No other Reformer, possibly John Calvin, is more recognizable than Martin Luther. A seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. Luther “lit the fire” of the Protestant vision that swept Europe and changed the world.
Born on November 10, 1483 in modern-day Germany, and what was then part of the Holy Roman Empire, Luther’s family life was normal and routine. His parents were working-class, and were ambitious for themselves and their family. Martin Luther’s father, Hans Luther, envisioned young Martin becoming a lawyer. Hans sent Martin to be classically educated (classical in that it taught the “trivium” of grammar, rhetoric, and logic). As an adult, Luther compared that educational experience to purgatory. Nonetheless, Luther was extremely bright and enrolled in law school in accordance with his father’s wishes. However, he immediately dropped out.. He was drawn to what he deemed “assurances about life” that were found in theology and philosophy, and expressed particular interested in thinkers such as Aristotle, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. Finding pure philosophy unsatisfactory, and after the famous event of being caught in a lightning storm and crying out, “Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!;” he followed through with his vow and entered St. Augustine’s Monastery in Erfurt in 1505. His father was furious over Luther’s apparent waste of education.
Luther dedicated his life to the Augustinian monastic way of life, spending hours in prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and frequent confession. He later described this period of life as full of spiritual despair. While under the Augustinian order, Luther received his Bachelor of Biblical Studies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sentences in 1509. In 1512 he was awarded his Doctor of Theology, and sat on the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg.
In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, came to Germany to sell indulgences in order to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. These indulgences could, claimed the Roman Catholic Church at the time, remit the temporal punishment of sin. Luther, aware of this event, wrote to his bishop protesting the selling of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter what became known as the Ninety-five Theses. At the time, Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his protest as a scholarly objection to the practices. Luther rightly insisted that since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claim that indulgences absolved the buyers from punishment and granted salvation were in serious error.
In 1517, accounts say that Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31. This document was quickly reproduced in several locations in Germany and soon was read widely throughout the country. Within two months, these ideas had spread throughout Europe. During this time, Luther came to understand and teach that the justification of the sinner was entirely the work of God through faith alone, which is one of the pillars of the Reformation in its recapturing the correct Scriptural teachings.
Beginning in 1518, Luther began to have to defend himself from Catholic envoys sent from Pope Leo X. The Pope, at first, was slow and careful in dealing with Luther’s influence, having being used to reformers and heretics. However, these envoys only served to harden the reformer’s anti-papal theology. Then, on 15 June, 1520, the Pope issued a papal bull (an edict), warning Luther that he would be excommunicated unless he recanted within 60 days. Luther publicly set fire to the edict, and as a consequence he was formally excommunicated by Pope Leo X on 3 January 1521.
Thus, the enforcement ban of the Ninety-five Theses were left to the secular authorities, and on 18 April, Luther appeared as ordered before the Diet of Worms. This assembly was presided over by Emperor Charles V himself. Luther was asked if he stood by the contents of his writings, and Luther responded that unless he was “convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, then I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything…”
The assembly’s final Edict of Worms declared Luther an outlaw, banned anyone from providing safe harbor or food to him, and permitted his killing by anyone without legal consequence. He then relatively disappeared into the security of Wartburg Castle. After his excommunication, his time proved fruitful. He produced what was arguably his greatest gift to the Reformation: the translation of the Bible into German. Like many Reformers before and after him, Luther’s Protestant vision spawned the conviction that the Word of God should be available to all, not only the Latin-educated clergy. Luther also married, becoming convinced that the Scriptures permitted the marriage of preachers and ministers. On 13 June, 1525, he married Katharina von Bora, a nun he had helped escape from a convent two years prior. Their marriage bore six children, and their affection for each other is evident from their exchanges in years of letters and notes.
One major issue that must be discussed in the life of Martin Luther is his anti-Semitism. While writing somewhat favorably of the Jews in 1523, his failed conversion efforts of the few Jews that he actually encountered made him increasingly bitter toward them. Luther wrote a major work, entitled On the Jews and Their Lies, which invokes harsh and violent language towards the Jewish people. We cannot gloss over this sin of Luther’s, and should serve as a reminder that God deploys even us sinful saints to do great works through the Spirit’s power.
Luther died on February 18th, 1546 at the age of 62. He is buried at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, underneath the pulpit. Luther’s legacy cannot be overstated, his ideas cannot be underestimated, and his contributions to Christ’s Church should be celebrated. Luther recaptured and reformed the doctrines that Scripture alone (above that of church tradition and interpretations) should provide the basis for our knowledge about God, and that God alone is the justifier of mankind by His grace alone through faith alone. These “three Solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, & Sola Gratia,” which were argued by Luther and later expounded into the famous “Five Solas” that are shorthand terms for the five main convictions of the Protestant Reformation that we hold so high. By God’s grace, through Luther and many other reformers, the Gospel was rediscovered for themselves and us who are inheritors of this tradition.