“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.”
Like John Hus and John Wycliffe before him, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was used as a tool in the hand of God to rescue the true gospel, buried under centuries of tradition and abuse. A Catholic monk who loved God, he became a reformer fighting for the truth of the gospel. Some believe he was possessed; his friends described him as a prophet. Pope Leo X called him, “A wild boar in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony on November 10, 1483 in a religious home. Nothing in his early life foreshadowed his historically transformative role. When a summer thunderstorm lightning bolt struck close to him, he cried out in terror to Saint Anne, “Help Me! I will become a monk.” He left the University where he was studying law and entered an Augustinian monastery.
Life as a Monk
The monks believed acts of self-deprivation -- meagre diet, rough clothing, poverty, and night and day vigils -- would make them acceptable to God. Luther feared being unable to please a vengeful, angry God who judged any small oversight, and he struggled with depression. He pursued religious life fervently, fasting so often his friends feared for his life. He slept without blankets to “mortify the flesh”. He believed the life of a monk would give him some preferential treatment when he died. He sought comfort in the sacraments “performed in order to grant grace to the penitent” (E.W. Lutzer). He also believed merit could be earned and sins forgiven by visiting relics and paying gifts (indulgences) to the church.
In 1510, Luther walked the 800 miles to Rome to seek the relics and sacraments, believing doing so would lead to salvation. He climbed the Scala Santa (Holy Stairs: Pilate’s judgement hall in Jerusalem), praying over and kissing each step hoping to assure deliverance of his soul from purgatory. At the top, he asked, “Who knows whether it be so?" He returned to the monastery no closer to the peace he sought.
His confessor, Johann Staupitz, listening to Luther’s ongoing struggles and constant confessions, challenged Luther to “simply love God”, but Luther could only see God as a divine and holy judge. In 1511, Staupitz suggested Luther take a teaching post in Wittenberg, Germany, as a professor of philosophy. This was a turning point for Luther, and for the church.
At Wittenberg, Luther taught philosophy, eventually concluding the church had become works-centered and failed to acknowledge personal depravity and the need for God’s grace. Staupitz suggested Luther teach the Bible rather than philosophy. The book of Romans brought clarity to his struggles for perfection before a Holy God. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17), and “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). These verses changed everything for Luther. Now, he was able to understand the role of faith and works, “Righteousness is obtained through faith, and not through works. Works make faith strong.”
Opposition to the Church of Rome
Luther taught that “Salvation lies outside ourselves...we are accepted by God on the basis of the merit of Christ” (E.W. Lutzer). This opposed the church’s teaching that the Pope was the supreme authority. He realized, "We are saved by sheer grace and mercy...for those who believe, God has granted forgiveness” (E.W. Lutzer). Salvation did not require gifts to the church, perfection in performance of the sacraments, visits to religious relics, or making pilgrimages. Rather, God provided saving faith. And, this saving faith did not require the payment of indulgences.
The Pope needed money to complete the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The building of the church was primarily financed by the sale of indulgences (an action by a church leader to remove temporal penalty for an individual’s sin). The church sent Johann Tetzel, an indulgence peddler bearing a cross with the papal arms and the Pope’s edict carried on a gold cushion, to raise money to build the church. In Wittenberg, Tetzel exhorted the people to consider the souls of their loved ones burning in Purgatory, begging them to free them, for a price.
The papal cross, seen as equal in importance to the Cross of Christ, among other grievances, compelled Luther to post his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The introduction read, “Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend Father Martin Luther.” These included the doctrine of repentance, the sale of indulgences for remission of sin, and the blasphemy of the papal cross as equal to the cross of Christ. They were written in Latin but translated into German. With the invention of the printing press most of Europe was able to read them.
It was the beginning of the Reformation.