No personality dominates the Reformation quite like Martin Luther. He looms large over the rise of the Reformation and still dominates both Protestant and Roman Catholic conversation about the 16th century. His life reads like a fantastic novel, needing no embellishment. He’s a larger-than-life figure that dominated his era while he was living and has grown larger since his passing.Over the last few decades, many Protestants and Catholics have attempted to gloss over the issues that led to the Reformation era. In Roland Bainton’s magisterial biography of Luther, he recounts singing “A Mighty Fortress” in a Catholic mass. And in an age of growing political correctness and increasing discomfort with the foibles of our historical heroes, Luther has been the brunt of much recent Protestant criticism, because he had some glaring faults.
There are few heroes of the faith that are quite as relatable as Luther. This is, in part, because he was so raw—he wore his feelings on his sleeve almost all the time, so he’s simpler to connect with than someone who keeps his cards closer to his vest. And Luther’s greatness is something we can aspire to, while also identifying with his weakness, anxiety, depression, and battle to persevere in the faith. Luther: “Many have taken the Christian faith to be a simple and easy matter, and have even numbered it among the virtues. This is because they have not really experienced it, nor have they tested the great strength of faith.”
If you’ve walked with Christ for any length of time, you know the truth of that statement.
Lightning Bolt Experience
Acts 9 tells the story of Saul on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the church. As he traveled, the Lord Jesus dramatically appeared to him in a blinding light and spoke to him. As a result of this, Saul turned from his persecution of the church to faith in Christ.
One of the most significant events in Luther’s life is similarly dramatic. While it didn’t result in his immediate conversion, it did change the course of his life forever. Medieval theology is filled with superstition. People in the Middle Ages saw spiritual explanations for everything. It’s in this context that we find Luther, a university student at the time, traveling near the village of Stotternheim. As he traveled, it began to rain and then storm. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck so near Luther that it cast him to the ground. In desperation he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!”
Roland Bainton offers this comment on this experience: “The man who thus called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of the saints. He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist. For this young man was Martin Luther.”
St. Anne is the patron saint of miners, and this points us back from 21-year-old Luther to his early life.
Nine years before Columbus sailed the ocean in search of the “new world,” Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, some 120 miles southwest of Berlin. 1483 was about three decades after the printing press began changing the world (Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1456). Luther’s parents were Hans and Margaret Luther. Hans, in particular, is a somewhat dominant figure in Luther’s life. He made his living as a miner, first working in a mine and then working his way up to owning multiple foundries. In many ways, he was a medieval version of the American dream. His hard work opened doors for Martin that wouldn’t have been open otherwise. That being said, Hans and Margaret were severely strict parents (not at all uncommon in that day), and Luther bore mental and emotional scars from his early childhood for the rest of his life.
Hans sent young Martin to school to get an education, a privilege that wasn’t afforded to many children in his day. His school masters, like his parents, were harsh, and his later writings recall with some resentment whippings for failures at his lessons. The boy who did the worst on his lessons in a given morning was forced to wear a donkey mask for the afternoon and called the asinus. Poor behavior earned demerits, and demerits were accumulated throughout the week and then punished at the end of the week. Boys sometimes received up to fifteen lashes with a birch rod for failures and misbehavior.
Luther recalls this period with some pain but also with fondness. He loved music, played the lute, loved the German countryside, and was a fun-loving boy. That being said, he struggled with wild mood swings from an early age—from the heights of euphoria and joy to the depths of darkness and depression.
Roland Bainton explains one of the major reasons for Luther’s emotional struggles: “The explanation lies … in the tensions which medieval religion deliberately induced, playing alternately upon fear and hope. Hell was stoked, not because men lived in perpetual dread, but precisely because they did not, and in order to instill enough fear to drive them to the sacraments of the Church.”
The truth is that Luther never really wanted to become a lawyer. It was his father’s dream that his son would create a career in law that would enable him to provide for his parents in their old age. Hans and Margaret saw Martin’s brilliance and thought a strategic marriage and good vocation would end many of their worries. In a day when parents were mostly free to dictate the lives of their children, Martin’s decision came as a shock to Hans. He got very angry and took a number of years to forgive his son for this betrayal of trust. It wasn’t until two other sons died that Hans reconciled with Luther, believing that God was punishing him for his resentment.
In July of 1505, at the age of 21, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. The people of the day believed that while all should live in dread of God, if anyone were to get into heaven, it would be a monk. Luther became a monk for the salvation of his soul.
Augustinian liturgy describes the process Luther would have gone through to be accepted in the monastery: He fell prostrate on the ground, and the prior of the monastery asked him this question: “What do you seek?” To which Luther answered, “God’s grace and your mercy.” The prior then describe what Luther’s life would look like: renouncing his right to his own decisions, little to eat, poor clothing, night watches, work during the day, denying his normally fleshly desires, poverty, begging, and living in isolation in this monastery. After an initiation ceremony, he was accepted into the monastery with these words: “Not he that has begun but he that endures to the end shall be saved.”
The rebellion against church authority came from one who desperately trying to obey to earn his salvation. Only after exhausting every possible avenue would Luther reluctantly become the Luther we know today.
The time came for Luther’s first mass, and Luther invited his father to come. Hans made a great show of his arrival, bringing a train of 20 horsemen and making a large contribution to the seminary. Yet when it came time for the mass, Luther spoke these words—“We offer unto you, the living, the true, the eternal God”—and was petrified. He later recalled his feeling in that moment: “At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, ‘With what tongue shall I address such Majesty. … For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.’”
Martin was unable to complete the mass. He froze, and someone else completed the service. Afterward, he approached his father as the monks and guests were eating together. There Hans exploded in anger, all his resentment at Martin’s choice to become a monk boiling over.
Luther, however, remained a devoted monk. He would fast for three days at a time, without eating a single bite. He would sleep at night with no blankets, at times almost freezing to death. He later said: “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.”
He was a conscientious confessor of sin. He went to confession almost daily, sometimes confessing his sins for up to six hours. Catholic theology teaches that only those sins that are confessed can be forgiven. So Luther agonizingly sought to categorize every sin. At one point his mentor, Staupitz, said to him: “If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive … instead of all these little sins.” At times he would leave the confession booth, only to immediately return because another unconfessed sin occurred to him.
While this was a very painful process, God was revealing something vitally important to Luther: the Catholic system of confession is directed toward individual sins. The problem is that man is corrupt to his very core, in every part of his nature. It’s not merely individual sins that need to be forgiven. Our entire being needs forgiveness.
Trip to Rome
In the midst of his struggles, his monastery selected him for a pilgrimage to Rome in the year 1510. As a devoted son of the church, Luther was delighted and honored. When he first saw the city from a distance, he cried out, “Hail, holy Rome!” But when he arrived in the city what he saw was disgusting and disillusioning.
He went to confess his sins, but the confessor wasn’t competent in confession. The Italian priests were party animals, running through masses as quickly as they could recite the words. They could perform a half dozen masses in the time it should take to say one mass. If he took too long, they’d say, “Move on!” Some priests were publicly flippant unbelievers. The Roman clergy were flagrantly immoral. The more chaste of the priests considered themselves holy because they restricted themselves to women.
Luther’s view of salvation began to crumble. He was trying to atone for his sins and also accumulate good works for his salvation and the salvation of those he loved. While in Rome he climbed Pilate’ stairs on his hands and knees, kissing each step, and saying a prayer at each step. Tradition taught that this process would release a soul from purgatory, where the remaining sins are purged from a person’s soul. Yet when he reached the top of the stairs, Luther turned and said, “Who knows whether it is so?” His doubts were increasing.
When Luther returned from Rome, he was transferred from Erfurt to Wittenberg, where he’d become famous and spend most of the rest of his career. The town was less than a mile in length, with a population around 2000 people. It was built on a hill of sand and was thus called Wittenberg, or “White Hill.”
The crown jewel of Wittenberg was its university, carefully cultivated by Prince Frederick the Wise who sought to build an academic bastion that rivaled the great institutions of the day. The move to Wittenberg also led Luther into a close relationship with his mentor, Johann von Staupitz. Pained monk that he was, Luther later wrote, “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”
Staupitz recommended mystical theology as a possible cure for Luther’s woes. While still submitting themselves to the Roman Catholic pentitential system, mystics also saw that man’s problems were greater than could be atoned for by confessing individual sins. Luther must surrender to the enveloping being and love of God. But this introduced an ever greater problem for him. How could he surrender to a God who would punish men for their sins? “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”
In desperation, Staupitz was casting about for any solution to help his beloved and tortured student. He informed Luther the he should study for his doctorate and would become a professor at the university. As Roland Bainton comments in his biography: “A young man on the verge of a nervous collapse over religious problems was to be commissioned as a teacher, preacher, and counselor to sick souls. Staupitz was practically saying, ‘Physician, cure thyself by curing others.'”
Staupitz knew that Luther, by studying particular subject matter, could help himself.
Professor Luther & Conversion
Luther devoted himself to becoming an expert in the Word of God. In August of 1513 he began lecturing on the Psalms. His years reciting the Psalms as part of the liturgical calendar affected his interpretation. The liturgical year is built around events in the life of Christ, so Luther interpreted the Psalms through a Christ-centered lens. By fall of 1515, he was teaching from Romans and Galatians in 1516-17. In the end, it wasn’t his Damascus Road experience with the lightning that saved him. It was the Gospel Road through the Word of God.
In the Word Luther discovered God the All Merciful, and it’s at the cross that God’s justice and mercy meet. God doesn’t overlook sin, because he is God the Just, but God has made reconciliation possible through Christ. Somehow, some way, God takes the immeasurable sins of mankind and deals with them.
While lecturing from Romans in 1515, Luther found the solution to his dilemma. A little phrase in the first chapter of Romans did it for him: “the just shall live by faith” (Romans1:17). Yet this discovery wasn’t a simple one for Luther. It was the result of lengthy and agonizing study. How could Paul say that the righteousness of God was good news? Then it hit Luther. The righteousness of God isn’t given to sinners because they become righteous but because of the free grace of God through faith in Christ. God gives his righteousness to those who believe simply because he wishes to. Both faith in Christ and justification for our sins are the free gift of God to sinners who don’t deserve it. Luther remarks, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”
Prince Albert & St. Peter’s
We now come to the conflict that would eventually fan the sparks of the Reformation into a full-fledged inferno. Simony (the acquiring of a position of influence in the church through bribery) was a common practice in the medieval church. Prince Albert of Brandenberg was of a master of simony. His aim in life was to become the most powerful church figure in all of Germany, and he did this buy buying influence. Albert already held two bishoprics and was thus 2X a breaker of canon law. First, he was too young to be a bishop in the first place, and secondly, church law forbade one person from holding multiple bishoprics.
Money talks loudly, though, and Albert thus had access to power. When the seat of the archbishop of Mainz came open, he knew that acquiring this position could fulfill his dream of being the leading churchman of Germany, as Mainz was the most important archbishopric in Germany.
The pope at this time, Leo X, was raising money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In an era of corrupt popes, Leo X stands out as one of the worst. Roman Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor: Leo “was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church.” While constructing this magnificent edifice, Leo began running short on money. So when Prince Albert contacted him to purchase the archbishopric at Mainz, Leo was excited. He set a price of 12,000 golden ducats—1000 for each of the apostles. Albert countered with 7,000 golden ducats (one for each of the 7 deadly sins). They eventually compromised on a price of 10,000 ducats—1000 for each of the 10 Commandments.
Because Albert was out of money and didn’t have 10,000 golden ducats, Leo authorized the sale of indulgences for Albert to pay off his debt.
According to Roman Catholic theology, the pope holds the keys to God’s kingdom (Matthew 16—Jesus gave the keys to Peter and the apostles), and these keys open the most important treasury in the church—the Treasury of Merit. The Roman Church distinguishes between mortal sins—those that result in eternal damnation (murder, rape, incest, adultery, etc.)—and venial sins—lesser/ordinary sins that still must be atoned for. If you’re unable to do enough penance in this life, you may spend some time in purgatory, where the remaining sins are purged from you.
These sins are paid for by acquiring merit, and this merit is held in the Treasury of Merit. This treasury is the superabundant storehouse of righteousness belonging to Jesus Christ, to his parents Joseph and Mary, to the apostles, and to canonized saints throughout history. Humans can access this storehouse of merit by giving a gift to God that’s greater than the deficit caused by our sin.
An indulgence is transfer of merit from the Treasury of Merit to an individual. You can obtain indulgences through pilgrimages or church relics. A visit to a coin for which Judas betrayed Jesus could obtain a reduction of time in purgatory of 1400 years. Luther’s own protector, Prince Frederick, had a remarkable collection of relics. At times, the church makes possible the sale of indulgences, and Roman Catholics still practice this today. Indulgences can’t be purchased for the living, but you can shorten the time of loved ones in purgatory.
Johann Tetzel was an early church marketer, known for his effectiveness in selling indulgences. He’d enter a town with great pomp and pageantry. A train of attendants entered with him, one holding a cross on a pole, another carrying the papal bull authorizing the sale of indulgences on a pillow.
He was creative in his marketing, coming up with the jingle (translated into English): “When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” It’s said that he claimed the purchase of an indulgence could remove sin even from a man “who had violated the Mother of God.” He also purported that “the cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ.”
Luther ministered in Saxony, where the sale of indulgences was illegal, but people from his region streamed over the border to purchase them in a neighboring province. Church doctrine taught that indulgences would only be effective if they were purchased with a sincere and contrite heart. Tetzel threw that teaching to the wind, and this infuriated Luther.
Thus, Luther wrote a series of statements against the sale of indulgences. He was assuming that both Prince Albert and Pope Leo were unaware of Tetzel’s unethical tactics, not realizing Tetzel was fully authorized to raise money by any means possible.
Luther’s theses were written in Latin, and they served as an invitation to debate. His expectation was that a member of the clergy or academia would respond and engage him in a debate about the current practices regarding the sale of indulgences. The theses didn’t address anything like the doctrine of salvation or the authority of Scripture. Luther was likely surprised that his theses were met with silence. He also sent a copy to Prince Albert with a very respectful cover letter, informing him about Tetzel’s poor representation of the church. Albert then forwarded the letter and theses to Pope Leo.
The spark that set off the Reformation was some students who apparently made copies of the theses and translated them into German. Printers got ahold of copies, and the 95 Theses soon spread like wildfire through all of Germany.
I love Roland Bainton’s description of what happened (with an illustration borrowed from Karl Barth): “Luther … was like a man climbing in the darkness a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.”