Arguably the most important year over the last millennium in the history of British Christianity.
Such is the significance of its 500th anniversary that the BBC have broadcast a two-part imported drama on midweek, late night BBC4. We are talking about Reformation: The Story of Martin Luther.
For 31 October 1517 is when this Augustinian monk kicked off the Reformation as he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.
You cannot overestimate the consequences of this single act. The entire world changed.
As he reached for his hammer not only was Luther taking on the might of the Papacy and the power of the Holy Roman Empire but he was challenging the entire medieval mindset.
The drama is well worth watching. I only discovered it by mistake as I scrolled down programme guide on Wednesday. You can still watch it on BBC iPlayer.
The bonus is that it is in German with English subtitles – which for me gives it a greater authenticity. For Luther is speaking in his own language, a language incidentally he played a major part in its formation.
There is some upsetting violence in the programme, a measure of the intensity of the opposition Luther faced. But it is a great story, helped by the fact that it actually happened. I impressed myself – but not Jacqui – by reciting his address with him at the Diet of Worms.
“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”
What I had not appreciated was Luther’s sheer physical bravery. He could have easily have been burnt at the stake – some of his early followers met such a fate.
However, thanks to the machinations of German state politics he enjoyed the protection of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony. But it wasn’t easy, staying God’s course never is.
What the programme does bring out is his struggle to keep the Reformation on a straight track even as it unleashed powerful forces in society so long repressed.
For him, it was a painful journey but it was a voyage of discovery. But gradually, step-by-step it all came together. The heart of his message? By God’s grace we are saved by faith alone.
There is simply nothing we can to do to earn God’s forgiveness, to make ourselves acceptable. Such is the power of the cross of Jesus that God’s salvation is freely available to everyone. We are called to place our trust in the promises of God, no more.
“God does not love sinners because they are attractive; sinners are attractive to God because he loves them.”
So easy to understand, so difficult to grasp. As he himself confessed: “Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.”
This was Jacqui’s experience when I was a theological student at Durham. She had been a Christian for years but it was only when she read my book on Martin Luther that she finally grasped what grace means.
It’s a whole new way of thinking totally at variance with how we naturally think.
It’s what Philip Yancey is trying to express when he writes: ‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”
How did Luther come to such an insight? Through reading scripture, the living active word of God. “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”
So Luther controversially translates the New Testament into his native language and in doing so inspired scholars in other lands to do the same. His aim no less is for everyone to have direct access to God’s word, now made possible by the latest technology – the printing press.
“A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”
Luther was not without his faults. He knew that only too well. Today his reputation is somewhat sullied by his anti-Semitism. He simply could not understand how the people of Abraham would not respond to God’s new covenant.
But we are who we are today largely through the epoch-making ministry of this one man.
As Martin Luther himself confessed: “God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, he can make something out of us.”