Martin Luther is most remembered for two of his emphases which played a key role in igniting the Protestant Reformation: (1) his outspoken opposition to corruption within the professing Christian Church, signified by his nailing his “95 Theses” to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany; (2) his pronounced promotion of the Bible’s teaching of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ rather than by one’s own good works. Luther’s later contributions to the Reformation in its ongoing developmental stages are less well known and will be the focus of this Perspective.
Due to Luther’s rejection of a number of Catholic Church doctrines and practices, Pope Leo X excommunicated him in January, 1521. Three months later, in response to an official summons, Luther appeared before Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, at the imperial diet (assembly) in Worms, Germany. There Luther was denied the opportunity to defend his teachings and was ordered to recant of his errors. His reported response to the assembly was, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
He was allowed to leave Worms, and on the way back to Wittenberg was intercepted by a group of men who had been sent by Prince Frederick, the Elector of Saxony and a supporter as well as protector of Luther. Luther was secretly taken to the castle of Wartburg so he would be safe from his enemies. While there he was declared an outlaw. Luther spent eleven months at Wartburg, in which time he worked on translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German. That translation, which he completed in 1534, was one of Luther’s grand contributions to the Reformation in Germany. The translation would have a marked and abiding influence on the German church similar to that which the King James Version of the Bible had in English.
While Luther was away from Wittenberg, one of his fellow reformers, Andreas von Karlstadt, took the lead in introducing the first changes into worship services by simplifying the service, translating it into German and removing images from the churches. The changes had much popular support but also started producing some social unrest. Upon returning to Wittenberg in 1522, Luther actually slowed the pace of those reforms, fearing they placed too much emphasis on secondary external matters while diverting attention from the primary spiritual focus of the Gospel. Luther, however, did abolish the office of bishop since he found no warrant for it in Scripture.
Three years later the demands of peasants for more rights led them into armed conflict with the nobles. The Peasants’ Revolt spread to about one-third of Germany. While Luther initially thought the peasants had some legitimate complaints, he strongly opposed their insurrection as posing an imminent danger to society. He was deeply concerned that the peasants had misconstrued the evangelical message to justify their cause and that opponents of the Reformation would blame it for the unrest. He wrote forcefully against the revolt which ended up being brutally suppressed by the nobles, with as many as 100,000 peasants being killed. As a result, many peasants turned away from Luther, returning to the Catholic Church or joining more radical forms of the Reformation.
An altogether happier development in Luther’s life that same year, 1525, was his marriage, at age 41, to Katherine von Bora, a former nun. Like Luther, many former priests who became reformers married and had families, promoting those as healthy and biblical practices. That was done in marked contrast to the mandatory celibacy of Catholic priests and the sexual transgressions it all too commonly produced. Martin and Katie’s marriage came to be filled with mutual love and devotion, and they had six children.
1525 was also when Luther wrote what he considered his most important theological treatise, On the Bondage of the Will. It was written in response to a work entitled On the Freedom of the Will which Desiderius Erasmus, the leading Renaissance humanist and Catholic scholar of the day, had published the previous year as an attack on one aspect of Luther’s theology. Luther’s treatise argued that man’s will is so utterly enslaved to sin that he cannot exercise his will to choose salvation. Instead, salvation is exclusively by God’s grace. Only by God’s action in predestining, calling and converting a person can he or she be saved. As a result of this exchange between Luther and Erasmus, many humanists stopped supporting Luther. But other humanists redirected their studies from literature to the Scriptures and became ministers.
From 1527 to 1529 Luther devoted much time and attention to a controversy he had over the Lord’s Supper with Ulrich Zwingli, leader of the Reformation effort in Switzerland. Luther held to what came to be known as “sacramental union” (many Lutherans prefer that term to “consubstantiation”), the belief that in communion the body and blood of Christ are actually present with the bread and cup. Zwingli, by contrast, held to a memorial view of communion, that the bread and cup merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ. Luther and Zwingli were unable to reach a consensus, with the result that the Lutheran and Reformed branches of Protestantism have remained divided on the communion issue to this day.
At the Diet of Speyer in 1526 the princes of Saxony decided that, as a temporary solution to their religious divisions, each prince would determine the religious practice of his own territory. In the subsequent 1529 Diet of Speyer the Roman Catholic majority declared there would be no further changes. Furthermore, while Protestant worship would not be tolerated in Roman Catholic territories, Roman Catholic worship had to be tolerated in Protestant territories. The evangelical princes protested those rulings, and from that protest came the designation “Protestant.”
In 1530 Emperor Charles V returned to Germany for the first time since 1521. He called for the evangelical princes to present a confession justifying their faith. Luther, who was still considered an outlaw, could not attend the Diet at Augsburg. So Luther’s faithful ministry associate, Philip Melanchthon, went in his stead. After consulting with Luther, Melanchthon drew up the Augsburg Confession, an irenic but clear presentation of the basics of Luther’s theology. It has remained the basic confession of Lutheranism to the present day. Charles V rejected the confession, and the threat of war between Catholics and Protestants in Germany became real. Such war did not actually ensue, however, until a few months after Luther’s death in 1546.
Luther was far from a perfect individual. His forceful temperament sometimes led him to deal much too harshly with those who did not share his Christian convictions. He vehemently opposed not only Catholics who opposed evangelicals, but also Jews for their rejection of Christianity, and even Anabaptists whom he viewed as unhealthy extremists in the Reformation movement. Luther reportedly grew more irritable as he aged. That likely was due in part to various illnesses and bouts of depression he suffered in his later years.
Despite his ailments and personal shortcomings, Luther remained active and fruitful in ministry to the end of his life. He continued preaching regularly and teaching at the University of Wittenberg. He wrote on various theological topics and published major commentaries on Galatians and Genesis. He was an advisor to princes, pastors and students. He died peacefully of natural causes in Eisleben (the town of his birth) on February 18, 1546, at age 63. His significant influence on not only Lutheranism but also evangelical Protestantism as a whole continues to this day.
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Sources consulted: Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 255-264; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “Martin Luther,” W. Robert Godfrey (Moody, 1988), pp. 187-196.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie