Martin Luther: the monk who shook the world


Editor’s note: This (inclusive of the separate, linked article referred to in the post-script) is an expanded version of the article “Martin Luther: captive to the Word of God” published in Creation 39(3):52–55, 2017.

Five hundred years ago, on 31 October 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Martin Luther

He was protesting against non-biblical practices in the Roman Catholic Church, and the eventual result was the formation of Protestant Churches throughout the world. This act of Luther is therefore regarded as the start of the Reformation (from Latin reformatio, lit. ‘restoration, renewal’).

A lad named Martin

Martin was born at Eisleben in the German State of Saxony on 10 November 1483 to copper-miner Hans and Margaretta Luder (as the name was spelled in the local dialect). He was named Martin because the next day, when he was baptized, was St Martin’s Day.

The Church of that day taught that good works were necessary to earn salvation. This involved people participating in sacraments, doing penance, praying to deceased saints and/or worshipping their relics, going on pilgrimages to holy places, buying indulgences, and (most effective of all) withdrawing from the world to the ascetic life of a monastery to escape the sins of the world. All this caused Martin to despair of ever being able to do enough to satisfy God, and to fear God’s future judgment.

From law student to monk

Martin obtained Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Erfurt. Then, in compliance with his father’s wishes, he began law studies in 1505. However, that year a lightning bolt struck near him during a fierce storm. In dread of sudden death and the imminent prospect of divine judgment, he cried out in terror to his father’s saint, Saint Anna,1 promising to become a monk if he survived.

He resigned from law school and entered St Augustine’s Monastery at Erfurt, known as the Black Cloister because of the clothing the monks wore. Here he engaged in long hours of prayer, fasting, whipping himself, and prolonged daily confessions of sin, but none of this brought him the peace with God he was seeking. He later remarked: “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them. … I lost hold of Christ the Saviour and comforter and made of him a stock-master and hangman over my poor soul.”2

Martin was ordained a priest in 1507. His Superior was Johann von Staupitz, Vicar General of Augustinians in Germany, who became his friend and encourager. Staupitz later released him from his vows of obedience as an Augustinian monk, so that (as events transpired) Luther “would not be hindered if he was forced to flee for his life”.3

Staupitz transferred him to Wittenberg University4 to study for his Doctor of Theology, and later appointed him to the chair of biblical theology there. Here Dr Luther lectured on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. As he studied and taught these books, slowly the terms righteousness and faith took on new meaning for him.

The scala sancta

In 1510, Luther visited Rome. Here, in the Church of St John Lateran, there is a 28-step marble staircase that Jesus allegedly climbed at the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.5 According to Roman Catholic teaching (then and now), pilgrims ascending these ‘holy stairs’ (scala sancta) in an appropriate manner procure an indulgence for themselves or for some deceased person(s) to reduce the time their souls spend in purgatory6 after death as punishment for their sins.7

Luther climbed the stairs to obtain this benefit for his dead grandfather. Two memoirs survive concerning this event:

  1. At the top he is reputed to have said to himself, “Who knows if it is really true?”,8 a concern which became the basis for his future evaluation of church doctrine.
  2. Many years later, Luther’s son, Paul, reported that in 1544 his father told him that as he climbed the stairs the Bible verse flashed into his mind: “The just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).9,10

Luther was aware of Psalm 22, and that Christ on the Cross had quoted v. 1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” As he pondered why Christ felt this, Luther realized that it was because Christ was bearing his—Luther’s own—sin on the Cross. And he came to see that God gives forgiveness to those who repent of their sins, because Christ, the Perfect Substitute, paid the full penalty for sin by dying on the Cross and rising again.

Likewise, he came to see that God gives righteousness to believers by imputing (crediting) the perfect righteousness of His own Son, Jesus Christ, to them (2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9).11 Faith involves trusting solely in the promises of God and the finished work of Christ (Romans 4:16; Hebrews 11:6). See Good News.

Luther expressed it thus: “He [Christ] died for me, He made His righteousness mine, and made my sin His own; and if he made my sin His own, then I do not have it, and I am free.”12 Describing this culmination of his spiritual journey, as the burden of his sin lifted, Luther wrote: “All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.”13 For the first time in his life, he experienced the assurance of salvation and peace with God that only Jesus can give (Hebrews 2:14-15; 9:14).14

Tetzel—vendor of indulgences

In 1516, a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, came to Germany to sell indulgences on behalf of Albrecht, Archbishop of Magdeburg and also of Mainz, in Germany.

A Plenary Indulgence certificate issued by Pope Leo X and printed by typographer Giacomo Mazzochi in Rome between 1513 and 1521. It measures 205 x 294 mm, and was auctioned at Christie’s in London on 6 June 2007 for £3,120 (Sterling).

Half the proceeds went to pay off the 10,000 ducats Albrecht had borrowed from the Fugger bankers in Augsburg to induce Rome to consent to his tenure of more than one archbishopric.15 The other half went to Pope Leo X in Rome to help pay for the reconstruction of St Peter’s Basilica there.

The price varied. According to the briefing from Albrecht:

“Kings and queens, archbishops and bishops, and other great princes were expected to give twenty-five gold florins. Abbots, cathedral prelates, counts, barons, and other great nobles and their wives were put down for twenty. Other prelates and lower nobility should give six. The rate for burghers and merchants was three. For those more moderately circumstanced, one. The very poor may contribute by prayers and fastings.”15

Tetzel presented a persuasive spiel:

“As soon as the money in the coffer rings,
the soul from purgatory springs.”16

Luther objected that Tetzel’s customers would think they could sin with impunity and had no need of repentance, but instead were exposed to eternal damnation. Luther gives an account of a nobleman at Leipzig who asked Tetzel if it were possible to receive a letter of indulgence for a future sin. Tetzel agreed provided payment was immediate, so the nobleman paid up and received the letter from Tezel. When Tetzel left Leipzig, the nobleman attacked him along the way and retrieved his payment with the comment that this was the future sin he had had in mind.17


The “Theses Doors” of All Saints Castle Church in Wittenberg in which are engraved Luther’s 95 Theses. The original doors were destroyed by fire. In 1857, King Frederick William IV of Prussia ordered the present bronze replacement be made.

Luther sent Archbishop Albrecht his protest entitled: “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”. Because Luther formulated this protest in 95 statements, it became popularly known as the 95 Theses”.

In the preamble, Luther wrote that he intended to defend the statements at Wittenberg, and he asked “those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.”18 He was thus calling his colleagues to a debate, in the academic procedure of that day, by attaching a copy of this document to the public notice board, the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, which he did on 31 October 1517.

Instead of engaging in debate, interested folk translated Luther’s Latin script and made multiple copies with the newly invented printing press. Within a few weeks the document was being read widely throughout Europe. In time, the issue escalated to whether the pope had authority to issue indulgences, and if not, whether he was therefore fallible, rather than infallible. Finally for Luther, no teaching of popes or councils was valid unless it could be confirmed in the Old or New Testaments. Church historian Roland Bainton comments: “He [Luther] was soon prompted to deny not only the pope’s power to release from, but also his ability to consign to, purgatory.”19

Luther had discovered that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, involved a mistranslation. St Jerome’s Latin translation of Christ’s command in Matthew 4:17 reads: “Do penance (paenitentiam agite), for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But the Erasmus Greek translation says: “Μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite), meaning ‘repent’ or ‘change your mind’. That is, God demands a changed heart and mind, not the doing of deeds. ‘To do penance’ and ‘to repent’ are two different things, and thus doing penance is not what this passage teaches.

Luther on trial

On 3 January 1521,20 Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther, and ordered Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor,21 to ban Luther’s teachings. With a safe-conduct in place, Luther was summoned for trial at Worms, in Germany, in April 1521. Here he was required to recant his views, on pain of death if he refused. He responded:

“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open clear and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.” 22

One of the witnesses reported that Luther added: “Here I stand: I can do no other.”22

Luther on trial at Worms by Anton von Werner, 1877.

He was allowed to leave because of the safe-conduct, and then on 25 May Emperor Charles V declared Luther to be an outlaw who could be killed by anyone without punishment. To protect him, his friends, primed by Grand Duke Frederick III, ‘kidnapped’ him and secreted him in Frederick’s Wartburg Castle for ten months. Here he translated the entire New Testament into the idiom of sixteenth-century Saxony.23 Realizing that people needed Scripture in their own language to understand the issues and basis for his teaching, Luther worked unceasingly and finished it in three months. This, and the whole Bible, which he completed in 1534, were so popular and enduring that they have been credited with doing much to standardize the modern German language.24

This was greatly helped by the fact that the Reformation was the first mass movement to effectively use the printing press, invented by Gutenberg c. 1440. By the time of the Reformation, under the sovereignty of God, “there were nearly 250 printing establishments in Europe, sixty of them in Germany alone. … It has been estimated that during Luther’s lifetime half a million complete Bibles and parts of Bibles were printed in the German tongue.”25

In 1529, six princes and leaders of 14 Imperial Free Cities petitioned against this papal ban in the ‘Protestation at Speyer’. After this Protestation, followers of the Reformation became known as ‘Protestants’.

Luther vs monastic vows

Luther also wrote an essay against monastic vows:26 that they were not instituted by Christ and had no scriptural basis, so were futile in attaining justification or assurance of salvation. They sanctified the monastic order instead of sanctifying God, and they portrayed Him as a severe taskmaster rather than as a loving father. They put trust in works to gain merit in place of faith in Christ alone, and they established a hierarchy of clergy separate from laity. Luther believed that all true Christians were entitled to come to God through Christ, without other priestly mediation (1 Timothy 2:5).

Katharina von Bora

He defended marriage of the clergy on the grounds that Genesis 2:18 was “the Word of God by virtue of which … the passionate natural inclination towards women is created and maintained. It may not be prevented by vow and law. For it is God’s Word and work.”27 In 1525, he married ex-nun Katharina von Bora, with whom he had six children, four of whom survived to adulthood. This marriage gave the seal of approval to clerical marriage within the Protestant tradition. Katharina was also a source of great support to him in his later years, coping with his various illnesses.

In 1529, he produced two catechisms—a Larger Catechism for pastors and a Smaller Catechism for parents to teach to their children. He also made church liturgy understandable to common people by replacing Latin with their own language. Of the many hymns he wrote, the best known is A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (German: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott). He died peacefully in his bed in 1546 at the age of 62.

Every Protestant Reformer and every Protestant stream has been influenced and inspired by Luther. Though the consequences of his actions indeed ‘shook’ the world, as the title indicates, Luther did not set out to change the world. He simply believed and obeyed the Word of God, and God changed the world through him.

Post script

Click here for a summary discussion by the author of Luther’s convictions that formed the basis of the Reformation, entitled Luther’s Legacy.

Published: 3 October 2017

References and notes

  1. This Anna (or Anne) is not mentioned in the New Testament, but is said to be the mother of the Virgin Mary in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (c. AD 145). In Roman Catholic teaching, she is the patron saint of miners. (Not to be confused with the widowed prophetess Anna in Luke 2:36–38.) Return to text.
  2. Kittelson, J. and Wiersma, H, Luther the Reformer, 2nd Edition, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2016, pp. 19 and 40, which cites D. Martin Luthers Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe [D. Martin Luther's Works Critical Edition], 61 vols, Weimar 1883–. (WA 38:143 and WA 45:86). Return to text.
  3. Kittelson, J., and Wiersma, H., ref. 2, p. 87. Return to text.
  4. Founded in 1502 by Frederick III, also known as Elector Frederick the Wise, Grand Duke of Saxony, (called ‘Elector’ because he represented Saxony at Imperial elections). Return to text.
  5. There is no mention of any such staircase in the four Gospels. According to Catholic tradition, these ‘holy stairs’ were brought from Jerusalem to Rome about 326 by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great (Catholic Encyclopedia: Scala Sancta). Return to text.
  6. For more details, see my reference article on purgatory. Return to text.
  7. According to Lea, H.C., A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church, Vol. 3, Lea Bros, Philadelphia, 1896, Pope Leo IV (847–855) granted 3 years indulgence for each step ascended (p. 458). This was upgraded to 9 years for each step by Pope Pius VII on 2 Sept. 1817, and then to plenary (full) for the lot by Pope Pius X on 26 Feb. 1908, according to Catholic Encyclopedia: Scala Sancta. Return to text.
  8. Oberman, H.A., Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Doubleday, New York, 1992, p. 147, who cites Dr Martin Luther’s Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung Werke, vols 1– (Weimar, 1883–), (WA 51.89, 20–23: 1545). Return to text.
  9. Repeated three times in the New Testament in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38. Return to text.
  10. According to a letter written by Dr Paul Luther (1533–1593) and preserved in the Library of Rudolstadt. Note: critics have cast doubt on the accuracy of this account. It was certainly not the climax of Luther’s spiritual journey to assurance of salvation, but may well have been ‘the starter’s gun’ in the Lord’s hand. Return to text.
  11. Justification is the act done by God as Judge in which He pardons, accepts, and declares a sinner to be ‘just’ on the basis of his/her repentance and faith in Christ's atoning death and resurrection (Romans 3:24–26; 4:25; 10:9). Christ has perfect righteousness, so the declaration of the righteousness of the believer is based on Christ’s work alone. Sanctification is the work of God the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian that makes him/her progressively more and more like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Return to text.
  12. Kittelson J., and Wiersma H., ref. 2, p. 56, which cites Luther, WA 56:204. Return to text.
  13. According to Luther’s autobiographical Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works, 1545, translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, © 1983 by Saint Anselm Abbey. Used with permission. Return to text.
  14. This has been called Luther’s ‘tower experience’ because his study where this occurred was located in the central tower of the Black Cloister Monastery at Wittenberg. Return to text.
  15. Bainton, R., Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon Press, New York, 1950, pp. 75–77. Return to text.
  16. German: “So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt; die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt.” Return to text.
  17. Source: Luthers Schriften, herausg. von Walch. XV, 446. Return to text.
  18. English translation of the 95 Theses from www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html. Used with permission. Return to text.
  19. Bainton R., ref. 15, p. 88. Return to text.
  20. This followed interrogations of Luther by Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg in 1518, and a debate between Luther and theologian Johann Eck at Leipzig in 1519, both of whom failed to persuade Luther to say, revoco (I recant). Return to text.
  21. The Holy Roman Empire comprised most of Europe, and according to papal teaching “was the secular arm of the Church, set up by the papacy for its own purposes, and therefore answerable to the pope.” (Encylopædia Britannica: Holy Roman Empire) Return to text.
  22. Kittelson J., and Wiersma H., ref. 2, pp. 120–121, say (citing WA 7:814–57): “Two main reports of the Worms proceedings were prepared, one by someone who supported Luther (likely Justas Jonas) and another by the papal representative, Aleander. The two reports agree on the content of Luther’s concluding response except in one instance: the Luther-friendly report states that before Luther said, ‘God help me,’ he also said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’ Aleander’s report omits these words.” The quote is an English translation of the words Luther spoke in German and repeated in Latin. Return to text.
  23. From the 1516 Erasmus Greek-Latin Parallel New Testament. Luther’s NT was published in September 1522; other translations were available, but were in various Germanic dialects. Return to text.
  24. MacKenzie, C., Luther and Language: The Printing Press and the Bible, (A presentation at Concordia Theological Seminary, 2004—www.ctsfw.net), p. 3, says that Luther chose well to use the dialect of his own prince, Frederick the Wise and of the Emperor Maximilian I, and that Luther’s location in the middle of German-speaking lands meant that the dialect employed there could more easily function as a bridge to other regions. Return to text.
  25. Mackenzie, C., ref. 24, pp. 5, 13. Return to text.
  26. The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows (1521). Return to text.
  27. Quoted in Mannermaa, T., Two kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2010, p. 53. Return to text.

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