He did that which only a handful of people have ever done, changing the course of human history. For the world which Martin Luther left behind when he died in 1546 was strongly different than the one into which he was born some fifty-seven years earlier.
Luther’s story is well known, or at least it used to be. For it is said that more books have been written about this son of a copper miner than about any other figure in history, save that of Jesus Christ himself. Long ago Erik Erikson, the coiner of the term “identity crisis,” even penned a post-mortem “psychoanalysis” of Luther in which he tried to explain the German monk’s behavior looking back half a millennia later.
In the end, however, the lasting legacy of Martin Luther can perhaps be summed up in just three simple phrases: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fidei.
The first, sola scriptura, means that there is an external source of authority for us all, no matter how clever or self-reliant we deceive ourselves in thinking that we might be. For when it comes to understanding both who God is, and who He desires for us to be, we must always look not to the cues of the culture but to the witness of the Word—the Logos which became flesh and dwelt among us, but also that which was entrusted to the prophets and saints of old. Or as our Methodist founder John Wesley put it, we must be a people of “one book,” and that is the scriptures.
Sola Gratia, however, means that it is by grace alone that any of us can ever come close to getting it right. For without God’s grace, all of our efforts to reform ourselves (much less reform others) will come to naught. And if we are indeed wholly dependent upon God’s grace for ourselves, would it not be only right that we learn how to extend that same kind of grace to all those around us, even the ones with whom we most may disagree?
Then sola fidei simply reminds us that it is by faith alone that we can stand before God, not on the basis of any of our good works or even good intentions. For when Luther discovered for himself that it is not just penance, but genuine repentance, that God desires, everything changed for him.
Confronted by a church hierarchy more interested in building great cathedrals than in saving individual souls, the lawyer turned professor thus turned to the pen to express his theological convictions, writing out 95 propositions for debate. His theses dealt principally with the question of selling indulgences, a practice of the church at the time (and still the most effective fund-raising scheme ever) which promised “time off for good behavior” in purgatory in exchange for helping to renovate St. Peter’s in Rome.
And then—as was the custom– to open the conversation, Luther posted his points on the cathedral doors at Wittenberg where he taught. And the firestorm which Luther’s propositions set off led not only to the formation of the entire Protestant movement, but to a genuine reformation in the thinking of all Christians, both Catholic and Protestant alike.
Or, in short, we could suggest that when Martin Luther tacked up his theses 496 years ago today, that he quite literally “nailed it” when it came to arguing for the genuine power of the gospel over the coerced control of the church in people’s lives. And for that, he is indeed a genuine hero of the faith worth remembering, even on a day like Halloween.
So do you suppose that anyone will think to dress up today in the kind of Augustinian alb that a German monk of old might have worn rather than just another Batman or Captain America muscle costume?