500 Years Ago Today…

A couple of questions…

Question 1: What kinds of images do we typically associate with Halloween?

Ghosts, goblins, witches, black cats, spiders, bats and the like, right? Well, these images have long been associated with Halloween. In fact, people used to have some pretty interesting beliefs about some of these things. For example…

  • If a candle flame suddenly turns blue, there’s a ghost nearby.
  • If you see a spider on Halloween, it could be the spirit of a dead loved one who is watching you.
  • If a black cat crosses your path it means you will have bad luck. (But that’s only in North America. In England and Ireland it means you will have good luck).
  • If a bat flies around your house three times it is a death omen.

Question 2: What do we typically call these kinds of beliefs?

Superstitions.

Definition of “Superstition” — a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.

I’m going to share a story with you about a very famous monk who fought against superstitions — and one of the most famous things he did was on October 31…

Our story begins some 500 years ago in Medieval Europe with its knights, castles and kings. It is a time when the religious and political worlds are both dominated by the same institution — the Roman Catholic Church. The head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope, was so powerful that he basically ruled all of Europe.

Enter a young man named Martin Luther. In 1505 Martin Luther was a law student in Germany. One evening he was thrown from his horse during a violent thunderstorm. He became so frightened at the storm that he began bargaining with God. He promised God that if God would not kill him he would become a monk. Well, Martin Luther didn’t die. And, being true to his word, Luther began training to become a monk in the Augustinian Order.

In 1507 he became a priest. In 1508 he moved to the town of Wittenburg to serve as a monk, priest and professor. And, in the midst of all of his religious training an interesting thing happened to Luther. He became more and more unsettled about the condition of his soul.

He was doing all the things the world would consider to be “super” religious. He had given up everything for the sake of service in the Roman Catholic Church. The attitude of the day would have been this: If anyone has a sure-fired ticket into heaven it is an Augustinian monk who is also a priest and professor.

Martin Luther should have been a shoe-in.

But he had no peace. And, he drove his superiors almost crazy with questions. They kept trying to assure him that he was right before God. Luther wasn’t so sure. They finally got so fed up with him that they sent him on an errand to Rome — the “holy” city. They thought if Luther could just go to Rome and see the “Capital of Christendom” he would be more at ease.

They were wrong.

When Luther got to Rome, instead of seeing a “holy” city, he saw a city rife with superstition…

The city was filled with relics. There were pieces of wood or nail that people claimed were from the actual cross of Christ. There were skulls and bones of the apostles (or so the owners of the skulls and bones would have you believe). It was believed that if you viewed the relics (after paying a fee, of course) that you could shave a few years off of your time in purgatory.

Um, maybe we should detour here for a sec and review the Roman Catholic doctrine of “purgatory.”

According to the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross may or may not be sufficient. It may be necessary for Christians to pay for some of their sins themselves — kind of a purification process, if you will — in purgatory, a place that is regarded as hell “light.” We’re talking about perhaps millions of years of suffering before being deemed worthy to enter heaven. So, you can see, the prospect of getting out of some of that time in purgatory was very attractive to many people — a fact the Roman Catholic Church exploited for both political and financial gain (as we will soon see). Back to the story…

In Rome Luther discovered…

  • You could purchase medallions of saints to protect you against… well… pretty much anything.
  • You could pray your way up “Pilate’s staircase” and earn a few years of reprieve from purgatory — just don’t forget to pay your fee.
  • You could buy indulgences.

Maybe we should detour again and learn about “indulgences.”

According to the Roman Catholic Church, some people were so good that they actually earned more merit than they needed in order to get into heaven — people like the apostle Paul. The excess merit is then stored in what is called a “treasury of merit” and may be dispensed at the Pope’s discretion.

They believed, even though Christ died as a substitute for sinful man, we still need to contribute our works to the mix in order to be saved. Most of us don’t do a good enough job of this, so most of us can look forward to purgatory — unless we buy our way out.

At that time a person could borrow from the “treasury of merit” and have the good works of others applied to their account. Give some money to the Catholic Church and receive in exchange a piece of paper confirming your transaction. A piece of paper called an indulgence. Okay, now back to our story…

When Martin Luther returned from Rome he was more disillusioned than ever. He had more questions and more anxiety than ever before. He continued to irritate his superiors. So, they allowed him to study theology. In 1512 he earned a doctor of theology degree and, for the very first time in his life, began reading the Bible for himself.

Over the next few years Luther devoured Scripture. Then, in 1515 Luther read Romans — and it changed his life.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” — Romans 1:16-17

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” — Romans 3:20-25

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 6:23

For the very first time in his life Martin Luther was introduced to the Gospel. He learned that all of us stand condemned before a holy God, that all of us deserve God’s wrath and judgment, and that God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, took our place as the perfect substitute. God the Father poured out His wrath on His own Son, treating Him as if He were a sinner, so that He might treat us as if we had never sinned.

Christ satisfied God’s wrath.

There is NOTHING we can contribute to that.

This is what Martin Luther was learning.

In the meantime, Pope Leo X wanted to renovate St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. But, he needed money to do it. So he used one of the most powerful superstitions available to him to raise money — he sold indulgences.

But this was to be a special indulgence. Leo wanted to make sure he raised the money so he authorized an indulgence that would do more than just shave off some time in purgatory. THIS indulgence would get you out of purgatory all together.

A German monk named John Tetzel was especially good at selling these indulgences. His sales pitch was, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

The people lined up.

However, the Church manipulating people through superstitions in order to get their money, coupled with what Martin Luther had learned from Scripture, made him furious. And so…

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote down a list of 95 things wrong with indulgences — what he called the 95 Theses — and nailed it to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.

People read it. Then they stopped buying indulgences. This did not sit well with the Pope, so he tried a few things to “fix” the Luther Problem:

  • He sent Catholic theologians to debate Luther in public in hopes of making him look foolish. Luther always won.
  • The Pope arranged a special debate with a really smart guy named John Eck. Luther won that debate.
  • In 1520 the Pope sent an official decree, called a Papal Bull, threatening to kick Martin Luther out of the Church. The Bull said Luther had 60 days to recant (basically the Pope said, “Take it back”) or he’d be excommunicated. Luther didn’t care. He kept on preaching and teaching. The people kept on believing.

So, in 1521 the Pope sent a second Papal Bull that officially kicked Luther out of the Roman Catholic Church and summoned him to a political assembly — The Diet of Worms. Luther went.

At the assembly, Luther was shown a table full of his writings and asked only two questions:

  1. Are these your writings?
  2. Will you recant?

Luther answered “yes” to the first question. To the second question he said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Unless I am shown from Scripture that I am in error I cannot and will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

Here Martin Luther confronted all the superstitions of the Church — remember, a superstition is a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge — with the infallible, authoritative Word of God. He demonstrated where their superstitions were in conflict with God’s Word and told them God’s Word was right and they were wrong. Do you know what they did?

They declared Luther an outlaw.

Now, Luther had been promised a safe passage to and from the assembly, but the political powers had already decided that if he did not recant they would kill him on his way back to Wittenburg. But, some of Luther’s friends knew about the plan and they staged a kidnapping and took him back to a secret castle in the Black Forest.

He escaped the Catholics and continued to preach and teach until he died in 1546. His actions were a part of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a remarkable time when the Church actually started abandoning many of the superstitions that had dominated it for hundreds of years in order to return to the teachings of Scripture.

It’s fun for us to look back into history and admire the courage of a man like Luther.  We see the things he stood against and wonder how anyone could have been fooled by such silliness. After all, those superstitions they were believing were NOT in the Bible. How could they believe such nonsense?

We like to imagine that had we been in Luther’s place we would have done the same thing. But the thing is, when you are living in the midst of powerful superstitions you are susceptible to them, too. You are influenced by them.

Luther had people all around him, people he respected and trusted, who tried to convince him that he was wrong and the superstitions they had all believed in  for so long were right.

Do you think you would have had the courage to stand up against such superstition? When everyone around you is telling you that the superstitions are correct — but you see no support for them in the Bible — do you think you would have had the courage of Luther to stand solely on the authority of Scripture?

Do you want to find out?

There are powerful, deeply-held, superstitions in the Church today.

I’ll mention one to you. Take note of your initial response. Here goes…

How is someone saved?

In the evangelical Church today the most predominate answer to that question is something like this…

  • You just have to “ask Jesus into your heart.”
  • You just have to “pray the sinner’s prayer.”

Those concepts are nowhere in Scripture. They are gross superstitions.

I know. Our initial reaction to this is to recoil a bit. But search the Scriptures — find, “ask Jesus into your heart” or the “sinner’s prayer.” They just aren’t there. Here’s what the Bible says about being saved…

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” — Mark 1: 14-15

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” — Romans 10:9

Repent. Believe. Confess.

Today people convince themselves they are saved because one day they prayed a prayer. In Martin Luther’s day people thought they were saved because they were given a piece of paper by some monk or priest.

Neither of these is biblical. The Bible says…

“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” — 2 Corinthians 13:5

During October many people in the Church like to confront the superstitions associated with Halloween. This year join them.

Just add one more superstition to the list.

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About Chip
Chip is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. He served more than five years on the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana as Director of Communications and Public Relations, editor of the Indiana Baptist newsjournal, and regular contributor to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently earns his living as a writer. He serves his local church as a teacher and deacon and his local Baptist Association as a Seminary Extension instructor and supply preacher.

One Response to 500 Years Ago Today…

  1. Brenda says:

    Excellent!!! Thanks for putting the story of Martin Luther in a concise Clef notes fashion. We thought about you today as our minds traveled back to June 2015 when we were all in Wittenberg and walked the path Luther walked. Incredible venture! Thanks again for telling his story today.

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