After a short stay in Rome, Luther returned to teaching in Wittenberg and a few months later became doctor of divinity. The convocation made a deep impact on his mind because he was required to take an oath on the bible to “study, propagate and defend the faith contained in the Holy Scriptures” and ever after he saw himself as the defender of truth in his native Germany.
A year after his return from Rome, in 1513, Pope Julius II passed away and Leo X took his place. Leo was a son of the affluent and wealthy Medici family of Florence and he brought with him to Rome all the taste and flair for pageantry that was synonymous with the Medici name. His papal court became a hub for art, music, poetry, and entertainment despite the fact that it was an ecclesiastical court and not a political one. In addition to his expensive and lavish tastes, Leo had no religious inclinations whatsoever, an interesting irony, given the fact that he was meant to be Christ’s vicar on earth, once commenting “what a profitable affair this fable of Christ has been to us.”
As soon as he became Pope, Leo went about beautifying Rome and his grandest pet project was that of expanding and refurbishing St. Peter’s church in Rome. But how to fund such a grand venture? He would need millions. His gaze fell on Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, who, having expensive tastes himself had racked up a sizable debt, which he owed to the Papal throne. Leo capitalized on this opportunity and prevailed on Albert to raise the money to pay back the debt by selling indulgences. The funds collected would then be funneled into Leo’s new project for St. Peter’s. Albert was agreeable and he proceeded to enlist the help of Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was peculiarly suited for the position to which he was called. He was Grand Inquisitor of Heresy in Poland, which made him very good at putting the fear of eternal damnation into people and he had also had some prior experience in the business of peddling indulgences, making his an experienced salesman.
Tetzel took Germany by storm, going from village to village with his entourage and promising people unconditional forgiveness for sins past, present, and future, for the living and the dead, if they would but invest, for a small fee, in a certificate of papal indulgence. His campaign slogan was “the very moment the money clinks against the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory and flies to heaven” Some flocked to him while others heckled, asking if the Pope were able to spring people from purgatory so easily, why he didn’t do it as a matter of charity. Regardless of all this, the coffers of Rome soon began to fill under the able theatrics of Tetzel’s sales pitch.
Luther was, at this time, still a true son of Catholicism and he was also the confessor at the Castle church in Wittenberg. When his parishioners came to him wielding Tetzel’s certificate of pardon Luther was horrified.He refused to accept a single one, much to the chagrin of the people who had spent good money on them and denounced Tetzel and his indulgences as a fraud. He then began to act, preaching a powerful sermon on “Indulgences and the Grace of God” and sending detailed protests to the Archbishop and local bishops. What appalled Luther the most was the notion that the grace and forgiveness of God could be bought and sold for petty cash. His grandest gesture of all took place on All Saints day, the 31st of October 1517, a time when people from far and near were flocking to the Cathedral at Wittenberg to view the relics housed there. Making his way through the crowds of pilgrims, Luther strode up to the church and hammered his 95 theses or doctrinal statements regarding the sale of indulgences onto the door. The document was picked up and reproduced via the aid of the printing press and spread throughout Germany like wildfire. The Reformation had officially begun and before long Luther was summoned to appear before a furious Leo X.
Luther never set out to revolutionize the world or even revolutionize Catholicism. He simply chose to stand on the side of truth and it was this seemingly innocuous act that set in motion one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever seen. You don’t need to turn the world upside down to be a circuit breaker, you just need to be faithful to God where you are called and circuit breaking will follow.