Martin Luther was one among a number of men who attempted to and helped reform Christianity from the errors that came to dominate the church by the 16th century. Some had been burned at the stake, and many others, even after Luther, would sacrifice their lives. It was Luther's preaching in Wittenburg and nailing the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, though, that sparked the Reformation that spread across Europe and changed the church and government forever. This is summarized from Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley (Thomas Nelson, 1995):
The Reformation answered four primary questions of Christianity differently than Catholicism: “1. How is a person saved? 2. Where does religious authority lie? 3. What is the church? 4. What is the essence of Christian living?” The seeds of the Reformation were sown in the centuries prior to 1517, but “fresh answers emerged first in Martin Luther’s personal conflict with Rome. Other men and women felt deeply the need for reform, but none matched the bold struggle of soul within the burly German.
“Luther had every intention of becoming a lawyer until, one day in 1505, he was caught in a thunderstorm….A bolt of lightening knocked him to the ground, and Luther, terrified, called out: “St. Anne, save me! And I’ll become a monk.” Luther kept his vow and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt and proved to be a dedicated monk, to a great extent because he was “obsessed with guilt” and strove persistently to earn God’s favor and forgiveness. “He sometimes fasted for three days and slept without a blanket in freezing winter. He was driven by a profound sense of his own sinfulness and of God’s unutterable majesty.”
“Assigned to the chair of biblical studies at the recently established Wittenburg University,…a new and revolutionary picture of God began to develop in Luther’s restless soul. Finally, in 1515 while pondering St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans Luther came upon the words: ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith’ (1:17, KJV). Here was his key to spiritual certainty….‘Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.’ Luther saw it clearly now. Man is saved only by his faith in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice.”
“Luther had no idea where his spiritual discovery was leading him. It took a flagrant abuse of church finances to propel him into the center of religious rebellion in Germany, and into another revolutionary position regarding papal authority.”
“The sale of indulgences, introduced during the Crusades, remained a favored source of papal income.” In exchange for a contribution, “the church offered the sinner exemption from his acts of penance,” and essentially guaranteed less time suffering in purgatory. Relatives could also purchase indulgences on behalf of their loved ones currently in purgatory. The practice was rife with manipulative abuses.
“Luther began to criticize the theology of indulgences in his sermons. His displeasure increased noticeably during 1517, when the Dominican John Tetzel” was selling indulgences throughout Germany “on behalf of a papal fund-raising campaign to complete the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.” Tetzel delivered his famous sales slogan, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” and the crowds mobbed him to buy indulgences.
Luther “promptly drew up 95 propositions (or theses) for theological debate and on October 31, 1517, following university custom, he posted them on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg….That was the spark that ignited the Reformation.” The printing press had been invented just 40 years before and a local printer duplicated and distributed Luther’s “95 Theses” taking the debate to the people, not just the academics.
“Within a short time the German Dominicans denounced Luther to Rome as a man guilty of heresy….During an 18-day debate in 1519 with theologian John Eck at Leipzig, Luther blurted out: ‘A council may sometimes err. Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.’
“Thus Luther had moved from his first conviction – that salvation was by faith in Christ alone to a second: that the Scriptures, not popes or councils, are the standard for Christian faith and behavior.”
John Eck “moved to have Rome declare Luther a heretic. Luther in turn decided to put his case before the German people by publishing a series of pamphlets….The Reformer called on the [German] princes to correct abuses within the church.” Luther also argued that, to be valid, “a sacrament had to be instituted by Christ….He placed these within a community of believing Christians, rather than in the hands of an exclusive priesthood.”
“Thus, Luther brushed aside the traditional view of the church as a sacred hierarchy headed by the pope and returned to the early Christian view of a community of Christian believers in which all believers are priests called to offer spiritual sacrifices to God.”
“I June 1520 Pope Leo X issued his bull condemning Luther and giving him 60 days to turn from his heretical course….In January 1521 the pope declared him a heretic and expelled him….” Luther was called on to recant his teachings, and in response he declared, “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen."
Charles V, the young German emperor, declared Luther an outlaw; his life was in danger. The Duke of Saxony, Duke Frederick the Wise, gave Luther sanctuary at Wartburg Castle. “Disguised as a minor nobleman,…the Reformer stayed for nearly a year; during the time he translated the New Testament into German, an important first step toward reshaping public and private worship in Germany….In 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg to put into effect a spiritual reform that became the model for much of Germany.”
In 1530, a summit of Reformation leaders was convened in Augsburg to draw up a common statement of faith. Philip Melanchthon “drafted the Augsburg Confession signed by Lutheran princes and theologians” essentially establishing the first Protestant church and officially breaking from Rome.
Luther’s enduring contribution is the answers he gave to those four questions. “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. And to the question – what is the essence of Christian living? – he replied: serving God in any useful calling, whether ordained or lay.”
Luther married Katherine, a former nun. The story of her life and their family is delightfully told in Kitty, My Rib.