Month: October 2017

The 95 Theses, Part 2

In our last look at the Ninety-Five Theses, we left off with thesis 56, where Luther said that the truth was not sufficiently known among the people. Luther went on to say in thesis 62, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” What Luther is referring to here is the treasury of merit, the idea that the saints had accumulated more grace than they needed. All that accumulated grace is laid up in heaven. At the top of the chain of saints is Mary, and she is full of grace. We lowly sinners can tap into that accumulated grace. Luther said that the treasury of merit is not the true treasure of the church; the true treasure of the church is the gospel.

In thesis 90, Luther writes, “To repress these convincing arguments of the laity by force alone and not to resolve them by giving reasonable answers is to expose the church and the pope to ridicule of their enemies and to leave Christians unsatisfied.” Luther, as he finishes up his Ninety-Five Theses, is warning against simply dismissing his points; he says the church should take them seriously. Of course, we know that the church didn’t. In fact, when Pope Leo X got a copy of the Ninety-Five Theses, his first response was, “Ah, the ramblings of a drunken German. He will think differently when he sobers up.” He clearly underestimated Luther and he clearly underestimated what was happening in that moment when Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. I’m not even sure Luther had a full sense of the implications and the consequences of this singular action of posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.

As he gets to thesis 92, Luther quotes Jeremiah and tells us, “Away, away then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace.” What Luther is saying is that the church is a false prophet. The church was saying, “Here, come buy this indulgence. Take this pilgrimage. Give money to this. Light this candle in front of this relic and you’ll have peace with God.” Luther said that’s a false prophet and there’s no peace there but only despair.

Then Luther says in thesis 93, “Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Cross, cross,’ and there is no cross.” What does that mean? Luther is saying there is no cross because there is no cross for us. Christ endured the cross so that we don’t have to, and through His work on our behalf, He brought us peace with God. We can be reconciled to God not because of anything we have done but by being justified by faith alone through what Christ has done for us.

So, that’s Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. It was the beginning of the Reformation. Luther continued to serve the church over the coming decades, but it all started at the doors at the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

The 95 Theses, Part 1

Last time, we looked at the introduction and the first two of the Ninety-Five Theses. Now let’s look at a few more of the Ninety-Five Theses.

Thesis number 21 says, “Therefore, those preachers of indulgences are in error when they say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty and is saved.” This shows Luther going right for the heart of the issue. He knew that the indulgence sales were unprecedented and against church law. They were flat-out wrong. And he was calling the church and the indulgence preachers on it. In thesis 27, Luther says, “They preach man-made doctrines that say so soon as the coin jingles into the moneybox the soul flies out or purgatory.” First, Luther calls this a man-made doctrine. It’s not a biblical doctrine. But he also reveals here the marketing jingle that was part of the practice of selling indulgences. In the German, it rhymes; it’s klingt and springt. When a coin clinks in the indulgence box, a soul from purgatory springs. Luther says there’s no biblical warrant for this teaching. In fact, he says in thesis 28, “It is certain that when the coin jingles into the moneybox greed and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the church is in the power of God alone.” You cannot buy salvation, Luther said, and it certainly doesn’t come automatically by throwing a coin into a moneybox.

In thesis 50, Luther says, “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” This is showing what was behind the indulgence sales: the need to refill the papal treasuries that were being exhausted in the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther pointed out that the sales were not for any pious purpose, not to advance any biblical purpose; they were designed simply to fill the church and to build monuments not to God but to men. He goes on in thesis 51, “Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish as it is his duty to give of his own money to many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons could cajole money.” That is a reference to Johann Tetzel, the Dominican friar who, as Luther saw it, was manipulating people into giving money to this indulgence sale. In thesis 53, Luther says, “The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the indulgence commissary or the pope himself were to stake his soul upon it.” Why is it in vain? Because there is simply no biblical warrant for it.

In thesis 56, Luther says, “The treasures of the church, out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.” And that’s exactly why Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses: because the truth was not known among the people and the truth was not being taught. And that’s what Martin Luther did when he nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door; he was being a true teacher.


They are probably the most famous doors in church history; they might even be the most famous doors in history. They are the doors of the Schlosskirche, the Castle Church, in Wittenberg, Germany. The doors that exist now are not the original wooden doors to which Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses. Those doors are long since gone, having burned in 1760; they have been replaced by bronze doors. The bronze doors are very heavy; they weigh about a ton. Inscribed on the doors are the Ninety-Five Theses in Latin.

When he posted the theses, Luther was very troubled by what was happening in his church. He was troubled by the practice of indulgence peddling and by other practices in the church. In the preface to the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther wrote, “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg over the oversight of the reverend father Martin Luther, master of arts and of sacred theology and lecturer on these subjects at Wittenberg. Wherefore, he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us may do so by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.” And then he went on to present the Ninety-Five Theses.

In the theses, Luther was calling for a debate. In his role as a priest, he saw himself as having an intense obligation concerning the eternal souls of those under his care. And as a theologian, he also had an obligation to the church to see that it maintained the truth and maintained orthodox teaching. As Luther studied the Bible and compared it to what he was seeing in the church, he saw that they were not compatible, that there was a wide gulf between them. So, he called for a debate. We can see in the first two theses what Luther was up to. In the first thesis, he wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Now, it’s fascinating that Luther would say that. In 1516, Desiderius Erasmus published his critical Greek New Testament with the Greek text on one side and the Latin text on the other side. A copy made its way to Wittenberg, and Luther read it. He poured himself into this Greek text, and he realized early on that the Latin text mistranslated Christ’s first sermon, in which He says, “Repent.” The Latin has poenitentiam agite, which translates to “Do penance.” Luther knew enough Greek to know that’s not a good translation. In fact, he goes on to tell us in thesis 2, “The word ‘repentance’ cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance or the act of confession and satisfaction administered by the priests.”

So, the stage is set. On one hand, we have the biblical teaching, and on the other hand, we have the teaching of the church. As Luther rolled through the Ninety-Five Theses, he continued to challenge the church. He was after the truth, so he walked from the Black Cloister, the Augustinian monastery to the Castle Church and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses. Luther was calling his church for debate, and we can thank God that he did.

R.C. Sproul and Luther

Stephen Nichols (SN): Welcome back to 5 Minutes in Church History. We are soon at October 31 and I have a very special guest today. Hello, Dr. Sproul.

R.C. Sproul (RC): Hello, Steve; how are you?

SN: Dr. Sproul, I need to tell you that I am calling you from a rather important place. I am standing right next to the church doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

RC: Yes, I know that place; I’ve been there before. More than once. And I am really
envious that you have the opportunity to be there now.

SN: I wish you could be here, too. This is the place where Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses. Now, I know that you’ve been in Wittenberg on a few occasions. Could you just tell us two or three of your favorite places in this town?

RC: One of my favorite places in that town, believe it or not, is a ratskeller. We went there to have lunch, and when we were there that day they had a little umpapa band in front of the ratskeller and they had a big tuba. On the bell of the tuba were inscribed in German, “Every time a guilder in the coffer rang, a soul from purgatory sprang.” I got a big kick out of that, that even to this day they would remember the words of Johann Tetzel. It’s so hard to say what my favorite place was. Being at the Luther house—there is a door and on one side there was Katie’s chair, and on the other side there was Luther’s chair, and Vesta and I got our picture taken while seated in those two chairs. Going into the church and the pulpit and all of those things, it’s just magnificent. And the museum—and I think you know that I have a perfect replica of Luther’s wedding ring that Katie von Bora designed, and the original is in the museum, and I have this one that I wear all the time. It’s one of my prized gifts that my wife gave me.

SN: Dr. Sproul, this is an important place and it’s an important year—2017. As you think about Luther’s legacy over five hundred years, what strikes you as most significant?

RC: I think the most significant thing is the recovery of the gospel and the motto Post tenebras lux—after darkness, light. And the legacy that Luther himself considered was the necessity that that gospel be recovered in every generation down to the present. And it is. In every generation, there’s been a crisis at some point over the purity of the gospel.

SN: Do you have a favorite book from the pen of Martin Luther, Dr. Sproul?

RC: There are several that I love deeply. Of course, The Bondage of the Will is a classic and I love that. But it’s pretty hard to exceed Table Talk, and it’s a pleasure to read the recorded conversational vignettes that came from Luther; they’re so candid and so rich and so insightful. But still, I prefer The Bondage of the Will above all.

SN: Why do you think Luther wrote hymns?

RC: Because he was a very astute theologian. Luther explained why he wrote hymns: because he believed that, second only to the Scripture, music has the capacity to raise and elevate the soul to the highest form of praise and adoration of God. And so, Luther was a musician, and it was a natural relationship for him to tie theology and biblical studies to the composition of music.

SN: Dr. Sproul, thank you for joining me from a distance.

RC: You’re more than welcome, Steve. It’s been a delight for me to spend time with you and reminiscing and anticipating.

SN: That was Dr. R.C. Sproul and we are here in Wittenberg.

Legacy of Luther

Martin Luther is well known as the man who sparked the Reformation by posting his Ninety-Five Theses against indulgences. But there’s more to Luther’s legacy that than simple act. Let’s sketch five points of Luther’s legacy.

The first concerns Luther’s reform of church practice. Imagine showing up at church and feeling the desire welling up within you to sing praises to God. But you can’t—you have no hymns in your language, and there is no congregational singing in the service. This was the situation before Luther. We talk about Luther’s reformation of theology, but we also have to talk about his reformation of church practice. So, when you stand up and sing a hymn and you join your voice with the other voices of the congregation in lifting praise to God, you can thank Martin Luther for restoring congregational singing and hymns to the life of the church. The second is preaching. Again, before Luther, the church service consisted mostly of the Mass, that is, the Eucharist. There was an occasional homily during Advent or Lent. Luther introduced the weekly sermon, where the pastor studies the Word of God and then brings that teaching to the people of God so they can be nourished and can grow as Christians.

Third, when we think of Martin Luther, we think of the solas. There is sola Scriptura, the doctrine that Scripture alone has final authority, that Scripture guides us and governs us. Then there’s sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus, and there we learn that salvation indeed is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And then we also learn of soli Deo gloria, that all is for the glory of God alone. The fourth point of Luther’s legacy is the family. Through his own family, his relationship with Katie and to his children, he modeled what a Christian family looks like. Before the Reformation, there was not a high view of the family within the church, and Luther helped to redeem marriage and the family and helped to bring marriage and the family to a prominent place.

And then, finally, the fifth point of his legacy is vocation. What Luther meant when he talked about vocation was that whether you have some high church office or you have the lowest menial job, every kind of work can be viewed as a calling. Before Luther, it was only the monks and the nuns and the priests who had a calling; everyone else simply worked. Luther helped us realize that all that we do can be for the glory of God as we serve Him through our vocations.

Those are the five points of Luther’s legacy. But there’s really one, true, fundamental, underlying point to Luther’s legacy, and that concerns the Word of God. There is a statue in Eisenach of Luther holding a Bible and pointing to it. I think Luther would prefer that the statue be of the Bible holding Luther, pointing us beyond him to pay attention to the Word of God. That is Luther’s legacy, because it is the Word of God that abides forever.

February 18, 1546

In Eisleben, there is a wonderful monument to Luther. It is a statue that has Luther holding two things: in one hand he is holding a Bible, and in the other hand he is holding a document. At the bottom of that document is the name Leo X. It is the papal bull that declared Luther a heretic, but Luther was going to cling to the Bible. Luther was born in Eisleben, and it was there that he died. He preached his last sermon on February 14, 1546. After that, he fell seriously ill; in fact, he could not leave his lodgings. His sons were with him; they had come with him on the journey from Wittenberg. Justus Jonas, his colleague at Wittenberg and the pastor at Halle, had heard of Luther’s illness, and he came to be with Luther in those final moments. Katie, Luther’s wife, heard about his sickness, and she was very anxious about him. He wrote to her and assured her that he had “a caretaker that is better than all the angels”—a babe lying in a manger who is also seated at the right hand of God the Father. So, in his last days, Luther was comforted in his knowledge of Christ and who He is and his knowledge of what Christ had done for him.

Luther’s famous, final written last words were, “We are beggars; this is true,” reminding us how dependent we are on God. But if you look at the context, what Luther was trying to tell us is that we are actually dependent upon teachers of God’s Word and are dependent upon God’s Word. That’s what he means by “We are beggars.”

Those were his final written words, but his final spoken words were a sermon. It had two texts, and in typical Lutheran fashion, he had a reading from the Psalms and a reading from the Gospels. The reading from the Gospels was John 3:16. So, he read that wonderful verse about God’s love for us being so great that He sent His Son to die for us on the cross. The reading from the Psalms was Psalm 68:19–20, which says, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.” On February 17, he had dinner with his sons and Jonas. After dinner, he complained of chest pains. He went to bed, and sometime in the middle of the night on February 18, 1546, Luther died. He died in the comfort of the gospel and he died in the comfort that our God is a God of salvation.

Last 4 Sermons

Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. On this episode, we are on location and we are at quite a location. This is St. Andreas Church here in the town of Eisleben in Saxon, Germany. Now, we know that this is the town of the birth of Luther and it is also the town of his death. But we are in the church and this is a significant place because it is here – in fact, it is in this very pulpit that is right behind me – it is from that pulpit that Luther preached his final four sermons. Now, Luther was not brought here to preach sermons. In fact, the reason he was brought to this town or came to this town was to settle a dispute. A dispute had arisen over an inheritance among two of the counts in this area, and if this dispute did not get settled it would threaten this area and it would threaten this town and maybe even the folks in this church. And of course, Luther cares about this place. This is the home of his birth, Eisleben, and he cares about this church. He was tired, he was worn out, he wrote in a letter that he was a worn out, sluggish, cold, tired, one-eyed man at the end of his life. And he probably should have stayed in Wittenberg but he came here. We’ll find out in a little bit about his death but it was here that he preached four sermons between January 28th, 1546 and February 14th.

In one of those sermons Luther, with his typical humor, makes the point that God must be a terrible teacher. In fact, God must be one of the most terrible teachers of all time because his pupils, his students, are constantly trying to improve upon his teaching; that they’re constantly trying to improve upon His Word – upon God’s revelation to us. Now, what Luther meant by that was especially the teachings of God, doctrine, that comes to us through His Word. And he is talking about this tendency that we have, in fact, we see it even before we get to the New Testament. We see how it was done with God’s Old Testament and the Pharisees and the Sadducees, how they added to God’s Word. We see it in the first century, in Paul, as he’s working with the church in Galatia and we see it throughout the centuries, throughout the pages, as it were, of Church history, we see how the church is wrongly trying to improve on God’s Word and how the doctrine, the essential doctrine, the crucial doctrine that matters is, of course, the doctrine of salvation. And how, in Luther’s day, in fact, this is what was at the heart of the Reformation, how the Roman Catholic Church had added to the doctrine of Salvation – that they thought they could improve upon this poorly given and poorly taught doctrine from God. So, we see what’s on Luther’s heart, we see what’s on his mind. What’s coming forth from this pulpit in his literally final days, is that we accept God’s Word as it comes to us. That we don’t try to “improve” upon it but that we accept it and that we believe it and that we obey it. Well, it was from this pulpit that Luther preached those final four sermons.

This pulpit, as we understand it, was constructed in 1518 and this church early on had a Lutheran influence. Curiously enough, through the 1520s and 1530s, this church was both Catholic and Lutheran. In the mornings they would celebrate the mass and in the afternoons there would be a Lutheran sermon. Apparently, they were just going at each other all day long. Finally, by 1540, one of the prominent Catholic citizens of this town – a count who was Catholic – died and upon his death this church could become fully evangelische, as they say in Germany, or, it could become fully Lutheran. That’s a good thing because the Lutheran himself preached here in 1546. That’s St. Andreas Church in Eisleben in Saxon, Germany.

January 1546

What would Luther want us to know? To answer that question, we’re going to look at the final month that Luther spent in Wittenberg, the month of January 1546. At the end of that month, he traveled to Eisleben, where he was born and where he died.

In January 1546, Luther was preaching as he always was. He started preaching here in 1512, and this month would be his last month of preaching. In his sermons, he was encouraging his congregation to hold fast to the gospel; we might even say that he was chastising them for already feeling the temptation to slip back into old practices. So, one of the things that Luther would want us to know is that we can never lose sight of the gospel. We must always, as the saying goes, keep the main thing the main thing. At the center of the church is the gospel, and we must proclaim the gospel and preach the gospel. Otherwise, we should pack it up and go home. The other thing Luther would want us to know is that we cling to Christ. When he traveled to Eisleben, there were all sorts of harrowing events that met him on the way, and by the time he got to Eisleben he was literally at death’s door. All of this news got back to Katie, and she was anxious about her husband. Luther wrote her a letter and said, “I have a caretaker who is better than you and all the angels; he lies in the cradle and rests on a virgin’s bosom and yet, nevertheless, he sits at the right hand of God, the almighty Father.” So, Luther would want us to know that, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, we cling to Christ. And Luther, as you know, loved a good paradox, and isn’t that a paradox? This helpless infant who is also seated at the right hand of God. You see what Luther is doing there; he is teaching us that Christ is truly man and truly God and that we can trust in the God-man.

The other thing that Luther would have us know comes from a quote of his. He said, “Do not say on the last day, Dr. Martin taught me that, etc., etc. Instead, say, Jesus Christ taught me that through my pastor’s mouth. Say, I do not believe in Dr. Martin but I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost who spoke though the apostles and speaks through preachers.” That has it right. Luther was the faithful preacher. Luther was the faithful theologian. And insofar as he was a faithful preacher and theologian, he pointed us beyond himself and beyond his teachings to the Word of God and to the teachings of God. Above all, he pointed us to the author of the Word, to God and to God Himself. So, as we celebrate Luther and all that he accomplished, we must remember his words and we must say on that last day, “I do not believe in Dr. Martin, but I believe in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” And that is what Luther would want us to know.

Martin & Katie

One of the most important people in Martin Luther’s life was, of course, his wife, Katharina von Bora, or Katie. As the Reformation progressed, Luther had many demands on his time, and so, like many married couples, they had to work to make sure they had time together. One way they did that was by having benches installed at the entrance to their home in the former Augustinian cloister in Wittenberg. Katie had the benches installed so they would have a place where they could talk in the midst of Luther’s busy schedule.

Luther, of course, was a former monk and Katie was a former nun. She was at the Nimbschen Convent and she was there with some other nuns who were actually rescued by a friend of Luther’s who was a fish merchant. His name was Leonard Kopp and he ended up at the monastery with barrels of herring to drop off. It was late in the evening, and the nuns who wanted to escape got into those herring barrels on his cart, and in the morning he went right out the gate with them. He brought them to Wittenberg and Luther found husbands for many of them. But he had a hard time finding a husband who would please one of them. This was Katharina; she had her eyes on Martin.

Martin wasn’t all that interested in getting married at the time. He was an outlaw; he had a death sentence on him for the rest of his life. While he could live with that, he didn’t want to put that burden on a wife and possible children. But he relented. Luther said he married Katie for three reasons. The first was to make the pope angry. The second was to show that he believed in his theology. Luther was preaching against a celibate clergy as early as 1518 and 1519, and he was marrying priests and former monks as early as 1520. And so, he wanted to show that he believed in his theology. And the third reason to get married, Luther said, was that he owed his parents grandchildren.

As they continued in their married life, a singular reason rose to the surface, and it was his deep love for her. What we see when we look at this relationship is that Luther honored Katie. She was a very busy woman, and much of what kept her busy was running their household. The Luthers had six children: Hans; Elizabeth, who died at eight months old; Magdalena, who died at twelve years old; Paul; and Margarethe. In addition, they had goats, chickens, pigs, and a dog. If that wasn’t enough, they also had a brewhouse, which Katie ran, along with a fish hatchery and a large garden. Katie was a very busy woman who not only had all of those things going on but was also married to the great Dr. Martin Luther, and so she entertained the many people who came to stay with them and to learn from Martin.

At one point, Luther said, “I shall die as one who loves and lauds marriage.” Before Luther, marriage was not highly regarded. The priests and nuns, of course, were not to be married, and there was a sense in which marriage was looked down upon. Luther, through his marriage and his teaching, helped to redeem marriage. And so, indeed, he died as one who both loved marriage and lauded marriage, and he loved his wife, Katie.

Luther and the Bible

When it comes to the Reformation, one of the most important topics to discuss is Martin Luther on Scripture. There are a number of things that we could say about this topic, but let’s look at just a few.

The first is the authority of Scripture. We see this in Luther at the Leipzig Debate in 1519. One of the monuments to Luther, in Eisleben, has an etching on the side of a very angry-looking Roman Catholic official. That angry-looking official is Johann Eck. On the other side of Eck is Luther, and Eck is holding in his hand some bound-up documents, while Luther is holding a book—the Bible—and that tells it all. Eck at Leipzig appealed to the teachings of the councils, the teachings of the church, and those rolled-up documents represent that. He came at Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers from the context of the church and the church’s authority. And Luther said to Eck, “I have an authority that is older than yours,” and, of course, this astounded Eck and he said, “Name them.” Luther said, “Paul and Peter and John.” He appealed directly to the authority of Scripture at Leipzig and, of course, he did the same thing at Worms. So, at Worms he said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” When he said, “Here I stand,” he was standing on Scripture and standing firm on the foundation of Scripture. And because Scripture is authoritative, we should read it and we should study it.

Among the many things Luther said about the Bible, he offered a lot of counsel about how to read it and study it. One text in particular that helps us is a preface to a collection of his writings in German. He gives three steps for reading and studying the Bible. The first step is oratio, or “prayer.” The Psalms are especially helpful here. Luther was very familiar with the Psalms. As a monk, he would have been in the Psalms seven times a day. They took Psalm 119:164 very literally: “Seven times in the day I will praise Thee,” that text says. So Luther and his fellow monks would take seven periods out of their day to spend in the Psalms. Luther loved the Psalms. Some contend that Luther had the Psalter memorized, and he often had the Hebrew Psalter with him, and after that he would also have the Latin Psalter with him as a monk. This was a book he lived in, and it was a book that taught him not only that he should learn Scripture but that he should pray Scripture. So, the Psalms can be very helpful for us as we think about Scripture and as we seek to approach it prayerfully.

The second step is meditatio. Luther says the temptation is to push on, to rush on, to just simply read the text. Luther cautions us, he counsels us, he encourages us to simply pause, to meditate on God’s Word. And again, the Psalms are helpful here because the psalmists often call on us to meditate on God’s Word.

The third step in studying the Bible is tentatio, or “struggle.” Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, we wrestle and struggle with Scripture. The struggle, Luther says, comes from our unbelief, our doubt, our stubbornness; ultimately, it comes from our sin, and the Word of God confronts it all.

That’s Luther on Scripture, the authority of Scripture, and how to read and study and learn and labor in and even love this Word that God has given us.