Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Martin Luther’s contribution to the Christian faith was sizeable. Luther, a German professor of theology, composer, priest, and monk is one of the great heroes of Protestant Christian faith whose contribution still resonates in the Church today. But during the sixteenth century, the Christian world was divided on what to do with this curious fellow.
Luther was born in Eisleben in what would later become Germany on November 10, 1483 to Hans and Margarethe Luther. Hans moved his family to Mansfeld where he took the occupation as a coppersmith and local community leader. He insisted that young Martin attend school to become a lawyer.
Martin hated law, and left law school to study the philosophical work of thinkers like Aristotle, Ockham, and Biel. He began to realize logic could only be used to assess the institutions and creations of man, and the thinking process would not apply to matters pertaining to God. He believed one could only know God through divine revelation and the Holy Scriptures became central to this primary way of knowing God.
On the second of July 1505, a lightening bold struck close to where Martin was riding this horse. Fear gripped him and out of that fear came a commitment to monastic life as a monk. Biographies record that he sold everything he owned and moved into the St Augustine’s monastery at Erfurt. Martin Marty records in his biography that Luther’s father was furious with such a frivolous waste of an education. Little did his father realize how Martin Luther would shape the Christian Church.
Martin Luther spent countless hours in prayer and dedicated himself to the study of the Scripture. During this time, he began to consider the nature of the Roman Catholic Church and its methods. The Catholic Church sold “indulgences” to the uneducated populous to reduce their punishment for sin. The rich would purchase the indulgences as insurance policies against past or future sins to reduce their earthly penitence, or their time in “purgatory.” It was said, “As soon as the coin in the coffer sings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther was sickened by this idea and issued letters of protest against the practice. The essence of these letters became the foundation for what would become the “Ninety-Five Theses” that Martin Luther penned as a chastisement of the nature of the Catholic Church and nailed to the front door of the All Saints Church at Wittenberg University on October 31, 1517.
As Luther continued to lecture on matters of theology and scripture, he became more convinced the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt and in need of reformation. He believed the Catholic Church had lost sight of the matters of truth faith. One of the central doctrines for Luther was the doctrine of justification. Luther believed by God’s grace, sinners were made righteous by faith alone—sola fide. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” Romans 1:17.
Luther also took great issue with the presumed authority of the Pope. The Catholic Church believed, in short, some words and actions taken by the Pope were viewed as inspired and without error. These papal positions were taught as if they were more important than the Holy Scripture itself. Pope Leo X issued an edict threatening Luther with excommunication unless he recanted 41 of the 95 theses. Luther refused and publicly set fire to the edict and many of the pope’s legislative objectives December 10, 1520. (Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has agreed, as recently as 2006 with the doctrine of justification by faith, yet the Church has not recanted its excommunication of Luther.)
Luther was deemed a heretic on May 25, 1521 and labeled as an outlaw and demanding his arrest. Threats stretched to the wider community claiming it to be a crime if anyone offered food or shelter to Luther. The edict furthermore permitted anyone to kill Luther without penalty. While Luther was on his way back to Wittenberg, Emperor Fredrick III intercepted Luther and took him safely to Wartburg Castle.
Martin Luther called the safety of the Wartburg Castle his “Patmos” and continued his scathing critique of the Roman Catholic Church. He continued to attack the sale of indulgences to fund Pope Leo’s building projects and took issue with many of the Church’s central doctrines. He also translated the New Testament into the German language and taught that the Pope was the antichrist of 2nd Thessalonians 2 and that Rome was “little horn” of Daniel 7.
Luther made many more contributions to the Christian Church that space will not permit to be exhaustive. His contributions led to the establishment of the Lutheran denomination and his hymns are still found in the hymnals in the pews of our congregations.
During a return visit to Mansfeld to meet with community leaders and family, Luther began having chest pains. It is recorded that around 2:45 a.m. on February 18, 1546, Luther suffered a massive stroke and died at the age of 62. Martin Luther was laid to rest at the foot of the pulpit in All Saints Church, Wittenberg where visitors still visit his monument to pay tribute for his contribution as a Hero of Christian faith.
Martin Marty. Martin Luther. (New York: Penguin Group), 2004.
Britannica, 2020. “Martin Luther: Biography, Reformation, Works, & Facts.” Accessed September 28, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther.
Roland Bainton. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Penguin Group) 1995.
Wikipedia, 2020. “Martin Luther.” Accessed September 27, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther.