To have an understanding of Martin Luther it’s important to have a working knowledge of his multi-faceted world.
Gutenberg Printing Press
It’s hard for us to imagine life without mass produced books. Throughout most of humankind, however, every single book was hand copied. I’ll say it again just in case it didn’t stick: before 1440, every book on the planet was hand produced.
In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The invention was so earth shaking it led Time Magazine to rank it as the most important invention of the last 1,000 years. Four hundred years before Gutenberg, a man from China named Bi Sheng came up with the concept of moveable type. Bi Sheng’s clay letters were fragile and not able to handle widespread use.
Gutenberg came up with many improvements to make mass-produced books a reality. First, he came up with a process for making durable metallic moveable type. Second, he used an ink easy enough to come by and economical enough for widespread usage. Third, he used a wooden printing press similar to agricultural screw presses of the day. Gutenberg engineered these elements together into a practical system for the mass production of printed books that were economically viable for printers and readers alike.1
The Gutenberg press allowed ideas to spread at a pace and a breadth previously unknown to humankind. Living through the development of the Internet can help us appreciate the invention of Gutenberg’s Printing Press. What the Internet did to open up the spread of information in our day, the printing press did for the 15th century and beyond.
Without the printing press we may have never known Martin Luther.
St. Peters Basilica
In 1506, construction began on St. Peters Basilica. Construction of the immense church in Rome would end up costing the equivalent of more than $2 billion dollars. The Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world. Construction would be tricky. Why?
It was believed to be a desecration for a church to not continually stand in Rome. How can you build a new church on the exact same location without first tearing down the old building? The solution was creative.
St. Peters is so colossal it was built surrounding the previous church. The entire old church, still standing, fit inside the main sanctuary of the new St. Peters. Once St. Peters was finished the older church was dismantled and carried out the front door!
How does the church of the day afford such opulent spending? The creative solution came from the selling of indulgences. An indulgence was a certificate providing someone a speedy trip through Purgatory. The sale of Indulgences would come from a conversation like this:
“Do you want your grandma to suffer less and make it to heaven? The Pope can help you out if you pay up. Haven’t you heard it said, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs”? Giving us $100 will help your grandmother a little bit: $1,000 will more quickly ease her suffering. Do you love your church? Do you love your grandmother? Help us help you. You are one Indulgence away from the Pope easing the burden of your loved one.”
The Pope sent priests like Johann Tetzel throughout the western world selling indulgences. Was this a good way to finance the church of the day? Martin Luther had a few things to say (95 to be precise) about the sale of Indulgences.
A World Prepared for Change
In the hundred years before Martin Luther the world was preparing for massive change.
The office of Pope had been in utter turmoil. For hundreds of years the Pope had been the most powerful person on the planet. In 1309, the new Pope refused to move to Rome. He stayed in France. For the next seven Popes, France was called home and immorality was rampant. The Papacy went to the highest bidder. A new Pope finally moved back to Rome and tried to clean up the position.
The leader in France liked being Pope so he refused to acknowledge the new guy in Rome. In 1409, both Popes were declared illegitimate and a third Pope was elected. The previous two Popes refused to step down so there were now three Popes at the same time! People were quickly losing respect for the Papacy.
Surrounding the Papal degradation, the Black Death was devistating Europe. Between 1347-1351, more than one out of every three people died from the Bubonic Plague. Outbreaks continued for the next 120 years. Death surrounded every person. By 1450, Europe’s population was down seventy-percent. It felt like the world outside the church had been turned upside down. In addition to such uncertainty outside the church, two men stood up inside the church calling for massive change.
Beloved Oxford professor John Wycliffe (1329-1384) believed the Bible to be the ultimate authority of the church, not the decisions of the Pope. The common people of his day did not have access to a Bible. Wycliffe broke the law when he translated the New Testament into English. The thoughts of Wycliffe laid a foundation for reform. He made it possible for people to start learning about God on their own. Church leaders, who thought it was too dangerous for a layman to read and interpret the Bible, were so upset with Wycliffe’s influence that years after his death they dug up his body and burned his bones, throwing his ashes into the nearest river.
John Huss (1373-1415) also heavily criticized the practices of the institutional church. He stated Christ, not the Pope, was the head of the church. He was disgusted by the lives of the clergy and thought it immoral for people to buy church positions. The name Huss in Czech means Goose. Have you ever heard the saying, “Your goose is cooked?” That saying comes from John Huss. For taking a stand against some of the church beliefs and practices of the day, Huss was burned at the stake. The queen was notified of his death by being told, “Your goose is cooked.”
Huss prophetically made this statement before his death, “They will roast a goose now, but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, whom you will be unable to silence.” Martin Luther stepped onto the scene almost exactly 100 years later. We now turn to the swan.
Martin Luther was born around 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. Luther’s birth was a matter of such insignificance that he and his friends later debated the exact year.
His father, Hans, was a peasant farmer. Local inheritance laws specified that family lands would pass intact to the youngest son. Hans, as the older brother, was forced to leave the family farm shortly before Martin was born.3 Eager for a way to support his family, Hans eventually found work as a copper miner. Martin’s early life was a tough time for the Luther family. Remembering these years, Luther recalled that his mother had once beaten him until his hands bled merely for taking a nut from the kitchen table.4
Copper mining was a tough, dangerous job in the 15th century. While many people died in the mines, Hans thrived. Within seven years he would own his own copper business.5 Hans and Margaretta were determined for their children to have better lives.
Martin was sent, at an early age, to some of the best German schools. At the age of four he entered a school whose sole purpose was to teach Latin, which would prepare him for future studies. The school used barbaric practices to force the students to learn Latin. Kittelson explains Luther’s early Latin education:
Luther recalled being beaten with a rod 15 times in just one morning. Fortunately for Luther, he eventually excelled in school. By the time he was 17 years old, his teachers recommended continuing his studies at the university. It was rare for the son of a peasant to have a university education. Luther’s arrival at the University of Erfurt opened the doors for him to obtain a career in the church, in law, or in medicine.7
Just one month into his law studies Luther took a strange leave of absence. He travelled home to discuss something with his family and friends. No one knows exactly what happened during the infamous trip back home. On July 2, 1505 Luther was traveling back to the university. He was caught outside in a violent thunderstorm. The lightning grew so close it actually knocked him on the ground. Fearing for his life he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk.” Luther saw the thunderstorm as a direct message from God to leave his career in law for the monastery.
Hans questioned whether the thunderstorm was truly from God. As a Lawyer, Luther would have been able to support his parents in their retirement years. Luther was their Social Security, Medicare and 401k all rolled into one. Luther turned his back on the guaranteed financial stability he could provide for his entire family for what he believed to be obedience to God.
Martin’s room in the monastery was just three feet wide by seven feet long.10 The monks attended seven worship services a day. The first service started at 2:00 A.M. Most of Luther’s time was spent in worship, prayer and meditation.11 Of this time Luther stated, “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.”12 After just one year Luther had passed the rigorous physical, mental and spiritual tests to become a priest.
Martin’s family was certainly proud of his religious achievements, but they were still upset with him for not becoming a lawyer. A great banquet was held to celebrate Luther’s first mass as a priest. He asked his father during the feast if it wasn’t better for him to be a priest than a lawyer. His father’s response was a hurtful one that would stay with Luther his entire life. His father said, “Have you not heard the commandment to honor your father and mother?”13
Dark Night of the Soul
Although Luther had boldly chosen to follow the priesthood against the wishes of his family, he was not looking for an easy life. Oberman explains:
Luther did not seek the monastery as a place of meditation and study to exercise a faith he had once lacked. Nor was he looking for a sanctuary of strict morals to protect him from the immorality of the world outside. He was driven by his desire to find the merciful God… Searching for the merciful God was a crucial part of the monastic life and was by no means a unique expression of Luther’s hunger for salvation, out of step with the Community of Brethren.14
In order to be saved from the wrath of God, people believed you must make use of all the means of grace offered by the church.15 Luther dove deep into trying to rid his body from sin. Long periods with neither food nor drink, nights without sleep, bone-chilling cold with neither coat nor blanket to warm him – and self-flagellation – were common and even expected in the lives of serious monks.16
Out of all the ways the church of the day recommended for Luther to be saved, it was confession that Martin came to despise. Confession was a crucial part of the monastic life. In this sacrament, the “religious,” sought to purge themselves of their sins almost as quickly as they committed them. Bainton explains:
Luther endeavored unremittingly to avail himself to [Confession]. Without confession, he testified, the Devil would have devoured him long ago. He confessed frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours on a single occasion. Every sin in order to be absolved was to be confessed… Luther would repeat a confession and, to be sure of including everything, would review his entire life…17
With Luther finding no rest for his troubled soul, his superior, Johann von Staupitz, took a bold step. This young man on the verge of collapse over religious problems and emotional instability was to be commissioned as a teacher, preacher, and counselor to sick souls! Staupitz was practically saying, “Physician, cure thyself by curing others.”18 Therefore, Luther was ordered, much against his expectations, to prepare to teach Scripture at the new University of Wittenberg.19
Salvation by Faith Alone
When Luther found himself forced to prepare lectures on the Bible, he began seeing new meanings in the Scripture, and the possibility that such meanings would provide an answer to his spiritual quest.20 In 1515 Luther taught through the book of Romans. Throughout 1516-1517 he taught Galatians.
The great discovery that would change Martin Luther and rock the world came from a simple daily reading of Romans 1:16-17. He read that, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’
Luther was greatly bothered by these verses. He thought, “How is this gospel really good news? Isn’t it actually bad news that God seeks justice and righteousness?” Luther found God’s justice to be unbearable. He wished God did not demand righteousness. He wished God was not just. He pondered how it was possible for “the righteous to live by faith.”
Luther had been taught that God’s justice, his righteousness, is a punishment to sinners. God allowed the eyes of Luther to open. Luther famously came to the conclusion that God’s righteousness is something which is possessed by God and given to those who walk by faith. Martin Luther had finally found freedom for his troubled soul. Faith in Jesus alone resulted in him receiving the righteousness of God. Indeed, God did not require him to produce his own righeousness, but to freely recieve an alien righteousness by faith. Faith and justification are the work of God, given as a free gift to sinners. The mediator between God and man is not your works, the Pope, the church, nor the Priest, but only Jesus.
Luther tells us, “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.
While Luther is basking in his new found freedom, from the perspective of the institutional church of the day, the wrong man is about to show up to the wrong town at the wrong time.
While Luther’s eyes are being opened to freedom found only in Christ, Johann Tetzel arrived in Wittenberg. Tetzel was sent by the pope to raise money for the church. He sold indulgences to people in Luther’s church. Tetzel’s famous saying was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther watched poor people from his church give money they didn’t have to try to pay freedom for their dead relatives. Luther saw the sale of indulgences as completely worthless. Luther reacted strongly against the sale of indulgences.
A huge collection of supposed relics accumulated in Wittenberg. There was a thorn from the crown of Jesus. They had a tooth from St. Jerome. You could see four hairs from the Virgin Mary. Those who viewed the thousands of relics in Wittenberg on All Saints Day (October 31st) and paid the necessary amount in indulgences might receive from the Pope 1,902,202 years and 270 days of reduction in Purgatory.
Luther had enough. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 complaints he had against indulgences to the church doors in Wittenberg. Thesis 82 captures the essence of Luther’s complaints:
Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of all reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.
Luther’s reasoning is insightful. If the Pope is able to set everyone free from purgatory, why does he need money? Shouldn’t he just free everyone automatically out of his love for them? Why would such eternal matters be contingent on raising enough money to build a temporary building?
The printing press went into action. Without the permission of Luther, printers soon spread copies of the Ninety-five Theses throughout Germany. Copies were printed in the original Latin and also for the masses in a German translation.
Luther’s life forever changed after nailing those 95 theses. The pope initially requested the radical monk be dealt with locally. He was called to the next chapter meeting in Heidelberg. He went in fear for his life, for he expected to be condemned and burned as a heretic.21 To his surprise most of the people there agreed with Luther. Afterwards his friend Martin Bucer wrote, “Luther responds with magnificent grace and listens with insurmountable patience. He presents an argument with the insight of the apostle Paul.”22
By the summer of 1518, 35-year old Luther had provoked powerful opponents. Luther’s life was in danger. Luther writes of this time, “I know that whoever wants to bring the Word of Christ into the world must, like the apostles, leave behind and renounce everything, and expect death at any moment. If any other situation prevailed, it would not be the Word of Christ.”23
Luther is summoned to meet in Augsburg with Cardinal Cajetan so he can retract his writings and recant. Luther remembered saying as he set out: “Now you must die…Oh, what a shame I have become to my parents!”24 Cajetan was prepared and intellectually capable to debate with Luther but was charged by the Pope not to debate with Luther, but simply to get him to say one word revoco (I recant). They couldn’t help themselves, the two men got into a heated debate. Cajetan urged Luther that he had to submit to the authority of the Pope, Luther replied that he couldn’t submit to something contrary to Scripture. He insisted the sale of indulgences were no more than a scheme to raise money. Luther appealed to Rome. Due to the protection of Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Luther was able to leave Augsburg alive.
On June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued a statement against Luther called Exsurge Domine where he declared that a wild boar had entered the Lord’s vineyard. He ordered all books by Martin Luther to be burned and he gave him sixty days to submit to his authority.
In October Luther wrote his book, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. The captivity of which Luther complained was the priest’s hold on the sacraments and the insistence that Christian’s must perform good works in order to gain salvation.
Luther was summoned to stand before the Emperor in 1521 at the Diet of Worms. Luther was now famous. Two-thousand people met him outside the city to escort him inside. His many books were sprawled out before him. He was asked if he would like to recant of his works. It was a hard time for Luther. To dare oppose the entire church and the emperor, whose authority had been ordained by God, was a dreadful act.25 Given the chance to recant Luther eventually made his famous response. He spoke in German instead of using the more traditional theological debate language of Latin. Luther responded by saying:
Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning – and my conscience is captive to the Word of God – then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.
Luther was once again able to leave with his life intact. On his way back home, however, some armed horseman kidnapped Luther. Many believed Luther was killed He was fortunately taken by his friends who staged his attack, secretly hiding him away in tower of Wartburg castle.
Like a man possessed, Luther translated the entire New Testament into German within 11 weeks.26 This was an astounding rate of more than 1500 words per day. Luther translated the New Testament, “to free the ordinary person from false, albeit familiar, ideas, to lead him onto the straight path, and to give him some instruction.”27 He would go on to translate the Old Testament as well into German and write many more works instructing people to the central importance of the Gospel. Salvation is solely found by faith in Jesus Christ.
On June 13th, 1525 Luther married Katherine von Bora. Katherine was 26 years old, Luther was 41 years old. Katherine had been a former nun. Luther helped her and 11 other nuns escape their convent. They amazingly escaped by hiding in herring barrels. Martin and Katherine ended up having six children and seemed to have a good marriage.
A great deal more can be written about Luther’s fascinating life. I direct you to the additional reading section below to draw even nearer to the life of Luther. We now turn to his revolutionary thoughts.
The man who previously called upon a saint to save him was later to repudiate the cult of saints. The man who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist.28 Luther’s thoughts are a game changer. He sought to awaken a church that had been asleep for quite some time. He had been awakened; he sought to wake up everyone else.
Payton helps us understand the overarching thoughts of Luther:
He declared time and time again, “It was not I that did it, but the Word of God.” With this he expressed genuine humility: Luther urged repeatedly that he himself was insignificant, but that the gospel was great, and that what he had accomplished was not his work but God’s.
Even so, Luther was sure that God himself had entrusted him with this message. God had proclaimed the gospel anew through Luther; since that was the case, then all others should listen and heed.
He often upbraided people and called them to a careful defense of and alertness to justification by faith alone. If they did not heed his advice, he could quite readily, if they continued to disagree with him, denounce them as servants as Satan, as those in league with the wicked one, seeking to divert people from the truth of the gospel.29
The absolute centrality of Luther’s thought is focused on sola fide (salvation by faith alone). It is through faith in the risen Christ, not through any works we do, that we are justified and declared righteous. Jesus is the message and the messenger. Therefore, Luther also calls the church back to learning about the Word through the Word of God (sola Scriptura). We know of Jesus not from councils, Popes nor teachers, but through His Word.
In most big libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelf room than those concerned with any other human being except Jesus of Nazareth.30 Luther’s influence in his day was immense. Kittelson explains:
Luther was a “media personality,” the first such in three thousand years of western history. “We have become a spectacle,” he once remarked of himself and his colleagues. He and his followers have been termed “obedient rebels.” Others called him a seven-headed devil. At least one of his closest colleagues insisted he was a prophet – perhaps even Elijah – sent by God himself. He was the subject of controversy then just as he is now. 31
Among other monumental influences, Luther sparked a reawakening in his day around the purity of the Gospel and the authority of the Word of God. Many of his influences, however, were unintended. We now turn to the many foibles of Martin Luther.
The most important thing on the planet for Luther, as we have seen, was justification by faith. He clearly sought major reform in the church to make justification by faith the renewed central focus of the church.
Many people who had been inspired by Luther did not share the same priorities. Some wanted serious political reform. Others sought major economic reform among the peasant class. All people saw Luther as their leader.
In 1524, a peasant rebellion broke out. Gonzalez explains:
For decades the conditions of the German peasantry had been worsening…One of the elements making this rebellion particularly virulent was that it took on religious overtones, for many among the peasantry believed that the teachings of the reformers supported their economic demands.
Luther refused to support the peasants. Luther wanted the focus to remain on Christ. Many others wanted to take the reformation much further. Luther saw the demands of the peasants as justifiable, but disagreed with their methods. When the peasant revolt turned violent Luther turned on them. He instructed the nobility to suppress the movement. It is believed more than 100,000 people were killed.
The peasants blamed Luther for turning on them. While I admire Luther for wanting to keep the Gospel the central focus of the reform, he could have done much more to prevent the deaths of so many people. Luther’s harsh words would continue to result in many deaths.
Adolf Hitler, a fellow German arriving 400 years later, thought he was simply following out the heart of Martin Luther by killing 6 million Jews. Luther argued that the Jews were no longer the chosen people of God, but rather “the Devil’s people.” Three years before his death Luther wrote a 60,000 word book called, On the Jews and their Lies.
Luther spoke harshly against the Jews. This is without question. Luther should not have spoken so harsh against the Jews. As a leader of millions of people, he should have been more careful with his words. From another perspective, however, Luther saw the hand of Satan in anything that denied Christ. If any people kept others from the freedom found in Jesus, Luther would unashamedly attribute their actions to the kingdom of darkness.
If given the chance, Luther would remove Judaism from the planet. It kept people from seeing Christ. Luther did not, however, advocate the killing of all Jewish people. Destroying a religion and destroying an ethnic group are two vastly different perspectives. Most biographers will say Luther wanted to destroy the former while Hitler focused on the latter.
Luther’s Effect on Us
Moralistic therapeutic deism is a term introduced in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005) by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. The term has been accepted by many as an accurate view of the 21st century church. The mindset is: Go to church to be moral, get free therapy, and wait for God to come back from vacation.
We need thousands upon thousands of people to wake up from their moralistic therapeutic deism slumber. We need Luther to be our mentor. Luther cries out for us to wake up our world as he woke up his. Our greatest need and our greatest hope are the same: Jesus. We need Jesus more than we need Dave Ramsey to get us out of debt. We need Jesus more than we need to have good marriages. We need Jesus more than we need to be nice to each other. The temptation of the ages is to cloud Jesus over with good things. Luther reminds us of the utmost importance to never replace the eternal freedom found in Christ alone with lesser alternatives.
Similarly, we live in an age where the Bible is all around us. At no time in human history has the Bible been so accessible. The Bible, unfortunately, is everywhere except in the hearts of God’s people. Luther leads us to not take such an immense treasure for granted.
What do you think of Martin Luther? Please comment below on our #2 Top Ten Theologian. Up next, the theologian who has had the largest influence on the church…
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