Have you seen the news? This fall the Christian Church will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the moment in time a monk named Martin Luther took 95 statements and tacked them to a door of a Castle Church in a little German town called Wittenberg. He simply wanted to talk about some practices that had crept into the Church that he believed were unbiblical and consequently distracting people from what Jesus had done in giving us the free gift of forgiveness and grace.
I recently had an opportunity to travel to Wittenberg, Germany and walk the streets and worship in the churches where Luther, and other reformers with him, lived and were led by God to bring clarity back to the Good News of Jesus. Lutherhaus, Melanchthonhaus, The Castle All Saints Church (Schlosskirche), Cranachhaus and the surrounding Dessau-Worlitz Garden Realm form the world’s densest concentration of a World Heritage site on the globe!
It all really started out quite innocently. Martin posted some issues he had (The Ninety-Five Theses) on the Castle All Saints Church doors so they could be debated, as was commonly done – basically saying “Hey, can we talk about this?” He was concerned people weren’t going to confession anymore because the Church was selling papers called “indulgences” in place of confessing your sins to God. He rightfully claimed only Jesus can forgive sins.
The church immediately took them down. After all, these indulgences were helping pay for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, among other things. But because of this new invention called the “Printing Press”, within two weeks’ time his Ninety-Five Theses had spread all over Europe! What began as a desired conversation sparked a revolution that led to the fracturing of the then known Church, and would come to incorporate doctrinal stands such as “Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone”. Calling Luther to recant, there were many “diets” (conferences) with debates to no avail. Luther would not back down! And it was at the Diet of Augsburg that Philip Melanchthon presented his paper, which is now known as “The Augsburg Confession”, a foundational doctrine for the Protestant Church still today.
Five hundred years later it’s difficult for us, especially in America, to understand what Luther, Malanchthon, Bugenhagen and others were up against. They were not only challenging the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church but also the power of the Pope himself. By the Middle Ages the Pope called all the shots. No one in Europe had more power. In fact, no Monarch could be crowned without the blessing of the Pope. No wonder they wanted Luther gone! It was while Luther was hidden away in a Castle at Wartburg, for his own protection, that he translated the New Testament into German, putting the Bible in the people’s hands, in their own language for the first time in hundreds of years since the Church began!
Beside the Castle All Saints Church, The Town Church – St. Mary’s in Wittenberg, dating back to 1187, is also where Luther and Bugenhagen preached. It was St. Mary’s that saw the first celebration of the mass in German rather than Latin and the first ever distribution of the bread and wine to the congregation!
As part of the “Luther 500” tour we also explored Torgau, the palace of Frederick the Wise (who protected Luther) and St. Mary’s Church (where Katharina Luther is buried, having died in a carriage accident while traveling there). To be buried in a church was typically reserved for Monarchs, so this tells us the high regard they had for her and her part in the Reformation because of her role in helping to define Protestant family life and setting the tone for clergy marriages, which for hundreds of years hadn’t happened in the Church.
From there it was on to Leipzig, seeing other sites Luther had either preached in or dedicated; like St. Nicholas Church, which in 1982 started Monday prayers at 5pm each week that culminated in the peaceful fall of the Berlin wall in 1989! And St. Thomas Church, which in addition to St. Nicholas, was where Johann Sebastian Bach worked as a Music Director (Kapellmeister) from 1723 until his death in 1750, writing, directing and sharing amazing music for God’s glory that is still appreciated today!
After that we traveled to Berlin where, among other things, we experienced worship in the oldest surviving building from World War Two – St. Mary’s Church in central Berlin, near Alexanderplatz, first mentioned in German chronicles in 1292. Nothing like singing “How Great is our God” by Chris Tomlin, followed by “How Great Thou Art” in a church a reformer’s words echoed in hundreds of years earlier!
Why is this all important? Because truth is important. Still today, the Church (which is people who claim to follow Jesus) can get distracted. We can lose our focus, our first love, which is Jesus, and over time begin to worship things or other people who will never satisfy. Just like Martin, we need to continue to examine God’s Word, the Bible. And when we see things that are contrary to what God gave us, just like Martin, we need to knock on a door and say “Hey, can we talk about this?”
Good things can still indeed happen at the front door, if we’re willing to stand up for truth and do things God’s way. Are you ready to learn more? Contact us today!