Lutheranism 101

Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in the small German village of Eisleben. His parents were Hans and Margaretta Luther – middle to upper-middle class but hard working people. There was nothing unusual about his childhood, it was typical of German families of the time, but the middle class status of his parents permitted a good education and encouraged him to enter the professions, in Martin’s case, it was law. Luther was an outstanding student, earning his BA in 1502 and MA in 1505.

Luther’s family and society were deeply religious. The church was the focal point of society. Yet common religion was often a strange mixture of biblical and non-biblical ideas, mixed generously with paganism, secular philosophy and local traditions. Luther found this religion disturbing rather than comforting.

One day, as Luther was returning to Law school, he was nearly struck by a bolt of lightning, which he interpreted as the wrath of God. In terror, he cried out to his father’s saint and pledged to become a Roman Catholic monk. It was a pledge he kept. Twelve days later, he abandoned his life’s plans and entered the Cloister of St. Augustine – an especially strict order. Several times Luther fasted nearly to the point of death, yet each time he cried out to Heaven, “Have I done enough?” His health permanently damaged, he was transferred from the monastery to the University of Wittenberg where he was to both study and teach the Bible. The Word now totally absorbed his life. He earned his doctorate in 1512 in the Bible and Biblical Languages. As he studied the Bible, he learned that salvation does not come from what we do for God but from what God did for us in Jesus Christ. He learned that ours is not an angry God who “keeps score” but a gracious, merciful God who pours out his unconditional love to us.

Luther came to the conclusion that some of the teachings and practices of the church were not in keeping with God’s Word and therefore needed to be discussed. Therefore, on October 31, 1517 (a day remembered ever since as “Reformation Day”) Luther posted 95 Theses (statements for discussion) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (church doors serving as community bulletin boards in those days). This date is now considered the birthday of the Lutheran Church. Written in Latin and intended only for scholarly debate, they proved to be the floodgate for the entire Evangelical (from the word “gospel”) movement. Luther is thus the “Father of Protestantism.”

Within a year, Luther was the talk of Europe. Although Luther said nothing new and did not want to break with Rome, he and those who agreed with him were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther studied Scripture all the more. He soon wrote several short booklets that were translated into several languages and made widely available by means of a new invention – the printing press.

In the late 1520’s, Luther translated the Bible into German so that the people could read the Bible. He encouraged worship in the language of the people rather than Latin and personally wrote many hymns. He also wrote a catechism for parents to use in the religious training of their children. In the 1530’s and 1540’s, the movement grew throughout most of northern Europe. Perhaps one-third of Christians converted to Lutheranism. Luther died on February 18, 1546 in his birthplace of Eisleben.

Luther had an enormous impact on the church, placing the Bible again as the source and norm for the church and proclaiming again the glorious gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Today, the oldest and largest Protestant religious community in the world (3rd largest in America) bears his name. Yet his importance goes beyond that. His emphasis on the teaching and preaching of God’s Word forever changed Christianity. His emphasis on music and lay participation forever changed the worship service. His emphasis on Bible reading and teaching laid the foundations for Christian education. He was proclaimed the “Third Most Influential Person” of the last Millennium.

The Lutheran Reformation

There were teachings and practices in the Catholic Church that, over the years, began to raise eyebrows among many Christians. Corruption in the church was well-documented and some false teachings arose. And over the centuries, many attempted reform – but largely failed. For example, John Wycliffe and Jon Hus rebuked the widespread corruption in the church and some teachings, but lacking means to spread their ideas and physical protection from the church, both failed.
For Luther, it began with Indulgences, which were essentially slips of paper that lessened time spent in Purgatory. These were sold to raise funds (including for St. Peter’s in Rome) and the hard sell was accompanied with false teachings that horrified Luther and others. Martin Luther was a “Doctor” of the church, responsible for pointing out bad teaching, and he heard just that from those selling Indulgences. But rather than correcting the false teaching, leaders of the church defended it. And the debate was on.
On October 31, 1517, Luther posted 95 Thesis on the church door of Wittenberg (where he taught Scripture at the University of Wittenberg), church doors serving as community bulletin boards in that day. They were issues Luther felt needed to be addressed. Written in Latin and intended only for scholarly debate, they were soon translated into many languages, printed and widely distributed. Luther had a tool unavailable to previous reformers: the printing press.
Luther certainly did not desire a split in the church but rather wanted it reformed. Luther attempted to discuss these things with leaders of the Church, but the Catholic Church felt that Luther was a great threat to the Church. He was excommunicated (kicked out of the Catholic Church) by Pope Leo X in 1521.
Aware that previous would-be reformers were killed, Luther was protected. Luther spent 10 months hidden away at Frederick III’s castle at Wartburg, there he translated the Bible into German. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for mass production and distribution of the Bible and hundreds of thousands of copies of Luther’s translation spread throughout Western Europe and were translated into additional languages. Many Europeans joined Luther in questioning some teachings and practices of the day, and embraced the glorious Gospel of Jesus. By the death of Luther in 1546, about one-third of Europeans had converted to Lutheranism. Today, it is the largest Protestant community in the world and the third largest in the US.