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Martin Luther and Reformation Day

October 31st is called Reformation Day - the day that marks the start of the Great Protestant Reformation. Today, most people think of October 31st as Halloween, or the celebration of All Saint's Day - but long before ghosts, goblins and goodies a little monk in a country far, far away was hammering something very important to a large wooden door.

Tonight we want to look at the life of one Martin Luther - a name many people are familiar with, but a life that many know little about!

The Early Years

Martin Luther was a German, born in 1483 in Eisleben. His father had been born a peasant, but worked his way into the middle class, eventually becoming a successful business owner. Resolute that his son would continue this upwardly mobile trek, he determined Martin would become a lawyer and from an early age had him schooled with this in mind.

The senior Luther was a strict father - perhaps even severe. Martin would recount in later life cruel beatings from his father's hand during an unhappy childhood. Some believe that the depression and anxiety that he struggled with as an adult were rooted in this difficult upbringing.

In the summer of 1505, Martin got caught in a severe thunderstorm with crashes of thunder and lightening all about him. His greatest fear was that he would die and go to hell, so in desperation, he prayed to St. Anne (as Catholics were prone to do in such circumstances) telling her that he would become a monk if she would deliver him from the storm. Delivered he was, and being a man of his word, Luther joined an Augustinian monastery at Erfurt two weeks later. His great hope was that the monastic life would ensure his eternal salvation.

His hopes quickly began to dim, however. Roman Catholicism teaches that in order for any sin to be forgiven, it must be confessed to a priest and then paid for by some form of penance. [1] This is what you may have heard called "the confessional." Martin was very intent on being forgiven for all of his sins, so he would go to the little booth every day, often for several hours at a time, confessing every sin he could bring to mind. But, "Luther had an overpowering sense of his own sinfulness and the more he sought to overcome it the more he became aware of sin's sway over him." [2]

Why was this? Because the more he studied his own heart, the more evil he found there. Luther was learning experientially what we call the doctrine of the sinful nature. He was discovering his own heart described in the Bible in these ways:

•  Ecclesiastes 7:20 "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."

•  Jeremiah 17:9 "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

•  Mark 7:21-23 "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

We sin because we are sinners. Sin is not the result of our environment, childhood or socio-economic status.

•  Psalm 51:5 "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

•  Ephesians 2:3 ".were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. "

The Roman church taught that man was able to deal with his own sin by doing certain things - keeping the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist/communion, penance, extreme (final) unction, holy orders). They taught that saving grace was conferred via these actions, without any view to the heart condition of priest or person (recipient). Luther kept jumping through all these hoops waiting for some sense of sin forgiven - but it never came. Even when he dabbled in mysticism which elevated a sort of felt "love for God" above everything else - he discovered that what was really in his heart was hate. He hated God!


The Monk is Saved!

Martin Luther was beginning to despair! The more he tried to please God, the more his anger toward God grew - his inner turmoil was intense.

It was just at this time, having received his doctorate in theology the year before that Luther was appointed to the new University of Wittenburg in 1513. Here he was given ample hours to study the text of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek - and two years later something incredible took place:

The great discovery probably came in 1515, when Luther began lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans. He later declared that it was in the first chapter of that epistle that he found the solution to his difficulties. That solution did not come easily. It was not simply a matter of opening the Bible one day and reading that "the just shall live by faith." As he tells the story, the great discovery followed a long struggle and bitter anguish, for Romans 1:17 begins by declaring that, in the gospel, "the righteousness of God is revealed." According to this text, the gospel is the revelation of the righteousness - the justice - of God. But it was precisely the justice of God that Luther found unbearable. How could such a message be gospel, good news? For Luther, good news would have been that God is not just, meaning that God does not judge sinners. But in Romans 1:17 , the good news and the justice of God are linked. Luther hated the very phrase "the justice of God," and spent day and night seeking to understand the relationship between the two parts of the that single verse, which, after declaring that in the gospel "the justice of God is revealed," affirms that "the righteous shall live by faith."

The answer was surprising. Luther came to the conclusion that the "justice of god" does not refer, as he had been taught, to the punishment of sinners. It means rather that the "justice" or "righteousness" of the righteous is not their own, but God's. The "righteousness of God" is that which is given to those who live by faith. It is given, not because they are righteous, nor because they fulfill the demands of divine justice, but simply because God wishes to give it. Thus, Luther's doctrine of "justification by faith" does not mean that what God demands of us is faith, as if this were something we have to do or achieve and which God then rewards. It means rather that both faith and justification are the work of God, a free gift to sinners. As a result of this discovery, Luther tells us, "I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase, "the justice of God" no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love." [3]

Two years later, Luther was in full swing, teaching the book of Romans to the other monks and students at the seminary. Most were receiving his teaching with open arms.

Now there were many things going on the world of politics and government while Luther was growing in Christ in Wittenburg. The Pope (Leo X - one of the most vile and money-hungry popes ever!) was trying to gain more political power. The Kings of France and Spain were jockeying for supremacy as well. Sometimes, the political leaders would use the evils found in the church to weaken Pope Leo X's position and strengthen theirs.

Now, kids. Have you ever done something like this? There you are in the classroom and your teacher leaves for a few seconds and you stand up in front of the class and say something funny about the teacher? Everyone laughs and you go on your way. The next day, you decide to do the same thing - but this time, the teacher walks in and hears everything you say! Oh no!!!

Well, a similar kind of thing happened to Luther - only we shouldn't say, "Oh no!" but "All right!"

Luther did what was common in that day and decided to open a topic for debate by writing out his complaints and nailing them to a door. He had 97 of them. He wrote them, nailed them - and.. nothing happened. No one noticed!

So, not long after, Luther wrote out some more abuses he saw in the church, and nailed them to the door. and the whole world stood up and took notice!!! The Reformation had begun!


The Problem with Indulgences

What Luther was wanting to debate was the use of Indulgences. An Indulgence is a way to buy, with money, your salvation. or the salvation of someone you love who already died!

John Tetzel, a Dominican priest, was travelling the world selling Papal Indulgences.. so that the greedy Leo could raise enough money to build a huge white building in Vatican City called St. Peter's Bascillica. He was a rather crude salesman and even wrote a little jingle for his workers that said,

"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,

The soul from purgatory springs!" 

Such nonsense was not to be tolerated even in the Roman church, and Luther wrote his 95 theses to address it. They included statements like these:

45 . Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

51 . Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

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." 

Luther had just spoken against the elaborate plans of the Pope - possibly the single most powerful man in the world at that time! 

Now, we should note that another factor in the providence of God throwing barrels of fuel on this fire was the printing press. For the first time in the history of the world, multiple copies of one document could be printed off in a very short time. Luther's 95 theses were published on October 31 st , 1517 and they quickly spread across Europe and were translated into different languages. Part of the reason for this instant success, was the fact that the general populace was already quite disillusioned with the church. Here now was someone putting into words what they already felt.

The Pope was furious and demanded the Augustinian monks deal with Luther. They met together in Heidelberg soon after and to his great surprise (for Luther thought they would condemn him to die) he found the majority of the order agreed with him. And those who did not agree were (for other reasons) [4] going to stick with one of their own.

Luther was called to other councils and meetings, [5] but the greatest test in his life came at the Diet of Worms.


The Diet of Worms

A diet of worms is what a happy robin eats. It is also a church meeting or council in a city in Germany called Worms. 

Here, all the great rulers and dignitaries of the day assembled to question the little German monk. Luther was very afraid! Imagine what it would be like to stand before men who could condemn you to death at any moment. There you are in your little monk habit and there they are in all their glory and robes and jewelry and power and authority!

There was no debate or questioning or study - Luther was simply asked to renounce his writings (piled on a table in front of him) - including the 95 theses.

This was a critical moment - not so much because Luther was unconvinced of his writings, but because he believed in the authority of the church! To go against the church was, in Roman Catholic theology, to go against God. Luther asked for one day to consider what he ought to do.

The next day came and the whole assembly was buzzing with anticipation. The same demand to recant and renounce his works was made. Luther abandoned the Latin used in official debates and with a loud voice in German said:

"My conscience is a prisoner of God's Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one's conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me. Amen."

He then left the proceedings and returned to his room!


What Happened Next?

The Emporer was not about to let a monk defy his authority. He quickly published the Edict of Worms on May 21, 1521 . It said in part,

"Luther is now to be seen as a convicted heretic. He has twenty-one days from the fifteenth of April. After that, no one should give him shelter. His followers also are to be condemned, and his books will be erased from human memory."

Among other things, this ruling permitted anyone to kill Luther without suffering legal consequence, and the property of Luther's followers and supporters could be seized by force. It is worth noting that Luther lived under this edict for the rest of his life.

While everyone was waiting for this Edict to be written, however, Martin Luther was kidnapped by soldiers of Frederick the Wise. Frederick was a friend of Luther and had arranged for his soldiers to steal him away to a place that not even he knew of! That place was the Wartburg Castle and there Luther grew a beard and began to translate the Bible into German. Before that time, the people would only hear the Word of God in Latin - a language that very few of them understood. Luther gave his people the Bible in their native tongue and the printing press gave them the Bible in their homes!

Luther remained in Wartburg until the burgeoning Reformation needed his direct help again. Like many such seasons in the history of the church, God often appoints one man with his own unique strengths and weaknesses to lead His people. Melancthon and Karlstadt had neither the mind nor the fortitude of Martin Luther - so at great personal risk he came out of hiding and returned to Wittenburg. He would spend the majority of the rest of his life there, writing, debating, teaching, marrying, having children, mentoring students and seeking to apply the Bible to all that the church was and did.

He was no great friend of Baptists. which ought to be the subject of another night. but we can thank God the massive doctrinal and practical and political reform brought about through the life of the German monk.


Why Does it Matter?

Martin Luther's life teaches us many lessons:

  1. Great men of God don't seek fame - it finds them. Luther, like Calvin in Geneva , and Conrad Grebel and Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich merely began to teach what the Bible said. Their fame was a result of God's Holy Spirit giving unction to their words and their unswerving commitment to Truth over tradition. Here is the path to greatness in the Kingdom of God at all times - a commitment to Truth! So many want to be "great" but only in the eyes of men. As large as the ego's of Calvin, Luther and Zwingli might have been, they sought to walk humbly with their God and to give Him the glory. After them have come many hundreds and thousands who have followed God in the same way - only the pages of history have forgotten them. The point is, we have no business seeking to be "great" except in the eyes of God. Matthew 5: 17   "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven . 20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Emphasis mine.)
  2. Luther's life shows us that we may be called to go against all the powers and the impressive people of the world to follow Jesus. Luther was not the first nor will he be the last to be attacked for his faith. We can learn from him, however, to be sure that what we are following is the Jesus of the Bible, not just some weird aberrant view we have concocted.
  3. Luther's life also teaches us that there are no perfect men. Luther often erred in public debate by using slanderous terms and remarks. This was more than just the "style of the day." One example is from the introduction to his excellent work, "The Bondage of the Will" written to refute Erasmus's "The Freedom of the Will." He says, ".your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should he carried in vessels of gold and silver." [6] Not only that, but like many great men, he was very busy and could sometimes make decisions without full knowledge of the truth concerning the situation.
  4. Our freedom to worship as Protestants should never be taken for granted. Good men and women died and suffered much in order for us to be free to worship God as we believe He desires to be worshipped. The differences between us and Rome are significant. We are not Catholic-haters, but we are not Catholic-embracers either. Roman Catholicism is not true Christianity - make no mistake. It does not hold to justification by faith, which, as we will see in Romans, is central to salvation. Martin Luther was correct to stand against the church and to denounce its teachings. When Christians today get all cozy with Roman Catholicism, they betray a trust with our forefathers and with the Truth. We must learn to act like Luther, spelling out the Truth biblically and trying to love those with whom we disagree. There is ample evidence that Luther was gracious to Catholic people who were deluded by the church - but he spared no punches when he communicated with the Leaders of that church. Think of how Jesus addressed the Pharisee's in His day!
  5. Luther's life also teaches us that Christian greatness is never void of personal devotion. Luther followed Christ and submitted to His will. He was far more than a great personality - he loved Jesus.

Luther in many ways became a living legend in his own day. And the common people, freed from the oppression of Rome and brought into the gospel of grace could heartily sing with the converted monk:

Dear Christian people all, rejoice,
Each soul with joy upraising.
Pour forth a song with heart and voice,
With love and gladness singing.
Give thanks to God, our Lord above,
Thanks for His miracle of love!
Dearly He hath redeemed us. [7]

Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein,
Und lasst uns fröhlich springen,
Dass wir getrost und all in ein
Mit Lust und Liebe singen:
Was Gott an uns gewendet hat,
Und seine süsse Wunderthat,
Gar theur hat er's erworben.


[1] Roman Catholicisim defines penance in this way: " Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest's absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same. It is called a "sacrament" not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul. As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction. This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, "confession", and it is said to take place in the "tribunal of penance", because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence. The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God , justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent's heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the "power of the keys", i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church." Accessed on October 28, 2004 from

[2] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1985),16.

[3] Gonzalez, p. 19-20. Emphasis mine.

[4] The primary "other reason" was the fact that Tetzel was a Dominican and they were Augustinians. Their mutual distrust went back generations!

[5] The Diet of the Empire at Augsburg , the meeting with Miltitz and finally the debate with John Eck. It was at the debate with Eck that Luther admitted he felt the Council of Constance had erred in condemning John Huss and that Huss had not deserved to die. By siding with a condemned heretic, Luther gave his enemies the ability to call him a heretic! See Gonzalez, p. 25-27.

[6] The Bondage of the Will , 14.

[7] Words: Martin Luther , 1523 ( Nun freut euch ); translated from German to English by Christian G. Haas , 1897.