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500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation - October 31, 1517-October 31, 2017

By Rebecca Price Janney, Oct 26 2017 12:58PM

Last week I mentioned my family’s connection with Martin Luther, the great 16th century reformer. Today’s post is in honor of his posting of 95 Theses on the castle church’s door at Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. I’m sharing an excerpt from my book, Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell, regarding Luther’s vast influence over the western world.


The official beginning of the movement known as Protestantism came on October 31, 1517 when the German monk Martin Luther took his church to task on several points of faith. While there had been other expressions of protest against church corruption and calls for a return to a purer form of Christianity, Luther was “the first outstanding leader” of Protestantism. His major problem with the Roman Catholic Church centered around issues of heaven and hell.

Luther was born in 1483 and raised in the traditions of medieval Roman Catholicism. According to one scholar, “The young Martin grew up to fear God, to believe in the reality of heaven, hell, angels, saints, the Devil, and demons. He stood in terror of Christ as judge, but he also believed in the efficacy of the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and the saints.” One day while Luther was studying law in 1505, a lightning bolt nearly struck him, bringing about a seminal change in his life.

He was so terrified of hell that Luther pledged himself to become a monk, thinking that would pacify God’s anger and lead to salvation. Choosing a religious order, the young man “mortified his body. He fasted, sometimes for days on end and without a morsel of food. He gave himself to prayers and vigils beyond those required by the rule of his order. He went to confession, often daily and for hours at a time.”

All of his intensity and service to God left him exhausted spiritually. Then one day he had a revelation prompted by Romans 1:17: “The righteous shall live by faith.” It dawned on him that good works do not earn God’s favor or get someone to heaven. Rather, they are products of a faith in God that alone wins His grace and secures salvation. That is why Luther became especially disturbed by a certain practice in the Roman Catholic Church.

Arising in the Middle Ages, indulgences were a way in which the faithful could get the pope to secure forgiveness for their sins, or the sins of others. It didn’t matter whether those sins were past, present, or future, or the other person being prayed for was dead. All this could be had for a price that had enriched pontiffs and their supporters. One Dominican monk “hawked” indulgences with the zeal of a medieval infomercial, claiming that as soon as the money fell into the coffers, a soul was released from purgatory (in Roman Catholic theology, a provisional place for the dead to be cleansed before entering heaven).

Luther was not pleased, especially considering his prior spiritual suffering over the state of his soul and the great revelation that had set him free. On October 31, 1517, he posted a list of 95 theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, a kind of university bulletin board in which academics invited debate about all sorts of subjects. Such postings were not uncommon; what resulted from this one, however, turned European Christianity upside down. Luther maintained that no pope had power to free anyone from purgatory and that claiming to do so gave people a false sense of security about eternity, as well as the wrong theology about heaven and hell.

Aided by the printing press, various movements within the “Reformation” spread throughout Europe. The key component in them all was the concept of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Those refusing belief in Christ, or trying to attain salvation in some other way, were hell-bound by their own choice.

(Excerpted from Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009, pp. 27-29)

All Saints Church (Schlosskirche), Wittenberg(Courtesy Wikipedia Commons)
All Saints Church (Schlosskirche), Wittenberg(Courtesy Wikipedia Commons)
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