Five hundred years ago, on 31 October 1517, something happened that was to change the church forever. Martin Luther’s action in mailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral was, in effect, the event that launched the Reformation.
The Augustinian monk could not bear to see the people of his day weighed down by their sins and exploited by those promising the release of souls from purgatory by the sale of papal indulgences, the money going to build the new basilica to St Peter in Rome. His Theses challenged the authorities to debate the nature of salvation and unlocked popular and political grievances.
At about the same time, working on a lecture series of his students, Luther struggled with the meaning of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans 1:17. What was God like? How could we be righteous before him? In his words: “I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith.
“Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway into heaven.”
Passionate, flawed, courageous, Luther rediscovered the gospel of God’s loving and free grace, setting people free from the burden of guilt as they trusted in Christ. And it was all God’s work, to be received through faith. While he and his friends drank their beer in the beer cellars of Whittenberg, as he said, “The Word did everything.”
The Rt Rev Nick McKinnel
Bishop of Plymouth