Martin Luther

November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.”



    At the core of Luther’s heart as a monk and as a man was “have I done enough to please you father?” Martin’s life was an obsessive pursuit of Gods will and personal purity, as well as relentless achievement for oneness with the Father. Born in Germany in 1483, Martin Luther became one of the most influential figures in Christian history when he began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. He called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, especially a strongly disputed claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money. Along with constant questioning of the Catholic practices and his perpetual refusal to recant on his writings of salvation and freedom; Martin Luther was catalyst for the reformation of Christianity, and the way we practice today.

    History:  Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, in modern southeast Germany. His parents, Hans and Margarette Luther, were of peasant linage, but Hans had some success as a miner and ore smelter. In 1484, the family moved to nearby Mansfeld, where Hans held ore deposits.

    Hans Luther knew that mining was a tough business and wanted his promising son to have better and become a lawyer. At age seven, Martin Luther entered school in Mansfield. At 14, he went to north to Magdeburg, where he continued his studies. In 1498, he returned to Eisleben and enrolled in a school, studying grammar, rhetoric and logic. He later compared this experience to purgatory and hell. After graduating and receiving his master’s degree in 1505, Luther went in accordance to his father’s wishes and enrolled in law school. After only being present for a short period of time, Martin felt conviction within himself and immediately dropped out, believing the law only caused uncertainty. Luther sought assurances about life and was drawn to theology and philosophy, expressing particular interest in Aristotle, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. He was deeply influenced by two tutors, Bartholomaeus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, who taught him to be suspicious of even the greatest thinkers and to test everything himself by experience. Philosophy proved to be unsatisfying, offering assurance about the use of reason but none about loving God, which to Luther was more important. Reason could not lead men to God, he felt, and he thereafter developed a love-hate relationship with Aristotle over the latter's emphasis on reason. For Luther, reason could be used to question men and institutions, but not God. Human beings could learn about God only through divine revelation, he believed, and Scripture therefore became increasingly important to him.

    July 2 1505, Luther would have a life-changing experience that set him on the course his heart desired for in the first place. Caught in a horrific thunderstorm where he feared for his life, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” The storm subsided and he felt he was saved from being terminated. Most historians believe this was not a spontaneous act, but an idea already formulated in Luther’s mind. The decision to become a monk was difficult and greatly disappointed his father, but he felt he must keep a promise. Luther was also driven by fears of hell and God’s wrath, and felt that life in a monastery would help him find salvation. On July 17, 1505 Martin Luther enter the monastery making the statement to his Family and friends “"This day you see me, and then, not ever again."

   Luther dedicated himself to the Augustinian order, devoting himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent confession. Luther described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul." Johann von Staupitz, his superior, pointed Luther's mind away from continual reflection upon his sins toward the merits of Christ. He taught that true repentance does not involve self-inflicted penances and punishments but rather a change of heart. At age 27, he was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a church conference in Rome. He came away more disillusioned, and very discouraged by the immorality and corruption he witnessed there among the Catholic priests. Upon his return to Germany, he enrolled in the University of Wittenberg in an attempt to suppress his spiritual turmoil. He excelled in his studies and received a doctorate, becoming a professor of theology at the university.

  Through his studies of scripture, Martin Luther finally gained religious enlightenment. Beginning in 1513, while preparing lectures, Luther read Psalm 22, which recounts Christ’s cry for mercy on the cross, a cry similar to his own disillusionment with God and religion. Two years later, while preparing a lecture on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he read, “The just will live by faith.” He dwelled on this statement for some time. Finally, he realized the key to spiritual salvation was not to fear God or be enslaved by religious dogma but to believe that faith alone would bring salvation. This period marked a major change in his life and set in motion the Reformation.


    Ministry and Impact:   Besides the obvious reformation of the church, and translation on the New Testament scriptures, Martin Luther put to rest a battle that even Christians and denominations deal with today. Martin Luther lived in constant terror that he wasn’t really saved. He feared that his belief was motivated by fear rather than love, and this would lead God to hate him. He would go to confession sometimes ten or more times a day trying to set his mind at ease about the opposition of his own humanity. While being laden with such conviction upon himself and his own sin; when he discovered what Tetzel and the Church were doing while he was in such torment, he was enraged. If people think they can buy a right to sin they are likely damning themselves by showing disdain for God. The Church was leading the faithful to Satan, he believed.

     Incredibly angered, he wrote a list of 95 complaints against the Church, in Latin, and on October 31, 1517 hung them on the equivalent of the university bulletin board — the church door. At that time he didn’t plan to lead a revolt, but after some colleagues took his complaints, translated them to German, and then used the printing press to spread them, the powder keg exploded. This gave people the rationale to break with the political authority of the church. It also solved Luther’s crisis of faith. When the church came back and demanded he recant and threaten excommunication (a threat they made good on), Luther had a revelation. God said he was saved if he believed; he should trust God’s word. The Church had made it difficult to see that by its rules, rituals and claim to mediate between man and God. For Luther, one could have a personal connection to God. The other most important breakthrough for Luther was the doctrine of justification – God's act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God's grace, and not by works of the church. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God's grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. "This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification," he wrote, "is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness." Because the Roman church was teaching something completely contrary to the truth reveled to him by the Holy Spirit, this made the Pope the anti-Christ for trying to intervene his and others personal relationship with Christ.

    Luther thus stepped up his attacks on the Church and became the leader of a revolt against over a millennium of Roman Catholic authority. Others such as John Calvin (1509-1564) would develop other alternatives to papal authority as the Protestants (those protesting Church authority) rose. Europe would be enmeshed in war and chaos for the next 130 years as the reformation spread, people sided either against or for the Church, and the Church undertook a major effort to reform itself and end the corruption that helped motivate the revolt.

    When the dust settled in 1648 Europe entered a new era. They created a new political entity, the sovereign state, to replace the old authority structure relying on tradition and the church. The political power of the church collapsed. Even in places remaining loyal to the Church, like France, Spain and the Hapsburg Empire in Austria, political power was now clearly in the hands of local rulers, thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther. The Church was increasingly relegated to attend to spiritual rather than material issues in a Europe becoming less spiritual as time passed. His actions ignited a revolution of dissent and dissatisfaction of Rome which had reached a point that the corrupt system of that time was doomed. Luther happened to provide the spark for the entire reformation of the Christian world.

    Along with challenging and reforming the Roman Catholic Church Martin Luther was instrumental in his translations of the Word of God. Luther had published his German translation of the New Testament in 1522, and he and his collaborators completed the translation of the Old Testament in 1534, when the whole Bible was published. He continued to work on refining the translation until the end of his life. Others had translated the Bible into German, but Luther tailored his translation to his own doctrine. When he was criticized for inserting the word "alone" after "faith" in Romans 3:28, he replied in part: "The text itself and the meaning of St. Paul urgently require and demand it. For in that very passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the Law . . . But when works are so completely cut away – and that must mean that faith alone justifies – whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this cutting away of works will have to say, 'Faith alone justifies us, and not works'.

    Luther's translation used the variant of German spoken at the Saxon chancellery, intelligible to both northern and southern Germans. He intended his vigorous, direct language to make the Bible accessible to everyday Germans, "for we are removing impediments and difficulties so that other people may read it without hindrance."

    Published at a time of rising demand for German-language publications, Luther's version quickly became a popular and influential Bible translation. As such, it made a significant contribution to the evolution of the German language and literature. Furnished with notes and prefaces by Luther, and with woodcuts by Lucas Cranach that contained anti-papal imagery, it played a major role in the spread of Luther's doctrine throughout Germany. The Luther Bible influenced other vernacular translations, such as William Tyndale's English Bible (1525 forward), a precursor of the King James Bible.

    In conclusion, Martin Luther is one of the most influential and controversial figures in the Reformation movement. His actions fractured the Roman Catholic Church into new sects of Christianity and set in motion reform within the Church. A prominent theologian, his desire for people to feel closer to God led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers. His achievements were profoundly spectacular and has given him a title of one of God’s great generals.

  Family Life:   Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora, one of 12 nuns he had helped escape from the Nimbschen Cistercian convent in April 1523, when he arranged for them to be smuggled out in herring barrels. On June 13 1525, the couple were engaged, and on the evening of the same day they were married. At the time of their marriage, Katharina was 26 years old and Luther was 41 years old. Luther and his wife moved into a former monastery, "The Black Cloister," a wedding present from the new elector John the Steadfast. They embarked on what appeared to have been a happy and successful marriage, though money was often short. Between bearing six children, Hans – June 1526; Elizabeth – 10 December 1527, who died within a few months; Magdalene – 1529, who died in Luther's arms in 1542; Martin – 1531; Paul – January 1533; and Margaret – 1534; Katharina helped the couple earn a living by farming the land and taking in boarders. Luther confided to Michael Stiefel on 11 August 1526: "My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.”