A Brief Look at Martin Luther (Parts 2 and 3)


Part 2: Luther’s reform

As was mentioned in Part 1, the first key event in Luther’s quest for reform was to initiate a debate over the selling of indulgences, which he attempted to accomplish by posting his 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg.  An indulgence was a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment from some types of sins – usually the lesser sins.  In this particular scheme during the papacy of Leo X, Catholic parishioners, as well as their deceased relatives, were being granted a reduction, or even a remission, of their time in purgatory after death simply by making payments to the Church in order to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  This whole scheme greatly troubled Luther due to its corrupt nature. Luther objected to the selling of indulgences on three counts:

  1. German national resentment against papal exploitation, since German money, including money from poor peasants, was going to Rome.
  2. Luther questioned the jurisdiction of the Pope over purgatory, as well as the Pope’s motives behind it.
  3. Most importantly, indulgences induce a wrong state of mind; they do not induce a penitent, contrite heart.

In addition to Luther’s objection to the selling of indulgences, there were many other aspects of Luther’s reform agenda that developed over time which brought him at odds with the Pope and the Catholic Church authorities.  Six key reforms were influenced by Luther during the Protestant Reformation:

  1. Luther challenged and questioned the authority and infallibility of the Pope, as well as the authority of cardinals and even councils.  He taught that ultimate authority is in Christ alone and through Scripture alone, not through popes, cardinals, bishops, councils, or Canon Law.
  2. Luther taught the doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers.  Therefore, there is no special status of traditional priests, nor do they confer divine grace in their administering of the Mass or any other such sacraments.  Instead, Luther taught, the minister is a Christian set apart by the congregation for the performance of a particular office.
  3. Luther denied the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass since Calvary cannot be re-enacted. Instead, Luther taught, the Mass is better referred to as the Lord’s Supper, where the underlying themes are thanksgiving and fellowship of believers.  He also reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), since only these two sacraments were instituted by Christ.
  4. Luther came to reject monasticism as a separate path to spiritual perfection or higher righteousness that attempted to attain more favor from God.  There’s no warrant in Scripture for taking lifelong vows of poverty and chastity. Thus, Luther would go on to marry a former nun, Katherine von Bora, in 1525, and have many children together.  But more importantly, Luther taught that man can do nothing to save himself on his own merits, and no amount of self-denial or good works can make up for that. Man is saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, and man’s good works are the fruit of faith in Christ and not the cause of it.
  5. Luther believed that many pastors and teachers were not knowledgeable in doctrine.  As a remedy, in 1529 he wrote the Large Catechism as a manual for pastors and clergymen.  Additionally, he wrote the Small Catechism as a means to impart the basics of Christianity to the congregations and to help parents teach their children Scriptural truths.  In fact, the Small Catechism is still widely used today in Lutheran churches as part of youth education and Confirmation.
  6. Luther was an avid hymn writer.  Before Luther, singing was mostly done by choirs in Latin which few laymen understood.  Luther regarded music, and especially hymns and psalms in German, as important means for the development of faith.  He believed there was no better way to get Scripture into the hearts and minds of the people than by singing. Also, early Lutheran hymnals helped spread the ideas of the Reformation.  

Part 3: Luther’s breach

In this final section, I will attempt to summarize ten key events and movements that occurred during the early years of the Reformation, which ultimately led to Luther’s irreparable breach with Rome.

  1. Tensions had arisen between the northern and southern territories of Saxony; the northern territory under Frederick the Wise (Elector of Saxony) who was a staunch defender of Luther until his death in 1525, and the southern territory under Duke George of Saxony.
  2. These tensions were exacerbated due to Bohemian invasions of Duke George’s territories, and Luther having publicly endorsed a former Bohemian reformer, John Hus, who was deemed a heretic by the Catholic Church and burned at the stake at the Council of Constance a century earlier in 1415.  John Hus was a reformer during a time when the Holy Roman Empire held more control over Europe. Further, the printing press had not been invented yet, which enabled the Catholic Church authorities to confiscate and burn his writings before they could be disseminated to a wider audience. The Church authorities, on the other hand, were not able to squelch the spread of Luther’s writings even though they desperately tried to, due to the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century.  The development of moveable type printing is usually credited to Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468), who is also famous for his printing of the first Bible.
  3. Regarding the printing revolution, as the late Harvard historian Mark Kishlansky explained, “The development of printing did not cause religious reform, but it is difficult to see how reform would have progressed in its absence.  The campaign to change the doctrine and practice of Catholicism was waged through the press, with millions of flyers and pamphlets distributed across Europe to spread the new ideas. A third of all books sold in Germany between 1518 and 1525 were written by Martin Luther.”  
  4. Due to the rapid spread of Luther’s writings and calls for reform, others throughout Europe were emboldened to carry the torch of reform.  One such group which found common cause with Luther were the Renaissance humanists. While some segments of this movement held to a more secular worldview, there were many humanists within the Catholic Church who began to challenge some of the Church’s practices and certain archaic beliefs and traditions such as the veneration of relics, the cult of the saints, and monasticism.  These humanists, like Luther, believed in a return to the study of the Scriptures and a return to the study of the early church fathers. Also, like Luther, they sensed the corrupt nature of the system and practice of indulgences.
  5. The most prominent humanist to emerge, and who was a contemporary of Luther, was the Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Erasmus was an enormously influential northern humanist, well known in history for his Greek edition of the New Testament (in 1516) as well as his literary debate with Luther concerning free will.  Erasmus was considered a moderate who would not break with the Church of Rome but used his considerable intellectual skills and scholarly reputation to advance the cause of reform within the Catholic Church.  He wrote scathing attacks on the Scholastics and the traditionalists in the Church and the universities, with the goal of restoring the experience of Christ to the center of Christianity. Erasmus, while not a theologian by trade, vigorously studied the texts of the early church fathers, especially Saint Jerome (his personal favorite).  In addition to his publication of the Greek New Testament (which was clearly superior to the thousand-year-old Latin Vulgate), Erasmus’s published edition of Jerome’s writings is also considered one of the significant works of that era. So how influential was Erasmus? Besides being the most respected scholar of his day (acknowledged as such by Luther himself), it was Erasmus’s Greek New Testament that Luther used to produce his German translation, and it was Erasmus’s Greek New Testament that was used by Melancthon and Zwingli, and Tyndale – and which became the basis for Tyndale’s translation of the English Bible in 1525.
  6. Due to the ongoing controversy that Luther was causing for the Pope and the Church authorities, and their inability to quell it, in June 1520 a papal bull was drafted which ordered Luther’s recantation and the burning of his works and threatened him with excommunication unless he recanted.  In addition to Luther’s 95 theses, many of Luther’s other recent works were deemed heretical, such as his Address to the Christian Nobility, On the Freedom of a Christian, and especially The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  Not only did Luther denounce the papal bull, his theology faculty burned a copy of the bull at a ceremony in December 1520.  Consequently, in January 1521 Luther was officially excommunicated from the Catholic Church. But his trouble was just beginning.  In April 1521 Luther was summoned to appear at the Diet of Worms over a two day period before an assembly of the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V) as well as other princes, rulers, and Church authorities.  After Luther failed to recant his views and writings, an Edict was placed on him declaring him banned from the empire. Luther was now considered an outlaw who could be burned at the stake if the authorities so desired.  
  7. It’s important to note that Luther’s offenses were judged to be subversive to the social and political order, and not merely offenses against the Church.  The emperor and the various princes and rulers feared the possibility of insurrection and even war if Luther, along with the German nationalists supporting him, did not recant and submit to the authority of the empire.  Their fears were realized as both insurrection and war ensued in Saxony and later in Switzerland, France, and elsewhere during the rest of the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century, culminating in the Treaty of Westphalia in October 1648.
  8. Following the Edict of Worms, Luther was secretly kidnapped and hidden on his return from Worms, and he remained in protected exile for a year at the Wartburg, Fredrick the Wise’s castle.  While in exile for his safety and well-being, Luther was able to write and study to keep himself occupied. His greatest achievement here was producing a New Testament translation of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament into the German tongue.  This translation was the foundation of the German language in written form. Luther, not satisfied with merely a German New Testament, would eventually complete an Old Testament translation from the Hebrew twelve years later, in 1534.
  9. Following his exile at the Wartburg, Luther returned to Wittenberg to find some of the reforms – and the attitude behind them – spinning wildly out of control.  Luther was extremely upset over their disorderly conduct and their intimidation of non-reformers. To Luther’s dismay, he even observed excesses by Andreas Carlstadt, one of his former professors, who was using methods of reform of which Luther did not approve due to their legalistic nature.  Eventually, Luther, along with the town council and local congregation, had Carlstadt banished from Wittenberg.
  10. As upsetting as Carlstadt’s excesses were, Luther found the excesses of another minister, Thomas Muentzer, to be far more disturbing.  Muentzer attempted to reform the church into a new kind of theocracy, a theocracy founded on personal predestination – the community of the elect.  In his vision, the saints, not the magistrates, should rule the community and constrain the ungodly. This led to Muentzer instigating, and participating in, a Peasants’ War, which enraged Luther due to its rebellious nature by turning to the sword.  Muentzer was subsequently captured and executed, which Luther believed to be God’s judgment. But unfortunately, these types of rebellions and excesses only served to further the enmity that the Church authorities and the magistrates felt toward Luther and his fellow reformers since Luther was the chief instigator of the whole reform movement from the start.     

After examining many key events and movements from the early years of the Reformation, it’s obvious that many other events could have been included as well.  But what I outlined above is hopefully sufficient in shedding light on some of the key events that were influential during this time period, which contributed to the eventual break between Luther’s reform movement and the Catholic Church.  

Concluding thoughts

To conclude this brief article on the impact and legacy of Martin Luther, it cannot be overstated how one man’s unshakable faith and commitment to the truth of God’s Word caused such an earthquake that its aftershocks are still being felt today five hundred years later.  As one historian has remarked, “When under God the hour struck in 1517, the man for the hour was there.” Almost 30 years later, Luther breathed his last and went to be with the Lord on February 18, 1546. Fittingly, he was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, beneath the pulpit.

It has been said that Erasmus “laid the egg which Luther hatched.”  Here we get a glimpse of Providence in action as it unfolds in history.  We see the interplay and interdependence of a drama within a bigger picture.  The Bible and textual scholarship of the humanist; the skill and boldness of the reformer; the availability of the printing press; and finally, God’s Word ready to be translated and disseminated throughout the globe, so as to be read and learned by all of God’s people.  

This article is Part 2 and 3 of 3. Click here to view the previous article.


Dan Tsouloufis

Dan is a Consultant Business Systems Analyst at HSBC in Arlington Heights, IL. Dan is also a founding member and deacon at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL. Dan is married to Stephanie, and they have three children: Joseph, Daniel and Grace.