“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”( Romans: 1:17)
Martin Luther is known as a reformer that changed the history of the Christian church. More books have been written about Luther than any other person in history except for Jesus. We pray that God may help us focus on some spiritual lessons of Luther’s life in this brief report.
Martin Luther was born on October 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, to a poor peasant family. His parents, Hans and Margaretta Luther, were very strict in raising their son. Luther said, “My mother once beat me up with a cane for stealing a nut until the blood came.… My father once flogged me so cruelly that I fled away from him, and came to bear a grudge against him. It was a long time until he again won my confidence.” His parents’ strict discipline instilled in him the fear of God’s judgment and the power of the pope in Rome.
Soon after his birth, Luther’s family moved to Mansfield, Germany, where his father began a copper mining business. The family’s financial situation improved and his father provided him a good education. He attended a Latin school in Mansfield and later, when he turned 13, he was sent to a boarding school in Magdeburg. Luther was a brilliant student. At the age of 17, he entered the University of Erfurt, one of the best universities at that time, and began to study liberal arts. He earned his B.A. degree the next year and a Masters degree in 1505 at the age of 21. Then following his father’s wish, Luther entered the law school at the University of Erfurt. He was well under way to become a lawyer when God intervened in his life.
On July 2, 1505, Luther was on his way back to Erfurt from his parents’ home, when he was caught in a fierce thunderstorm. A lightening bolt struck very close to him and he was thrown to the ground. He thought God’s judgment was upon him for his sins. He prayed to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” It was a Jacob’s vow made by a 21-year old Luther and he kept his promise. He became a monk, entering the monastery of the Order of St. Augustine in Erfurt.
Luther’s academic endeavors continued after his monastic vows. He began his post-graduate study, eventually earning a Doctor of Theology degree. He also began to lecture at the newly founded Wittenburg University becoming a theology professor when his doctoral study was completed (1512). He was ordained as a priest and said his first mass in 1507. But his experience with the mass troubled him greatly. In the view of the church, he, as a priest, was now able to transform the physical bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He trembled at the thought because he knew he was a sinner before the eyes of the holy and righteous God. It wasn’t that he was a bad monk. He did everything, fasting and praying, and even beating his body hoping to attain forgiveness of his sins and peace with God. He said, “I was a pious monk... if ever a monk got into heaven by monkery, so should I also have gotten there.” Still he had no peace with God. He had no assurance of salvation. He said: “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously,... I was angry with God.”
Another experience that had a profound impact on Luther was his trip to Rome in 1510 on monastery business. He was so excited to visit the holy city that he fell to the ground when he first arrived. But what he witnessed there shocked him beyond his imagination. The city was a breeding ground of immorality and utter corruption, especially for the religious class. He said later, “If there is a hell, then Rome is built upon it; and this I have heard in Rome itself.” It seemed that many cities of Italy were reeking with the stench of corruption. The pope at that time was Julius II and he was soon replaced by Leo X who is considered the worst pope ever. This was the period when the pope was rebuilding the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To finance the enormous construction project and to fight wars, the pope needed much money. He raised money by selling various church offices. He gave the titles of bishops and cardinals to those who made large financial contributions. But the pope needed more money, and raised huge sums by selling indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper that promised forgiveness of sins. The pope was essentially telling people that they didn’t have to repent their sins and believe in Christ to receive salvation; they only had to pay for the certificate. Salvation was up for sale.
Luther saw something else in Rome. There was a marble stairway called the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs.” It is said that this staircase was from the palace of Pilate in Jerusalem and Jesus came down on it after he was condemned to death by the Roman governor. The 28-step staircase is still in Rome today inside the Basilica of St. John Lateran. At the bottom of the stairway is a notice of indulgence. The popes declared that those who climb the stairs on their knees, saying a prayer on each step, shall be given a relief from the pains of purgatory. Legend says that Luther climbed the stairs. We wonder what came to his mind when he climbed the stairs on his bloody knees. No doubt he knew that such human efforts could not give the assurance of salvation and peace with God.
Luther’s agony over his personal salvation ended dramatically when he accepted one word from Romans 1:17, which says, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” He accepted the truth that salvation is the work of God. Jesus died on the cross to complete the work of salvation. Jesus died as the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. He said on the cross, “It is finished.” Thus, a sinner is made right with God when he repents his sins and believes in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. No one could earn his salvation by good works. It is the grace of God that sets a person free from his sin and death. For the first time in his life, Luther began to experience the deep joy and peace that only Jesus can give. His life as a priest took on a new meaning and purpose.
In Wittenberg, Luther served as a priest in the city’s church in addition to his teaching duties at the University. One day, he noticed that fewer and fewer parishioners were coming to the church for confession and penance. He found out that they were buying indulgences instead. A priest named Johann Tetzel was selling the indulgences promising absolution of all kinds of sins and the paradise of delight to the paying customers. Luther was outraged by the false teaching and began to preach against indulgences. It was the beginning of his life-long struggles against many unbiblical practices and corruption of the church authorities.
On October 31, 1517, Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, hoping to generate debate among the religious community about the evil practice of selling indulgences. His theses began with the following: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.” In Thesis 27, Luther said, “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.” He declared in These 36, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” In Theses 82, he asked, “If the pope could redeem souls from purgatory for the sake of money with which to build a church, why did he not free all the needy souls, for the sake of Christian love?” Answers to these debate questions seem so obvious to most Christians today, but the church leaders in Luther’s time had drifted away so far from the word of God, feeding their sheep with false teachings based on their human ideas.
Initially no one responded to Luther’s invitation to debate the issue. However, thanks to the invention of the Gutenberg’s printing press, his 95 theses were widely circulated among scholars and church leaders. The church promptly charged Luther for heresy and ordered him to recant. Pope Leo X issued the church’s doctrine of indulgences, directly contradicting Luther’s position. Rome held several inquisitions against Luther and his teachings. Finally, he was excommunicated by the pope. The church’s threats and persecutions were severe and persistent throughout Luther’s life. The pressure from the political leaders was equally severe. Emperor Maximilian denounced him as a heretic. After his excommunication by the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered Luther to appear before the Diet of Worms, which was a meeting of the powerful political and religious authorities. They pressured Luther to recant, but he refused. On April 18, 1521, on the second hearing of the Diet, Luther stood up before the emperor and his nobles, and declared, “Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.” Luther’s words resemble those of Peter and John who told the Jewish leaders who tried to prohibit them from preaching in the name of Jesus: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Ac 4:19). Luther had the courage to stand firm on the word of God. As a result, he was branded as an outlaw and there was a price on his life. But Luther’s work was just beginning. God used Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony and the founder of Wittenberg University, to provide a safe haven for Luther and protect him for the rest of his life. There were many other supporters among ordinary people. The students at the University of Erfurt, for example, ripped up the bull of excommunication by the pope into pieces and threw them into the water.
The most remarkable thing we learn from Luther’s life is that he was a diligent Bible student and a wonderful Bible teacher. He deeply respected the word of God. He wrote in 1533, “For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer.” He also said about the Bible: “No clearer book has been written in this wide world than the Bible. Compared with all other books it is like the sun over all other lights. Don’t let them lead you out of and away from it, much as they may try to do so. For if you step out, you are lost; they take you wherever they wish. If you remain within, you will be victorious.”
It is clear that, throughout his ordeal, Luther drew his strength from the word of God. He gave his heart and energy to the study of the Scriptures and writing on the word of God. As a professor, he lectured on Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. He published more than 500 publications, many of which are important works in Christian theology, including On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) and the Large Catechism (1530). He also wrote hundreds of letters. Most of all, he translated the Bible into German so that ordinary people might have access to the word of God.
There was an incredible story of Luther discovering accidentally a copy of the whole Bible in the library. One day when he was a student at the University of Erfurt, he discovered a Latin Bible while browsing the books in the library. He had studied parts of the gospels and epistles before, but he had never seen a whole Bible until that moment. He didn’t even know a whole Bible existed. Luther was awed by the privilege of holding the word of God in his hand and reading it for himself. He was like the Prophet Ezra in the Old Testament who discovered the Bible after the Babylonian exile and devoted himself to studying and teaching of the word of God.
Luther also wrote many hymns to praise the Lord. The one we are very familiar with is entitled, “A mighty fortress is our God,” in which he wrote: “And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed, His truth to triumph through us; The prince of darkness grim --We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.”
Luther married Katherina von Bora in the summer of 1525. He was 41 and she was 26. It wasn’t because Luther wasn’t interested in women that he waited until he was in his forties to get married. First he was a monk who vowed celibacy. Then as his struggle against the false teachings began, his life was in constant danger that he didn’t think it was fair for him to get married. But God provided an opportunity for him to establish a Christian home. Because of Luther’s influence, many monks and nuns began to escape from their monasteries and cloisters which were like prisons to most of them. And Luther encouraged them to do so. In 1523, Luther personally helped 12 nuns escape by packing them in the empty fish barrels on a wagon. Some returned to their homes. Luther arranged marriages for others. But there was still one former nun left after two years. It was Katie. People close to Luther suggested, “Why don’t you marry her yourself?” He accepted the challenge and decided to marry her and set a good example of what he was preaching.
Although it wasn’t love at first sight, Luther loved Katie, and she became an important source of strength for his struggle. Marriage brought changes in his personal life. He said, “Before I was married, the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. But I worked so hard and was so weary I tumbled in without noticing it.” But Katie changed all that. She was a hardworking woman with a pure heart. She managed the family business enabling him to focus on studying, writing, teaching and preaching. Luther called her “the morning star of Wittenberg” because she would get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and took care of the household. Luther told his friend about her, “My Katie is fulfilling Genesis 1:28.”
His marriage to Katie made Luther happy in the midst of his trials. They had six children and raised four orphans. But like many other families at that time, they experienced the pain of losing their children. Their daughter Elizabeth died only a few months after her birth. They also lost their daughter Magdelena at her tender age of 14. Luther was 58 years old then. He mourned her death and suffered from depression. Despite the joys and sorrows of family life, Luther believed in family as God’s institution. He said that “marriage is a far better school for character than any monastery.” To him, external chastity was neither possible nor necessary. Sexual desire was just like that of eating and drinking. Without sexual satisfaction, many would turn to sin—a problem that has surfaced again in recent years among Catholic priests.
What is the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther? First of all, he turned people’s attention to the word of God. He declared the Bible as the ultimate authority when traditions of the church and papal pronouncements were the focus of the people. He made many changes based on what he learned from the Bible. For example, he reduced the seven sacraments of the church into only baptism and communion, because the Bible only mentions the two. He also replaced the highly ritual Latin liturgy into worship service in common people’s language focused on the Scriptures and singing of hymns. He also preached against the unbiblical practice of celibacy and monasteries.
At the heart of his teaching was justification by faith alone, something he personally experienced. He taught that no one could earn salvation by doing good works or through rituals and sacraments. A sinner is saved by accepting by faith the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “A righteous will live by faith.”
Finally, Luther made the Bible accessible to ordinary people. Until his time, the word of God was monopolized by the clergy. The Bible was in Latin which ordinary people did not speak. The only Bible they read was through the stain-glass pictures of church buildings. They had no 1:1 Bible study. They had no testimony writing and sharing. The Latin liturgy on Sundays made them fall asleep. Luther changed all this. He helped ordinary people study the word of God and come to know the Lord personally.
While preparing this report, however, one question came into our minds. Where did Luther stand on the world mission command of Jesus? No reference could be found on this important command. It was perhaps because his life was consumed in fighting the immediate issues of his time, or perhaps because Europe was considered as the “world” at that time, even though America had been already discovered by Columbus. The lesson from this is that we must hear the word of our Lord absolutely, not relative to our human situations. For example, many of churches in America today focus on addressing family issues. This is understandable because we have so many broken homes, and it is important to pay attention to the issue. But we should not neglect our Lord’s world mission command because of our preoccupation with more pressing problems. May God bless America to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation!
Luther’s life of faith bore much fruit. He did not set out to change the world. He simply studied and obeyed the word of God. When he followed the word of God, many people called him a mad man, just as Jesus was. We are often treated as strange people when we obey the word of God. But when Luther obeyed the word of God, he made an impact on the spiritual history of the humanity. He worked hard all his life, and he suffered from many health problems including arthritis, heart problems, and digestive disorders. He died on February 17, 1546. He was 62 years old.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950.
Edwards, Mark and George Tavard. Luther: A Reformer for the Churches. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1983.
Grisar, Hartmann. Martin Luther, his life and work. Westminster, Md., Newman Press, 1950.
Plass, Ewal M. What Luther Says: An Anthology. St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.
Smith, Preserved. The life and letters of Martin Luther. New York, Barnes & Noble, 1968.
Todd, John Murray. Martin Luther, a biographical study. Westminster, Md., Newman Press, 1964.