Young Martin Luther
Martin Luther is ranked number three on Life Magazine's "Top 100 People of the Millenium"
of people who lived between the years 1000-2000 A.D., behind Thomas Edison and Christopher
Columbus, and ahead of Galileo Galilei and Leonardo. What drove Luther was his primary
question, "How can I find a gracious God?"
Martin grew up in a time when most people in
Europe were illiterate, the church held tremendous power influence, and the prevailing theology
was that God was seen as a righteous judge. Life was hard, cruel and short, and preparation for
death was a primary concern of most people. Since his father Hans was in the copper trade, he
could afford to send Martin to school which he excelled as a student. His father wanted him to
study to be a lawyer. In 1505 he was caught in a horrible thunderstorm, and out of his fear of a
wrathful and judging God, Luther prayed that if he were spared in the storm, he would become a
monk. He did survive, and he entered the Augustinian cloister in Erfurt.
Luther was a pious monk, and he was ordained to the priesthood in 1507. Yet his quest for a
gracious God led him to great doubts and a troubled conscious. It is said that he spent hours in
the confessional, and still had trouble believing that God could forgive him. His superior, Jon
Stauptiz, sent him to teach at the new University in Wittenberg. Luther earned his doctorate
and became a regular professor of Bible in 1512. The following four years, he lectured on the
Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. During this time, Luther had a breakthrough, as he
came to believe that people were saved not by their merits and good works, but on account of
Christ, who died to save sinners.
Painting of Luther, in Rome
During this time, the church was raising funds for a new cathedral dedicated to St. Peter in the
Vatican. Part of those fundraising efforts was the sale of letters of indulgence. After preachers
came to preach repentance and a call to do acts of charity, these letters could be purchased,
assuring the owner of forgiveness and reduced time in purgatory. In practice these sale of
indulgence came to be understood by some, Luther included, that the church was selling
forgiveness. Being on a university campus, Luther wrote a document to stir academic debate,
defend the church, and proclaim the forgiveness he discovered in scripture as a free gift of God
given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 on the eve of All Saints Day. All Saints
was a poplar church festival, and many people visited churches to view relics and attend mass.
Wittenberg would have been a busy place, as Prince Frederich "the Wise" had an extensive relic
collection in the Castle Church, where Luther posted his 95 Theses. Whether or not Luther knew
what he was getting himself into, or what the consequences of his actions might be is debatable,
but it is the reason Luther is listed so high on the Millennium list, because such action changed
the course of history in Western Europe.
The advent of the printing press and a growing middle class (that could read) made Luther an
instant sensation throughout the German lands and eventually much of Europe. Over the next
few years, Luther continued to write. His three notable tracks from 1520 include, "An Appeal
to the Christian Nobility," "The Freedom of a Christian," and "The Babylonian Captivity of the
Church." His primary concern was that the church had lost its central message and how to restore
In 1521, Luther was called to stand trial for heresy at the Imperial Diet of Worms. Luther was
judged guilty and called upon to recant his writings, since they challenged church authority, in
particular the authority of the pope. He stood condemned and would likely be executed. It is here
Luther made his famous, "Here I stand" speech. Whether or not he actually said those words
or not is debated, but the implications were clear. Luther stood up to the church, and popular
opinion was with him (even if the church was not).
Luther's Room in Wartburg
Fearing for his life, Luther's friends hid him in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach,
overlooking the same town where years before he was a student. He spent almost a year studying
and writing. His most important project at the time was translating the New Testament into
German, and with the printing press it became widely available. After reforms continued
without him that were leading to violence, Luther came out of hiding and returned to Wittenberg
where he called home the rest of his life.
Luther continued to write, teach, preach and settle disputes over the course of the next twenty-
five years as he continued to develop "justification by faith" as central to his understanding
of Christ's death and resurrection for sinners. He married a former nun named Katarina Von
Bora on June 13, 1525. (The "Luther Wedding" is a primary festival in current day Lutherstadt-
Wittenberg, held every June, where locals dress as Martin and Kaite and the entire town
celebrates, drawing visitors from around the world). The Luthers had six children. They received
the former cloister as a gift for their home, where they raised their family, hosted many guests,
and boarded students. Many "table talks" of informal theology took place accompanied by good
food and drink around the Luthers' table.
The rest of Luther's life has a lasting legacy beyond the 95 Theses. In 1529, Luther wrote both
a Large and Small Catechism to teach the basics (10 Commandments, Apostles Creed, Lord's
Prayer, Baptism, Confession, Holy Communion, and Bible passages for everyday life. Many
Lutherans still use them for preaching and teaching today. In 1530, Luther's good friend and
colleague presented the Augsburg Confession at an imperial diet in Augsburg which is still a
foundational document for most Lutherans. Luther was unable to attend the diet since he was
Marin Luther's Wife, Katharina von Bora
condemned at the Diet of Worms nine years earlier. In his later years as his health declined,
and to his discredit, his irritability got the better of him. Luther used his voice and his pen to
condemn his enemies and those who disagreed with him. Several centuries later, the Nazi regime
would use Luther's writings to condemn the Jews and attempt to legitimize the holocaust
Whether intentional or not, Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation of the Western Church.
In response to the growing influence of the Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church redefined
its theology and practice at the Council of Trent. Wars were fought across Europe for religious
control, changing the nature of church and state relationships. Northern Germany, and most
countries in Scandanvia became "Lutheran" a term originally meant as a slur, but adopted as
badge of honor, associating with the man who stood up for the truth of the gospel. Switzerland
and parts of France came under the influence of John Calvin and the Reformed movement.
England broke away from Rome under Henry VIII to for the Church of England. Much of
Southern Europe remained Roman Catholic. As Western Europe spread its economic and
political power abroad, it brought its religion with them. At the time of the Middle Ages
Christianity was largely confined to Europe, but is now a global faith with over one billion
participants. In the last century, new peaceful relationships between Christians spurned by
Vatican II to open new possibilities for the future. In the meantime, Lutherans confess the truth of
the scriptures that Christ died for the ungodly.
Luther was not a saint. However, Luther's lasting legacy is a return to the scripture to
proclaim Christ crucified and risen to those burdened by sin, guilt, shame and death. He was in a
sense of a product of his own theology - sinner and saint at the same time. Luther also redefined
the very nature of the church. It was formerly understood that because the church had authority
it could proclaim the truth of Christ from the scriptures. Since Luther's influence, the church has
continued to explore its rightful place, having authority because of the truth of Christ proclaimed
in the scriptures.
Notes & Resources:
"Life's Top 100 People of the Millenium" online available here
James M. Kittleson. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis:
Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.
Martin Luther. Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. ed. Timothy F. Lull. Minnepolis:
Fortress Press, 1989.
Frederick Nohl. Luther: A Biography of a Reformer. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House,
Steven Ozment. A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. New York: Perennial,
E.G. Schwiebert. Luther and His Times. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950.
Susan K, Leigh. Luther the Graphic Novel: Echoes of the Hammer. St. Louis: Concordia
Publishing House, 2011.