The Monk From Wittenberg
By Matthew Castro
The former monk, Martin Luther, stood before the Holy Roman Emperor in Worms. Luther was surrounded by Catholic bishops and the princes of Germany. They eagerly awaited Luther’s response to their accusations of heresy in his writings. He spoke to the court of the emperor, saying, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” Luther’s public defiance to the crown and the pope was one of the great moments of the Reformation.
What is Protestantism?
Martin Luther is known as the father of the Reformation. His protest of the corruptions of the Catholic Church ushered in a new age. However, the story of Luther is more than a great speech at the Diet of Worms. He helped define what protestantism is. His arguments challenged the Catholic church’s unbiblical views on four major issues: salvation, religious authority, ecclesiology (what is the church), and the essence of Christian living. These four issues continue to define Protestantism from Catholic beliefs.
Early Life of Martin Luther
Before Luther helped to define the Protestant movement in the 16th century, he was an aspiring lawyer. He was born in 1483, a son of a Saxon miner. His parents had hope he would become a lawyer. However, while caught in a thunderstorm in 1505 on a walk towards the village of Stotternheim, a bolt of lightening knocked him to the ground. Luther, in terror, prayed to the Catholic patroness of miners, “St. Anne, save me ! And I’ll become a monk.” Two weeks later, he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.
He obsessed over his sin by punishing his body. He would fast for three days and sleep without a blanket during cold winter days. Before administering his first mass, he thought, “Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.” No amount of penance, sacraments, or advice were able to ease Luther’s conviction that he was a miserable, doomed sinner. Luther one day cried out to his confessor, “I do not love God! I hate him!” Luther was a troubled soul, who saw God as merciless towards sinners.
He was later assigned to the chair of biblical studies at the recently established Wittenberg University. He became fascinated with the words of Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Luther wondered how Christ Jesus could be forsaken by God. Luther for most of his adult life felt forsaken as well, but he was a sinner. Christ was without sin, yet he was forsaken by God. Luther questioned whether Jesus also shared mankind’s estrangement from God in order to assume the punishment required of sin.
As Luther pondered this question about Christ’s words on the cross, he began studying the Book of Romans in 1515. Luther discovered verse 17 of chapter 1 of Romans, “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). Through his study of Romans, he saw that a man is saved only by his faith in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. Luther wrote, “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.” At this moment, Luther began to realize that salvation for the sinner was in Christ alone and not by works. This biblical truth sharply clashed with the Roman church’s doctrine of justification by faith and good works.
The implications of Luther’s discovery would change Christendom. If salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, many of the dogmas and practices of the Catholic Church would be superfluous. The intercession of priests, prayers to the saints, indulgences, and other works herald as necessary for salvation would cease to have any value. Therefore, Roman canon law was made irrelevant next to Scripture.
Luther’s discovery in the Book of Romans did not lead him to start the Reformation entirely. At that time, the sale of indulgences continued to remain a popular source of income for the pope. The Catholic Church would draw from their “treasury of merits.” The sinner would simply contribute money for a reduce sentence to purgatory. The buyer was not required to mourn their sin. They were only asked to pay the price to receive the spiritual reward from the indulgence with no questions asked.
The man who was tasked in 1517 to raise money in Germany for the pope’s construction project of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was Dominican John Tetzel. He boasted to crowds to buy indulgences with the clever jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings. The soul from purgatory springs.” This villainous scheme by Tetzel and the pope led Luther to respond.
On October 31st, 1517, Luther wrote ninety-five theses to address the theological issues with the selling of indulgences by the church. He posted them on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. He argued that indulgences cannot remove the guilt of sin. This action by Luther lit the spark that ignited the Reformation.
The Roman church immediately denounced Luther as a man guilty of preaching “dangerous doctrines.” Luther responded by insisting the church provide scriptural proof of his errors. At Leipzig in 1519, Luther debated theologian John Eck for 18 days. In the debate, Luther said, “A council may sometimes err. Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.” Luther established in the debates with Eck that religious authority is rooted in Scripture alone not papal authority or canon law.
Luther so far had established first that salvation was by faith in Christ alone. In 1519, he established that the Scriptures, not popes or councils, are the standard for Christian faith and behavior.
One of the helpful inventions that helped Luther get his convictions to the German people was the printing press. In his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, he called on the princes of Germany to correct abuses within the church, to strip bishops and abbots of their wealth and worldly power, and to create a national German Church. In his The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther articulated how justification by faith also reshaped the structure of the church. He wrote how the papacy were depriving Christians of their freedom to approach God directly by faith. The mediation of priests were unnecessary. He also set forth his own views of the sacraments. Sacraments were only valid if it was instituted by Christ and exclusively for Christians. He stated that only Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were valid sacraments. He placed the authority to facilitate these sacraments within a community of believing Christians and not in the hands of an exclusive priesthood. These beliefs were printed, and distributed all over German.
His writings on the church established the third doctrine of Protestantism. He removed the sacred hierarchy headed by the pope and returned the church to a first century polity. He argued for a community of believers in which all believers are priests. This doctrine is called the priesthood of all believers.
In Luther’s third pamphlet entitled The Freedom of a Christian Man, Luther wrote about Christian living. He argued that good works do not save the person, but the confidence found in faith leads to the performance of good works by all true Christians. He wrote, “Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works.” A person, who has been saved by Christ, will produce good works. He also argued that the essence of the Christian life lies in serving God by one’s calling, whether secular or ecclesiastical. This is the fourth doctrine that Luther articulated in his writings, which established Protestantism.
Diet of Worms
In 1520, Pope Leo X issued his sentence condemning Luther and giving him 60 days to turn from his heresy. He was excommunicated in 1521, and was declared a heretic by the pope. Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, moved to remove Luther’s heretical influence from his realm. He summoned Luther to the imperial Diet meeting at Worms to answer for his crimes. He boldly defended his writings as consistent with Scripture before the emperor and his court.
Duke Frederick the Wise of Saxony had Luther secretly moved to Wartburg Castle following the Diet. While Luther was sentenced to death, he remained safe under the protection of the Duke. He spent nearly a year at Wartburg translating the New Testament into German. This work was a significant first step towards reshaping public and private worship in Germany.
Luther’s work influenced a young professor of Greek, Philip Melanchthon, who drafted the Augsburg Confession in 1530. The confession was signed by princes and theologians, who decided to follow Luther. Those, who agreed to the Augsburg Confession, were called Lutherans. However, Charles V was determined to remove the growing heresy from his kingdom.
In response to the emperor’s threats, the Lutheran princes banded together in 1531 in the Schmalkald League. This action led to a civil war between Catholics and Lutherans in Germany from 1546 to 1555. In 1555, a compromise was decided in the Peace of Augsburg, which allowed each prince to decide the religion of his subjects. Lutheranism became the state religion in large portions of the empire. This arrangement spread to Scandinavia as well.
Luther’s greatest achievement in history was his establishment of Protestantism. He provided new invigorating answers to four issues that the Catholic Church were clearly at odds with orthodoxy. To the question, how is a person saved? Luther replied, “not by works but by faith alone.” To the question, where does religious authority lie? He answered, “not in the visible institution called the Roman church but in the Word of God found in the Bible.” To the question, what is the church? He responded, “the whole community of Christian believers, since all are priests before God.” Finally, to the question, what is the essence of Christian living? He answered, “serving God in any useful calling, whether ordained or lay.” These remain the central truths of Protestantism.