On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther shattered history. Luther scarcely knew the consequences of his hammering of the 95 Theses on the church door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. Even in the year 2015, almost 500 years later, people still know his name and quote his works. To quote church historian David Calhoun, “More books have been written about Luther than about anybody else in history except Jesus Christ. When one begins to talk about Luther, there is so much to say that it is almost impossible to know how to say it.” (“A Mighty Fortress…”) Martin Luther not only started the Reformation, but his works served as the inspiration for the Reformers in England, France, Switzerland, and the rest of the world all the way down to the present day. Carl Truman writes in Luther on the Christian Life, that “After Augustine, no single churchman-theologian has influenced the Western church more than Luther over the centuries. Not only did his pastoral protest in the sixteenth century precipitate the shattering of the medieval church, but many of his own particular concerns—the clarity of Scripture, the centrality of the preached Word, justification by grace through faith, and the Lord’s Supper—helped to define Protestantism in relation to Roman Catholicism and to determine how different Protestant communions came to understand themselves in relation to each other.” (22) This entire month we have seen how Luther set the tone for the Reformation and shaped, influenced, rubbed shoulders with, and got into heated debate with the other reformers. In short, Luther’s life and legacy cannot be overstated.
Born in Eisleben in the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1483, Luther grew up well cared for. His father was a copper miner and did everything he could to save money to send his son who showed real talent in his Latin studies and work at the University of Erfurt (1501-1505) to law school. It did not go as his father had planned. Luther was traveling near Stottenheim on his way back to Erfurt to finish his studies when a great and terrible thunderstorm terrified him. Lightning struck rather close to him and he dove down in panic crying out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners that he would become a monk if his life were to be spared. Luther lived, and promptly joined the Augustinian monks.
The Augustinian order gave Luther a home to study, pray, and consider all that he had read. He put the law behind him and studied the scriptures. He grew in the Order and was sent on a trip to Rome in 1510 to try to petition the pope to alter a decision the papacy had made regarding the unification of the various Augustinian orders. Here in Rome, Luther witnessed firsthand the corruption and worldliness of the center of Christendom on earth. Hillerbrand remarks, “he found in Rome a lack of spirituality at the very heart of Western Christendom.” (“Martin Luther – German Religious Leader”) The 2003 film Luther captures Luther’s experience and reaction well:
Eventually Luther began to teach and preach at the University of Wittenberg. He became a favorite of the students there and made a deep impression on his pupils. He started to agitate against the efficacy of relics and delved deep into an Augustinian view of grace. Luther started to pick on those abuses of the church that were most egregious – Specifically the actions of the Indulgence salesman John Tetzel.
Tetzel gained himself quite a reputation. The papacy had taught that within the blood of Christ resided a treasury of merits. These merits or good works contained in the blood of Christ which was shed for all could be applied to different people to shorten their own or a loved one’s time in purgatory should the price be paid to do so. Purgatory remains a belief within Catholicism to this day where saved sinners reside until there are purged of the last of their sins to enter heaven. Tetzel sold these indulgence certificates which helped to fill the papal coffers and help build St. Peter’s Basilica. He utilized handy catch-phrases such as, “Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” He asserted that one could rape the virgin Mary and still be absolved of their sins by buying a certificate. When Luther heard of what Tetzel was doing, he became livid. He would not stand for it. He wrote up a protest of 95 Theses against the Sale of Indulgences and hammered it to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.
The results of Luther’s actions is well documented. Luther defended successfully the 95 Theses at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. In addition, Frederick the Wise who was the Elector of Saxony and the head of that part of the Holy Roman Empire defended Luther in political strategy aimed at diffusing the tension of their Catholic leader, Emperor Charles V and the papal authorities while quietly supporting Luther through his protégée George Spalatin. Luther’s students and colleagues at Wittenberg jointed together in support of Luther. Luther started to develop his ideas about justification by faith alone or an understanding about salvation bred in what God has done for humanity, not what humanity has done for God, and the papacy set off against him.
Johann Eck, the formidable Catholic apologist sparred with Luther in Leipzig in 1520. At Leipzig, Eck accused Luther of being a Bohemian follower of Jan Hus, and in line with those who follow heretical teaching. (Hillerbrand) Luther asserted that not everything Hus had said was inaccurate and also that church councils could indeed err. A victory for Luther, Leipzig helped paved the way for his excommunication the following year.
With Frederick the Wise on his side, Luther was not detained for his excommunication. Ensuring that all Germans would be tried in courts in Germany, Luther was summoned to Worms in 1521 to defend his works before the agents of the papacy and the emperor.
A table had been set up and his works were laid upon it and he was told to repudiate them and recant all of their contents. Luther insisted the second day of the meeting that not everything in his works were heretical. Indeed, many had gained insight from them and parts of the works endorsed great teachings of the church. Luther stood boldly declaring:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. [Here I stand, I can do no other!] God help me. Amen.” (Quote in Coffman)
The Diet of Worms had been a perilous time for Luther. The emperor had granted Luther a safe conduct, which meant that Luther could not be harmed or taken captive to or from the Diet. Following the Diet, he was kidnapped and many thought he had been killed.
The famous painter Albrecht Dürer lamented Luther’s supposed death which is quoted here at length from his diary:
On Friday before Pentacost (17th of May) in the year 1521 the news reached Antewerpen, that Martin Luther had been so treacherously taken prisoner. For when the herald of the emperor Charles had been ordered to accompany him with the emperial guard, he trusted this. But when the herald had brought him near Eisenanch to an inhospitable place, he told him that he had no further need of him and rode off. Pretty soon ten riders on horse-back appeared; they treacherously led away this deceived, pious man, who was illumined by the Holy Spirit and professed the true Christian faith. And is he still alive? Or have they murdered him?—which I do not know—in that case he has suffered it for the sake of the Christian truth in that he chastised the unchristian papacy, which resists the liberation by Christ with its heavy burdens of human laws; and also for this reason has he suffered it, that we should even longer as until know be deprived and completely disrobed of all that is the fruit of our blood and sweat, and that this fruit should shamefully and blasphemously be consumed by idle folk while the thirsty, parched people die because of it.
And especially, the hardest factor for me is that God might possibly want to keep us under their false and blind teaching, which has only been composed and compiled by people they call fathers. Because of this, the delicious Word of God is wrongly exegeted or not at all taught in many places.
Oh God in heaven have mercy on us… And should we have lost this man, who has written more clearly than any other that has lived in the last 140 years and to whom you have given such an evangelical spirit, we pray you, Oh heavenly Father, that you would give your Holy Spirit again to someone who would gather your holy Christian Church so that we might live together again in a Christian manner…..Anyone, after all, who reads Martin Luther’s books, can see how his teaching is so clear and transparent when he sets forth the holy gospel. Therefore, these are to be honored and ought not to be burned… (Quote in Schaeffer)
Dürer’s diary captures the general feeling among many of the people who had watched the scene at Worms unfold. Luther’s works were revolutionary. They revived the work of Augustine who had revived the work of Paul in teaching that it is the grace of God that reigns supreme in salvation, not human effort or works. People judged that Luther was right and rebellions started to break out across the Holy Roman Empire.
Luther had been kidnapped by Frederick the Wise’s men who sought to take Luther into hiding before Charles V’s men could capture him. He assumed the disguised persona of Knight George and spent his time in the Wartburg Castle translating the bible into German with the New Testament coming out in 1522.
The rest, they say, is history. Luther married Katharina von Bora (1525), helped to write the Augsburg Confession of Faith with his right-hand man Philipp Melanchthon (1530), wrote the Lutheran small and large catechism, and served as the founder of the Lutheran church. He sparred with Zwingli and Calvin over the doctrine of the Eucharist, and also worked tirelessly to continue the Reformation. Luther died in 1546.
Martin Luther’s example humbles and inspires us and shows us how the brave actions of one man standing up for the truth of God can change the world.
In honor of Luther and Reformation Day and Reformation Sunday here is one jewel from Luther’s works, from his commentary on the Galatians:
The world bears the Gospel a grudge because the Gospel condemns the religious wisdom of the world. Jealous for its own religious views, the world in turn charges the Gospel with being a subversive and licentious doctrine, offensive to God and man, a doctrine to be persecuted as the worst plague on earth.
As a result we have this paradoxical situation: The Gospel supplies the world with the salvation of Jesus Christ, peace of conscience, and every blessing. Just for that the world abhors the Gospel. These Jewish-Christian fanatics who pushed themselves into the Galatian churches after Paul’s departure, boasted that they were the descendants of Abraham, true ministers of Christ, having been trained by the apostles themselves, that they were able to perform miracles.…When men claiming such credentials come along, they deceive not only the naive, but also those who seemingly are well-established in the faith. This same argument is used by the papacy. “Do you suppose that God for the sake of a few Lutheran heretics would disown His entire Church? Or do you suppose that God would have left His Church floundering in error all these centuries?” The Galatians were taken in by such arguments with the result that Paul’s authority and doctrine were drawn in question. Against these boasting, false apostles, Paul boldly defends his apostolic authority and ministry. Humble man that he was, he will not now take a back seat. He reminds them of the time when he opposed Peter to his face and reproved the chief of the apostles. Paul devotes the first two chapters to a defense of his office and his Gospel, affirming that he received it, not from men, but from the Lord Jesus Christ by special revelation, and that if he or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than the one he had preached, he shall be accursed.
Calhoun, David. “A Might Fortress is our God: The Life of Martin Luther.” Reformation and Modern Church History. Spring 2006. Covenant Theological Seminary. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.
Coffman, Elesha. “What Luther Said.” Christian History. 08 Aug. 2008. Christianity Today. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.
Dürer, Albrecht. “Quote.” in Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005. Print. 96-97.
Hillerbrand, Hans, J. “Martin Luther – German Religious Leader.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.
Luther, Martin. Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. 1538. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.
Trueman, Carl. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom. Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2015. Print.