Martin Luther: the first modern man

Originally published in The Spectator

Dominic Steele (right) with Jared Marshall in front of Martin Luther's statue in the main town square of Wittenburg.

Dominic Steele (right) with Jared Marshall in front of Martin Luther's statue in the main town square of Wittenburg.

Democracy, civil and religious liberties, in fact, much of Western Civilisation as we know it today, can trace its roots back to Martin Luther, ‘the last medieval man and the first modern one,’ and his nailing of a thesis to a church door in central Germany 500 years ago this week.

Yesterday marked exactly 500 years since Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther, walked through Germany’s Wittenberg town square and nailed his 95 point thesis to the door of the Castle Church, marking the start of a theological earthquake that changed the way humans relate to God, and impacted almost every aspect of today’s society.

Martin Luther was protesting against the Roman Church’s corrupt practice of selling salvation. In the lead-up, Luther had been tremendously conflicted.  He was a dedicated friar, who fasted, confessed his sins and went on many pilgrimages.  But despite that felt a deep hatred of God.  He wrote about it later, ‘Though I lived as a friar without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience.  I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.’

Indulgences were essentially ‘get out of jail cards’ for purgatory. The Roman Catholic Church taught that when you died, instead of going to heaven, you would be sent to purgatory to spend time purging your sins.  This time could accrue to thousands of years. In the fifteenth century, there were visions of how horrible purgatory was.  Dr Ashley Null, from the Humboldt University of Berlin, says ‘for improper thoughts the punishment was to have a band tied around your head, and squeezed to the point where your brains came out your ears and your nostrils, and your eyes popped out.  And it goes down the entire body in that fashion.’

The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was that you had to do things now to work off those punishments.  And indulgences were paid for certificates for ‘time off purgatory.’ People paid a donation and then received — for example — ten years off purgatory.  The Pope used the profits from these indulgences to pay for the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So the Pope sent them to archbishops, who sold them to preachers, who sold them to lay people, and everyone took their cut. It was a such a big business there was even a jingle, ‘As the coin in the coffer clings, so a soul from purgatory springs.’ Luther was desperately distressed to see members of his own congregation spending their hard earned money buying these worthless pieces of paper.

As Luther wrestled with the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, he came to see that God didn’t expect us to try to work upwards towards him to make ourselves acceptable by making payments, paying for indulgences or doing penance. Rather, in his spectacular generosity, God reached down and freely offers salvation through Jesus Christ. It was standard academic practice to nail your arguments to the door of the church for all to read. But Luther hadn’t written some polite dissertation about an obscure saint. He had written arguments that struck at the heart of the Roman Church’s teaching. Luther had started a revolution.

Theologically, Luther’s breakthrough was that in the death of Jesus Christ, God’s salvation and forgiveness is given as a free and gracious gift.   Luther wrote that ‘we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience or works, but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God.’

It was like a key had suddenly unlocked a door that had been ignored for centuries. Luther’s bombshell showed that God’s righteousness wasn’t a judgment hanging over our heads, reminding us of how we can never measure up based on our own performance. God graciously gives his righteousness to us as a gift through Jesus Christ,  requiring only that we receive that gift by putting all our trust in Christ. For Luther, there were floods of overwhelming joy.  He called this re-discovery Sola Fide. Salvation “by faith alone.”

With the recent invention of the printing press, Luther became the century’s best selling author.  And almost immediately, on top of the theological changes, there were massive social and cultural implications as well.  Suddenly everything was up for grabs. Christians across Europe were relieved of the burden of trying to do the impossible to achieve salvation. As a result, a thousand years of intellectual, political, economic and religious stagnation ended.

Luther’s translation of the bible into German gave that nation both a Bible and a unified language.  Luther’s disciple William Tyndale did the same for England. Europe set out on an unprecedented drive for literacy. Tyndale said famously to a learned opponent, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the scriptures than you do.’

Luther’s work translating the Bible and his championing of Scripture, alone as an authority, unravelled the authority system of the church, and by extension, of the state. The individual’s thoughts and actions were no longer controlled by an ecclesiastical hierarchy; rather each person was seen as responsible to Jesus Christ and their own conscience. As Luther wrote:

It is with the Word that we must fight, by the Word we must overthrow and destroy that which has been set up by violence. I will not make use of force against the superstitious and unbelieving… liberty is the very essence of Faith… I will preach, discuss and enlighten; but I will constrain none, for Faith is a voluntary act… I have stood up against the pope, indulgences and papists, but without violence or tumult. I put forward God’s Word; I preached and I wrote – this was I all I did, the Word did all… God’s Word should be allowed to work alone.

Luther’s teaching against popes and bishops and his affirmation of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ that the Apostle Peter writes about became foundational for modern elected governments.

Further, as sociologist Max Weber argues in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the conditions for the greatest innovations and successes in economics were produced by the Protestant principles of honesty, frugality, thrift, punctuality and a ‘hard work’ ethic.

And the new understanding from the Scriptures even revolutionised relationships.  Luther taught of the ‘hell of celibacy’ that ruined Christians.  Consequently, the new pastors of Luther’s Protestant churches had lots of printed books, but also lots of children.

Dominic Steele is an Anglican Minister, the Lead Pastor of Village Church in Annandale, Sydney, and the author of the new course Ideas that Changed the World examining the four big ideas of the Protestant Reformation, Grace, Faith, Bible and Christ alone. 

Praying for Nathan

On Sunday night on Magic 2CH 1770 when I interviewed Andrew Barry about the journey that he and his son Nathan and family were on, at the end of the interview I led in prayer for Nathan Barry.

Thousands of radio listeners joined me in praying for this young man.

In case you weren't listening and would like to join us in praying for Nathan, press play and pray along. 

Lord God,

You are our shepherd and we come to you as the one who loves us, the everlasting God, the creator of the whole earth, you who never grow faint or weary, who has no limit to your understanding.

Lord, you give strength to weary, you strengthen the powerless, though youths may faint and grow weary and young men stumble and fall, we know that those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength.

And so Lord we pray for Nathan, for Andrew, Ruth, for the other five kids, for their cousins, aunties and uncles and grandparents.

We pray that you might renew their strength. And we claim this promise that they will sore on wings like eagles, that they will run and not grow weary, that they will walk and not grow faint.

Lord, thank you for those conversations that people like Nathan’s Godfather were able to have about the facts - and the fact of the resurrection, the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

And we pray that Nathan along with all would call out that the Lord Jesus is Lord and believe in his heart that God raised him from the dead, and that he would be saved.

Father, we think about you the shepherd who walks us through the deepest valley, through the darkest valley, and we know there is no need to fear, for you are with us, that your rod and staff protect us, they comfort us and guide us.

And Lord as we think about the future, for Nathan, for ourselves, we are just confident that you are doing that work of preparing a table of anointing our heads with oil, of the cup overflowing and the goodness and faithful love will pursue us all the days of our life.

We long Lord to dwell in your house for ever.

And we pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Julian Porteous on Freedom for Faith

We are talking to Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tasmania Julian Porteuous.  He was taken to the anti-discrimination tribunal over a brochure that the Roman Catholic Bishops published on the meaning of marriage.

I thought it was a good brochure.

I was a well stated articulation of the classic Christian view of marriage.

Transgender Greens candidate Martine Delaney made the complaint.

Which she has now withdrawn.

Archbishop Porteous is on the line to process what was going on there….     And what that whole scenario means for Free Speech in Australia and Freedom of Religion in Australia.

Dr David Pettett on Samuel Marsden

Dr David Pettett is one of the world’s leading Samuel Marsden scholars.  And it’s about to happen: the release of his the popular version of his PhD thesis on this important colonial figure.

I think it is part of David’s thesis that much of the research into Marsden has ignored a main source of knowledge about him - his sermons (Marsden in his own words). 

David Pettett is on the line….

Note: Dr Pettett's new work on Samuel Marsden will be launched by Former Archbishop of Sydney Dr Peter Jensen at 2pm on Sunday September 18 at St John's Parramatta. 

Ben Hur | Russ Matthews

The new Ben Hur movie is out.  It is in the cinemas at the moment. 


Russ Matthews is one of my movie mates.  He works for City Bible Forum helping business people in the CBD better get to know Jesus.


But I like talking movies with him.

When I heard this new version of Ben-Hur was coming out - I felt really worried!  Did they ruin the story?


Does the new version have cinematic significance?  Does it have faith significance?


What about the expression ‘Bigger than Ben Hur’?  Will people still be saying that after the new movie experience?

Teenage Pregnancy | Claire Dunlop

Teenage pregnancy is of course, a nationwide concern.

I think an even bigger concern is the incidence of teenage abortion (where young women might be pressured into making decisions - that they spend a lifetime regretting).

In Moree, up in the state’s north west, there’s a new initiative, which has been running for a year or so to try and support pregnant teenage girls, and to try and reduce the abortion statistics.

On the line I have the founder of this program “HOPE FOR LIFE”, Claire Dunlop

Teen pregnancy is an issue that probably will never go away but actually helping teenage girls cope with not only the pregnancy but also the early days of motherhood is not something we hear a lot about. How did the idea of this program come to you?

You, through Anglicare, received some government funding for this?

Abortion in the aboriginal community is not as widespread, is it?

Do you get any other support from anywhere else(She’ll tell you about churches in Moree and Asquith)


What sorts of results are you starting to see? 

Science vs Christianity | Dr Lewis Jones

Now, We’ve just had national science week - with all sorts of events - celebrating various aspects of science.


Dr Lewis Jones is on the line.  He’s an astronomer by profession.  His PhD is in astrophysics.  But he also is qualified in Theology.


Lewis… thanks for your time.


Are Science and Christianity Unnatural Enemies?


Thomas Huxley, one of the nineteenth centuries great champions of Science against Christian belief…… he saidwhenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, that faith has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed, if not annihilated; scotched if not slain. 


Was he right?

Dr John Best on Religion in Elite Sport

Let’s talk now about Religion and Sport and we’re going to talk in a moment to former Wallabies Doctor Dr John Best because he’s been a Christian man working among the elite sports people for a long time now. 

But I wanted to talk about it … because it’s been all over our screens the last two weeks with the Olympics.  It’s seemed like athlete after athlete has acknowledge God…. in their speeches.

A couple of them that I particularly noticed. One was two young american men who won silver for America in the synchronised diving, two young men DAVID BOUDIA and STEELE JOHNSON speaking after winning silver.

But of course that wasn’t the most remarked upon incident.  That of course was the moment where Fiji won in the rugby, their countries first ever gold medal. 

Lets touch base with Dr John Best

What is it about being an elite athlete that makes people look to a higher power?

What goes through a Christian’s athlete’s mind when he LOSES?

Nancy Guthrie - Grief

Now, there’s a big women’s conference on in Sydney next Saturday … It’s a one day event to teach and inspire women in their relationship with Jesus.  The main speaker is Nancy Guthrie.

She speaks all over the world at Conferences…. But it’s a particular passion of hers to minister to people who have lost children.

She and her husband David lost two of their  children in 1999 and 2001, to a rare genetic disorder.

They have spent the weekend … ministering to a group of parents who have lost their children.

And we asked her if she would mind listening in to the interview we did a few minutes ago with Hannah Boland.

Nancy… thanks for talking to us..

Hannah Boland - Clean Comedian

When you think of a Christian person choosing to do ministry work, I guess you often think about things like becoming a minister or a missionary…..maybe working with under-privileged children, or helping the poor as a doctor or nurse or teacher.

But, becoming a stand-up comedian is not the first thing that springs to mind. ….and yet that is exactly what our first guest has done.


Those are words you don’t often hear in the same sentence!

How does a person go about becoming a stand up comedian?

Your comedy is actually very informed by personal tragedy, isn’t it?

You are known as a “clean” comedian…..what does that mean?

We are pretty used to a lot of comedy being vulgar, even offensive….is there a market for clean comedy?

How do people respond to you when they learn you are a Christian?

How do we know God has a sense of humour?

What makes Good Comedy?