Heroes of the Faith

It is of great profit to study the lives of those who have gone before us, making their lives count for Christ and the Gospel.  To mark this Reformation Month of October, our featured Hero of the Faith is the father of that seminal call for the church to return to the teaching of Scripture, Martin Luther.

  • “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen!”   

    ~Martin Luther

    Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margarethe Luther on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, and was baptized the next day on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named. His family moved to Mansfeld in 1484, where his father operated copper mines. Having risen from the peasantry, Hans Luther was determined to see his only son work as a lawyer. In this way, Martin would bring further honor to the family. Thus, Martin Luther was sent to schools in Mansfeld and Magdeburg.


    At the age of seventeen in 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt, where he received a B.A. in 1502, and a M.A. in 1505. In accordance with his father's wishes, he then enrolled in the law school at the same university.

    All that changed during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505, when a lightning bolt struck near him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, "Help! St. Anna, I'll become a monk!”  His life spared, he held true to his vow and, forsaking the world by throwing away the lucrative career that had been planned for him, Luther joined the monastery. On July 17, 1505 he knocked at the gate of the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt and asked the prior to accept him into the order.


    Luther dedicated himself to monastic life, the effort to do good works to please God, and to serve others through prayer for their souls. The life of a monk during Luther's time was hard, and consisted of fasting, flagellations, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and constant confession. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his own sinfulness. Luther began to be troubled with the burden of saving his soul.


    In 1507, Luther was ordained as a priest in Erfurt, during which time he gave his first Mass. As he was performing the Mass, he began to have a crisis of conscience which, he said, haunted him for years. During the Mass he recited the prescribed words, “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the Eternal God…. " and Luther was struck by the meaning of what he had just said. Later on he records,

     “‘At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-struck. I thought to myself, 'With what tongue shall I address such Majesty. . .Who am I that I should lift up my eyes . . ? At His nod the earth trembles. . . And shall I, a miserable pygmy, say I want this, I ask for that? For I am dust and ashes and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God!'”


    Unable to shake his “undone-ness”, Luther sought help from his brethren. ‘How shall a man be justified with God?’ was the only topic of conversation amongst his friends. Unfortunately for Martin, these men were no better informed than he. One of his companions told him that if he wants to have peace with God, he must focus on confessing his sins; then he would be on the right path to being made right before God. At this, Luther began to meticulously search his mind for anything and everything that might be considered unholy. Keeping his superior for hours in the confessional, he poured out his soul before him, confessing things of the most minute detail. This left him still troubled. How could he be sure that he confessed every sin?


    Another of his companions told him that self denial was the key to the freedom that he had been looking for. With that goal in mind, Luther often fasted for three days at a time, without so much as a crumb, and added unto himself vigils and prayers that were in excess of those stipulated by rule. He would cast off the blankets permitted him, and strip himself of his clothing, save anything that would be considered indecent, and suffer through the freezing Baltic winter nights. Luther realized that rigid asceticism was not giving him the peace with God that he was seeking, and was further discouraged.


    A third friend of his suggested that he travel to Rome and visit the many famous churches and relics. Surely such religiosity would provide him with the satisfaction that he desired. With this advice, Luther went to Rome and did just that. He visited dozens of churches and performed a number of Masses. He went from the various convents to the ancient catacombs, yet still he felt guilt before God. He saw the relics of Christendom, from the alleged skull of John the Baptist, to a splinter that was said to have been from the very cross of Christ. He visited ‘Pilates staircase’ and as he ascended the steps, he kissed every one and said the ‘Our Father’ prayer, in an attempt to redeem his Grandfather's soul from Purgatory. When he reached the top step he thought to himself, "How can anyone know if this is true?" Once again Martin Luther was left empty and frustrated.


    Johann von Staupitz, Luther's superior, concluded the young man needed more work to distract him from pondering himself. He ordered the monk to pursue an academic career. In 1508 he began studying theology at the University of Wittenberg. After receiving his doctorate in Theology in 1512, Luther took a position as Theology Professor at the Wittenberg University.  He gave lectures over the Psalms (1514-15), Letter to the Romans (1515-16), Letter to the Galatians (1516-17), and Letter to the Hebrews (1517-18).


    This time is characterized by Luther's grappling with religious understanding. His decisive religious enlightenment is said to have come during his intensive study of the Letter to the Romans during which time he realized that people receive justice through the grace of God, not through good works: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith." (Romans 1:17)


    The discipline of earning academic degrees and preparing lectures drove Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. He immersed himself in the study of the Bible and the early Church. Soon terms like penance and righteousness took on new meaning for Luther, and he became convinced that the Church had lost sight of several of the central truths of Christianity taught in Scripture, the most important of them being the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther began to teach that salvation is completely a gift of God's grace through Christ received by faith alone.


    Luther wrote:

    “I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, 'the righteousness of God,' because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous. . .Night and day I pondered until. . . I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before 'the righteousness of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”


    It is interesting to note that Luther was born a Christian, baptized a Christian, confirmed a Christian, in Christian ministry, teaching Christian theology, and now finally, he became a Christian. It was around this time that Luther had a serious conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church.


    From 1514 Luther was not only theology professor at Wittenberg University but also the priest at the City Church in Wittenberg. He was also responsible for the salvation of his parish. Luther observed that many people in Wittenberg were not coming to him for confession any more. They were going to neighboring towns to buy Indulgences. This was because the Pope and other Cardinals and Bishops had decided to rebuild St. Peters Basilica in Rome and that required a lot of financial support. But how could the money be secured? Most were in poverty and were unable to give much. The church decided to stress the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins in order to cover the expenses of the massive construction. They decided to go after what people wanted the most--salvation--and it was very effective.


    The practice of buying indulgences was completely repulsive to Luther. He strongly believed that one lived a life of humility in order to receive God's grace.


    The Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel, sold indulgences in the region around Wittenberg in a very ostentatious manner. Many stories started popping up about him including one that Tetzel could redeem the sins of the deceased. Further sayings of Tetzel such as, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs,” also brought protests from Luther.


    On October 31, 1517, Luther posted his 95 Theses for disputation on the power of indulgences. The Theses condemned greed and worldliness in the Church as an abuse and asked for a theological disputation on what indulgences could grant. Luther did not challenge the authority of the Pope to grant indulgences, and at the time still believed in Purgatory, but insisted that the power of indulgences was limited to penance assigned by the Church. Some of the list of 95 are as follows:


    27.  They preach men who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].


    28.  It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.


    82.  To wit: "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial."


    The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German, printed and widely copied and within two months went throughout Europe. Because of increasing pressure, Luther found it necessary to explain and clarify his theses in writing. In 1518, Luther himself said that he only wanted to take care of an abuse and was not striving to unhinge the papacy with his theses.  The avalanche, however, was now unstoppable. The Papal Court reacted drastically to the alleged heretic and in 1518 an inquisition was begun in Rome.


    Because of constant attacks from the Roman Church, Luther was forced to shape his theology. During the years 1520-1521 he worked on the three great works, "Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” "The Babylonian Captivity." and "The Freedom of the Christian Man,” thereby emotionally cutting himself off from Rome.


    The inquisition against Luther was taken up again in 1520, partly because of these works. The peak of the inquisition came on June 15, 1520, with the Papal Bull (formal letter) of excommunication in which Luther was ordered to recant his teachings.  Luther reacted in protest. He burned the Papal Bull along with the book of church law and many other books by his enemies. This behavior caused a conclusive and irrevocable break with Rome. On January 3, 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther.


    Luther, who through the church's excommunication was practically declared a heretic, was invited to Worms, a small town on the Rhine River located in what is now Germany, by Emperor Charles V. Both the church and Emperor wanted Luther to recant his teachings while he was there.  The Diet of Worms was a general assembly (a Diet) of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire. It was conducted from January 28 to May 25, 1521, with Emperor Charles V presiding.  Although other issues were dealt with at the Diet of Worms, it is most memorable for addressing Martin Luther and the effects of the Protestant Reformation.


    Martin Luther realized that he could be burned at the stake for his views, and was daily recognizing that his life could soon come to an end. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views and was given an imperial guarantee of safe conduct to ensure his safe passage. The journey to the Imperial Diet did not embody the repentance the church had hoped for. The journey to Worms was more like a victory march; Luther was welcomed enthusiastically in all of the towns he went through.


    On April 16, Luther appeared before the Diet. Johann Eck, an assistant of Archbishop of Trier, presented Luther with a table filled with copies of his writings. Eck asked Luther if the books were his and if he still believed what these works taught. Luther requested time to think about his answer. It was granted. Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators and presented himself before the Diet the next day. When the matter came before the Diet the next day, Counselor Eck asked Luther to plainly answer the question: Would Luther reject his books and the errors they contain? Luther replied:


    "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 will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!"


    Over the next few days, private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. Because a decision had not yet been reached, Luther was allowed to leave Worms. During his return to Wittenberg, he was kidnapped by friends and taken to Wartburg Castle to protect him from the possible consequences. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor issued the Edict of Worms, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw and a heretic and banning his literature.


    Luther lived incognito at the Wartburg; he called himself ‘Knight George’ and grew out his hair and beard. Luther devoted himself to a new task. He translated the Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek into German within ten months. He did this to make it more accessible to the common people. Luther worked on refining the translation for the rest of his life, having a hand in the edition that was published in the year of his death, 1546. The Luther Bible, by reason of its widespread circulation, facilitated the emergence of the modern German language by standardizing it for the peoples of the Holy Roman Empire, encompassing lands that would ultimately become the nation of Germany in the nineteenth century. The Luther Bible is regarded as a landmark in German literature.


    Luther's 1534 Bible translation was also profoundly influential on William Tyndale, who, after spending time with Martin Luther in Wittenberg, published an English translation of the New Testament. In turn, Tyndale's translation was foundational for the King James Bible, thus, Luther's Bible influenced the most widely used English Bible translation, the King James Version.


    Over time, Charles V decided that it was in his best interest to allow Luther to live out his life, lest he start a civil war, since many of Charles’ associates had become converts to Lutheranism.


    On June 13, 1525 Luther married Katharina von Bora, a nun who had fled from a convent in Nimbsch, and had taken refuge in Wittenberg. Luther's marriage to Katharina (who was 16 years younger than Luther) was opposed by many of his friends who saw in it the downfall of the Reformation. Luther however, wanted to set an example for others that marriage was good and honorable.


    The Luthers had three boys and three girls; two of whom died as children. Luther was a loving father and husband. He made time to spend with his children, despite the incredible amount of work that he produced. He wrote many books and other writings, which have been preserved into an astounding 55 volumes. He lectured 5 times a week at college, preached 2-3 times on Sunday and even wrote hymns. He suffered a great deal with the loss of his 2 children, and also with many painful physical ailments. However, through it all, he glorified God by revealing his Maker to a world that was perishing around him. He died in 1546 at the age of 63.


    Compiled with the help of the following resources:



    Sermon by Michael Phillips, Grace Baptist Church 1/20/1991