In 1521, four years after nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle, the monk Martin Luther met King Charles V, the princes of Germany, and ecclesiastic authorities at the Diet of Worms, an assembly that Charles V organized to address the matter of Luther’s martyrdom. On January 3, 1521, Pope Leo had excommunicated Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic Church for his accusations against it. At this diet, if Luther did not recant, then he would surely be executed.

The clip from above comes from the 2003 film Luther. It depicts Luther’s hearing at the diet and his famous statement, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

Luther, in writing and displaying the 95 Theses, aimed his attacks on the Catholic Church especially at the sale of indulgences, which had peaked in his time. In the words of the catchy jingle that accompanied the sale, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther 95 Theses
Painting by Ferdinand Pauwels (1872)

Luther knew just as much if not more than anyone how weighty was the matter of salvation. In his youth, having before him the prospect of a successful law career, he abruptly entered a monastery (after being caught in a storm, so the legend goes). He desired to obtain righteousness before God, but all abstinence and self-denial did not satisfy his thirst. In the account of his conversion, Luther confesses,

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction…I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.”

Revelation struck him when he meditated on Paul’s letter to the Romans; namely, chapter 1, verse 17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” Thus he realized that man had justification by faith alone, without need for such practices as indulgences!

Luther, in trying to redeem the medieval Catholic Church, inadvertently ignited a movement that would recreate Christendom. Church organization that through the centuries more closely united temporal and spiritual powers had opened the Church to many abuses, including nepotism and simony in addition to the sale of indulgences.

priest indulgences
A priest granting indulgences (Fresco by Lorenzo Lotto, 1524)

In his writings, Luther opposed the authority that the Church had claimed for itself. Close behind the convictions of sola fide and sola gratia– salvation through “faith alone” and “grace alone” – was the cry for sola Scriptura, a reliance on Scripture alone for Christian instruction. Until then, the Roman Catholic Church decided the interpretation and application of the Bible. The Gutenberg printing press, invented in the late 15th century, and the dedication of Christians like John Wycliffe in translation, gave laymen direct access to God’s Word.

The Reformation influenced not only Europe’s spiritual life, but also, given the tight hold the Church had on politics in that age, the political and social. In leadership, it broke the ties between church and state. It emphasized the value of individual salvation, which bled into value of the individual in society.

Luther’s contemporaries included Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin in France, and John Knox in England. The sudden denominational plurality that resulted from these reformation movements stirred an unfortunate amount of conflict, including the German Wars of Religion from 1546 to 1555, the French Wars of Religion from 1562 to 1598, and the 30 Years’ War from 1618 to 1648. (In the last, which started as a conflict between Catholic and Protestant states and devolved into a political war, almost eight million people died, soldiers and civilians.)

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre
St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (Painting by Francois Dubois, c. 1572-84)

Beyond wars between Catholics and Protestants, the Reformers quarreled among themselves. Luther even rejected association with Zwingli because of differences in their views on the Lord’s Supper. Still, they did hold to important and common doctrines, summarized in the 20th century as the five solas: sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Scriptura, mentioned before; then sola Christo (salvation in “Christ alone”) and soli deo gloria (life lived “for the glory of God alone”).

Luther didn’t intend to break from the Catholic Church, but excommunication compelled him to leave. Christians today, Catholic and Protestant alike, live in the legacy of the daring ground-breakers who Luther’s 95 Theses had inspired and emboldened.