7 Heroes of the Faith Part 2B: Martin Luther – Light in the Darkness

In the previous post, we saw that the Middle Ages was truly a grim, dark period in the Church’s history. The gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone had been almost completely obscured; buried under the accumulated weight of centuries of superstitious beliefs and unbiblical practices.

This was the world into which Martin Luther was born, in 1483, in Eisleben, Germany.

By 1505, Luther had earned two university degrees and was on course to become a fine lawyer. Then, in the summer of 1505, his life took an unexpected turn. He was caught in a severe thunderstorm while travelling between two towns. Lightening was striking all around him and he was terrified. At one point a bolt of lightning struck very close to him, narrowly missing him. Convinced that he was about to die, Luther threw himself to the ground and cried out to God to save him. He pledged that if God were to save him from the storm, he would become a monk. He did survive and he was true to his word. He joined an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on July 17, 1505, much to his family’s disappointment.

Like most people of his time, Luther had a belief in God but absolutely no understanding of the gospel. He threw himself into monastic life, trying to earn God’s favour by his ascetic lifestyle and rigorous religious observance. However, no amount of self-denial and religious sacrifice could remove the burden of sin that he felt increasingly weighing him down. None of the sacraments and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church seemed to have any power to cleanse him of his sin and restore him to God. Fortunately, the head monk of the monastery, Johann von Staupitz, had a basic understanding of the gospel of grace, and, at one point, led him in a prayer of repentance and faith in Christ, teaching Luther to cry out to Christ, “I am yours, save me”.

In 1507, Luther was dispatched to Rome to carry some letters and accounts from the monastery to the Vatican. Luther had never been to Rome, and what he saw when he arrived there shocked him to the core. He saw priests visiting brothels, and churches charging poor people money to touch and pray to fake relics of supposed dead saints.

Worst of all, he witnessed the outrageous selling of indulgences; priests selling certificates signed by bishops, offering forgiveness of sins in exchange for money.

Luther returned to the monastery deeply disillusioned and angry with the institutional church. He was on the verge of losing his faith, when Staupitz, his superior, asked him if he had ever read the scriptures. Luther replied that he hadn’t.  Staupitz, sensing enormous potential in Luther, sent him to the University of Wittenberg to study theology. Over the next five years he was awarded two bachelor degrees in theology and finally, in 1512, a Doctorate of Theology.  In October of that same year, he was appointed to the university faculty as Doctor of the Bible. Within a few short years he became the most prominent and popular lecturer in theology in all of Europe.

As Luther continued lecturing, he became increasingly critical of the institutional church. His studies had revealed to him how far the church had strayed from the teachings of the New Testament. People travelled from all over Europe to attend his classes, and Luther’s lectures became increasingly critical of the established church.

Matters came to a head in 1517, when Luther became incensed by the most recent sale of indulgences. The Pope was desperately trying to raise money for his new building project in Rome; the construction of the new Basilica. In order to raise the vast amount of money required for this project, the Pope had issued a new ‘indulgence’. For a few coins anyone could buy an indulgence certificate bearing the Pope’s seal which guaranteed that the dead relative who was named on the certificate would be immediately freed from the flames of purgatory and granted entry into heaven itself. After witnessing many of the poor people of Wittenberg purchasing multiple certificates for their various dead relatives, Luther was incensed and decided to openly challenge the church. On October 17, 1517, he wrote a list of grievances he had with the unbiblical doctrines and practices of the church, listing them one by one. He sent this document, his 95 Theses, to his local bishop and also nailed a copy to the church door in Wittenberg for all to see.  Coincidently, the printing press had only recently been invented in the nearby town of Gutenberg, and one of Luther’s supporters took the copy of the 95 Theses from the door of the church in Wittenberg and carried it to Gutenberg for printing. Luther’s 95 Theses became the first mass-printed document in the world. It was distributed throughout Europe and lit a fire that refused to be extinguished.

The publication of Luther’s 95 Theses was just the start of his war on the established church. Over the next few years he continued to write books and publish papers, outlining the true teachings of the New Testament and pointing out the false doctrines and corrupt practices of the church. His ideas continued to develop as he researched and wrote, and by 1521 his writings had documented a long list of complaints regarding the false teachings of the church. These included:

> The Pope was not infallible, as the church claimed.

> Many of the previous supposedly infallible decrees by past Popes have contradicted each other.

> The Pope and his cardinals, bishops and priests have no authority to forgive sins.

> The Pope and his cardinals, bishops and priests are corrupt, caring more about money and power than people’s souls.

> Only Christ can forgive sins and he needs no priest or Pope to intervene on his behalf.

> Jesus is our only priest, and people can enter into relationship directly with him.

> Salvation is by grace alone, through faith in Christ, and not by any works of man or sacraments of the church.

> The selling of indulgences (certificates of forgiveness) is corrupt and unbiblical.

> The claim that relics (bones of dead saints) have magical powers to heal and work miracles is fraudulent and idolatrous.

> Most of the supposed relics are fakes.

> Charging money for people to touch the relics is corrupt.

> The Bible should be translated into the common language so that ordinary people could read it.

> The only valid sacraments are those mentioned in the New Testament – communion and baptism. All other sacraments are man-made and useless.

> Confession and priestly absolution, in particular, is a man-made sacrament that cannot bestow forgiveness.

> The practice of issuing instructions for people to do penance in order to be forgiven perpetuates a false doctrine of salvation by works.

> The bread and wine of communion do not literally change into Christ’s body and blood – they are only symbols.

> Mary the mother of Jesus, did not remain a virgin after Jesus’ birth and was not sinless.

Initially, Luther was hopeful that the church could be reformed. He believed that if he could be granted a fair hearing in which he could point out the true teachings of the New Testament, that the church would see the error of its ways and repent. He was never given such a hearing. Instead, over a period of years and via several papal edicts, he was declared to be a heretic and was excommunicated from the church. The Pope ordered that all of Luther’s writings should be burned and that anyone found trying to retain possession of them should be arrested. The Pope’s soldiers travelled throughout Europe, going from town to town, burning Luther’s writings in the streets and arresting anyone who resisted.

Luther, himself, was eventually brought to trial in the town of Worms, on 17 April 1521 and commanded to repent of all his writings. He responded:

“Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can not and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Luther managed to escape arrest immediately following his trial, and also narrowly escaped an assassination attempt which had been ordered by the Pope via one of his cardinals. One of the Princes of Germany, Prince Frederick of Saxony, hid Luther in his castle in Wartburg where he stayed for over a year, while the Pope’s soldiers searched the country looking for him, seeking to kill him. During this enforced exile, Luther began translating the Bible into the common German language. When his translation of the New Testament was published in September 1522, the Pope declared that it was “blasphemous” for the Bible to be in the common language and he confirmed Luther as a heretic.

Luther’s writings and his teaching lit a spark that became a blazing fire that swept around the world. His followers became known as Protestors or, later on, Protestants. Sadly, in the years that followed, many of Luther’s followers were condemned as heretics and put to death by the church. Their initial desire to reform the church from within proved fruitless. After Luther’s excommunication by the Pope, Luther and his ever-growing band of followers became a separate movement of Christianity. They discarded the sacraments and man-made rituals of the institutional church and began conducting their own church services, aimed at reinstating the practices and beliefs of the New Testament. Their priests were allowed to marry, and Luther published new liturgies and catechisms that guided the new movement in its affirmation of the teachings of the New Testament. The Protestant movement quickly spread from Germany throughout the entire world and sparked the Reformation – a period of great social upheaval and change where many of the established societal conventions were overturned.

There is much more to the story of Martin Luther, but this brief overview is sufficient to understand how Luther and the Protestant movement that he founded has had a lasting impact on the practice of Christianity today. Luther is widely regarded as a hero by Protestants today, and rightly so. He was unbelievably brave. He dared to stand up to the monolithic power and authority of the institutional church, which literally had the power of life and death over the entire world at that time. At great risk to his own life, he dared to stand up and say, “You’re wrong!”. His sermons and his many books were instrumental in founding a movement which re-established the beliefs and practices of New Testament Christianity, and his lasting legacy is seen in the millions of people who now worship God in Protestant churches all over the world.

This is not to say that Luther was perfect – not by any means! He was strongly anti-Semitic, sometimes writing highly inflammatory denunciations of the Jews. His writings against the Pope also sometimes went beyond reasonable discourse and strayed into harsh ridicule and vitriolic denunciations. In his later years, Luther expressed regret at some of these more extreme writings.

But God has a habit of using imperfect people to achieve his purposes. And there is no doubt that Luther was used by God. Luther shaped the preaching of the gospel right through to the present day. The primary shift that occurred was a dramatic reaffirmation of salvation by grace alone, to be received simply by faith. Luther and his contemporaries completely repudiated the gospel of works and superstitious religious practices that the Catholic church had preached for centuries. They denounced anything that even hinted at a man-made, works-based system of salvation. They denounced the practice of instructing people to do penance in order to be forgiven for their sins, stating that this was salvation by works. Similarly, they denounced indulgences (certificates of forgiveness) and the worship of relics, and stressed that priests have no ability to mediate between man and God. In their preaching they pointed to Christ alone as the means of salvation, and simply implored people to receive his grace and forgiveness by faith.

This, of course, has been the central tenet of the evangelical protestant church ever since, upholding the clear teaching of the New Testament:

“For it is by grace you are saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is a gift from God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Over one billion Christians today subscribe to the protestant viewpoint and they owe much to this brave German monk who risked his life for the truth.