He was born poor.
His parents were frugal and hardworking.
His childhood was not an easy one. His mother, a woman of prayer, once beat the boy until he bled – for stealing a nut. His father was so verbally and physically abusive they became enemies for a time.
He once said it took him years to say the Lord’s Prayer without thinking of his own cruel father.
He later reflected that “the severe and harsh life I led with them was the reason that I afterward took refuge in the cloister and became a monk”.
It was an unlikely start for a man who would one day sway kingdoms.
He studied, he argued, he wrote and he thought.
He was, perhaps because of his childhood, pugnacious and defiant. Above all, he was a man of uncompromising conviction and iron-clad integrity.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the main door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 – five hundred years ago this month – he began a movement that would change the world forever.
The Protestant Reformation came not from a committee or a policy; nor a public opinion poll or focus group. It came from the heart and mind of a man who not only loved truth, and understood it, but was prepared to die for it. Luther was possessed of a passion that all truth was God’s and no amount of political, military or ecclesiastical power could storm its citadel or prevail against it.
The pure and simple Gospel found in the Bible – that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) – was Luther’s call to arms, the light to his path and the altar of his life – and, if need be, his death.
Luther assailed the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, though he himself was Catholic. He did so with a vehemence and candor that demanded a verdict of conscience from every citizen of the realm.
Attached to his arguments on the door of Wittenberg was this invitation:
“Out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther….”
Oh, to have been there!
He threw down the gauntlet of scripture at the feet of religious tyranny and dared the corrupt to defy God himself.
“I have been born to war,” Luther wrote, “and fight with factions and devils; therefore my books are stormy and warlike”.
Luther could not abide the practice of the church selling indulgences in exchange for forgiveness of sins. God alone could forgive sins and the blood of Jesus Christ, shed freely for all, was its only payment.
Faith alone, not good works, gained admittance to heaven and eternal life.
But the Church in Rome had grown rich from its heresy and would not give up its power without a fight. Before long, this was a struggle not over indulgences but over papal authority itself.
“I have cast the die,” declared the German monk. “I now despise the rage of the Romans as much as I do their favor … I no longer fear …” Luther would go against the pope himself, “in language so violent as if I were addressing Antichrist.” He called Rome “that empurpled Babylon” and “the Roman Sodom.”
“If we justly hang thieves and behead robbers, why should we let Roman avarice go free? For he is the greatest thief and robber who has come or can come into the world, and all in the holy name of Christ and St. Peter!”
When brought before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and ordered to “repudiate your books and the errors which they contain,” Luther stood his ground and budged not an inch:
“Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason … my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Whether Luther actually uttered the words “Here I stand” is not verified. But it’s what he did.
Martin Luther did more than stand.
He stood “contra mundum”.
It’s a Latin phrase meaning “against the world”.
Luther stood against the corrupt power and falsehood of his time – and for all time. He wrestled “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12, KJV).
Martin Luther was unafraid because he knew that one person armed with a righteous cause is mightier than all the hosts of error. He also knew that truth was real, it could be known, and that it mattered.
Luther, who loved music, left us with the greatest hymn ever written. In it, he reflects his own struggle on behalf of timeless truth and casts the epic battle as a contest between God and Satan. He describes God as “a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing”. He writes that God is “our helper” who stands with us and prevails “amid the flood of mortal ills”.
For Luther, no less than for us today, the outcome was never in doubt.
“The prince of darkness grim – we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure”.
Let us stand where Luther stood.
“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still – His kingdom is forever.”