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.