Each year, on October 31st, Christians look back to commemorate the Reformation Day. This is when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, which provoked a debate that led to the Church splitting into what are today known as Roman Catholics and Protestants. So in this article, we discuss Martin Luther and look into the lessons we can learn from his life.
Martin Luther, the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation movement, was born in Eisleben, Germany, to Hans and Margarethe Luther in 1483. As the brilliant young man he was, Martin Luther began his education in Mansfield. While there, he got thorough training in Latin and how to write the ten commandments, the Lord’s prayer, the Apostles’ creed, and the morning and evening prayers. Luther later went to Magdeburg to attend school under Brethren of the common life. At the school, an emphasis on personal discipline and purity left a lasting influence on his life. He later joined the University of Erfurt and was among the students recorded as ineligible for financial aid; this speaks of his father’s financial success. While there, Martin studied library arts and was awarded a Master’s degree. The writings of Aristotle and William Ockhamwere were a significant influence on him; he even considered them his teachers.
After graduating from the faculty of arts with a Master’s degree, Luther was set to pursue the ‘higher’ disciplines; law, medicine, or theology. In as much as his father wanted him to pursue law, Luther had not forgotten the pledge he had made to dedicate his life to serving God after God saved him from a frightening thunderstorm. Luther abandoned his study in law and entered the monastery in Erfurt in the order of the hermits of St. Augustine. Luther trained under the Brethren of common life and would later be a monk under the strict Augustine order. He became more aware of his sinfulness and led a rigorously pious life. He would wake up at 2 am to pray, and he also attended all the masses. Some historians say Luther even confessed his prayers to fellow priests since he thought them sinful.
Luther was ordained and celebrated his first mass in May 1507 with great fear and trembling. He began to study theology at the University of Erfurt and was transferred to the Augustinian Monastery at Wittenberg. He later became a lecturer there and taught the book of Psalms, Romans, Galatians and the book of Hebrews. Luther was a very engaging lecturer. One of his students wrote about him as “a man of middle stature with a voice that combined sharpness in the pronunciation of syllables and words and softness in tone. He spoke neither too quickly nor slowly but at an even pace, without hesitation and very clearly.”
Luther’s Marriage and Family Life
Luther believed that the teaching of the Roman Catholic on clerical celibacy was the work of the Devil. For him, marriage was an honourable order of creation. His teachings spread among the nuns, which made some of them flee the monastery because of his influence and convictions on marriage—one of the nuns was Katherine Van Bora, who became his wife. Martin Luther was a fierce theologian, but he loved Katie, his wife, well when at home. He believed that every man had a duty to consider his wife better.
Matin was also a passionate father. When Magdalena, his daughter, was sick and almost dying, Martin was crushed to see her fading away. He couldn’t even look at her directly because he was in distress. Magdalena would, however, be the one to encourage him not to be sad since she was going to be with God in heaven. Her faith moved Martin to the point that he repented for not viewing her death as a good thing. Her daughter’s faith testified to the faithful training he laboured, training his little ones and leading his family to know and love God; he was also a priest at home.
Luther and Controvercies
Luther’s life was filled with debates for the truth of Scripture. He is well remembered for translating the New Testament into the German language so that everyone could read and understand it. He is also remembered for posting the ninety-five theses on the Church’s wall at Wittenberg. This was a common practice back then; whenever one desired to have a public discourse over a particular topic, they would pen down what they wanted to talk about and post it either at the Church’s door or at the university’s entrance. The ninety-five thesis became so famous among Luther’s students that they made copies and spread them around. His fame grew till he was invited to have a debate at the Diet of Worms, where he was declared a Heretic and was consequently excommunicated. At the time, ex-communication meant that you not only stopped belonging to your local Church but also became an enemy of the whole Church at large and the state. Essentially, one stopped being a believer.
Luther is also remembered for the discourses of free will against the humanist Erasmus Desiderius. The humanists promoted the idea that man was a free agent morally and spiritually and had the power to either choose God or not. Later on, Ulrich Zwingli opposed Martin Luther’s and the Catholic Church’s transubstantiation beliefs that the bread and the wine shared during the Lord’s table were the real flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Zwingli corrected that view by stating that the bread and wine were only representations used to commemorate the sacrifice that Christ offered for the forgiveness of our sins.
Luther and The Local Church
Luther evidently valued his local Church. He recounts a time when his barber had asked for his advice since he had fainted in his prayers. Martin advised him to attend Church and listen to the preaching of God’s Word. Next to his love for the Word of God was music. He even wrote hymns that have stood the test of time because of their theological richness. Luther said, “I have no use for cranks who despise music because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people joyful; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like.” For him, a mass must have a hymn or two sung. He wrote over 30 hymns. My personal favourite is A mighty fortress is our God, based on Psalms 46.
Luther and the Authority of the Scriptures
In all that Martin Luther stood for, these two: the authority of Scripture and Justification by faith alone, were the backbone of his ministry and life. The fact that the Roman Catholic had elevated the word of the Pope and the Church’s traditional practices to a higher level than the Word of God really troubled Luther. He was wholly convinced this was wrong. His zeal for the authority of the scriptures pushed him to declare that a simple man with the Bible has more authority than the Pope or even a whole council.
He knew that the Bible was the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), and as such, nothing could usurp its position of authority. When Luther had the debate at the Diet of Worms, the council asked him to recant everything he claimed. Luther asked to be given twenty-four hours so that he could come to give his verdict. Upon his return, Luther is famously quoted saying, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture, and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of the Pope and the council, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.” For Luther, there was nothing as pure and authoritative as the Word of God (Psalms. 33:4).
Luther and Justification
The second doctrine that Luther held dear was the doctrine of Justification. Luther said,” This doctrine (Justification) is the head and cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the Church of God; without it, the Church of God exists for one hour.” At the heart of the protestant controversy was whether a man is Justified by faith plus works or is justified by faith alone. While studying Romans 1:17, Luther compared it with Habakkuk 2:4 and found that the righteousness of God is what we need to be saved, and we obtain it only by faith. This was a Eureka moment for him, and he said,”…the just shall live by his faith… then the entire Holy Scripture became clear to me, and heaven itself was opened to me. Now we see this brilliant light very clearly, and we are privileged to enjoy it abundantly”. The revelation of God’s Word was, without a doubt, sweetness to his soul (Psalms 119:103).
In 1546, Luther breathed his last in his hometown. There is indeed a lot we can learn from the man Luther. The fact that the Word of God was the engine that drove his life stands out the most. He always sought to live by it because he believed deeply that it was the only authoritative instruction. God used Luther to reform the Christian faith, realigning it to God’s true path. You, too, God can use you in a mighty way today. All you need to do is trust Him, and he will use you to bring about His good and perfect will to this wretched generation.
- Henry Ganss, “Martin Luther,” ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913).