When Staupitz had arranged for Luther to study for his doctorate, he had hoped that the work of a professor would direct Luther’s energies toward others and assist in resolving his inner Angst. The plan worked in a remarkable way. Precisely in preparing and teaching his courses, Luther came to discover Scriptural truths which had long been hidden from him—and from many in the Church.
As a professor, Luther lectured on the Psalms (1514–15), on Romans (1515–16), and on Galatians (1516–17). The first taught him a new way of understanding faith as hope in God’s promises. The Psalms had long been interpreted as the prayers of Christ, but Luther began to understand them as the prayers of the faithful, hoping in God and trusting in His Word. The book of Romans finally resolved Luther’s trouble with the concept of God’s righteousness. Romans 1:17 states that “the righteousness of God” is revealed in the Gospel. This, he came to understand, is the righteousness which God gives freely to those who trust in Christ—a righteousness which is Christ Himself and all His works. It is the epitome of mercy, covering sinners with a forgiveness they could never deserve. In the book of Galatians, he discovered the absolute opposition between a salvation by works and salvation by faith in Christ. Trusting in the promise of Christ was sufficient to attain all the blessings He had won for humanity through His cross and resurrection.
These new insights stirred Luther to oppose the traffic of indulgences in Germany. These papal promises to remove the temporal punishments for sins were often understood by the common people to deliver from hell and even guarantee salvation to those who remained unrepentant in their sins. Sold through clerical and monastic hawkers, they were also a significant source of income for the Pope, who was incurring significant debt in the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Luther could only see them as a false promise, a false gospel which offered “salvation” without repentance and faith in Christ or the new life which followed trusting in Him. In 1517, when he wrote the 95 Theses, he was doing nothing more than inviting his colleagues to an academic debate. They begin: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite (“do penance”), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
The Theses, however, quickly took on a life of their own. Their sharp and insightful positions moved others to translate and publish them throughout Europe. Luther’s ideas had “gone viral” by means of the relatively new technology of the printing press. The Pope ordered Luther’s superiors to deal with the rebel. Staupitz’s response was to arrange for Luther to present his ideas at Heidelberg, where his understanding of the “theology of the cross” only gained him more followers.
Concerned about defending the authority of the Roman Church, Johann Eck, a former friend of Luther, sought to debate the Reformer. The meeting took place in Leipzig in 1519. During the heat of the debate, Eck helped all, including Luther, to see that he was not merely opposed to a few abuses in the church. The logic of his position would undercut the entire papal hierarchy. During the debate, Luther admitted that popes and councils can err and that it had been a mistake for the church to condemn John Hus, a 15th century Bohemian reformer who had also opposed indulgences on the basis of the Scriptures. Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel would mean a complete rethinking of the structure and practices of the Church.
This article is the second in a series of four that comprise the Historic Exhibit of the Reformation displayed at the Breslin Center on October 15, 2017:
Pauwels, Ferdinand (1830-1904). Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (detail). 1872. AKG-images.