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On Martin Luther & the Reformation

3,213 words


Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, 1529

Today marks the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation. In Germany, October 31 is an annual public holiday in five states, but this year a nationwide holiday has been declared in all states to celebrate the Reformation. A search for books about Martin Luther and the Reformation on Amazon shows that a vast number of books about him have been published in recent months. It seems right to commemorate this pivotal event in the history of Germany and all of Europe, and the man responsible for it. 

Martin Luther (1483–1546) from Saxony in Germany began the Reformation when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 (although the posting itself is disputed). Others then translated the Theses into German, printed and distributed them throughout Germany and soon Martin Luther was one of the best-known men in his time.

The Theology of the Medieval System

“I took the matter very seriously as a person who was tremendously afraid of the Last Day and nevertheless desired from the bottom of my heart to be saved.” — Martin Luther, 1545[1] [2]

To understand the Reformation an account must be given of the medieval theology regarding judgement and salvation and the institution of penance. A world chronicle, published in 1493 in Nuremberg, few months after Columbus returned from America, did not record that event, nor did it mention the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Rather, it ended with an account of Judgement Day. All serious minds concerned themselves with the Last Judgement. It was commonly held even that Christ himself had postponed Armageddon only for the sake of the pious Cistercian monks. But for how long? Young people were attracted to monasticism because it offered them the safest way to heaven. By austerity and mortification, their flesh grew old, though they were still in their youth. Luther witnessed a Prince who had forsaken the nobility to become a friar who walked the streets of Magdeburg with a bag, begging for food. “No one could look upon him without feeling ashamed of his own life,” Luther said after seeing this walking corpse. Earthly life was short, and hardship was a small price for the eternal joy in heaven. The damned would burn forever in the incandescent but unconsuming flames in hell. A torment without the mercy of extinction, lasting for eternity. So, Luther became a monk, like thousands of others, to save his soul.[2] [3]

His father, Hans, who had paid for Luther’s Latin school education and for his law study at the University of Erfurt, was livid when Luther left the university for the monastery. Luther was supposed to become the lawyer of the family business and support his parents in old age. His father’s rage did not cease until two other sons died and he feared it was God’s punishment for his rebellion.[3] [4] Having both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, Luther was a prized acquisition for the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The father came to see Luther’s first mass and arrived with a company of twenty horsemen and made a considerable contribution to the monastery. Luther could only perform the mass with difficulty because a sudden fear seized him as he sensed the presence of God in the sacraments. Afterward he approached his father and asked him about his earlier rage. His father then burst with anger in front of the doctors, the masters, and the other guests: “You learned scholar, have you never read in the Bible that you should honor your father and your mother? And here you have left me and your dear mother to look after ourselves in old age.” Luther retorted, as all the manuals stated, that one was to forsake his father and mother for Christ’s sake, and told his father that he would actually do more for him by prayers than by staying with him. He reminded his father that he had been called by a voice from heaven in a thunderstorm to join the monastery. “God grant, it was not an apparition of the Devil,” his father replied.[4] [5]

By the time Luther became a monk, the church had begun to offer indulgences that reduced time in Purgatory both for those living and those already dead. These could be acquired by visiting relics of the saints or by buying letters of indulgence. Some papal bulls even offered total forgiveness for sins and immediate reconciliation with God.[5] [6]

When Luther visited Rome in 1510 he believed in the system of penance. There he visited relics and said the endless requisite prayers and thus thought he’d saved his grandparents from Purgatory. He regretted that his parents were not already dead so could save them too. But he was stupefied by the incompetence of the Roman clergy, and horrified to hear that they frequented the district of ill fame, and that those who confined themselves to women even considered themselves virtuous. There he began to have doubts about the medieval system of penance, “Who knows whether it is so?”[6] [7]

Back in the cloister Luther would rely on the sacrament of penance, often confessing daily. But every sin had to be remembered and confessed for absolution. What if some sins eluded the memory? This troubled him greatly. Johann von Staupitz, the vicar general of the Augustinians in Germany, directed Luther’s attention from individual sins to the nature of man, and it began to dawn on Luther that sin was not some particular list of offences to be enumerated and confessed. The whole nature of man was sinful and in need of forgiveness. The penitential system was directed to particular offenses. Staupitz was a mystic and their way of salvation was directed to man as a whole.[7] [8] The book Theologia Deutsch (or Theologia Germanica) also influenced Luther’s outlook. It was written in the fourteenth century by an unknown German mystic and published by Luther in 1516 and 1518. About it he wrote: “Next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book has ever come into my hands from which I have learnt more of God and Christ, and man and all things that are.”[8] [9]

After Luther had completed both a bachelor’s and a doctoral degree in theology he was sent to Wittenberg to lecture on Scripture at the new university there. There he had his so-called theological breakthrough in 1515 while lecturing on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. He wrote later in life:

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. […] I meditated night and day on those words [Romans 1:17] until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.[9] [10]

The division of theology into law and gospel which is central to Lutheranism was undoubtedly related to Luther’s experiences of Anfechtungen, the feeling of terror when the believer realizes that nothing stands between the him and God, and he can’t do anything to make himself acceptable, and nothing can be done to placate God’s infinite wrath. But this feeling is the birth of salvation, it is the true Purgatory. About this experience, Luther wrote:

God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved. When God is about to justify a man, he damns him. Whom he would make alive he must first kill. God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror. This is the pain of purgatory. I do not know where it is located, but I do know that it can be experienced in this life. […] In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith. He who does not have this is lost even though he be absolved a million times by the pope, and he who does have it may not wish to be released from Purgatory, for true contrition seeks penalty.[10] [11]

The law of God as revealed in Scripture had for Luther no longer the role of normative precept for human behavior. Its main role was now the revelation of sin and judgement. It was to bring about the feeling of terror and awareness of the wrath of God, to bring the believer to contrition and true humility. Only then could he earnestly beg Christ for mercy and have a genuine relationship with God.

The Lutheran theological concepts of law and gospel, of judgement and salvation, were so brilliantly translated into music by Johann Sebastian Bach that he is known as the fifth evangelist. The abbreviation “J.J.,” meaning “Jesus help me,” is often found at the beginning of Bach’s manuscripts.[11] [12]

The Politics of the Reformation

“I seek not my own, but only the whole of Germany’s fortune and welfare [Ich das nicht meine, sondern allein des ganzen Deutschlands Glück und Heil suche.]” — Martin Luther[12] [13]

After Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, a complicated order of events took place. The Roman officials at first thought this was just yet another trouble from Germany and were not bothered. Pope Leo X had just been to France with his army to wage war against the king of France at the request of Henry VIII. And the Germans had complained for over a century about the extortion of the Church.

By the time Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, he had assumed the rank of district vicar and oversaw eleven monasteries, in addition to his position as a professor at the University. At Wittenberg, a circle of intellectuals, lawyers, printers, and artists had begun to form around Luther. Through his friend, Georg Spalatin, who was the right hand of Friedrich the Wise, Luther got access to the prince and his court, and also to an influential circle of supporters of the Renaissance in Nürnberg.

In August 1518, Luther received a letter with an order to appear at Rome within sixty days to answer to charges of heresy. At this point, reflecting on the trouble he was in, he said, “Now I must die. What a disgrace I shall be to my parents.” He then got an assurance from the prince of Saxony, Friedrich the Wise, that he would not go to Rome.[13] [14] In October, Luther went to Augsburg to be examined by cardinal Cajetan. Cajetan was supposed to make Luther recant and didn’t want any debate. Their first meeting failed. At the second meeting the following day, Luther arrived with a group of witnesses, including four imperial counselors and a notary to record the meeting. Their meeting ended without a resolution, but as soon as Luther arrived in Wittenberg, he sent a copy of the written record of the meeting to the printer.[14] [15]

In the spring of 1518, an anticipated debate took place in Leipzig between Luther and an ambitious young Catholic theologian named Johannes Eck. When Eck arrived, he was welcomed by the mayor and the town’s dignitaries. Luther arrived on an open wagon, followed by loyal students, armed with spears and halberds, and tellingly, their first stop was the local printer. Publications of Luther’s writings exceeded those of the seventeen next most published authors put together between 1518 and 1525. One fifth of works published in Germany between 1500 and 1530 were by Luther.[15] [16] A papal bull threatening Martin Luther with excommunication was issued in 1520, and Johannes Eck was tasked with bringing it to Saxony and publishing it there. He managed to post the bull in Meissen, Merseburg, and Brandenburg, but only with a company of armed men. When the escorts left, counter-propaganda was posted by “pious children,” and Eck had to seek refuge in a nearby monastery. He was mocked and threatened by locals, and soon a gang of fifty armed students from Wittenberg arrived to hound him.[16] [17]

When the great Renaissance painter, Albrecht Dürer, heard of Luther and his ideas, he was overcome with joy. To a secretary of the prince of Saxony he wrote,

. . . if God helps me to come to Dr. Martin Luther, then I will carefully draw his portrait and engrave it in copper for a lasting remembrance of this Christian man who has helped me out of great distress. And I beg your worthiness to send me as my payment anything new that Dr. Martin may write in German.

The secretary was to convey the gratitude of Dürer to the prince and, “beg him humbly that he will protect the praiseworthy Dr. Martin Luther for the sake of Christian truth. It matters more than all the riches and power of this world, for with time everything passes away; only the truth is eternal.”[17] [18]

German nationalism was still inchoate in the sixteenth century. Its earliest representatives, the knights Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen, became inspired by Martin Luther. Von Hutten, lamented the state of Germany and the first enemy to be repelled was the Church. In a pamphlet called The Roman Trinity, he wrote: “Three things are sold in Rome: Christ, the priesthood, and women. Three things are hateful to Rome: a general council, the reformation of the church, and the opening of German eyes. Three ills I pray for Rome: pestilence, famine, and war. This be my trinity.” Von Hutten stayed at Sickingen’s castle, the Ebernburg, during the winter of 1519–20 where read from the German works of the “Wittenberg prophet” to Sickingen, as Sickingen’s “foot and fist stamped assent.” They made it known that if the prince of Saxony should withdraw his protection of Luther, one hundred knights would be assembled for his protection. Luther intimated that the knights had delivered him from the fear of men, and now he could attack the papacy as Antichrist. “For me the die is cast,” he said.[18] [19] In a letter to Staupitz from 1522, Luther wrote, “My Father, I must destroy that kingdom of abomination and perdition which belongs to the Pope together with all his hangers-on.”[19] [20]

The fate of Luther was to be decided in an imperial assembly, called the Diet of Worms, in 1521. After negotiations between the Church, Emperor Charles V and Friedrich of Saxony, it was decided that the trial would be in the German city of Worms and not in Rome. Jerome Aleander, the papal nuncio, or representative, who oversaw the prosecution of Luther, reported that nine tenths of the Germans shouted “Luther!,” and one tenth, “Death to the Pope!” Sickingen controlled the Rhine Valley from Ebernburg Castle, and could stop the Emperor, who traveled without Spanish troops, from entering Germany. Von Hutten wrote to Aleander:

Do you suppose that through an edict extracted by guile from the emperor you will be able to separate Germany from liberty, faith, religion, and truth? Do you think you can intimidate us by burning books? This question will not be settled by the pen but by the sword.[20] [21]

Aleander, who had come to Worms only to implement the excommunication of Luther, noticed that as the assembly was delayed, popular violence in the city increased. He reported to Rome that pictures of Luther were being sold by the thousands, and pictures of the Pope and the cardinals being bound by the soldiers of the guard. He said, “I cannot go out on the streets but the Germans put their hands on their swords and gnash their teeth at me. I hope the pope will give me a plenary indulgence and look after my brothers and sisters if anything happens to me.” A friend of von Hutten wrote to him from Worms:

A chaplain of the emperor and two Spaniards caught a man with sixty copies of The Babylonian Captivity. The people came to the rescue, and the assailants had to take refuge in the castle. A mounted Spaniard pursued one of our men, who barely escaped through a door. The Spaniard reined up so suddenly that he fell off his horse and could not rise until a German lifted him. Every day two or three Spaniards gallop on their mules through the market place, and the people have to make way for them. This is our freedom.[21] [22]

Aleander insisted that Luther be dealt with as a heretic. “He is a heretic and an obstinate heretic. […] He is also a revolutionary. He claims that the Germans should wash their hands in the blood of the papists.” But Luther’s teaching was already so deeply rooted among the German people that if he were condemned without a hearing it would risk grave danger of insurrection.[22] [23] So, eventually Luther got a hearing with support from many princes and electors of the Holy Roman Empire. There he spoke his famous words:

Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the 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. God help me. Amen.[23] [24]

Luther spoke those words in German. He had to repeat them in Latin because the emperor could not understand German. In fact, the Germans had not had a German emperor for over a century. Luther’s following among the German nation was no less due to his courage in standing up to the emperor and the Catholic Church, than to his theological ideas.


[1] [25] Martin Luther, The Annotated Luther: Vol. 4, Pastoral Writings, ed. Mary Jane Haemig (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), p. 493.

[2] [26] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Meridian, 1995), pp. 22-25.

[3] [27] Ibid, p. 26.

[4] [28] Ibid, pp. 30-33.

[5] [29] Ibid, p. 35.

[6] [30] Ibid, pp. 37-38.

[7] [31] Ibid, pp. 41-42. See also scene from Luther (2003), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbMtH0Q7-mA

[8] [32] Martin Luther, Theologia Germanica, trans. Susanna Winkwortht, p. 1, retrieved from http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Theologia%20Germanica.pdf [33]

[9] [34] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545),” Project Wittenberg, trans. Andrew Thornton (March 17, 2006), retrieved from http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/preflat-eng.txt [35].

See also scene from the film Martin Luther (1953), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnZiqiq654A

[10] [36] Bainton, p. 63.

[11] [37] Here are some examples of Bach’s music where judgement predominates in my estimation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dgy6qPVPZ8 [38]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37Hi9PSs7og [39]

https://youtu.be/ihCQsVJihYU?t=2m37s [40]


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fPg3suBQIc [41]


And where salvation predominaties:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuFsMryY_Kk [42]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvweJ1lLcZc [43]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjYHG0k8pbg [44]


[12] [45] Martin Luther, “An die Rathsherren aller Städte Deutschen Ländes,” Sammlung Lutherscher Schriften: Erste Sammlung (Leipzig: Johann Umbrosius Barth, 1848), p. 26.

[13] [46] Bainton, pp. 69-70.

[14] [47] Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 91-111.

[15] [48] Ibid, pp. 112-32.

[16] [49] Ibid, pp. 133-60.

[17] [50] Diana Severance, “Albrecht Dürer, Reformation Media Man,” Christianity.com, retrieved from http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1201-1500/albrecht-drer-reformation-media-man-11629888.html

[18] [51] Bainton, pp. 100-104.

[19] [52] Roper, pp. 133-60.

[20] [53] Bainton, p. 130.

[21] [54] Ibid, pp. 136-37.

[22] [55] Ibid, p. 138.

[23] [56] Ibid, p. 144.