Many pilgrims each year make the journey to Lutherstadt-Wittenberg for one key reason—to remember the power of a single life to make history. When a simple monk named Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door, he never could have dreamed what it would unleash.
But it is critical to remember that he was able to make history not simply through a large vision, but a vision coupled with conviction and courage.
The impetus behind the posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, All Saints’ Eve, in 1517 is worth remembering. It was the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was the pardon granted by the Church of the punishment due a person from their already-forgiven sins. In essence, it borrowed from the storehouse of merit earned by Jesus and the saints. The idea was that the head of each church was in charge of this storehouse of kitchen passes. As noted by author Martin Marty, in Luther’s time the granting of indulgences was “vulgarized and commercialized by mountebanks and professional pardon-peddlers.”
Like Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel worked Luther’s part of the world, which pushed Luther over the edge. All one had to do was pay a certain sum to receive a full escape from any punishment in purgatory. No confession needed. You could even arrange to buy such an indulgence for a friend already there. One could imagine how Tetzel’s pitch infuriated young Martin:
“When a coin in the coffer rings,
a soul from purgatory springs.”
Posting something on the door of a church, a glorified bulletin board, seems mild by most standards. It was also relatively common for the day, a regular feature of University life, and the typical way of giving notice for debate. And the University of Wittenberg itself was a relatively obscure institution in a rather small town of dirty streets and mud houses with straw roofs.
But it was born of conviction, which led to courage, and that is what God used. And it took courage. By taking on indulgences, Luther wound up taking on the Church. This was not envisioned by Luther (thesis number 71 of his famed 95 supported the proper use of indulgences). Yet it was this courage, fueled by his conviction, that propelled Luther step by step from the abuse of indulgences to an indictment of the entire confessional system and, in the end, to the Protestant Reformation. As the novelist Elizabeth Rundle Charles has Luther maintaining:
“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
When people talk about making history, they tend to think of it in terms of personal fulfillment or fame. Seldom do they think in terms of impact, or in regard to confronting something enormously evil with the greater power of good at great personal risk to themselves.
For example, years ago in Cairo a revolution took place with stunning speed, and in a handful of days an autocratic leader who had been in power for more than three decades was removed. The genesis of the uprising was widely viewed as the convergence of three factors that together created a “perfect storm” of revolution: (1) a large population of young people; (2) widespread poverty and unemployment; and (3) the availability of social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and texting for communication and organization.
I visited Cairo a mere eight months prior to the revolution and stood in what is now known as Liberation Square. I can attest to the abject poverty and overwhelmingly challenging economic conditions that faced so many of the people who lived there. That revolt came was not surprising; that it came so quickly was. And from that one revolution came many others throughout the Middle East.
The word that was shouted throughout Egypt was “Kefaya!”—an Egyptian Arabic word (slang, actually) that means “enough.” While this is the unofficial name of a grassroots political reform movement in Egypt, the word took on a far wider and deeper meaning. It became a cry of anger, of despair and of determination. Young people in the region had enough of being ignored. Enough of being abused. Enough of being silenced. Enough of being forgotten. Enough of being left behind as the rest of the world rushed ahead.
So what will you be willing to say “enough” to? Will you see your one and only life effect political, social or, dare you dream it, spiritual change? Even if it means danger? Even death?
It could. But it requires both courage and conviction.
James Emery White
James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom. Get the eBook HERE at Church & Culture.
Martin E. Marty, A Short History of Christianity, 2nd edition.
Bill Leonard, Word of God Across the Ages.
Elizabeth Rundle Charles, The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.