The Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther

Of course these outlines can only give the bare minimum of details on Luther's life. For further reading, I urge the perusal of Roland Bainton's Here I Stand, or one of the great Reformation books such as Volumes 7 and 8 of Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church.

Luther's early years

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, now part of former East Germany. His father was prosperous enough to send him to school and aim him at the study of law. He graduated with a BA and MA from the University of Erfurt. But just when he would have entered the study of law, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and made a vow to St. Anne that he would enter a monastery if his life was saved. He duly entered the order of the Augustinians and their monastery at Erfurt in 1505.

The Augustinian Friars or Hermits were a preaching order whose name was based on their following the monastic Rule of St. Augustine, not because of any other particular connection with Augustine. But the name was perhaps ironic, for Luther was to derive much benefit from the study of Augustine as an antidote to the current theology of his day.

Luther advanced in knowledge according to the prevailing order of things, and was appointed to lecture at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in 1508. He was made Doctor of Theology in 1512 and joined the theological faculty at Wittenberg.

His growing understanding

Two experiences seem to have been important in the development of young Luther. In 1507 he became a priest and said his first Mass, and in the view of the church, he was now able to create the body and blood of Christ. This was one of many experiences which terrorized him in view of the majesty and justice of a holy God.

Secondly, he traveled to Rome in 1510 on monastery business. He was shocked to find Italy a breeding ground of corruption and secularized clergy. This was the time of the Renaissance Popes, and Pope Julius, the current occupant of that chair, was one of the worst of them all. (Erasmus later wrote a satirical tract called Julius Exclusus, which told the story of how Julius was excluded from heaven after he died.) This was the time period of the rebuilding of St. Peter's and the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- wonderful works of art, but from a Pope void of Christianity.

But the biggest influence on Luther was his continuing struggle over his salvation. He could not understand how a holy God could accept a sinful man, especially Luther, into heaven. He was told to take comfort in the sacraments, especially Penance (i.e. confession and absolution), but even the Roman church was not so doctrinally corrupt as to remove all personal repentance from the sacrament of Penance, and Luther doubted that he had the proper inward repentance and love and godliness to partake of the grace that was offered through the sacrament.

He also could not understand how, in Romans 1:17, it was said that the "righteousness" of God was revealed in the Gospel. If God's righteousness was revealed, how could it be good news, since God's righteousness could do nothing but condemn man's lawlessness? At last, in a flash of insight (or grace or faith), he understood that the righteousness in the verse was not the righteousness God displayed in judgment, but the righteousness he bestowed on a man through pure grace on account of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. "As it is written, the just shall live BY FAITH."

Now he understood that faith was the key. Faith was not a work. Rather, it was the empty hand receiving the gift of God offered without strings attached. Faith was utterly opposed to works. No works, not even the sacramental acts commanded by the church, could add to the free gift of God. For this reason, Luther added the word ALONE to his later German translation of Romans 3:28.

Luther was not reacting against a full Pelagian (or Judaizing) heresy of justification by works rather than faith. Rather, he was reacting to the seemingly reasonable Catholic teaching that our faith, which is required, works together with our use of God's sacraments and good works, which are also required. It was all of God's grace to offer such paths to salvation, but no man could be totally secure because such a life must be maintained before God lifelong.

Some of these insights actually came after the next item in our tour of Luther's life, the 95 Theses.

The Indulgences and 95 Theses

In 1517, Johann Tetzel appeared in Germany selling a special indulgence issued by the Pope. Luther's ruler, Elector Frederick, kept Tetzel out of his dominions, but Luther's parishioners were crossing the border and buying the indulgences anyway. According to Tetzel, the indulgence went further than previous indulgences, procuring not only release from earthly penance and Purgatorial punishment, but also full forgiveness of all sins.

Even by medieval standards, this was going too far. Technically, an indulgence only offered remission of the "temporal penalties," or satisfaction, associated with a sin. It did not affect God's eternal judgment, which was in theory left up to God alone. Rather, since the sufferings of Purgatory were thought to compensate for sins not confessed, absolved, and satisfactions performed on earth, which were imposed by the church, the indulgence, which remitted the penalties of the church, could not reach beyond Purgatory.

What Luther did not know at the time was that Tetzel's entire indulgence sale was worked up as a combination money-raising scheme for St. Peter's church (which was public) and debt repayment for Albert of Brandenberg, Archbishop of Mainz, to repay the Pope's hefty fees for installing him in a third archbishopric, and underage at that.

Complicating Luther's position was the fact that Frederick the Wise was a major collector of relics in his Castle Church at Wittenberg. If a pilgrim "venerated" all the relics in the Elector's collection, he would reduce his time in Purgatory by 127,799 years (Grimm, p. 91). The major festival which drew pilgrims to Frederick's collection in Wittenberg was the feast of All Saint's Day on Nov. 1.

Of course the entire doctrine was absurd and offensive, but Luther, in his initial stages, approached the matter cautiously. He wondered: why would not the Pope simply release all souls from Purgatory out of his sheer kindness, if such a thing were possible? Why demand payment first? Luther reexamined the entire structure of the sacrament of Penance and wrote out 95 debating points, intended for fellow scholars to debate with him. This was a common method of beginning a debate, not a Reformation of the church. He posted them, tradition says, on the door of the Castle Church the day before All Saint's, October 31, 1517.

Even though the theses were written in Latin and were only meant for academic debate, they looked like dynamite to others, who began running copies off on the printing presses, both in Latin and in German. Seemingly overnight, the theses were everywhere. Instead of a scholar's debate, the German people became involved. The theses by no means contained an expression of fully developed Reformation doctrine, but the challenge to the Pope's actions was lively enough that Germany was interested.

Text of the 95 Theses

Reactions of Church and State

Initially, the Pope wrote the whole issue off as a quarrel among monks. But local church officials were not so confident. They urged action. Three months after the Theses appeared, Pope Leo directed the Augustinian Order to quiet Luther. In April 1518 Luther was given the opportunity to defend his case at a meeting of the Augustinians. One of his hearers (and converts) was the Dominican monk Martin Bucer, who later became a great Reformer himself.

On August 7, 1518 Luther was given 60 days to appear in Rome to recant his heresies. Here Frederick intervened on the side of his university professor. He arranged a meeting with the papal legate, Cajetan, in Germany. After three days things were worse than ever. Cajetan threatened him with all kinds of papal punishment, and would not budge on any points. Meanwhile Luther had been developing and clarifying his thinking, but still believed that the Pope would take his side once he understood the issues. By November 28 he had lost this confidence and appealed publicly for a general council of the church to correct the Pope and the errors of the church.

In 1519 it was arranged for the great Dr. Eck to debate Dr. Carlstadt, Luther's senior colleague at Wittenberg. Luther was at first not invited (not given an imperial safe conduct), and attended only as a spectator, but he rose to the defense of the new evangelical doctrines after Carlstadt had faltered in the debate. This debate, which lasted three weeks, was very important for the future development of the Reformation. For it was here that Eck charged Luther with the errors of the acknowledged heretic John Hus. Thus challenged, Luther considered the question and finally declared that some of Hus's doctrines were true, that he was unjustly condemned by the (reformist) Council of Constance, and that both the Pope and a general council may err.

The next two years were filled with activity. After the rejection of Rome, Luther began his reforming appeals in earnest. He still was not trying to create a new church, just reform the old one. But this was not a time in Europe for compromise and discussion, much to the distress of peaceful leaders on both sides. Luther wrote three major works which consolidated both the direction of reformation and his theology: the Address to the German Nobility, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. The Babylonian Captivity, in particular, was the text in which Luther publicly taught against transubstantiation, although he never ceased teaching the Real Presence.

Meanwhile, in June 1520, the long-awaited bull of excommunication was issued, the famous Exsurge Domine, "Arise O God, plead thine own cause...." Luther was now officially excluded from the ancient Catholic church. But he was the beginning of a new branch of the Catholic church, not a sectarian heretic, but a true reformer, calling the church to return to first principles. He had gone far beyond justification by faith, which was the seed; he and his colleagues were reexamining the entire structure of Christendom, weighing each doctrine and practice, and finding that much that had grown up in the past 1000 years was anti-Biblical and not in agreement with the early church.

In December, Luther publicly burned the Pope's bull.

Repercussions Throughout Europe

In 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, summoned by the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles needed the support of every part of his splintered empire, and wanted to heal the church for the sheer sake of political unity, if for no other reason. He was a loyal son of the Roman church, and it was clear where his sympathies lay. Nevertheless Luther, like John Hus before him, trusted in God and in the Emperor's safe-conduct and came to the Diet.

At the Diet he was commanded once more to recant his teachings. He had expected an opportunity to defend his teachings before the Emperor and all the princes of Germany, but instead he was simply asked to recant. He asked for a day to consider his answer, and appeared the next day to defy the empire and replied, "Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience" (Schaff, vol. 7, p. 304). According to some accounts, he ended by saying "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Luther was able to get out of town under the Emperor's safe conduct before Charles could change his mind and seize him. Frederick was concerned for Luther's safety, since he was now declared an outlaw by the Empire as well as the Pope, so he secretly arranged to have him "kidnapped" and taken to the Wartburg castle for safekeeping. Here Luther worked for almost a year, and translated the New Testament into German from Greek -- the first modern translation from Greek into a vernacular language. He also wrote against monastic vows while in the Wartburg. By the time he returned to Wittenberg, the monastery there was entirely dissolved.

Luther and the Radicals

"Radical" reformers in his own home town (led by Carlstadt, his former friend), which caused him to return to Wittenberg to calm things down, were the foreshadowing of many such splits among the Protestants. Even though the differences in Wittenberg amounted mostly to (1) going too fast in the right direction, and (2) disagreement over using violent means to overthrow the old traditions, soon there was much more in the larger Germany, and Luther was distressed that the predictions of his enemies might come true in which he became the cause of the dissolution of society.

Luther soothed the radical elements in his own town, and some arranged for some people actually to leave town, but as he got older, Luther became more bitter and violent towards other elements of the Reformation which seemed to go too far. He approved of the suppression of the peasants in the Peasants' War, and his enmity towards Anabaptists, "enthusiasts," and other radicals only increased. He lumped Zwingli in with Carlstadt (who became more and more radical), and was utterly suspicious of any reformation other than the conservative German version.

We will deal with this topic more under Zwingli, and again in a special Anabaptist lesson.

Luther's Marriage

Luther's famous marriage to a former nun, Katherine von Bora, took place in 1525. Luther became the father of six children, and his views upon marriage, like those on everything else, were eagerly devoured by his students and became the basis for the Protestant interest in good marriages and families. Remember that up to this point, all godly literature was written by the unmarried who were under vows of chastity. A whole body of tradition entered Christian thought and literature at this point, and Luther's house, as is often stated, became the model for the "parsonage." But Luther didn't just speak on marriage, he lived it. He was well known to be devoted to his wife and family. His views were totally traditional, but within the tradition of Biblical patriarchy came Luther's humor and good will. He often referred to Katie as "my Lord."

Luther and Free Will

Erasmus had taken a mediating position for much of the early Reformation. He never identified himself with Protestantism even though he was friends with many of the Reformers, some of whom had been humanists before reformers. When he was finally induced to write against Luther, he chose a theological topic, free will, as the theme of his controversy. Luther replied with what he considered his best book, The Bondage of the Will. This book represents a more Calvinistic theology (by today's standards) than a Lutheran one. It is quite a joy to read. Luther's contemporaries, such as Melanchthon, never subscribed to the full predestination theology that Luther appeared to hold, and it disappeared from Lutheranism immediately upon Luther's death. Calvinists often refer to the book, however, and it was published in 1957 with a modern translation, and is still in print. It is one of the great books of the Reformation.

Luther and the German Reformation

After a while, the various German princes who had adopted Lutheranism began to take steps to systematize and regularize the reforms found within their various dominions. One such effort was the reformation of public worship according to non-Roman principles, via the "Visitations" commissioned by the various German rulers beginning in 1527. These were heavily influenced by the Wittenbergers and began the process of constructing a truly Protestant church system.

Another major undertaking for Luther was the introduction of congregational singing, and the consequent writing of new Protestant hymns. Like many other innovations of the Reformed period, all Christians take congregational singing for granted today (even Roman Catholics), but this was yet another blessing that had been withheld from the people until the Reformation.

Colloquy of Marburg

In 1529, representatives of the German and Swiss reformers met together at the instigation of Philip of Hesse, who wished a common Protestant political and confessional front. Luther and Melanchthon were there, as were Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Bucer. If at any time there was a chance for Protestants to get together, this was it. Of course no Anabaptists were invited.

Luther wrote with chalk upon the table, "This is my body." Immediately the heart of the matter was clear. Could the reformers agree on the Eucharist (Lord's Supper)? Luther's party believed that the "Real Presence" was essential, that is, even though the bread and wine were still physically present (contra the Roman church), nevertheless the physical presence of Christ's body and blood was still true. The reformers agreed that there was a "spiritual" presence of Christ (which actually was compromise on Zwingli's part, since he had taught a memorial Supper only), but they could not come to agreement on the physical presence of Christ.

Bainton's Here I Stand presents the argument this way:

Oekolampadius insisted that these words must be taken metaphorically, because the flesh profits nothing and the body of Christ has ascended into heaven. Luther inquired why the ascent should not also be metaphorical. Zwingli went to the heart of the matter when he affirmed that flesh and spirit are incompatible. Therefore the presence of Christ can only be spiritual. Luther replied that flesh and spirit can be conjoined, and the spiritual, which no one denied, does not exclude the physical. They appeared to have arrived at a deadlock, but actually they had made substantial gains because Zwingli advanced from his view that the Lord's Supper is only a memorial to the position that Christ is spiritually present. And Luther conceded that whatever the nature of the physical presence, it is of no benefit without faith. Hence any magical view is excluded.

No final agreement could be reached. Even though the reformers agreed on 14 other articles of faith, they could not on this one. The Protestants remained divided both confessionally and politically. There was to be no consistent reformed witness to one faith.

The Augsburg Confession

In their relations to the Holy Roman Emperor, an important milestone was the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. At this meeting the famous Augsburg Confession was submitted by the Lutherans to the Emperor Charles. Its author was Melanchton, who was accused of giving away too much in his desire to remain united to the Roman church. But it remained a reformed document, and became one of the primary confessional statements of all Lutherans.


Luther is much more complicated than can be presented here. The best advice is to continue studying him with a book like Bainton's Here I Stand, and to continue comparing his and other reformers' doctrine with Scripture. You will find that Reformation study will provide an inexhaustible supply of challenges to your thinking and living.

Luther provided the Reformation with a beginning, not an ending. By his death in 1546, Reformation was established, but its greatest fruits were yet to come.

The first Protestant martyrs were Hendrik Vos and Jan van der Eschen on July 1, 1523,
in the Low Countries, which were also ruled by Charles V. They were not to be the last.

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Copyright © 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.