripture in Luther’s day. Luther was a voice calling them back to their proper place of submission. The need to call the church back to faithfulness to Scripture is a mandate for every generation of Christians. Today also we must have a church that is “always being reformed according to the Word of God.”
October 31 is the day that Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. If you would like to familiarize yourself with the content of this historic document, there is a helpful booklet, Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses, that was published in 2002 by Stephen Nichols with some historical background, the actual text of the 95 Theses, and also a brief running commentary on many of the individual theses.
May God bring gospel zeal and biblical reformation in our day as well!