When you think of world history changers, who do you think of: Alexander the Great, Socrates, Ghandi, Mandela, Lenin, Jesus?
When Martin Luther was born in Eisleben in 1483 no one could foresee that he would throw the church and politics of his day into chaos.
During his life he was condemned by the church, in danger of being executed, kidnapped by knights, and hidden under a false name. He stood up to pope and emperor at the threat of death and refused to move away from his belief that we find salvation and a new relationship with God only through his love freely given and grasped by faith in Jesus.
His father wanted him to be a lawyer but Luther, with a strong desire to be right with God and a strong sense of his own sin, veered from that to become a monk. Later he said that one day when he was nearly hit by lightning he vowed to become a monk.
His study of theology and entering a monastery fit well with his quest to find peace with God. However, even at the monastery, following the rigorous schedule of worship and prayer, Martin continued to feel that he was not able to overcome his sin.
His superior directed him toward the Bible. Luther became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg as well as pastor to a local congregation. As he studied the scriptures for his teaching and his preaching, Luther sought how to make the word of God meaningful to his students and congregation.
Over time Luther began to see that one’s saving relationship with God happens through faith in Jesus. He used this gospel message to help his congregation find release from sin with the assurance that God’s love and sacrifice in Jesus is all they need to have a new life and relationship with God.
In 1516 Johann Tetzel came into the area to sell indulgences to raise money for the church. He sold them with the idea that they would free loved ones from purgatory and the punishment for their sins. This thought that money could free people from sin ran against Luther’s new understanding that we are forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. It also created uncertainty in his congregation.
On Oct. 31, 1517 Luther is said to have posted his 95 Theses as a response to the sale of indulgences. He thought this would create an opportunity for discussion and change in the church but it did not.
His 95 Theses went viral. It was translated into German and spread, by means of the printing press, throughout Germany and beyond. Even though he did not intend it, Luther and his thoughts were about to change the landscape of the church, politics and culture.
Luther’s actions and words brought to life the belief that scripture alone is the source of truth and life. The support of German princes for his movement led to changes in the political powers of his day. He removed the barriers between clergy and lay. He translated the Bible into German, wrote hymns, and pushed for education. Other movements followed, including the Reformed, Anabaptist and Anglican. Luther’s emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God was the first step in the movement toward personal freedom and choice.
Luther’s importance to the Reformation faded over time. Events moved beyond his control. Yet, without doubt, Luther, who was born and died in the same small town, changed the world by his unrelenting stand that salvation with God comes by grace and faith in Jesus.
Michael Colbeck is the minister at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Summerland.