Each year, many pilgrims make the journey to Lutherstadt-Wittenberg for one key reason: to remember the power of a single lifetime to make history. When a simple monk named Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door, he could never have imagined what that would trigger.
But it is essential to remember that he was able to write history not only thanks to a broad vision, but a vision associated 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 forgiveness granted by the Church of the penalty owed to a person for his already forgiven sins. Essentially, he borrowed from the pool of merit earned by Jesus and the saints. The idea was that the leader of each church was responsible for this warehouse of kitchen passes. As author Martin Marty has noted, in Luther’s time the granting of indulgences was “popularized and marketed by professional acrobats and pardon-sellers.”
Like Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel worked Luther’s part of the world, which pushed Luther over the edge. All that had to be done was to pay a certain amount to completely escape any purgatory punishment. No confession necessary. You might even arrange to buy such an indulgence for a friend already there. One could imagine how much Tetzel’s pitch infuriated young Martin:
“When a coin in the safe rings,
a soul from the springs of purgatory.
Posting something on a church door, a glorified bulletin board, looks sweet by most standards. It was also relatively common for the day, a regular feature of college life and the typical way of giving notice of 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’s what God used. And it took courage. By taking indulgences, Luther ends up attacking the Church. This was not contemplated by Luther (thesis number 71 of his famous 95 supported the proper use of indulgences). Yet it was this courage, fueled by his conviction, that gradually propelled Luther from the abuse of indulgences to the indictment of the entire denominational system and, ultimately, to the Protestant Reformation. As the novelist Elizabeth Rundle Charles has Luther argue:
“If I profess in the loudest voice and in the clearest possible way every part of the truth of God, except precisely this little point which the world and the devil are attacking at this moment, I do not confess Christ, so boldly that I can profess Christ. Where the battle is raging, where the soldier’s loyalty is proven and being stable across the entire battle front for that matter, is just an escape and a shame if he flinches at the time.
When people talk about making history, they tend to think of it in terms of personal fulfillment or fame. They rarely think in terms of impact, or in terms of confronting something hugely wrong with the greater power of good at the risk of their lives.
For example, years ago in Cairo a revolution took place with stunning speed and within days an autocratic ruler who had been in power for more than three decades was overthrown. The genesis of the uprising was widely seen as the convergence of three factors that together created a “perfect storm” of revolution: (1) a large youth population; (2) widespread poverty and unemployment; and (3) the availability of social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and SMS for communication and organization.
I visited Cairo just eight months before the revolution and stood on what is now known as Liberation Square. I can testify to the abject poverty and extremely difficult economic conditions faced by so many who lived there. This revolt came about was not surprising; that he came so quickly was. And from this revolution came many others throughout the Middle East.
The word that was shouted throughout Egypt was “Kefaya– an Egyptian Arabic word (slang, actually) meaning “enough”. Although it was the unofficial name of a popular political reform movement in Egypt, the word took on a much deeper. It became a cry of anger, despair and determination. The young people of the region were tired 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 bring about political, social or, dare you dream, spiritual change? Even if it means danger? Even death?
It could. But this requires both courage and conviction.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom. Get the eBook HERE at Church & Culture.
Martin E.Marty, A brief history of Christianity2nd edition.
Bill Leonard, Word of God through the ages.
Elizabeth RundleCharles, The Schoenberg Cotta Family Chronicles.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, 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 TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.