and the Reformation
Christians look to Martin Luther (1483-1546) not as the founder of a
new church, but as a reformer and teacher whose work may serve
Christ's whole Church.
decisive insight Martin Luther was born in Saxony, the son of German
peasants. He was to become a lawyer or, if that failed, marry a rich
widow so that his parents could enjoy old age. Such was the wish of
his father, who looked forward to early retirement from overseeing
foundries near the Saxon copper mines. But Luther's path to such a
future was blocked by a life-changing event that directed him to
become a monk, a priest, a biblical theologian, and a reformer of
others of his time and place, Luther's Christianity was first shaped
by the powerful medieval Roman Catholic Church. As a young man he
was deeply affected by the church's teaching about confession.
Private confession of sins to a priest, followed by prescribed acts
of penance, were said to secure forgiveness and release from
punishment after death.
gone regularly to confession since the age of seven, Luther still
remained troubled by a deep sense of despair. While he was studying
law at the University of Erfurt, a friend unexpectedly died. An
accidental leg wound brought Luther in contact with sick and dying
patients in a primitive hospital. Then, in the summer of 1505, a
violent thunderstorm surprised him as he was hiking from his
parents' home in Mansfeld back to Erfurt. "Help, St.
Anna," cried Luther as lightening struck nearby, "and I
will become a monk!"
of death and the vow he had spoken to his family's patron saint led
Luther to join the Augustinian Hermits of Erfurt, who were known for
their tough training of mind and body. But neither confession nor a
rigorous schedule of study and prayer reduced Luther's anxiety about
doing enough to avoid divine punishment. Nevertheless, he was an
exemplary and dedicated monk, soon to become a leader in his order.
By command of his superior, Johann von Staupitz, Luther began study
to become a Professor of Holy Scripture at Wittenberg University.
began teaching in 1513. It was through his study and teaching of the
Bible that the decisive insight came: Faith in Christ, not one's own
ambitious moral or devotional efforts, promised salvation from sin
and life with God. Luther felt "born again" when he read
"the righteous will live by faith" (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17).
a renewal This insight opened up the meaning of Scripture and
decisively changed Luther's attitude toward the church. He began to
see clearly that the church of his time stressed human merit rather
than trust in God. This was vividly illustrated by the sale of
"indulgences"- printed permits or coupons listing the
monetary value of a personal confession of sin. Bishop Albrecht of
Mainz had authorized the sale of indulgences in order to pay Rome
for making him an archbishop. The monies raised were used to assist
in building St. Peter's basilica in Rome. The Dominican order, led
by John Tetzel, was ordered to sell the idea that buying indulgences
would release sinners from divine punishment. "As soon as the
coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,"
Tetzel's jingle went.
issued a public call for theological debate on the sale of
indulgences by posting ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle
Church in Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints' Day, October 31,
1517. Printers distributed copies without Luther's knowledge and
permission. Within a few weeks, Martin Luther was known everywhere
as the voice of renewal.
reform movement, nicknamed "Lutheran" by opponents, found
broad support in Germany and abroad. The nickname bothered Luther,
whose intention had been to retain the catholic tradition of 1500
years, while reforming the distortions of the faith. Other
reformers, such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, believed they
could return to an imagined church of the first century, and turned
away from ancient traditions and their beautiful expression in music
and art. These reformers converted Luther's movement into a crusade
that would eventually affect all political and social structures of
the Western world.
Rome wanted to silence Luther, powerful German princes, led by
Elector Frederick of Saxony, Luther's benefactor, secured freedom of
speech for him. He debated with Cardinal Cajetan and the Dominican
John Eck at Augsburg and Leipzig in 1519; he stated his case before
Emperor Charles V at Worms in 1521 (where, standing before empire
and church he said, "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God
help me." and he published numerous proposals for reform from
1520 on. Nevertheless, Luther was excommunicated as a heretic and
condemned as a traitor by pope and emperor in 1521.
the renewal continued. German Lutheran territories submitted their
proposals for reform .at the imperial assembly at Augsburg in 1530.
The Augsburg Confession affirmed the reformers' adherence to the
historic teachings of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.
Luther shepherded the reform movement in Germany, often with a
critical eye on other movements that did not retain the catholic
substance of the faith expressed in the historic creeds and
confessions, or that he judged were not sufficiently shaped by faith
in Christ alone. All of Scandinavia had become Lutheran by the
war did not stop the reform movement. Emperor Charles V agreed to
the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which recognized Lutheran lands by
the principle that "whoever rules a region is in charge of its
religion." Rome attempted to stem the tide of Lutheranism by
creating a "counter-reformation" based on the decisions of
the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648)
changed the map of Europe by granting freedom for Lutheran and
teachings Luther found his identity in total trust in Christ, the
living Word of God, encountered in the spoken Gospel and made
visible in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Luther's
teachings focus on the essentials of Christianity as taught by the
prophets and apostles.
wrote more than 30 hymns, enjoyed married life and six children, and
was known for his spicy speech and good humor. His basic teachings
were published in about 450 treatises, 3000 sermons, 2600 letters,
and 5000 "table talks." His works have been collected in
more than 100 oversized volumes since 1883 in the Weimar Edition.
His translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German was
so popular that the basic structure of the modem German language is
derived from it.
basic insights are enduring and helpful for later generations. The
most important are these: (1) Humankind is entrapped in the ancient
temptation to play God (Gen. 3:5), violating the first of all divine
commandments, "You shall have no other gods." (2)
Liberation from this original sin comes through faith of at least
two people--one who tells another of Christ as the source of freedom
from sin, and one who, so addressed, affirms faith in Christ alone.
(3) The Christian life is one in which, though we are sinners by
nature, we are at the same time saints by God's grace and love. (4)
The Christian life is lived in two realms that belong equally to
God--church and society. This calls for Christian commitment to
education, fair economic practices, and a life of mission to the
so, the church is born again and again, vigilant against the sin of
idolatry (playing God) and confident that trust in Christ alone
(justification by faith) is the only source of freedom and
salvation. The Christian thus freed is called to serve all God's
children in the world.
Lutheran Publicity Bureau , P.O. Box 327, Delhi, NY 13573-032-7
Publisher's of Christian and other
morality Tracts. Can be contacted at (607) 746-7511
1994 ALPB. Printed in U.S.A.