The Gospel Brings About Reformation By Dr. Philip Ryken

Series: On This Day in Christian History

 Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms – April 17, 1521 – By *Dr. Philip Ryken

It is customary to date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to October 31, 1517, the day on which a young German monk and Bible scholar named Martin Luther nailed his famous “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of Wittenburg.

Luther’s document attacked the common Roman Catholic practice of allowing people to reduce the punishment for their sin by buying indulgences. His “ninety-five-Theses” also gave the first inkling of his major personal and theological breakthrough: the doctrine of justification by faith alone (If you’re not familiar with them, I have posted Luther’s 95 Theses on this website under the Category Church History).

Luther needed a breakthrough because he had long been troubled by his sins. How could an unrighteous man like himself serve a righteous God? As he later wrote:

“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 did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan [vols. 1-30] and Helmut T. Lehmann [vols. 31-55], Minneapolis: Fortress and Concordia, 1955-76, 34:336-37).

What especially troubled Luther was Paul’s announcement at the beginning of his epistle to Romans: “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17). This verse was a terror to Luther because the only righteousness he ever heard of was the kind that destroyed sinners like himself.

Then Luther had his breakthrough:

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which a merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who’s faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates (Luther’s Works, 34:336-37).

That was the beginning of the Reformation, but only the beginning. Luther soon attracted the attention of the pope, not so much for his doctrine of justification as for his criticism of the church. But during the next several years it would still have been possible for the church to have been reformed without being divided. It was not until the Diet of Worms (“Diet” here is a meeting – not the process of losing weight) that the break between the Reformers and the Catholics became final, which is why that meeting, which took place on April 17, 1521, was the most significant event in the church history of the sixteenth century.

Luther had been summoned to Worms by the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Charles V. When the Reformer entered the imperial chamber, he found his writings spread out on the table. These were the writings the emperor wanted Luther to recant, declaring publicly that everything he had ever written about the gospel and the church was mistaken.

Luther hardly knew what to say. Some of his works were devotional writings which no one would wish to recant. Others contained criticisms of the Roman Catholic church which no one could deny. Yet Luther was aware that some of his other writings contained harsh criticisms he perhaps ought to recant. But this he would only do on one condition, namely, that someone exposes his errors “by the writings of the prophets and the evangelists.” “Once I have been taught,” Luther went on to say, “I shall be quite ready to renounce every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire.”

This was hardly the answer the emperor and his counselors were looking for, especially since they did not have the theological expertise to refute Luther themselves. Again they pressed him to repudiate his doctrine. Finally, Luther spoke his famous words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise (For the full account of Luther’s trial, see Luther’s Works 32:103-31).

With these words, Luther staked all his theological claims on the second great principle of the Reformation: Scripture alone (sola scriptura). For the churches of the Reformation, the Bible and the Bible alone was the final authority for Christian faith and practice.

When Luther refused to place the authority of the church on par with the authority of Scripture, he was taking a stand that would end up dividing the church. And rightly so! The church can only be the church when it preaches the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as is taught in Scripture alone.

The great doctrines of the Reformation are as badly needed today as they were in the sixteenth century. Pope John Paul II announced that would grant an indulgence to anyone who made a pilgrimage to Israel in the year 2000. This is just one example of the way the Roman Catholic Church still encourages its members to pay for their sins by doing good works. For this and many other reasons, the world still needs to hear the voice of Martin Luther, who wrote the following paraphrase of Psalm 130:

From trouble deep I cry to thee,

Lord God, hear thou my crying;

Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me,

Open it to my sighing.

For if thou mean’st to look upon

The wrong and evil that is done,

Who, Lord, can stand before thee?

With thee counts nothing but grace

To cover all our failing.

The best life cannot win the race,

Good works are unavailing.

Before thee no one glory can,

And so must tremble every man,

And live by thy grace only (Luther’s Works 53:223).

About the Author: *Philip Graham Ryken (D.Phil., University of Oxford) is the 8th president of Wheaton College and, prior to that, served as senior minister at Philadelphia’s historic Tenth Presbyterian Church. He has written several books for Crossway, and has lectured and taught at universities and seminaries worldwide. Dr. Ryken and his wife, Lisa, live in Wheaton and have five children. The article above is adapted from Chapter 41 in his book He Speaks To Me Everywhere, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004. Historical details of this article were drawn chiefly from Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 151-74; among the best biographies of Martin Luther is Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New York: Abingdon, 1950.

*Significant Events on April 17th in Church History:

326: St. Alexander died. He was appointed to the patriarchate of Alexandria instead of Arius, who denied Christ’s divinity. Alexander was kind to Arius, even while supporting Athanasius, the defender of the Trinity.

341: Simeon, bishop of Seleucia, Ktesiphon (located south of Baghdad), was executed for refusing to levy an extra war tax on his church people. He was one of many Persian martyrs.

858: Pope Benedict III died. Emperors Lothaire and Louis II had confirmed Anastasius in his place, but popular protest brought Benedict back.

1640: Robert Torkillus of Sweden became the first Lutheran pastor to arrive in the American colonies when they landed in Delaware.

1713: William Law was suspended from his pulpit for nonconformist views. He is famed as the author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and a later book entitled The Power of the Spirit.

1912: The International Conference of the Negro began. Although not explicitly Christian, out of it came a renewed interest to reach Africa for Christ.

*Adapted from This Day In Christian History, edited by A Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications.

The 95 Theses of Martin Luther & What It Led To – The Diet of Worms

Introduction by Mike and Sharon Rusten*

THE DIET OF WORMS: It wasn’t some kind of crazy fad diet

During the early 1500’s Europe was in a great state of flux. A revived interest in pre-Christian Greek and Roman culture launched the Renaissance, which celebrated  humanism and somewhat undermined contemporary Christian culture. Another threat to contemporary Christian culture came from within the church in the form pf the outspoken Martin Luther, a professor at the University of Wittenburg in Germany. He was becoming known for his bold criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and his forthright convictions regarding justification by faith, papal authority, and the sacraments. The Reformation had begun when Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 (All 95 Theses are written below after this introduction). The Theses consisted of ninety-five distinct propositions arguing against the supreme power of the pope, the greed within the church, and the abuse of indulgences. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther rather than to diminish it.

Because of Luther’s great popularity, Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, agreed to hear his arguments at a diet, a meeting of the empire parliament, which was scheduled for the spring of 1521 in Worms, Germany. Church representatives wanted Luther arrested and condemned to death as a heretic without a trial. However, Luther was promised that he would be protected and given a lawful trial at the diet.

At 4:00 p.m. on April 17, 1521, Luther arrived triumphantly in Worms. It was a dramatic contrast: Luther, a simple monk, standing before the powerful sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire. When he was immediately confronted with a pile of his books and asked whether he acknowledged their authorship, he quietly responded, “The books are all mine.” They pressed him further, asking whether he would stand by them or recant anything in them. Luther was shocked because he had been promised a hearing of his beliefs, not a demand for recantation. Luther replied, “This touches God and his Word. This affects the salvation of souls. Of this Christ said, ‘He who denies me before men, him will I deny before me time to think it over.” After some deliberation, even though they felt he didn’t deserve it. Luther was granted a one-day delay.

Martin Luther spent the evening in prayer, carefully preparing his response. At 6:00 p.m. the following day he gave his famous answer:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”

These famous words reverberated throughout the Reformation, inspiring many others to take their stand as well.

For Reflection:

 God called upon Martin Luther to take a stand before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Where might God call upon you to stand up for your convictions?

What can you do to prepare yourself for those eventualities?

“I assure you of this: If anyone acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I, the Son of Man, will openly acknowledge that person in the presence of God’s angels. But if anyone denies me here on earth, I will deny that person before God’s angels.” – Luke 12:8-9

Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

Commonly Known as The 95 Theses

(which he nailed to the Wittenburg Church Door for debate on October 31, 1517)

(1) When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

(2) The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

(3) Yet its meaning is not restricted to repentance in one’s heart; for such repentance is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh.

(4) As long as hatred of self abides (i.e. true inward repentance) the penalty of sin abides, viz., until we enter the kingdom of heaven.

(5) The pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law.

(6) The pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God; or, at most, he can remit it in cases reserved to his discretion. Except for these cases, the guilt remains untouched.

(7) God never remits guilt to anyone without, at the same time, making him humbly submissive to the priest, His representative.

(8) The penitential canons apply only to men who are still alive, and, according to the canons themselves, none applies to the dead.

(9) Accordingly, the Holy Spirit, acting in the person of the pope, manifests grace to us, by the fact that the papal regulations always cease to apply at death, or in any hard case.

(10) It is a wrongful act, due to ignorance, when priests retain the canonical penalties on the dead in purgatory.

(11) When canonical penalties were changed and made to apply to purgatory, surely it would seem that tares were sown while the bishops were asleep.

(12) In former days, the canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution was pronounced; and were intended to be tests of true contrition.

(13) Death puts an end to all the claims of the Church; even the dying are already dead to the canon laws, and are no longer bound by them.

(14) Defective piety or love in a dying person is necessarily accompanied by great fear, which is greatest where the piety or love is least.

(15) This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, whatever else might be said, to constitute the pain of purgatory, since it approaches very closely to the horror of despair.

(16) There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.

(17) Of a truth, the pains of souls in purgatory ought to be abated, and charity ought to be proportionately increased.

(18) Moreover, it does not seem proved, on any grounds of reason or Scripture, that these souls are outside the state of merit, or unable to grow in grace.

(19) Nor does it seem proved to be always the case that they are certain and assured of salvation, even if we are very certain ourselves.

(20) Therefore the pope, in speaking of the plenary remission of all penalties, does not mean “all” in the strict sense, but only those imposed by himself.

(21) Hence those who preach indulgences are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the pope’s indulgences.

(22) Indeed, he cannot remit to souls in purgatory any penalty which canon law declares should be suffered in the present life.

(23) If plenary remission could be granted to anyone at all, it would be only in the cases of the most perfect, i.e. to very few.

(24) It must therefore be the case that the major part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of relief from penalty.

(25) The same power as the pope exercises in general over purgatory is exercised in particular by every single bishop in his bishopric and priest in his parish.

(26) The pope does excellently when he grants remission to the souls in purgatory on account of intercessions made on their behalf, and not by the power of the keys (which he cannot exercise for them).

(27) There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.

(28) It is certainly possible that when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest avarice and greed increase; but when the church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God.

(29) Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed in view of what is said of St. Severinus and St. Pascal? (Note: Paschal I, pope 817-24. The legend is that he and Severinus were willing to endure the pains of purgatory for the benefit of the faithful).

(30) No one is sure of the reality of his own contrition, much less of receiving plenary forgiveness.

(31) One who bona fide buys indulgence is a rare as a bona fide penitent man, i.e. very rare indeed.

(32) All those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation by means of letters of indulgence, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

(33) We should be most carefully on our guard against those who say that the papal indulgences are an inestimable divine gift, and that a man is reconciled to God by them.

(34) For the grace conveyed by these indulgences relates simply to the penalties of the sacramental “satisfactions” decreed merely by man.

(35) It is not in accordance with Christian doctrines to preach and teach that those who buy off souls, or purchase confessional licenses, have no need to repent of their own sins.

(36) Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys plenary remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given him without letters of indulgence.

(37) Any true Christian whatsoever, living or dead, participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church; and this participation is granted to him by God without letters of indulgence.

(38) Yet the pope’s remission and dispensation are in no way to be despised, for, as already said, they proclaim the divine remission.

(39) It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, to extol to the people the great bounty contained in the indulgences, while, at the same time, praising contrition as a virtue.

(40) A truly contrite sinner seeks out, and loves to pay, the penalties of his sins; whereas the very multitude of indulgences dulls men’s consciences, and tends to make them hate the penalties.

(41) Papal indulgences should only be preached with caution, lest people gain a wrong understanding, and think that they are preferable to other good works: those of love.

(42) Christians should be taught that the pope does not at all intend that the purchase of indulgences should be understood as at all comparable with the works of mercy.

(43) Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences.

(44) Because, by works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man; whereas, by indulgences, he does not become a better man, but only escapes certain penalties.

(45) Christians should be taught that he who sees a needy person, but passes him by although he gives money for indulgences, gains no benefit from the pope’s pardon, but only incurs the wrath of God.

(46) Christians should be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they are bound to retain what is only necessary for the upkeep of their home, and should in no way squander it on indulgences.

(47) Christians should be taught that they purchase indulgences voluntarily, and are not under obligation to do so.

(48) Christians should be taught that, in granting indulgences, the pope has more need, and more desire, for devout prayer on his own behalf than for ready money.

(49) Christians should be taught that the pope’s indulgences are useful only if one does not rely on them, but most harmful if one loses the fear of God through them.

(50) Christians should be taught that, if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers, he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.

(51) Christians should be taught that the pope would be willing, as he ought if necessity should arise, to sell the church of St. Peter, and give, too, his own money to many of those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money.

(52) It is vain to rely on salvation by letters of indulgence, even if the commissary, or indeed the pope himself, were to pledge his own soul for their validity.

(53) Those are enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid the word of God to be preached at all in some churches, in order that indulgences may be preached in others.

(54) The word of God suffers injury if, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is devoted to indulgences than to that word.

(55) The pope cannot help taking the view that if indulgences (very small matters) are celebrated by one bell, one pageant, or one ceremony, the gospel (a very great matter) should be preached to the accompaniment of a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

(56) The treasures of the church, out of which the pope dispenses indulgences, are not sufficiently spoken of or known among the people of Christ.

(57) That these treasures are not temporal are clear from the fact that many of the merchants do not grant them freely, but only collect them.

(58) Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, because, even apart from the pope, these merits are always working grace in the inner man, and working the cross, death, and hell in the outer man.

(59) St. Laurence said that the poor were the treasures of the church, but he used the term in accordance with the custom of his own time.

(60) We do not speak rashly in saying that the treasures of the church are the keys of the church, and are bestowed by the merits of Christ.

(61) For it is clear that the power of the pope suffices, by itself, for the remission of penalties and reserved cases.

(62) The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

(63) It is right to regard this treasure as most odious, for it makes the first to be the last.

(64) On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is most acceptable, for it makes the last to be the first.

(65) Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets which, in former times, they used to fish for men of wealth.

(66) The treasures of the indulgences are the nets which to-day they use to fish for the wealth of men.

(67) The indulgences, which the merchants extol as the greatest of favours, are seen to be, in fact, a favourite means for money-getting.

(68) Nevertheless, they are not to be compared with the grace of God and the compassion shown in the Cross.

(69) Bishops and curates, in duty bound, must receive the commissaries of the papal indulgences with all reverence.

(70) But they are under a much greater obligation to watch closely and attend carefully lest these men preach their own fancies instead of what the pope commissioned.

(71) Let him be anathema and accursed who denies the apostolic character of the indulgences.

(72) On the other hand, let him be blessed who is on his guard against the wantonness and license of the pardon-merchant’s words.

(73) In the same way, the pope rightly excommunicates those who make any plans to the detriment of the trade in indulgences.

(74) It is much more in keeping with his views to excommunicate those who use the pretext of indulgences to plot anything to the detriment of holy love and truth.

(75) It is foolish to think that papal indulgences have so much power that they can absolve a man even if he has done the impossible and violated the mother of God.

(76) We assert the contrary, and say that the pope’s pardons are not able to remove the least venial of sins as far as their guilt is concerned.

(77) When it is said that not even St. Peter, if he were now pope, could grant a greater grace, it is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope.

(78) We assert the contrary, and say that he, and any pope whatever, possesses greater graces, viz., the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as is declared in I Corinthians 12 [:28].

(79) It is blasphemy to say that the insignia of the cross with the papal arms are of equal value to the cross on which Christ died.

(80) The bishops, curates, and theologians, who permit assertions of that kind to be made to the people without let or hindrance, will have to answer for it.

(81) This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult for learned men to guard the respect due to the pope against false accusations, or at least from the keen criticisms of the laity.

(82) They ask, e.g.: Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of all reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.

(83) Again: Why should funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continue to be said? And why does not the pope repay, or permit to be repaid, the benefactions instituted for these purposes, since it is wrong to pray for those souls who are now redeemed?

(84) Again: Surely this is a new sort of compassion, on the part of God and the pope, when an impious man, an enemy of God, is allowed to pay money to redeem a devout soul, a friend of God; while yet that devout and beloved soul is not allowed to be redeemed without payment, for love’s sake, and just because of its need of redemption.

(85) Again: Why are the penitential canon laws, which in fact, if not in practice, have long been obsolete and dead in themselves,—why are they, to-day, still used in imposing fines in money, through the granting of indulgences, as if all the penitential canons were fully operative?

(86) Again: since the pope’s income to-day is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers?

(87) Again: What does the pope remit or dispense to people who, by their perfect repentance, have a right to plenary remission or dispensation?

(88) Again: Surely a greater good could be done to the church if the pope were to bestow these remissions and dispensations, not once, as now, but a hundred times a day, for the benefit of any believer whatever.

(89) What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?

(90) These questions are serious matters of conscience to the laity. To suppress them by force alone, and not to refute them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christian people unhappy.

(91) If therefore, indulgences were preached in accordance with the spirit and mind of the pope, all these difficulties would be easily overcome, and indeed, cease to exist.

(92) Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

(93) Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

(94) Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.

(95) And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

*Mike and Sharon Rusten are not only marriage and business partners; they also share a love for history. Mike studied at Princeton (B.A.), the University of Minnesota (M.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Th.M.), and New York University (Ph.D.). Sharon studied at Beaver College, Lake Forest College, and the University of Minnesota (B.A.), and together with Mike has attended the American Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College). The Rustens have two grown children and live in Minnetonka, Minnesota. This article was adapted from the April 14 entry in their wonderful book The One Year Book of Christian History, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003.

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