Martin Luther was a tortured soul, if ever there was one. He grew up with a warped understanding of God as harsh and severe. And becoming an Augustinian monk only made matters worse. He followed all the rules of the Catholic Church with diligence: praying, going on pilgrimages, attending mass, and doing everything he could think of to make himself acceptable to God. But none of this brought peace to his distraught mind. He thought of God as a cruel tyrant rather than a kind heavenly Father.
However, through a careful study of Paul’s writings, especially Romans, Luther came to understand that righteousness is a gift that God gives to those who believe in Jesus. He came to realize that he didn’t have to do all manner of penances and fasting and prayers in order to be acceptable to God. Rather, his acceptance by God was gained simply by believing that God covered his sin with Christ’s righteousness. Romans 1:17 became the theme of Luther’s theology: “The just shall live by faith” (KJV). This simple concept gave Luther peace of mind—and it revolutionized Europe!
starting the Reformation
In October 1512 Luther joined the faculty at the University of Wittenberg in Germany as a professor of theology. Four years later, in 1516, the Catholic Church commissioned a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences as a way to raise money to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In Catholic theology, an indulgence is a way to reduce the amount of punishment that a person has to undergo in purgatory for his or her sins. Luther was horrified. He had found peace of mind through the Bible’s teaching that salvation is a free gift that God offers to anyone who believes in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and here was a churchman selling freedom from the punishment for sin! Luther protested to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, and sent him a copy of what has come to be known as the Ninety-Five Theses. On October 31, 1517, he also posted these theses, written in Latin, on the door of the church in Wittenberg.
Luther, the theology professor, had no intention of starting a reformation in the church. He simply wanted to start a discussion among the members of the theology faculty at the University of Wittenberg. However, in January 1518 friends of Luther translated his Ninety-Five Theses into German, and within two weeks they had spread throughout Germany; within two months they had spread across Europe!
And the church took notice!
The official church response
It’s critical to understand that for hundreds of years the Catholic Church had held tremendous political power over the nations of Europe. There were two authorities in the world: the church and secular governments, and in any differences between the two, the church claimed to be the higher authority. The church especially used its authority to enforce its dogmas. Anytime a church court condemned a heretic and pronounced a judgment on him or her, it turned the person over to the state to carry out the punishment. Thousands of people had been executed in the centuries prior to Luther for daring to challenge church teaching—and Luther was challenging a critical part of the church’s theology!
When word of Luther’s teachings reached Rome, Pope Leo X deployed Cardinal Thomas Cajetan to meet with Luther in the German city of Augsburg and bring him back in line with church teaching. The debate, which occurred in October 1518, was heated. Luther explained his convictions about justification, and Cajetan demanded that he recant, but Luther refused. He was convinced from the Bible that he was right, and he stood his ground. Cajetan warned him that if he insisted on maintaining his views he would be imprisoned and deported to Rome. But Luther held fast to his convictions.
In July 1519 Luther met with the Catholic theologian Johann Eck in Leipzig, Germany, and they discussed purgatory and indulgences. Luther stated that the Bible is the only foundation for church teaching, and neither of these is mentioned in the Bible. Eck demanded that he recant his views, but Luther again refused.
It’s hard for us today to imagine a theological disagreement of this sort being life-threatening, but as I said a moment ago, in the centuries prior to Luther thousands of people had been imprisoned and executed for holding beliefs that disagreed with official church teachings, and Luther’s convictions struck at the heart of church doctrine. Luther put his life on the line in defense of his beliefs!
As a result of his debate with Johann Eck, Luther was warned by Pope Leo X via a papal bull that he would be excommunicated unless he recanted 41 sentences from his writings. A defiant Luther set fire to the bull in public on December 10, 1520, in Wittenberg. The pope excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. He was now officially a heretic, and the church turned him over for punishment by the highest political authority in Europe at the time—the Holy Roman Empire.
The Emperor Charles V convened a diet in the city of Worms, Germany, among other things to consider Martin Luther’s heresy. (An imperial diet was the deliberative and legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire.) The leading men of Europe gathered to make important decisions about the empire, one of which was the fate of Martin Luther. Luther defended his teachings in the presence of the emperor, concluding with his famous statement that “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, . . . 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, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
On May 25, 1521, the emperor presented the court’s decision in a document titled the Edict of Worms. Luther was declared to be an outlaw, his literature was banned, and he was ordered to be punished as a heretic. The edict also made it a crime for anyone to give Luther food or shelter and authorized anyone to kill him without the danger of prosecution.
how did Luther survive?
It’s a well known fact that Martin Luther died a normal death about 25 years later in February 1546. So how did he survive in that hostile environment, with both church and state demanding his execution? The answer is both simple and complex.
The simple answer is that Frederick III, the elector of Saxony, whose political jurisdiction included Wittenberg, was one of Luther’s most powerful defenders, and he refused to turn him over to higher authorities for prosecution. He arranged for Luther to be given what was known at the time as a “safe conduct” to attend the trial at Worms, meaning that he would be allowed to return home without arrest. However, Frederick, unwilling to trust the authorities, arranged for friends to “kidnap” Luther on his way home from Worms and hustle him off for protection to the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach, Germany, which was also in Frederick’s jurisdiction. Luther remained at Wartburg for about ten months.
And Frederick III wasn’t the only leading political figure at the time to side with Luther. Scores of others across Europe also gave varying degrees of tolerance to the new faith.
The more complex answer is that, as I pointed out earlier, by mid-March 1518 Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses had been translated into Europe’s various languages and spread all over the continent. Luther became a hugely popular figure—praised by some, denounced by others, but well known either way. Martin Luther, more than any other individual of his generation, put the printing press on the map. Printing had been invented by Johann Guttenberg a little more than 60 years prior to Luther’s nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to Wittenberg’s church door, and up to that point it had largely been used for business purposes and for the publication of debates between scholars. However, Luther was a prolific author, producing hundreds of pamphlets and numerous books during his lifetime. And where most religious authors at the time wrote in Latin, Luther wrote the majority of his works in the German language.
The common people loved it! And so did the printers. Anything Luther wrote, they scooped up and produced by the thousands. And the reason why the printers produced Luther’s works by the thousands and tens of thousands is that people bought his works by the thousands and tens of thousands.
The church also produced pamphlets and books denouncing Luther and his teachings, but the printers produced very few copies because very few people bought them. Church leaders banned Luther’s publications, but the people bought them anyway. With Martin Luther, the printing press became for his time what the Internet has become in our day: a powerful cultural and political tool that transformed society.
Luther’s most famous work, one that was both condemned and treasured, was his translation of the Bible from Latin into the common language of the German people of his time. He completed the translation of the New Testament in 1522 and the Old Testament in 1534. It quickly became a popular Bible translation, which, among other things, contributed significantly to the evolution of the German language, just as the King James Version did for English.
Martin Luther began with an idea: God doesn’t hate sinners; He loves them, and He developed a plan to save them from their sins and bring them back into a loving relationship with Himself. God doesn’t demand that sinners perform good works in order to gain favor with Him. He asks us to repent of our sins and confess them so that He can forgive us and credit Christ’s perfect righteousness to our imperfect lives. This truth is called “justification by faith alone.”
Martin Luther risked his life to proclaim this truth, and God used him to reach Europe, and eventually the world, with the truth that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
And the truth that brought Luther peace of mind and peace with God will do the same for you. All you need to do is to repent of your sins and confess them to Jesus and commit yourself to serving Him the rest of your life the way Luther did, and you can be assured of an immortal life in His eternal kingdom.