The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
October 31, 1517 to October 31, 2017
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben Germany in 1483, nine years before the discovery of America. His father Hans Luther was a rather prosperous miner and his mother, Margaretta, was a strict disciplinarian. Because his son was so brilliant, Hans enrolled Martin at the University of Erfurt to study law.
On returning to the university, after a visit home, a lightning bolt knocked him to the ground. Thinking this was a sign from God, Luther cried out, “Save me, St. Anne!” “I will become a monk!” He sold his law books and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.
His father Hans was furious, hoping to have a wealthy lawyer in the family. Martin didn’t want to displease his father, but only to lead a holy life to obtain forgiveness and go to heaven. Martin prayed long hours, worked hard, studied constantly. He was surprised and saddened that the harder he tried to keep God’s commandments perfectly, the more he felt like a failure.
The monastery thought that maybe it would help to send Brother Martin to Rome, the church’s headquarters. But when he saw how worldly and sinfully the leaders behaved, his despair deepened.
Once again, Luther’s life changed. The ruler of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, had established a new university in Wittenberg. Luther was sent there to be an assistant professor. He became a scholar and preacher. Yet he still did not find peace with God.
The head of the local monastery, Johann von Staupitz, led Luther to the Bible for answers. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther read that God’s righteousness is a gift to those who believe in Christ as their Savior. St. Paul explained that this righteousness was not only God’s own perfection, but something that He gave to people who were sorry for their sins and believed in Christ.
Luther now understood that he didn’t have to earn God’s forgiveness because Christ had earned it for him. He became so excited that he wanted to spread this good news.
The church at that time taught that the punishment for sin occurred in a place called purgatory could be removed if people bought what were called indulgences. One particularly well-known Catholic method of exploitation in the Middle Ages was the practice of selling indulgences, a monetary payment of penalty which, supposedly, absolved one of past sins and/or released one from purgatory after death
Martin studied the Bible but he could not find those words or concepts—purgatory or indulgences—in its pages. He concluded that these teachings were not God’s teachings. When a man named Tetzel tried to sell such indulgences near Wittenberg, it was too much for Luther.
On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote 95 theses about purgatory, indulgences, and other teachings of the church—topics on which he would debate anyone—and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He thought he was free to do this and only wanted to lay out his newly discovered views of the Bible to other church leaders in the Medieval Church. He knew his thoughts were radical, but, after all, he was an Augustinian monk and a professor of theology.
It was this act that began the Reformation and changed the world and the history of the Christian church.
This became much bigger than Martin Luther had expected. Without his knowledge, someone printed his words on the newly invented Gutenburg press, distributing it all over Germany. Within a few days, Martin found that he was the subject of everyone’s thoughts. In the cathedrals and great stone castles of his homeland, the pubs and peasant’s cottages—everyone was talking about the views of Luther. Without a signal to announce it, the Lutheran Reformation had begun.
What did Luther and the others view? They were seeing something new about how a person is accepted by God—that is, new to them. They protested that the church had been teaching the wrong view about the most important issue of life. They discovered that the Bible says we are not accepted on the basis of our religious deeds, or even our good deeds along with our faith, but that we area accepted before a holy God only through faith in Christ.
Although many agreed with Luther, some powerful church leaders did not. One of them, Cardinal Cajetan, angrily ordered Luther to be arrested. Luther escaped from danger one night by riding a horse bareback to safety in Wittenberg.
Luther took part in a great debate at Leipzig that lasted 18 days. He would not take back what he had written. Finally, Pope Leo X expelled him from the church. However, Frederick the Wise, the ruler of Saxony where Luther lived, agreed that church reform was needed.
Eventually Luther appeared before Charles V, the emperor over much of Europe, at a city on the Rhine River called Worms. Here, the emperor, his court, and the church leaders demanded that Luther take back what he had written. But Martin replied bravely: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen!”
Soon afterward, Charles V and the church leaders declared that Luther was an outlaw, and anyone could kill him on sight.
Luther’s life was in danger as he traveled home to Wittenberg. Along the way, he and his companions were overtaken by a band of horsemen. Luther was kidnapped! He was taken to the Castle in Wartburg, a fortress. But the kidnappers were not what they seemed. They were his friends in disguise. Frederick had planned the “kidnapping” to hide Martin from his enemies.
Luther used his time at The Warburg wisely. He believed that the best way to teach the Gospel was to let people read it for themselves. (At that time, the Bible was in Latin, a language most people could not read.) So, he translated the New Testament into the language of the people—German.
Martin kept in touch with his family and friends through letters and their visits to The Wartburg. When the citizens of Wittenberg begged him to return, he risked his life and bravely left The Wartburg. Philip Melanchthon, a scholar who was Luther’s right-hand man, noted that some of the clergy had “revelations” apart from Scripture and, as a result, they vandalized religious art, music, stained glass and statutes of the saints. He said to Luther “The dam has broken, and I cannot stop the waters.”
But Luther could dam up the waters from the pulpit. He preached against such actions. He explained that the teachings and the traditions of the church that were contrary to the Scriptures should be changed. But other practices that helped people in worship—like the liturgy and music—should be kept.
Because new inventions made printing faster and cheaper, Luther took full advantage of the press by writing letters, essays, and books. His writings—such as the catechisms and hymns—helped pastors, teachers, parents, and children as they learned and worshiped.
With false teachings and wrong practices corrected, Luther and his associates prepared many new materials for the church. They published a complete German Bible, a new order of worship, new hymns, prayers, and sermon books. Luther wrote both the Small and Large Catechisms for teaching children and adults. Since he loved music, he composed some very famous hymns, including the Christmas carol, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” and the great hymn of the Reformation “A Mighty Fortress Is our God.”
Luther stated he was too busy and too set in his ways to marry. However, when several nuns escaped in a fish barrel and were taken at midnight to Wittenberg, Luther met Katherine von Bora, a former nun. Martin and Katie, as he called her, were married in 1525. She was a strong and intelligent woman and was as outspoken as her husband. The Luthers lived a happy life in Wittenberg. Six children—three boys and three girls—added to their joy.
Luther became busier than ever attracting students from many nations throughout Europe. There were so many students that Katie sometimes had trouble finding food and beds for all of them. At mealtime, Luther amused everyone with his blazing sense of humor. He also made dinnertime observations that were so valuable students wrote down nearly everything he said. These notes were later published in a book called Luther’s Table Talk. Luther, himself, wrote an astonishing number of letters, articles, pamphlets, studies, and commentaries on books of the Bible. His assembled works have been published in almost one hundred fat volumes. Even his enemies admitted that he was a genius.
Emperor Charles V threatened the German Lutheran princes if they did not return to the Catholic Church. The Lutheran princes boldly refused and gave Charles a document that began, “We Protest. . .” The term protestant was born on that day and the Lutheran Reformation then became known as the Protestant Reformation.
Still hoping for reconciliation, the emperor and the Lutheran leaders met again at Augsburg in 1530. Luther was still considered a criminal and would have been captured and executed had he gone. Instead, a fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon presented a formal statement of what the reformers believed. The statement became known as the Augsburg Confession, and it remains the formal expression of Lutheran teachings to this day.
The Reformation was not just one movement in one country that led to one Protestant church body. In England, it led to the Anglican Church. In Switzerland, France, Holland, and Scotland, it became the Reformed Church. In Germany, Anabaptists split from Lutherans. In America, they formed synods named for the states to which they had migrated. The various synods have amalgamated into three church bodies—the Wisconsin Synod is the most conservative and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) the most liberal with the Missouri Synod (LC-MS) in the middle.
Luther suffered from Gout attacks. He had sores on his legs which were thought to be diabetic ulcers. He had angina. In 1546, Luther, had a heart attack and died in Eisleben, where he was born. His life had come full circle. He was buried beneath the pulpit in the Castle Church at Wittenberg.
Sources: Martin Luther, A Man Who Changed the World, by Paul L Maier , Professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University. Published by Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2004. Distributed as a member benefit by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Where Values Thrive. Appleton, Wisconsin.
Wittenburg, Germany, October 31st, 1517. Copyright 2002, Jim Elliff , permission granted in full for non-profit use.
Dr. Paul L. Maier is the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University and a much-published author of both scholarly and popular works. His novels include two historical documentaries — Pontius Pilate and The Flames of Rome— as well as A Skeleton in God’s Closet, a theological thriller that became a #1 national bestseller in religious fiction when it first released. Sequels: More than a Skeleton and The Constantine Codex, followed in 2003 and 2011.
His nonfiction works include In the Fullness of Time, a book that correlates sacred with secular evidence from the ancient world impinging on Jesus and early Christianity; Josephus: The Essential Works, a new translation / commentary on writings of the first-century Jewish historian; and Eusebius: The Church History, a similar book on the first Christian historian. More than five million of Maier’s books are now in print in twenty languages, as well as over 250 scholarly articles and reviews in professional journals.
Dr. Maier lectures widely, appears frequently on national radio, television, and newspaper interviews, and has received numerous awards. He has also penned seven children’s books and hosted six video seminars dealing with Jesus, St. Paul, the early church, and current Christianity.
The Rev Dr. Paul Maier’s website: http://www.paulmaier.com/