It was Halloween, Oct. 31, 500 years ago. A little known monk left the monastery where he lived and walked, almost unnoticed, the few blocks to a church at the other end of the street. There he nailed a handwritten document to the wooden door for all to see. Like a single flaming match dropped into the dry straw of a forest, Martin Luther’s 95 theses ignited a conflagration that engulfed all of Europe and continues to this day.
This week, over 2 million people descended on Wittenburg, Germany, current population 2,135. Many believe that this was the door by which Europe exited the Dark Ages and entered the Age of Enlightenment. Historians point to tiny Wittenberg as the cradle where the modern Western world was born.
I visited Wittenberg a few years ago. The ancient village is surrounded by modern development. But the old streets have been preserved, much as they were 500 years ago. I sat in the courtyard outside the monastery where Martin Luther worked through the book of Romans and wrestled with the words, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). I walked from the monastery to the church, the same path Luther took 500 years ago.
Luther was a young priest, only 34 years old, assigned to an obscure village. He was devoted to the Roman Catholic Church. But when Johann Tetzel came to his town promising his parishioners that their deceased family members could be released from purgatory and enter heaven if they would only make a contribution to the church, he could not contain himself. Tetzel’s efforts had been wildly successful in raising money. But, to Luther, it was wildly heretical.
It was a paradigm shift, 14 centuries after Jesus was born. Somehow the manuscripts recorded in the first century by those who saw Jesus, who listened to his words, who watched him crucified and witnessed his resurrection had been buried beneath religious tradition and ritual.
His discovery changed everything. Heaven, the one thing he desired most, could not be earned by good works and penance, nor by contributions to the church. It could not be bestowed by the words of any man, priest or pope. Heaven was a free gift to anyone willing to repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus Christ.
From the first century until now it has always been the same, for rich or poor, for people of every nationality, language or ethnicity, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).