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Torchbearers of the Truth: Martin Luther (1483-1546)

R W Cargill, St Monans

The story of Martin Luther, the one time German monk, is the key to understanding the progress of the reformation in Europe in the early sixteenth century. Like many others before and after, it was from studying the Scriptures that divine light dawned on his own soul, and he came to see the grave errors in the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Few have changed the course of history more than he did, releasing Europe from what was tantamount to an empire which for over a thousand years had ruled its nations by fear. His influence spread outwards to reach far beyond his own country and his own century, largely because of the newly invented printing press.

Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margaretha Luder on 10th November, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. Hans owned a copper mine in nearby Mansfeld and wanted his son to receive a good education to enable him to enter civil service. Young Martin attended schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach which he did not enjoy! When he was seventeen he entered the University of Erfurt. There he did well, receiving his Bachelor’s degree after just one year then a Master’s degree three years later.

He then entered law school but he found theology and philosophy more interesting. Philosophy, however, was about the use of reason and had nothing to say about loving God, which to Luther was more important. Reason could be used to question men and institutions, but not God. He believed that men could learn about God only through divine revelation, and so the Scriptures became increasingly important to him.

About this time, on 2nd July, 1505, while riding back to university after a trip home, during a thunderstorm a lightning bolt narrowly missed him. Terrified of death and divine judgment he called out, "Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!". His life spared, Luther kept his word and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt two weeks later.

In monastic life he made immense efforts at good works to please God. He endured fasts, flagellations, long pilgrimages, and constant confession. Yet he found no peace with God. The more he tried to do, the more he seemed aware of his sinfulness. He would later remark, "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them". He described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, "I lost touch with Christ the Saviour and Comforter, and made of Him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul".

His superior believed that he needed more work to distract him from all this introspection and he was sent off on another academic career. In 1508 he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. He quickly earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies, and his Doctor of Theology in October, 1512.

From 1510 to 1520, studying for academic degrees and preparing lectures on the Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, he was driven to study these Scriptures in real depth. In so doing he saw that the "Church" had obscured the central truths of Christianity and indeed was corrupt in its ways. To him the most important doctrine was justification by faith alone. He found peace with God for himself at Romans 1.17. He began to teach publicly that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Christ. "This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification", he wrote, "is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness". Luther had come to understand justification as entirely the work of God. He wrote that righteousness not only comes from Christ but actually is the righteousness of Christ, imputed to believers through faith.

He explained his concept of "justification" as follows:

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3.24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1.29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3.23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us...Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13.31).

Things reached a crisis for Luther when Johann Tetzel came to Germany to sell "indulgences" to raise funds to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indignant at both the exploitation of the poor and the errors of the Church, he did what he is best remembered for. He wrote his 95 Theses condemning the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and posted them on the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg on 31st October, 1517. They were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied. Within two weeks, they had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

Luther’s views were condemned as heretical by Pope Leo X in 1520. He was summoned to either renounce or reaffirm them at the famous "Diet of Worms" on 17th April, 1521. When he appeared before the Diet, he was asked if he still believed what he had written. He requested time to think about his answer. He prayed, consulted with friends, and the next day in front of the Diet he apologized for the harsh tone of many of his writings, but respectfully and boldly stated, "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. God help me. Amen". On 25th May, the Emperor issued his Edict, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw. This made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter, and permitted anyone to kill him without legal consequence.

But among the princes of Germany Luther had some powerful friends. One of them, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, arranged for him to be seized on his way from the Diet by a company of masked horsemen, who carried him to safety in the castle of Wartburg where he lived for a year. He called this "my Patmos". During this period he worked hard at his translation of the Bible.

He was the first person to translate and publish the Bible in the commonly-spoken dialect of the German people. He used the recent 1516 critical Greek edition of Erasmus (later called Textus Receptus). The German New Testament was published in September, 1522; the Old Testament followed in 1534.

Luther wrote many other books and pamphlets. He was also a prolific hymn writer. His best known is A Mighty Fortress is Our God. His 1524 creedal hymn We All Believe in One True God is a three-stanza confession of faith based on "The Apostles’ Creed".

On 13th June, 1525 Martin Luther married 26 year old Katharina von Bora, one of twelve nuns he had helped escape from a Cistercian convent in 1523, getting them smuggled out in herring barrels! They had a happy and successful marriage, though money was often short. They had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Katharina helped the family income by farming and taking in boarders.

Luther’s ideas were sometimes taken to extremes and out of context. He had to return to Wittenberg in 1522 to rebuke those who tried to stir up revolt against the ruling classes. He insisted on the practice of Christian values such as love, patience, charity, and freedom, and reminded the protestors to trust God’s Word rather than use violence to bring about change. In the Peasants’ War of 1524-25 many atrocities were committed often in Luther’s name. Whilst sympathising with the peasants’ grievances over exploitation, he reminded them of their duty to obey authorities. He explained what the Bible taught about wealth, and condemned violence as the devil’s work.

Luther died of a heart attack on 18th February, 1546, aged 62, in Eisleben where he had been born. His influence was immense. He befriended William Tyndale during his exile in 1525, and gave him the use of his own 1516 Erasmus Greek-Latin Parallel New Testament. This would lead to Tyndale’s English New Testament of 1525-26. Likewise he showed the way to George Wishart and John Knox in 1544. These, and countless others since, followed where this man of God had led the way out of darkness and superstition into the light and liberty of the gospel.


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