Luther and the Reformation

Stephen J. Nichols

Martin Luther died within eyeshot of the font where he was baptized as an infant. During his life, he had come to see the entire Western world change. Born on November 10, 1483, Luther entered a world dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. By the time of his death, that institution was crumbling. That was due in no small part to the lawyer turned monk turned reformer. Luther pried open the lock that the Roman Catholic Church had on worship, the sacraments, religious life, and especially the gospel. He pointed the church back to its sure foundation of God's word and the gospel, laying the foundation for the Protestant Reformation that would encompass Ulrich Zwingli's efforts in Zurich, John Calvin's in Geneva, and John Knox's in Scotland.

"Who would have divined," Luther recalled later in life, "that I would receive a Bachelor's and then a Master's of Arts, then lay aside my [law] student's cap and leave it to others in order to become a monk . . . and that despite all I would get in the pope's hair—and he in mine—and take a runaway nun for my wife? Who would have predicted this for me?"

His intense religious conscience might have indicated that he was headed for the monastery. His father, however, had other plans, working and sacrificing for his son to receive the best education of the day and enter the profession of law. Luther excelled in his studies and made his way quite well. But his spiritual anxieties seemed to dog him at every turn.

An early turning point in Luther's life came as he traveled back to Erfurt, where he had just taken his M.A. in law, after visiting his parents in Mansfield. A violent thunderstorm caught up with Luther. He took it to be the very judgment of God upon his soul. He clung to the only mediator he knew, or at least the only mediator he dared approach, St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, his father's profession. He cried out, "Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk." He survived the storm and made good on his vow. His troubles, however, did not find resolution in the monastery. In fact, Luther's struggles intensified.

His wise abbot, Johann von Staupitz, recognized Luther's potential for the church, if only the young monk could get over his struggles. He prescribed a pilgrimage to Rome, thinking that a visit to the Holy See would set all things right in Luther's soul. What Luther found at Rome, amidst its hypocrisy and facade and chicanery, however, only further disillusioned him. Staupitz next sent Luther to study theology. Luther would be so busy, Staupitz reasoned, that he wouldn't have time for his intractable self-examination.

Again, the cure proved worse than the disease. As Luther earned another master's degree, this time in theology, received his doctorate, and began lecturing in theology, he was driven back to the writings of Augustine, and from there to Paul. What he found, at first, seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle: that he was unrighteous, and that the holy God demanded righteousness.

This plagued Luther much more than it did his contemporaries. They thought that God's standard of righteousness could be met by racking up enough merits, enough righteous deeds. But Luther knew it wasn't a matter of quantity, but of quality. We are sinners not merely in that we sin, but at the very root of our being. Sin isn't just a matter of what we do; it's a matter of who we are. And nothing we can do, even if we're saints, can overcome that. Luther saw no solution to the dilemma. He concluded that God demanded, like a tyrant, a righteousness that they could not give. He no longer feared God; now he hated him.

Luther first tried to draw attention to the ineffective way the church was dealing with the problem of sin on October 31, 1517. The date is important. It was All Hallows' Eve, the day before All Saints' Day. On that day, pilgrims would file past the relics in the church and appeal to the excess merits of the saints, all in hopes of satisfying the righteous demands of God. Of course, this occurred every year, but this year was different.

Two things in particular converged. First, Luther's study had been leading him to very different conclusions than the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Second, an unprecedented sale of indulgences brought out Luther's ire. Pope Leo X was in dire need of money to pay for his lavish tastes, which included Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel. To raise money for the Pope, the enterprising monk Tetzel was hawking indulgences that claimed to forgive sins, past and future.

Luther could be "silent no more," in his own words. He posted his Ninety-Five Theses in the hopes of stirring a debate, where the best minds could grapple with the problem of sin and the gospel. Leo X wasn't interested in a debate, especially a theological one. In fact, at first Leo X simply dismissed Luther. "The ramblings of a drunken German," he said, when he first read the Ninety-Five Theses, adding that Luther will "think differently when he sobers up."

From 1517 until 1521, Luther was constructing the planks of Reformation theology: sola Scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. When Luther was caught in that thunderstorm, his thoughts turned not to Christ, but to St. Anne. Luther came to realize, however, the futility in looking to another mediator. This led him to the conviction that humanity's only mediator is Jesus Christ—solus Christus.

He also changed his view of God, the righteous judge. The righteousness that God demands, he realized, is not active, but passive. In other words, it's not a righteousness that I earn, but one that was earned for me (by Christ). I am not justified in the sight of God by my works or merits, Luther argued, but by faith alone through grace alone—sola fide and sola gratia.

The principle of sola Scriptura, that Scripture alone is the church's final authority for faith and life, is a significant part of Luther's legacy. When he refused to recant at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he boldly asserted, "My conscience is held captive to the Word of God." He was fond of saying, "We can spare everything, except the Word."

That leaves one final Reformation sola, soli Deo gloria. In Luther's day, only ecclesiastical positions were called "vocations" (callings). But Luther applied the word to all professions, and to the various roles that we play. Being a husband, son, or father, or being a wife, daughter, or mother was a calling. So too was being a farmer or miner. And so all of life could and should be lived for the glory of God alone.

The recent movie on Luther stops at 1530 and the Augsburg Confession, curiously just like the old black-and-white movie from 1955. This is understandable, to a certain extent. The time of "action" spans the years 1517 to 1530. But it's important to realize that Luther lived until 1546. By the end of his life, he had much cause for joy and much cause for sorrow. He had seen a child die as an infant, and he held his beloved twelve-year-old daughter's hand as she too passed from this world. He was villainized by former friends. All his life he remained an outlaw with a death penalty hanging over his head. He suffered, his constitution never quite recovering from his ascetic days as a monk. He was given to times of depression. And, like Jacob, he wrestled with God. All the while, he wrote prodigiously—his collected writings fill over one hundred volumes—preached five times a week, and labored to see the new church, the Evangelische Kirche, established for generations to come.

It is fitting that we remember him this month on Reformation weekend, even 488 years after he posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses. He was truly larger than life. Yet it is most fitting that we remember him because he so ably pointed beyond himself to Christ.

Shortly after Luther's death, his friend, the artist Lucas Cranach, Jr., painted one more portrait of the Reformer. Cranach has him in the pulpit of the castle church, Bible open, congregation looking on. What is most stunning, however, is the center. There Cranach painted Christ on the cross. As Luther preached, he preached Christ and him crucified. And his congregation did not see Luther, but instead saw Christ. Luther pointed the way to Christ. His life and his writings and the Reformation he led continue to do that. Reformation Day is certainly about history. It is also about the power of the gospel to break through the noise and static of the world and to point to Christ.

The author teaches at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School. He is the author of Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2005.

New Horizons: October 2005

Luther and the Reformation

Also in this issue

Luther's Theology of the Cross

Luther's Voice in Scotland

Turning Points in American Presbyterian History
Part 9: The Special Commission of 1925

Helps for Worship #1: What Is Worship?

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church