2017 marks the 500-year anniversary of the launch of the Reformation. Martin Luther is credited for being the leader of the movement that effectively created the Protestant sect of Christianity. Today is the last post in this series on the life of Martin Luther. It is one of many special series I plan to share during 2017 to commemorate this fantastic series of events that led to separation from the Roman Catholic Church.
Martin Luther went to Rome in 1510. He had high expectations for his visit to Rome. When he arrived, he fell to the earth, raised his hands and said, “Hail to thee, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed here.” Luther wanted a spiritual experience; so he visited the graves of forty-six popes and the cemeteries of 80,000 martyr’s bones.
When good Catholic monks visited Rome, they would often visit a place called Scala Sancta, which means “holy stairs” in the Latin. According to the Christian tradition, these were the very steps that led up to the Praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus Christ stood on during his Passion on his way to trial. The stairs were said to be brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th Century. They consisted of twenty-eight white marble steps, now encased by wood. They are located next to a church which was built on ground brought from Mount Calvary.
The Catholic Church taught that by ascending these steps on your knees in an appropriate fashion, you can buy an indulgence for someone in purgatory. If you ascended each step reciting “Our Father” (Pater Noster), you could release a soul from purgatory. Luther wanted to free his grandfather – Lindemann Luther – from purgatory.
While Luther was climbing the stairs on his knees, he thought he heard a voice of thunder which cried at the bottom of his heart, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ He was said to rise up in amazement from the steps and began to feel personal horror and shame. He – as legend says – proclaimed “The just shall live by faith!”
Luther wrote later of this experience:
“Although I was a holy and irreproachable monk, my conscience was full of trouble and anguish. I could not bear the words, ‘Justice of God.’ I loved not the just and holy God who punishes sinners. I was filled with secret rage against him, and hated him, because, not satisfied with terrifying his miserable creatures, already lost by original sin, with his law and the miseries of life, he still further increased our torment by the gospel. . . . But when, by the Spirit of God, I comprehended these words; when I learned how the sinner’s justification proceeds from the pure mercy of the Lord by means of faith, then I felt myself revived like a new man, and entered at open doors into the very paradise of God.
“From that time, also, I beheld the precious sacred volume with new eyes. I went over all the Bible, and collected a great number of passages which taught me what the work of God was. And as I had previously, with all my heart, hated the words, ‘Justice of God,’ so from that time I began to esteem and love them, as words most sweet and most consoling. In truth, these words were to me the true gate of paradise.”
Luther began to turn his back on the Church and Rome itself. He once wrote,
“Where God build a church, the Devil puts up a chapel next door. … It is almost incredible. What infamous actions are committed at Rome; one would require to see it and hear it in order to believe it. It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from whence all sins proceed. … Rome, once the holiest city, was now the worst. Let me get out of this terrible dungeon. I took onions to Rome and brought back garlic.”
So Luther’s visit to Rome was a great disappointment. What he found was a corrupt Church.
And about seven years later (in 1517), or 500 years ago this October, Luther would nail his protest to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany and thus launch the most important extra-biblical event in all of history – the Reformation.