The problems of worldly corruption and spiritual uncertainty came together in the practice of selling indulgences. Preachers with licenses from the Pope sold certificates freeing the recipients from their time in Purgatory and sent the money to Rome. Martin Luther, a popular professor of Biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg, was one of many outraged by indulgence selling and in 1517 he posted 95 theses that directly attacked only abuses in indulgences, but which implied a much deeper critique of the whole system on which the papacy was based.
Just two years later, he had moved to a much more radical position. Like many others, Luther had tried to confess his sins without ever having any sense that he had done enough. He concluded that there was no “enough.” Since argued that all humans were tainted by sin so that no person could ever perform a truly good act. Thus, he challenged the common assumption that God somehow took account of each person’s virtue in deciding whether to give them the gift of salvation, and argued instead that God simply bestowed salvation on those who he wanted to save. Since no actions could bring salvation, Luther discarded the whole system of penance that had developed to purify lay people, and also the practice of asking saints to intervene with God on their behalf: each person had to trust only in God’s love.
The best part is that, according to Luther, you know you’re saved because you know you’re saved. In order to be saved you only have to realize that God’s power and love are so great that not even you, horrible sinner though you are, can get in His way. The catch is that you have no free will—either God saves you and gives you the power to do good, or He leaves you in your fallen state and you go to Hell. Again, not even you can get in the way of His choice. And yet saved Christians are free—not because anything has changed in them, but because they have turned themselves over to the saving power of Christ.
In 1520 these teachings were condemned by the Pope and Luther made a definitive break with the church. He rejected the authority of popes and bishops, and argued that the true church existed where the gospel—the good news that God saves by faith alone—was preached. For Luther, sola scriptura—“scripture alone”—meant that church leaders could not contradict the right interpretation of Scripture. The “correct” interpretation was, of course, the one that had liberated him from the fear and anxiety that plagued him and so many others.
He wrote a series of works in German to make is case, including an open letter to the German nobility asking for their support in a battle “not with men, but with the princes of hell.” Reminding his readers of the long history of conflict between the Papacy and the Germans who had the title of Roman Emperor, he called them to do spiritual battle against a system that he associated with the Beast of the last days. By this point he was convinced that the religious turmoil he had inadvertently started was a sign of the last days.
In 1521, Charles V ordered the arrest of all “Lutherans” (a name that Luther hated, but which stuck). However, Luther’s own lord, Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, was happy to support someone who annoyed the Pope and Emperor. Although Frederick remained Catholic, he gave Luther protection and allowed his followers to reform the church of Wittenberg. Other German nobles allowed the condemned heretics similar freedom, and some even became Lutherans themselves.
Meanwhile, another Reformation was beginning in the Swiss city of Zurich where Ulrich Zwingli, a popular preacher, also called for major changes to church practice on Biblical grounds. Zwingli agreed with Luther’s teaching on justification by faith, but he was most concerned with conformity to the Bible alone. Luther countenanced fasting, saints’ days, and other practices not expressly forbidden in the Bible, but Zwingli argued that Christians should only do things expressly commanded by the Bible. He created a crisis in 1522 by organizing a group of citizens who ceremoniously ate meat during Lent. By 1523 Zurich, which didn’t have to worry about kings, had committed to reform.
Next: Reformation History 2: 1524-1531