One key player was a man called Tetzel, a professional seller of indulgences, working on commission. He was authorized by the Pope to sell the prospect of forgiveness. In a culture that was terrified by thoughts of hell, that was easier than selling used cars.
The theory was that there was a vast "treasury of merit" - the good deeds of the saints, above and beyond their own needs for acceptance by God, added to the grace accumulated by Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The sales pitch implied that the pope had access to this treasury and some of its surplus could be made available for the less saintly and more desperate people in town, in exchange for some good deeds. In particular, for the good deed of contributing to the St Peter's Building Fund. It was even possible to purchase a release from, or reduced confinement in, purgatory for a departed loved one. As Tetzel put it in his catchy advertising jingle: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs." With such an offer they could not refuse, people lined up to be scammed. Shepherds fleecing their flocks has a long history.
As we have seen, some things are worth fighting for. God used a combination of outrage at the abusive iniquity of the scheme and the overwhelming wonder of the truth that sets men free from the lies of false doctrine to fire up Martin Luther to take a stand. He had been arrested by the scripture that declared that the just shall live by faith. After a lifetime of trying (and failing, despite his best efforts) to earn God's approval, he was free in that moment. Yet he saw people all around him being enslaved.
The special offer of God's free grace stands in utter opposition to the scam that suggests we can buy God's favour by our own efforts. Luther determined that this was worth fighting for.
As he nailed the document outlining his 95 objections to indulgences to the door of the church in Wittenberg he unwittingly began the Reformation. In the days long before facebook he pioneered the art of creating a post that goes viral. What started as a series of ideas posted on the equivalent of the town's bulletin board to start a debate turned into a bloody battle that tore Europe apart. The fault lines remain intact to this day and continue to have a bearing on the factions wrestling over the financial crises in the Eurozone.
Luther stands as a challenge to us today. He was willing to stand up to error. Truth mattered to him. As the conflict dragged him before authorities and rulers, he is reported to have said,
...I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's Word. I cannot and will not recant anything. For to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen
Today, to so many, it's more important to feel forgiven than it is to know why we're forgiven. Luther saw the carnage such a mindset created in his home town. So he took a stand.
For more on this historic conflict, there is an audio recording on our web site.