Written By Abigail Ellington, USA
In a conversation about our favorite historical figures, I asked a coworker if he knew who Martin Luther was. He responded with, “Oh! Is that the guy who nailed stuff to the door?”
“Yes, that’s him!” I said with a laugh.
For many people, Martin Luther exists in this single snapshot: a monk hammering the Ninety-five Theses to a church door. While some historians believe that the tale is likely apocryphal, his true legacy has greatly influenced me.
Martin Luther, a German who lived from 1483-1546, was a key figure of the Protestant Reformation, when Protestants—so-named for their protest against Catholic teachings—split from the Catholic Church. Luther’s involvement in this movement was shaped by his personal testimony of receiving God’s grace and overcoming doubts about his salvation.
God used Luther to help restore a Biblical understanding of salvation. Because I struggled with my own guilt and self-condemnation, Luther’s story resonated with me, as it showed that God can use struggles in people’s lives to draw them to Him and equip them to change the world.
This year, on October 31, we honor the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Here are five foundational reasons why his testimony, beliefs, and stand against the theology and practices of his day still matter today.
1. It reminds us to know the gospel for ourselves.
In the 1500s, the Catholic Church taught that salvation came through faith, works, and grace, and that those who repented of their sins before death would be punished for their sins in Purgatory before they could go to Heaven.
One very controversial practice was the sale of indulgences, which were credits that would supposedly reduce time in Purgatory for both the living and the already dead. This allowed corruption to flourish. One friar even advertised with the jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs” (Estep, 1986).
Luther spent years fearing that he was not holy enough to merit God’s favor, and only escaped this struggle when he understood that salvation was about Christ’s righteousness, not his own. His experience with spiritual despair taught him that good behavior and church rituals could not remove the weight of his guilt (Perry, 2013).
As a professor and preacher, Luther encouraged people to focus on Christ and study the Scriptures. Things came to a head on 31 October, 1517: in his Ninety-five Theses, Luther protested the practice of selling indulgences and argued that the church did not have the authority to save souls. His writings were circulated widely.
Luther teaches us that the true gospel frees souls from spiritual bondage, and also frees people from dependence upon the gatekeepers of tradition. We should not depend upon pastors, speakers, or writers to make Christian teaching available to us. It is important to read the Bible for ourselves, know its truth, and be prepared to defend it against false teaching.
2. It reminds us that we are saved by grace alone.
As a monk, Luther spent countless hours in the confessional, trying to remember and recount all his sins. He also tried to attain holiness through pilgrimages, long hours of fasting, and prayer. He later said of this time, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
I will never forget what it was like to learn about Luther’s struggle to feel forgiven. As a church kid, I related to his fear that no matter how outwardly compliant he tried to be or how well he followed the rules, he could never remove the stain of guilt from his soul. Like Luther, I desired to follow Christ, but I feared condemnation and lacked assurance of salvation.
What transformed Luther’s life—and mine—is the knowledge that we are saved through grace alone. In Luther’s study of the Scriptures, he was struck by the language of righteousness in books such as Romans and Galatians, and came to understand that we are saved not because we do righteous acts in union with God, but through faith in the perfect righteousness of Christ.
3. It reminds us that following Christ always has a price.
Luther was summoned by church authorities and told to recant under threat of excommunication. His response was, “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
Luther chose this knowing that the authority of Scripture was of greater value than his reputation or comfort. Luther once said, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”
Even in my ordinary life, following Christ requires sacrifice. I cherish this reminder that when I lay down my preferences at the altar and pick up my cross to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24), my ultimate security lies in Him.
4. It reminds us that the gospel is for everyone.
Because the Germans did not have accessible Bible translation in their language, they depended upon the Catholic Church for religious education and training. The church taught that only priests could rightly read and interpret Scripture, but Luther argued that every person can receive faith and understanding from God. He spent many of his later years crafting a Bible translation of the New Testament in the German vernacular, making the transformative, authoritative text of Scripture available to ordinary people.
In churches today, we should not give special favor to the well-educated, wealthy, and beautiful, as if these markers of worldly success indicate spiritual strength. The Holy Spirit resides in every believer, and through Him, we have access to God. Spiritual gifts are poured out upon all those who put their faith in Christ.
5. It reminds us to depend on Scripture.
Throughout different generations, challenges to Scriptural authority vary, but the correct response remains the same. Christians must depend upon God’s revelation in Scripture as truer than any church leader’s vision or political system’s creed. They must also reject the temptation to prize other means of spiritual discovery as more important than the Bible.
Luther said, “From the beginning of my Reformation I have asked God to send me neither dreams, nor visions, nor angels, but to give me the right understanding of His Word, the Holy Scriptures; for as long as I have God’s Word, I know that I am walking in His way and that I shall not fall into any error or delusion.”
In today’s culture, it is easy for believers to feel like the unbelieving world can never be persuaded by the Bible, and that we must find fresh, glamorous ways to attract people to Jesus. But these approaches discard the tool that best convicts of sin, reveals God’s glory, and teaches the gospel. As the Reformation and the rest of Christian history shows, the Bible is our irreplaceable source of truth, with the power to change both individual hearts and the world.
“Renaissance and Reformation.” William R. Estep, 1986
“Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society.” Marvin Perry et al., 2013