The Great Protestant Reformation, with which the Lord Almighty freed His true Church from the bondage of Roman captivity, is usually dated to October 31, 1517. On that day, a German Augustinian monk, named Martin Luther, nailed a document on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. This document was actually a rather innocent academic proposal to the theological students at Wittenberg to debate some issues of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther had nailed it on the door of the church because it was the usual notice board for the town. It contained 95 theses or propositions for the scheduled debate. But because the document so fearlessly and cogently questioned the doctrine and authority of the Papacy, it began to attract great public attention, and began to be copied, translated to German, printed and distributed very widely—the printing press having recently been invented. Martin Luther was in this way plunged into fame, and became, as it were, the prince of the Reformation which had been in the throes of birth-pains since Wycliff and Huss.

Luther the Student

Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Saxony, Germany. Though his parents were very poor, they were very strict and religious. They were devoted Catholics, and had even named their son “Martin” because the day after his birthday was the feast day of St. Martin as observed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther entered the University of Erfurt at age 18; and soon distinguished himself as a good scholar. Within a couple of years, however, divine providence would lead him in another direction. First, at age 20, Luther found a complete copy of the Latin Bible in the University Library. Reading it, he was especially impressed with the account of Hannah dedicating his son Samuel to the service of the Lord and how the Lord eventually called Samuel. It is possible that he had begun thinking of becoming a monk since then. Secondly, shortly after his graduation, in 1505, when he was about to make preparations to enter the Law profession to fulfil his father’s wishes, Luther found himself caught in a terrible thunder-storm. Fearing for his life, he fell prostrate to the ground, crying, “Help, beloved St. Anna, I will become a monk!” His father almost went mad when he heard the news; but Luther kept his vow. He gave away all that he had and entered an Augustinian monastery known as the Black Cloister in Erfurt.

Luther the Monk

Luther had entered the monastery in the hope of finding peace for his soul. Believing that the ascetic life in the cloister would bring him peace, he became one of the most sincere, conscientious and honest monks. He begged for food in the streets, performed menial tasks, prayed seven hours a day, fasted for days regularly, confessed his sins to a priest at least once a week, and literally tortured his body by whipping to obtain peace for his soul. He was so scrupulous in the performance of his duties and asceticism that later he would say, “if ever a monk could have gotten to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there.” But peace did not come to him. Luther grew increasingly discouraged. He had hoped to escape sin and temptation by being shut off from the world, but he found that while he was externally pious, he could not escape the burden of sin within. He had to contend with temptations of anger, envy, hatred and pride. He saw in the Scriptures that God is a consuming fire, a God of wrath and divine justice; and he could not get over the words: “I, the LORD thy God, am a jealous God” (Ex 20:5). Luther was being crushed by his right conception of the holiness of God, coupled with a failure to see that believers are forgiven because of the righteousness of Christ imputed on them. Just as the believer’s sin is imputed on Christ and paid for on the cross—though Christ had no sin, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed on the believer—so that he is deemed righteous in God’s eyes though he remains a sinner. Failing to understand this, Luther thought that God expects sinners to earn their own righteousness.

By the grace of God, a man by the name of Johnann von Staupitz, the head of the Augustinian Order in Germany, visited the Black Cloister from time to time. As Luther and Staupitz became friends, Staupitz became the Lord’s instrument to lead Luther to look unto the finished work of Christ rather than trusting in his own righteousness. Eventually, as Luther continued to search the Scripture, the Holy Spirit so illumined his heart that the truth of Paul’s word, “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17; cf. Hab 2:4; Gal 3:11) shone brilliantly. A reformation had begun in Luther’s heart!

Luther the Professor

Staupitz also persuaded Luther to enter the priesthood, and then through Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, obtained a teaching post for Luther at the University of Wittenberg.

In the year 1510, Luther was commissioned to go to Rome as a representative of the Augustinian Order. Luther was delighted, for he had thought that Rome was the ‘holy and eternal city of God’ where the Pope, the vicar of Christ, was seated. But he was to be sorely disappointed, for instead of holiness, he saw and heard of gross wickedness, superstition and ignorance among the clergy in Rome. The Pope, Julius II, was hardly anything more than a scheming politician greedy of gain, and many of his priests were not even believers.

It was, perhaps, at this time that Luther, wishing to liberate his grandfather from purgatory, had climbed the 28 steps of the famed Scala Santa (said to have been miraculously transported from the Judgement Hall of Pilate in Jerusalem), on his bare knees, and reciting the pater noster at each step. But at every step he took, the words of Habakkuk, “The just shall live by faith,” resounded in his ears in protest. Luther reached the top of the stairs, but by that time, he had begun to ask: “Who knows whether this is true?”

Returning to Wittenberg, Luther received his Doctor of Divinity, and in 1515, he began to preach in the parish church. Many came to hear him, for Luther, like no other preachers, opened the Scriptures to the common folks.

Luther the ‘Rebel’

In 1514, a certain Prince Albert wanted to bribe Pope Leo X to allow him to fill the vacant arch-bishopric of Mainz. Leo X who was at that time aspiring to build the present Saint Peter’s cathedral imposed a huge sum on Albert. He then suggested that Albert take a loan from the wealthy Fugger banking family in Augsburg, and as a security for the loan, the Pope issued a papal bull authorising the sale of Indulgences in Saxony. An Indulgence is a document signed by the Pope, which was scandalously held to be able to free man from the temporal penalty of sin or to release a soul from purgatory. Having secured the loan, Albert immediately employed a Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel, to sell the Indulgences on his behalf. Tetzel set off immediately and eventually reached Brandenburg, a few miles from Wittenberg. But Frederick the Wise, shocked at the man’s trade and yet more at his scandalous life, forbade him from entering Saxony. Tetzel nevertheless set up his store at Juterbock, a small town on the Saxon frontier. And since, Wittenberg was only an hour and a half’s walking distance to the town, thousands flocked to do business with him.

Luther soon discovered the moral havoc that Tetzel was creating in Wittenberg. One day, some citizens of Wittenberg came to him confessing of having committed thefts, adulteries, and other heinous sins. “You must abandon your evil courses,” replied Luther, “otherwise I cannot absolve you.” To his surprise, and grief, they replied that they had no thought of leaving off their sins, since they had already bought Indulgences for them.

Luther, much saddened by what he saw and heard, eventually wrote his famed95 Theses on the doctrine of Indulgence and posted them on the door of the church on October 31, 1517. These propositions, Luther undertook to defend the next day at the university against all who might choose to debate with him. However, no one turned up. All the students and professors at Wittenberg were one with Luther. Instead, as mentioned earlier, the propositions began to gain a wide audience.

Luther the ‘Heretic’

Soon, not only was the sale of Indulgence seriously impaired, but the threat to authority and doctrine of the church began to be felt in Rome. Cardinal Cajetan was sent to Wittenberg to examine Luther, but the Reformer refused to acknowledge that what he taught were errors. Cajetan left in anger and secretly gave orders that Luther should be taken captive, but Luther received a timely warning and escaped. Not too long later, the Pope sent a good-natured man, Karl von Miltitz, together with an expensive gift for Frederick the Wise, to persuade Luther to recant. This time, Luther apologised for his vehemence, and undertook to refrain from further disputations if his opponents also remained silent. However, he soon made clear that he had not changed his mind on his fundamental doctrinal principles.

Within six months, in July 1519, Luther was called to a debate with Johann Eck at Leipzig. There, Luther questioned the authority of the papacy as well as the infallibility of the church councils and insisted on the primacy of the Scripture. Eck retorted by attempting to discredit Luther by labelling him a Hussite. Luther was not only undaunted, but became even more outspoken. Within months, Luther published three pamphlets of great significance. The first, the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, called upon the German nobles to reform the church and society since the papacy had failed to do so. The second,The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, attacked the entire sacramental system of the medieval church by maintaining that there are only two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—rather than 7. The third, The Freedom of the Christian Man, was written for the pope to teach him the doctrine of justification by faith alone in a non-polemic tone.

The pope was not impressed. On June 15, 1520, he issued a papal bull, excommunicating Luther as a stubborn and dangerous heretic and ordered that his writings be burned. In reply, Luther burned a copy of the bull in front of a great crowd, including his students and fellow professors, exclaiming as he did so: “As thou [the Pope] has vexed the Holy One of the Lord [Christ], may eternal fire vex thee.” With this statement, Luther effectively excommunicated the Pope from the true Church of Christ, and later denounced the Pope as the Anti-Christ.

The Pope, fuming in anger, requested Emperor Charles V, a devote Catholic who had recently been elected to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, the most powerful monarch at that time, to deal with Luther. Charles V agreed and summoned Luther to appear before him at the Diet of Worms. Luther, against the counsel of his friends, decided to go, saying, “If there are as many devils in Worms as tiles on the housetops I will go there.”

When he arrived at Worms on April 16, 1521, the streets were lined with people curious to catch sight of the man they thought to be the devil personified. The assembly hall where his trial was to take place was equally crowded, but with 206 people of great political and religious stature. The meeting was presided by Johann von Eck who immediately asked Luther to retract his doctrines. Having asked for time to reflect and pray, Luther responded the second day on April 18, 1521. His speech, which was made both in Latin and German, shook the world with these bold and uncompromising words: “Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scripture or by clear arguments that I am in error—for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves—I cannot recant, for I am subject to Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God…. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.”

Luther the Knight

Although Luther was allowed to return to Wittenberg after his momentous speech, his life was in great danger. Had it not been the intervention of Frederick the Wise, who arranged to ‘abduct’ him while he was on his way back, Luther would surely have been exterminated.

Luther was brought to Wartburg castle where he was disguised as a knight so that his enemies could not find him or molest him. It was in the seclusion and peace of Wartburg that Luther not only wrote numerous other pamphlets against Roman Catholic doctrines, but translated the New Testament into German from the original Greek. By 1522, it was already on sale in the German shops at a price easily affordable by the common people. This translation (together with the OT counter-part which was completed in 1534) was to become the firm basis of the German Reformation.

Ten months later, Luther returned to Wittenberg. By then the Reformation was already well underway, and Luther’s life was no longer in grave danger.

Luther the Writer

In 1525, Luther, broke his illegally made monastic vow of celibacy to marry Catherine von Bora, an escaped nun who bore him six children. Though he could easily have become rich by the sale of his books, he gave most of what he earned to the poor and to the work of the Reformation, so much so that his family frequently did not have enough money to buy ordinary necessities. Yet, the family was an extremely happy one. This, though Luther was constantly extremely busy, and though Catherine had to support the family by rearing pigs and fishes.

Luther was a rapid writer, producing an ocean of literature by the time of his death on February 18, 1546. The current American edition of his writings takes up 55 large volumes! Some of his most famous writings include Bondage of the Will, which was written in response to the semi-Pelagianism of Erasmus; his Small Catechism for use by his congregation and his Large Catechism for pastors.

Although Luther did not fully reform the church since he only rejected what he thought to be directly “against Scripture,”—which to him did not include altars, images and crucifixes, or holy-days,—Luther’s courage, testimony, writings and ground works set the stage for the more thorough Reformation of Zwingli, Calvin and Knox. Ecclesia Reformata Semper Reformada! Once the church is reformed, it must continue to reform itself to God’s Word.

Thank God for Martin Luther, but let us not stop there. Let us resolve never to undo the cause of Luther. Roman Catholicism remains anti-Christian as long as Rome does not believe that justification is by grace through faith alone,—whatever the framers of the ECT or ECT II may say, and however the Pope may apologise for the past errors of the church. Roman Catholicism cannot change because of her doctrine of the infallibility of popes and councils. She is supposed to be semper idem (always the same). To admit that she was in error at all is to admit the fallibility of popes and councils and so destroy the authority of the papacy. Jude’s clarion call to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) is as relevant today as it was in the days of Luther—perhaps even more so, as we see Rome taking steps to entice Christians back to her fold.

J.J. Lim