Becoming a monk
Luther was born in Mansfeld, Germany in 1483. He was named after the saint of the day on the day of his baptism.
The Christianity of his day portrayed a harsh God and was mixed with folk superstition. There was a belief in such things as elves, fairies, witches and mermaids. There was a constant awareness and fear of death with repeated plagues and fears of dark powers.
Luther was a clever student and quickly attained a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. Luther’s father leased mines and wanted his son to become a lawyer.
One day, while he was walking towards the village of Stotterheim, he was caught in a thunderstorm. A lightening bolt struck the ground near him, and like all people of his time, he assumed this was a sign of God’s anger. He cried out, ‘Saint Anne, save me! And I’ll become a monk.’ Saint Anne was believed to be the mother of Mary and she was the patron saint of miners.
Much to the annoyance of his father, Luther kept his vow to become a monk. Two weeks later he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.
The young Luther was obsessed with sin and guilt. Joining the monastery didn’t help this, but actually made these fears worse. He later recalled, ‘I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by sheer monkery it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading and other work.’
Luther was ordained in April 1507 and about a month later said his first mass. This was a terrifying experience for Luther. He thought to himself, ‘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 confession and penance could easy Luther’s awareness that he was a miserable sinner standing before a holy God. On one occasion his confessor encouraged him to love God. Luther burst out, ‘I do not love God! I hate him!’
That confessor was his superior, a man by the name of Staupitz. Staupitz assigned Luther to the chair of biblical studies in the recently established university at Wittenberg. While teaching there, he became fascinated with the words of Jesus from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’ He felt that God=forsakenness. But he knew that there was a difference between himself and Christ, for he was a sinner and Christ was pure. He concluded that these words must be related to Christ’s identification with sinful humanity.
Pondering the book of Romans led to his theological breakthrough. He later explained:
‘I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.” My situation was that, although am impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merits would assuage him.
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. Therein I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven …
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love.’
Lighting the flame
The sale of indulgences had been introduced during the crusades. They were still used by the Vatican to fund projects. In Luther’s day they were used to raise money to construct Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome.
In 1517 a Dominican by the name of John Tetzel was preaching throughout Germany raising money for this project. He was selling an indulgence that would go past the grave and free people from purgatory. He had a little jingle that went: ‘as soon as the coin in the coffer rings the soul from purgatory springs.’
Luther was incensed at this and on 31st October 1517 he posted a sheet of paper on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg listing 95 theses (propositions) for debate.
In these theses he asked why, if you bought an indulgence you could release someone from purgatory, then why doesn’t the pope use the treasure of merit to release everyone from purgatory? Why use this power to raise money, rather than be motivated by love to show eternal mercy?
He also addressed the issue of grace claiming that ‘the true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of glory and the grace of God.’
He also had a lot to say about the authority exercised by the church.
Within a short time, the German Dominicans were denouncing Luther, A Vatican theologian issues a series of counter theses claiming that anyone who criticised indulges was guilty of heresy.
In 1519 Luther had an eighteen-day debate with theologian John Eck at Leipzig. Luther pointed out that councils of the church and the popes can get things wrong, so Scripture must be our only and final infallible standard of truth.
On 20th June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (names after the seal or bulla) condemning Luther. Luther received his copy on 10th October 1520. The bull began, ‘Arise O Lord, and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard.’ The commanded Luther to retract what he was teaching in sixty days or face execution. On 10th December Luther led a crowd to the city dump and cast the pope’s bull onto a bonfire.
Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise
The new elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was in Germany to meet with the princes through whom he ruled the empire. He summoned Luther to the imperial hall in Worms to explain his teaching. He was promised safe passage and was greeted as a hero as he travelled across Germany. He arrived on Tuesday April 16th 1521.
Shortly after arriving, Luther was informed that he was to appear before the emperor at 4pm the next day. At that time, he was escorted to the bishop’s court where he was required to wait two hours before he was summoned into the emperor’s presence. Two questions were directed to him: ‘Do you acknowledge [having written] these books lying here?’ ‘Are you prepared to retract them as a whole or a part?’ Luther’s reply was barely audible: ‘The books are all mine and I have written more.’ He asked for time in order to consider if he would recant. He was given a day.
That evening he remained in his quarters alone. He was weighed down by anxiety and doubt. He wrote, ‘So long as Christ is merciful, I will not recant a single jot or tittle.’
The next day Luther returned to the hall. There was other business on the agenda and it was not until nightfall that he was summoned. He was asked the same questions as the day before. Luther’s response was clear and courageous. He offered a lengthy speech separating his writings into different categories. This frustrated his enquires who demanded a straight answer. Then came his famous reply (in Latin): ‘Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust in either the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. [He is then said to have added in German] Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.’
Charles V was unimpressed with Luther and pronounced him an outlaw.
As he returned home with his two companions their wagon was ambushed. They placed Luther upon a horse and led him for a whole day by a circuitous route through the woods until they arrived in the dark at Wartburg Castle. This had actually been a secret plot concocted by Fredrick III, elector of Luther’s home, Saxony. As a supporter of Luther, Fredrick decided to hide him away. Luther entered the ancient fortress to find smiling faces and a warm welcome.
Luther had to be kept safe. He lodged in a room with a retractable ladder. He stayed out of sight until his hair and beard grew long enough to hide disguise his face. He dressed up as a noble knight and was known around the town and in the castle as Sir George (Junker Jorg). He remained hidden for ten months.
Before been snatched from his wagon, Luther managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. He translated the entire New Testament into German from the Greek text.
Across Germany revolt against the Vatican spread. Priests and town councils removed statutes and abandoned the Mass. Princes, dukes and electors voices their support of Luther. Time came for Luther to return to Wittenberg.
Luther’s spare rib
In Wittenberg Luther got rid of the office of bishop for he saw no justification for it in scripture. He encouraged priests and nuns to abandon celibacy. In fact, he facilitated the escaping of nuns from their convents.
In 1525 he helped twelve nuns escape from a convent—in a barrel used for herring. He then arranged marriages for them. He had no husband for one of them, Kathrine von Bora so he married her himself. By all accounts he had a very happy marriage. ‘There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage,’ he later said, ‘one wakes up in the morning with and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.’
The Luther’s were given ‘the black cloister’, which was a former monastery as a wedding present by the Elector John the Steadfast. They had six children. There home was open to young adults who would sit around the table and ask Luther for his wisdom (these are published under the title of Table-talks).
Luther’s clay feet
Luther had many health problems and his poor health could make him short tempered. He had hopes to see a turning of Jews to Jesus and when this did not happen he frustrations were vented in some terrible anti-Semitic writings that were later quoted by the Nazis. He also wrote harshly about reformers called the anabaptists and about the peasants.
The peasants had been encouraged by Luther’s writings on the freedom of the Christian. They took this concept from the religious sphere to the economic sphere and began to rise up against their overlords. They demanded the end of serfdom, unless it could be justified by Scripture. At first Luther recognised the justice of their arguments. But when the peasants turned to violence he was quick to condemn them. However, his condemnation of their violence became vicious. He wrote a pamphlet entitled, ‘Against the Thievish and Murderous Hordes of Peasants,’ encouraging the princes to ‘knock down, strangle and stab … and think nothing so venomous, pernicious or Satanic as an insurgent’.
By 1530, a conference of reformation leaders was called in Augsburg. Luther was still considered an outlaw and so could not attend. The task of presenting the Lutheran view was given to Luther’s younger colleague and friend Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon drafted what is called the Augsburg Confession. This was signed by theologians and princes who were in support of Luther’s theology.
Luther’s final years continued to show his feet of clay. He endorsed the bigamous marriage of his supporter, Prince Philip of Hesse. He denounced reformers more radical than he was. One biographer says that by the time of his death in 1546, he was ‘an irascible old man, petulant, peevish, unrestrained and at times positively coarse’ (Bainton).
Despite his flaws, Luther left a lasting legacy. In 1530 Charles V had intended to crush his heresy. However, Lutheran princes banded together in 1531. Between 1546 and 1555 there was a sporadic civil war. This resulted in The Peace of Augsburg in 1555. The allowed each prince to decide the religion of his subjects. However, it did forbid sects other than Lutheranism. It did order catholic bishops to hand over their property if they turned to Lutheranism.
Luther’s last journey
Luther died on February 18th, 1546 in the town of his birth, Eisleben. He had been called there two weeks earlier to mediate in a dispute between two brothers who were counts of Mansfeld. The pastor of Halle, Justus Jonas, to whom Luther confessed his sins and affirmed his faith in Christ, along with all his teachings.