Martin Luther
leader of the Reformation

1483 - 1546

Martin Luther was the leader of the Reformation, a religious movement that led to the birth of Protestantism. Luther, a German theologian, taught that the Bible should be the sole authority in the church. He also taught that people are justified (made righteous in the eyes of God) solely through faith in Christ, apart from any works of their own. Although Luther did not intend to establish a new church, his theology led to beliefs and practices quite different from those of the Roman Catholicism of his day.

Luther was born on Nov. 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony. His father intended him to have a career in the law. Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501, but in 1505 he abandoned his legal studies and entered a monastery. Luther was ordained a priest in 1507, and by 1512 he was a professor of Biblical theology at Wittenberg University. He held that position for the rest of his life.

The first controversy in which Luther became involved concerned indulgences. The church had developed indulgences as a means of releasing sinners from part of the penalty for their sins. For example, individuals could be ordered to go on a pilgrimage in penalty for their sins. An indulgence permitted them to contribute a certain amount of money to a worthy cause instead. However, the practice of selling indulgences was sometimes abused as a means of raising money.

In 1515, Pope Leo X authorized Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz to sell indulgences, in part to raise money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Albrecht's indulgence seller, Johann Tetzel, told potential buyers that an indulgence freed them from punishment for confessed sins and could even release souls from purgatory. In October 1517, Luther sent a letter to Albrecht denouncing Tetzel's tactics. He enclosed with the letter a list, known as the Ninety-Five Theses (articles for academic debate), that criticized indulgences. According to tradition, Luther also posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, which acted as the university's bulletin board.

In writing the theses, Luther had no intention of breaking with the church or of attacking the legitimate authority of the papacy. Luther's concerns involved theology and the duties of a priest. He feared that urging people to seek escape from divine punishment through indulgences would lead them away from true sorrow for their sins and into a dangerous sense of false security. But by early 1518, the Ninety-Five Theses were circulating throughout the Holy Roman Empire--a German-based empire in western and central Europe--and prompting widespread debate. Against Luther's wishes, the controversy over the sale of indulgences was gradually transformed by his critics into a debate over the authority of the pope.

It was probably about the time of the indulgence controversy that Luther came to his new understanding of justification by faith. This understanding involved a response to the question: How do people find favor with God? According to Roman Catholic doctrine, people were justified partly through works done in a state of grace--that is, their divinely assisted moral goodness and faithfulness to duty.

Based on his reading of the Gospels and the Letters of Saint Paul, Luther came to believe that people are justified solely through faith in God's promise that Christ died for their salvation. In this view, when sinful people trust the Scriptural message that Christ died for their sins, Christ takes their place before God's judgment seat and God finds them "not guilty" for Christ's sake. People cannot earn faith, however. God gives faith as a gift. Once justified by faith, believers are led by the Holy Spirit to be more loving toward God and their neighbor and to do good works. But these works are the result of justification, rather than the means by which people are justified.

By the summer of 1519, Luther had publicly criticized papal claims to authority. In a debate with Catholic professor and theologian Johann Eck in Leipzig in July 1519, Luther went one step further. He asserted that not only could popes be in error, but so could ecclesiastical councils--meetings of church authorities for the purpose of determining doctrine. Scripture had become, for Luther, the sole authority for religious truth.

The final break between Luther and the church came in 1520. In that year, Luther published three highly influential works--To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. These works spelled out Luther's understanding of Christianity and attacked the papacy and many traditional practices. Luther claimed that all baptized believers are spiritually equal in God's eyes because all must depend on faith in Christ. As a result, he argued that monks and nuns were not special and that clergy should be subject to the same laws and taxes as other people. Luther also criticized pilgrimages, devotion to saints, and other practices that he claimed emphasized works rather than faith. In addition, he reduced the number of sacraments from seven eventually to two, baptism and the Lord's Supper. These new views were too radical for the papacy, and in January 1521, Luther was formally excommunicated (expelled from the church).

In April 1521, Luther was given a hearing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at a diet (meeting) at Worms, Germany. Luther was urged to retract his teachings, but he refused. He made his famous statement: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience."

The emperor declared Luther an outlaw. On his journey home from Worms, Luther was taken by supporters and hidden at Wartburg Castle. There, he translated the New Testament into German.

In the spring of 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg to bring under control a reform movement that had become unruly. Luther was basically conservative and preferred to change religious tradition only when he felt the Gospel demanded it. This conservatism angered some of his supporters.

Attempts by Catholic princes to keep people from reading Luther's German New Testament led Luther in 1523 to publish an important work, On Temporal Authority, To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. In this work, Luther argued that God had established two "kingdoms"--a spiritual kingdom and a worldly one. Within the spiritual kingdom, God rules through the Word, or Gospel of Christ. Within the worldly one, He rules through secular (nonreligious) authorities. God is lord of both Kingdoms, but they must not be mixed. Using this distinction, Luther attacked the papacy for meddling in secular matters, and criticized rebellious peasants during a revolt in 1525 for using the Gospel to support their secular demands.

Also in 1525, Luther published another important work, The Bondage of the Will, a reply to On Free Will by the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus. In this work, Luther tried to prove that people cannot do anything to contribute to their salvation. They must receive it from God as a gift.

Although Luther had never intended to form a new church, he spent the last 20 years of his life doing just that. In 1529, Luther issued the Small Catechism, a work designed to bring Lutheran Christianity to a population largely ignorant of even the basics of Christianity. The following year, Luther's colleague Philipp Melanchthon wrote an important summary of the Lutheran faith to be presented to Emperor Charles V. Known as the Augsburg Confession, this summary was meant to show the similarities between Lutheran and Roman Catholic beliefs while defending Lutheran interpretations. In 1534, Luther and his colleagues completed their German translation of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. Luther also lectured regularly, helping the University of Wittenberg prepare the hundreds of new pastors needed to bring the Reformation to the people.

Luther became profoundly disturbed by events in the last years of his life. Everywhere he saw signs that the end of the world was at hand. During this time, Luther issued ferocious attacks against what he thought were the enemies of Christ--the papacy, the Muslim Turks, Protestants whom he considered extremists, and Jews.

By the time of his death, Luther was recognized as a major figure in the history of Christianity and the world. He symbolizes the split within western Christianity between Protestants and Roman Catholics. This split has affected the political and cultural development of Europe and North and South America. Luther continues to be the source of some of the most powerful ideas in Christianity. Many reforms adopted by the Roman Catholic Church during the 1960's recall points that Luther had made more than 400 years earlier. One such point involved using the language of the people, rather than Latin, for worship.

Luther's influence extends into other areas as well. His German translation of the Bible helped more than any other single source to form the modern German language. Luther also wrote German hymns--including the well-known "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"--and translated Latin hymns into German. His emphasis on singing by the congregation as a part of worship helped shape the development of European music.

Contributor: M. U. Edwards, Ph.D., President, St. Olaf College.

Additional resources

Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Abingdon, 1991. First published in 1950.

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. Fortress, 1985-. Multivolume work, publication in progress.

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Fortress, 1986.

Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Yale, 1989.

Stepanek, Sally. Martin Luther. Chelsea Hse., 1986. Also suitable for younger readers.


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