On October 31, 1517, the world changed. Martin Luther rose up out of the doldrums of the little town of Wittenberg and defied both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor at once. His catalyst was Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law,” Luther says in his commentary. “Faith brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, as the law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself.” This truth is the crux of his challenge to the Church which had swayed well away from the justification of faith as Jesus Christ crucified to the justification of faith by what a person gave or performed for the Church.

The Astonishing Story Of Martin Luther & Reformation Day

Born in 1483, Martin Luther is by no means the first to raise his grievances to Rome. John Wycliffe (1320-1384), the namesake for Wycliffe Bible Translators, took the Latin Vulgate (the only way Scripture was read at the time) and translated it into Middle English. For anyone, this was an act of dissidence, especially when you’re a Catholic priest like Wycliffe. Though he died a natural death, his bones were later unearthed and burned for heresy. And then there’s Jan Hus, the Bohemian (Prague) priest who is burned at the stake in 1415 because of a defiance of church teachings much along the lines of Luther in 1517.

Why Martin Luther was able to instigate an upheaval against the Church, later called Protestantism and the Reformation might be due to his location in Germany, a lost band of feudal kingdoms that might welcome rebellion against the Pope and the Emperor. It might also be due to Johann Gutenberg’s printing press and the ability to disseminate texts more quickly. It may simply be because Martin Luther was able to escape almost certain violence and possibly death after the Diet of Worms, the trial in which he was formally excommunicated, but we’re getting a little ahead of the story.

Growing Up

Luther’s father invested in him. Though he was a common businessman, as we might say today, he wanted his son to be educated and become a lawyer. So, he sent young Martin to prep school and then to the University of Erfurt at the age of 19. Luther would later describe the university as a “beerhouse and whorehouse”. In 1505, he is caught in a terrible storm where he thought he life was at risk. He vows to become a monk and abandon law if he is spared.

A Monk’s Life

Luther keeps his promise and becomes a monk, dedicating himself to teaching. In 1508, only in his late 20s, Luther arrives at Wittenberg to be a priest, a lecturer, and a student. Wittenberg is a small river town, both then and now, a good distance southwest of Berlin. As Luther studies Scripture more and more closely during the years leading up to 1517, he wrestles with the perfect demands of God and the enormous burden of guilt because of his imperfection. This prompts him to carry out various forms of penance, or self-punishment, to pay back his debt to Christ. In 1508, this becomes extreme as he begins a 1,000-mile pilgrimage to Rome.

The Book of Romans

In almost an act of desperation, Luther reopens Romans. We don’t know what year it occurs but it’s called Luther’s “tower experience.” He read Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.'” His eyes began to open to God’s righteousness, not as a condemnation but as a gift for salvation. “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God,” Luther says, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

Indulgences

John Tetzel is a Dominican friar who uses indulgences to wield the power of the Church to absolve sin. An indulgence is money given to the Church for the remission of, at least, temporal punishment of sin. It is still used by the Catholic Church today. “Once the coin into the coffer clings,” Tetzel preaches, “a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!” Tetzel took it to even more grotesque lows. According to Luther, when a nobleman asks Tetzel if it’s possible to receive a letter of indulgence for a future sin, Tetzel quickly answers, “Yes.” When Tetzel comes to Wittenberg for the solicitation of indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s, Luther uses it as a stimulus to write his 95 theses.

Nailing to the Castle Door

Luther nails the 95 theses to the door of Castle Church, which essentially acts as a public bulletin board. Luther also sends a copy of his grievances to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, 1517. This act of communication with Church authority is considered the beginning of the Reformation. The document is quickly reprinted, translated, and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. This causes unwanted attention for Luther. His intent is not to be excommunicated and forced to start a movement counter to the one Church. Rather, he wants to see reform within the Church, but this is not the path taken by the Pope. Here are a few of his theses:

6. The Pope has no power to remit any guilt, except by declaring and warranting it to have been remitted by God; or at most by remitting cases reserved for himself; in which cases, if his power were despised, guilt would certainly remain.

32. Those who believe that, through letters of pardon [indulgences], they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers.

57. It is clear that they are at least not temporal treasures, for these are not so readily lavished, but only accumulated, by many of the preachers.

58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and of the saints, for these, independently of the Pope, are always working grace to the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell to the outer man.

62. The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.

67. Those indulgences, which the preachers loudly proclaim to be the greatest graces, are seen to be truly such as regards the promotion of gain.

68. Yet they are in reality in no degree to be compared to the grace of God and the piety of the cross.

86. Again; why does not the Pope, whose riches are at this day more ample than those of the wealthiest of the wealthy, build the one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with that of poor believers?

93. Blessed be all those prophets, who say to the people of Christ: “The cross, the cross,” and there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ their head through pains, deaths, and hells.

95. And thus trust to enter heaven through many tribulations, rather than in the security of peace.

Heresy! 

The Church perceives Luther to be in opposition to Pope Leo X. By August 1518, Luther is charged with heresy and is asked to defend himself in Augsburg. He is interviewed by Cardinal Cajetan for three days. He is told that he must recant his views on indulgences and papal infallibility, but Luther refuses, defending himself on the basis of the Bible above church teaching. He hides away to avoid being arrested.

Excommunication

By the early 1520s, Luther is finally brought before the Diet of Worms (the Council of Worms, a city in western Germany). Luther is unwavering. “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds of reasoning … then I cannot and will not recant because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” Then he adds, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.” Therefore, he is excommunicated by Pope Leo X.

Escape!

After the trial, Frederick the Wise kidnaps Luther to protect him from the possibility of burning at the stake. He is taken to Warburg, a castle overlooking Eisenach. Luther stays there a year under the name Junker Jörg (the Knight George). While there, he translates the New Testament from ancient Greek into German in just ten weeks. The interesting thing about Frederick is he seems to act on instinct and not complete understanding. It’s known, for example, that he collected relics of saints that he hoped, by being devoted to them, they would grant him the penance for sin. He wasn’t joking. According to historian Martin Marty Frederick’s inventory in 1518 listed 17,443 items, including a thumb from St. Anne, a twig from Moses’ burning bush, hay of the holy manger, and milk from the Virgin Mary.

Marriage

In 1523, Luther encourages monks and nuns to leave their abbeys. One nun who follows this call is Katharina von Bora. She and Luther would marry a few years later. Luther says, “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” There is definitely a new way of viewing the ordained calling to ministry and the sacrament of marriage. But, to see Luther as someone riling against everything that hints of the Church is not correct. Remember that Luther really wanted the Church to see its errors in the emphasis on works as opposed to faith alone. He doesn’t come blazing in to break up all the vestiges of Rome, as later reformers will do.

Differences from the Catholic Church

Up until Luther’s successful break from the Church, the Catholic Church was seen in terms of the universal church, what the name implies. The Schism of 1054 broke the Christian world into Rome (0r the West) and Orthodox (or the East) that did not organize around multiple bishops and not a central pope. The term Roman Catholic Church becomes much more of a signifier once the Reformation hits. What are the main differences between Luther’s teaching and the Catholic Church? Here are a few major points.

  1. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Scripture alone (as opposed to the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which doubled down on the Church authority and the way of salvation through Church practice and understanding by historic Church teaching and Scripture.
  2. Communion is not where Jesus’ body and blood are shed again in an act called transubstantiation. Rather the Spirit works, “in, with, and under the forms.”
  3. Good works are the fruit of faith, not a necessity for salvation.
  4. The sacraments of baptism and communion are recognized as most central.

Teachings & Political Impact

In May 1529, Luther publishes the Large Catechism, an easy-to-understand explanation of Christian theology. His Small Catechism is published in May. A few years later, he presents his Articles of Faith, a summary of Lutheran doctrine, to The Schmalkaldic League of rulers and theologians. This is monumental because it’s accepted and it begins to shape German identity. Unlike his contemporary in Geneva, John Calvin, who orchestrates Protestantism to be both political and spiritual, Luther is no politician. The adoption of Lutheranism, as it will be called, in Scandinavia is because Luther brings the high and lofty Church to the pedestrian, the everyman. Luther actually writes against the Peasants War of 1523-24, urging the commoner to obey authorities and condemning the violence as the devil’s work. He sees the conflict as one of two kingdoms, drawing a clear delineation between spiritual and temporal authority. The Journal of Lutheran Ethics puts it this way:

Luther insists that it is of primary importance not to confuse the two kingdoms. Each must be true to its Divine mission. Through the Gospel God rules His spiritual kingdom, forgives sins, justifies and sanctifies. But He does not thereby supersede or abolish the earthly kingdom: in its domain it is to rule with power and the sword. Any attempt to rule the world with the Gospel is a double error, carrying a double penalty. Firstly, the Gospel is destroyed, and becomes a new Law to take the place of the old – man makes Christ another Moses, as Luther puts it. And in addition the world suffers: to quote Luther, “What would be the result of an attempt to rule the world by the Gospel and the abolition of earthly law and force? It would be loosing savage beasts from their chains. The wicked, under cover of the Christian name would make unjust use of their Gospel freedom.” And again. “To try to rule a country, or the world, by the Gospel would be like putting wolves, lions, eagles ,and sheep all together in the fold and saying to them, ‘Now graze, and live a godly and peaceful life together. The door is open, and there is pasture enough, and no watchdog you need fear.’ The sheep would keep the peace, sure enough, but they would not live long.”

The Timeline of Martin Luther

Martin Luther's Life Timeline

Conclusion

Martin Luther is the author of the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The last verse says, “That word above all earthly powers, No thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours, Through Him who with us sideth: Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever.” Luther sought reformation for the Church not to help lead a worldwide movement that today represents more than 70 million people. He didn’t do it to be remembered, though Wittenberg is gearing up for the 500th year since Oct. 31, 1517, expecting millions of pilgrims. Luther wanted the Church to understand Scripture, to read Romans afresh, to uncover what the Spirit uncovered for him, that we are saved not because we move closer to God, but because he moves toward us. We are saved through faith alone. Paul says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3: 27-28). 

Like other denominations, Lutheranism has splintered into many factions, some of whom are immorally liberal in their acceptance of same-sex marriage and ordination, there are some who remain faithful to the teaching of Scripture, both here in the United States and certainly abroad (especially in Africa where Lutheranism and many other denominations are seeing tremendous growth).

Whether we hail from a Lutheran church or not, we can all learn from Martin Luther. Let us never get over or do a work-around Romans. Let us read it anew and allow the same Holy Spirit that utterly transforms Luther to enter the bold arena of risky discipleship, reshape and reclaim us.


Martin Luther Reformation Day Church Motion Graphics & Sermon Media

Celebrate Reformation Day at your church service with the use of this church motion graphics bundle from Sharefaith.com! Downloadable with formats in UHD 4K, HD, SD & more, this bundle includes a welcome motion graphic, title graphic, upcoming events, goodbye and a five minute church countdown timer. Download this bundle and get everything you need to fully brand your entire Reformation Day church service!

 

About The Author

Zach Kincaid

Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects, including films and educational resources.

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