No, I’m not referring to the 20th century “I have a dream” Martin Luther—King Jr., but to the more unknown, but original Martin Luther, the 16th century monk who sparked the Protestant Reformation. For our enlightenment, I’m posting this two-part article from Ligonier Ministries on the life and times of this other Martin Luther.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).
It would be impossible to understand the past five hundred years of church history, let alone Western history, without taking time to consider the contributions of Martin Luther. This German monk gave the loudest voice to those calling attention to the loss of the Gospel in the medieval church and provided the flashpoint for the renewal movement known as the Protestant Reformation. In addition to bringing the church back to the Bible, Martin Luther’s thought has influenced the institution of marriage, the concept of individual responsibility, church and state relations, and countless other areas.
Luther was born in 1483 to a German miner who owned several mines and was able to pay for young Martin to be educated. His father desired that he become a lawyer and so Luther enrolled in the school of law at the University of Erfurt in 1505.
However, the providence of God had other plans for Martin. On a journey home during the same year he entered law school, Luther found himself in the middle of a great thunderstorm. When a lightning strike caused him to be thrown from his horse, Luther promised Saint Anne that he would become a monk if she preserved his life.
Luther kept his promise and enrolled in an Augustinian monastery, much to his father’s dismay. Martin’s zeal to obey the monastic order was unparalleled. He spent hours confessing his sins to his confessor and then later would find other brothers to whom he would confess even the slightest sin. His confessor eventually told him not to come to confession unless he had a truly serious sin to confess.
Luther’s intense guilt over his sin came from his remarkable insight into the character of God. He understood that God’s justice was absolute, demanding punishment for even the smallest of peccadilloes. The fact that the church of his day offered the possibility of forgiveness to those who would both put their faith in God and perform works to merit God’s grace offered him no comfort.
This was because Luther knew that he could never perform enough works to earn God’s forgiveness. The Bible told Him that no one will ever be justified by his own conformity to God’s law (Rom. 3:20). The church had lost the biblical understanding of salvation and we shall discuss Luther’s response to this fact in our next study.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (Rom 3:21–22 a).
We concluded last week by covering the early years of Martin Luther, one of the most important figures in the history of the church. We saw how in his early life, Luther came to understand that if forgiveness depended on our own obedience to the law, then we have no hope of salvation at all.
During this same period, Luther was chosen to go to Rome and present a case regarding his monastery before the Vatican. In 1510, he traveled to Rome and upon arriving there was shocked by what he witnessed. Far from being a holy city, Rome had become a place of debauchery where the priests of the church indulged in flagrant licentiousness. Prostitution, homosexuality, and hypocrisy caused Luther to further doubt some of the traditions that Rome had added to Scripture.
Luther returned to Germany, still despondent over his own sinfulness. In 1515, he was studying the books of Psalms and Romans as a part of his vocation as professor of theology. It is during this period that he had his so-called “tower experience.” Reading passages like Romans 3:21–22, Luther realized that he could be forgiven, not based upon his own works but upon the righteousness of Jesus that was available to him if he would trust in Christ alone for his salvation.
Luther’s understanding of salvation did not manifest itself all at once but rather deepened over time. When church officials began selling release from purgatory in the form of indulgences, Martin became deeply distressed. However, he was still loyal to the church in 1517 when he nailed his ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in order to protest the flagrant abuses of the sale of indulgences. The theses, which were originally intended only to provoke academic debate, were soon distributed widely throughout Germany as a result of Guttenburg’s newly developed printing press.
The pope did not take kindly to Luther’s popularity. As opposition grew and Luther’s study of the Bible continued, he began to demonstrate the illegitimacy of extrabiblical traditions including purgatory and the infallibility of the papacy. Despite the threat of death, Luther would not recant of his teachings at the Diet of Worms in 1521 and continued preaching the biblical Gospel until his death in 1546.