Martin Luther Biography, The Life and Legacy of the Reformer


Who was Martin Luther? What did Martin Luther do? Information on German Augustinian friar Martin Luther biography, life story, works and reforms.

Martin Luther; (1483-1546), German Augustinian friar, who inaugurated the movement called Protestantism, which shattered the external structure of the medieval church and at the same time revived the religious consciousness of Europe, and even saved the papacy from degenerating into a secularized Italian city state. One branch of Protestantism is named for him. In some respects Luther’s religion can be described as the last great flowering of the piety of the Middle Ages a piety that took itself seriously and was outraged by the travesty of a frivolous papacy.

Luther’s movement may be said also to have anticipated modern times, because the unity of the ecclesiastical structure was broken and the door opened to a widespread diversity in religious expression with an eventual toleration of the variant forms. Luther is of historic significance partly because of what he said and did and partly because of what followed.

Luther’s Vow and Monastic Experience. 

Luther was born at Eisleben, Germany, on Nov. 10, 1483. To understand his life, it is important to be aware that he had no intention of initiating the program outlined above. His concern at the outset was simply personal, to know how he, a sinner, could find a gracious God. The problem was precipitated into acute form by a sudden confrontation with death. He was at the time a student at the University of Erfurt preparing for a career in law.

Who Was Martin Luther? Martin Luther Life and Reforms


On July 2, 1505, while returning from a visit to his parents, he was overtaken by a severe thunderstorm. A bolt knocked him to the ground. In terror he screamed, “St. Anne help me. I will become a monk.” This was a thoroughly medieval reaction. The belief was prevalent that man could do something to gain credit with God and that nothing was more efficacious than to renounce the world and enter a monastery. The vow of the monk was regarded as a second baptism washing away all sins since the first.

He entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt a few weeks later. For a time Luther enjoyed tranquillity of spirit in the monastery and even periods of exaltation, but his distress returned when, having been made a priest, he stood before the altar to celebrate his first Mass on May 2, 1507. His father, who had never approved of his entering the monastery, now magnanimously graced the occasion by attendance.

All went well until Luther came to the words in the Mass tibi. …aeterno Deo, vivo et vero, “To thee the true, the living, the eternal God.” He thought to himself, “With what tongue shall I address such Majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence even of an earthly prince? Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say, ‘I want this, I ask for that?” For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.”

Coming utterly limp to the banquet following the Mass, Luther sought comfort from his earthly father and asked him if he was still unhappy over his son’s entering the monastery, where the life was so quiet and godly. The father flared up and upbraided the son for deserting his parents. Luther replied that he had a call from heaven, and his father countered by asking how he knew it was not a call from the devil. There was the dilemma of medieval religion—how to distinguish between the supernatural forces.

The Quest. 

Luther undertook to satisfy himself about the divine source of his call by exploiting to the full all the ways offered by the monastery for finding a gracious God. He began with castigations of the flesh, but he could never be convinced that he had done enough. Then he turned to confession and tried to clear himself by acknowledging his sins one by one. He soon saw that this was like trying to cure smallpox by picking off individual scabs when the whole man is sick. Then came a doubt about the goodness of God himself if he predestines some to doom and some to bliss before they are ever born. Such a God he could only hate.

Luther’s confessor and superior, Johann von Staupitz, wisely arranged for him to lecture on the Scriptures at the newly founded university of Wittenberg in electoral Saxony. Study of the Psalms and especially of the Epistles of Paul made him realize that there is absolutely no way in which man can gain credit with God and merit his favor. But man can find a gracious God by accepting what he has done for man in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The core of Luther’s teaching was the forgiveness of sins, real sins, unrelieved by any merit and pardoned through the sheer mercy of God, who was himself in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the doctrine of justification by faith.


Luther became a reformer in spite of himself. He had been made not only a professor but also a parish priest in the city of Wittenberg. His parishioners were obtaining indulgences. An indulgence was a remission of the penalty imposed as satisfaction for sin. At first the penalties forgiven were those imposed by the church on earth; later, forgiveness was extended to those penalties to be imposed by God in purgatory. Some indulgences even claimed to grant remission of sins. The theory was that some men are better than they need to be in order to be saved. Their extra and unused merits are stored in “the treasury of the merits of the saints,” from which the pope could issue a draft of transfer to those whose accounts were in arrears. Usually the recipient of the indulgence was expected to make a money contribution to the church.


The form of indulgence obtained by Luther’s parishioners made more extreme claims than any others. It promised that past sins would be forgiven and future sins would receive preferential treatment, and that persons who secured indulgences for their relatives already in purgatory need not themselves be contrite.

The Ninety-five Theses. 

On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther came out with a blast against this and every other indulgence in a manifesto called the Ninety-five Theses, that is, 95 paragraphs for discussion. The document had essentially three parts. The first was a denunciation of papal venality. To this all Germans subscribed, for the thoroughly orthodox Catholics had complained for a hundred years of Roman exploitation. The second point was that the pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory, and if he does, he should empty the place free of charge. The third was by implication a denial of the theory, underlying the indulgence, that a transfer is made from the accumulated merits of the saints. Luther affirmed that the treasury of the church is the Gospel, that is, the proclamation of God’s forgiveness. In other words, there is no such thing as a treasury of merits.

Rome’s Reaction. 

The 95 theses elicited a condemnation from Rome with the assertion that anyone who goes contrary to what the church actually does is a heretic. Luther was summoned to Rome. At that point Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Luther’s prince, intervened on his own authority to insist that Luther’s hearing should take place on German soil. Luther was examined at an Imperial Diet at Augsburg by Cardinal Cajetan in October 1518.

The upshot was that Luther rejected a papal bull setting forth the theory of the treasury of the merits of the saints. Luther was told that he must recant. Refusal would normally have meant the stake, but in this instance a change in the political scene relieved the pressure. An election for the office of Holy Roman emperor was pending. The pope—it was Leo X—did not wish to see this elective office, which gave control over Germany, added to the hereditary power of one of the great European monarchs such as Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, or Charles I of Spain.

The Pope’s choice fell on a comparatively weak ruler, Frederick the Wise, Luther’s protector. Although Charles I was elected (becoming Charles V as emperor) shortly before the debate, it was well over a year before he was able to turn his attention from affairs in Spain to those in Germany.

Debate with Eck. 

In consequence, Luther was free to enter into a public debate with the renowned disputant Johann Eck at Leipzig in July 1519. The subject of the debate was the age of the papacy, the point being that if it went back to the age of the Apostles it was of divine origin, but if it arose later then it was of human foundation. Luther maintained the second view and supported his claim by acute historical criticism of alleged early Christian documents. Luther asserted that he would accept only the authority of Scripture and not of popes and councils. From this debate, Luther emerged a national figure. He won support from German nationalists, who hated Roman exploitation, and from the humanists, who wanted greater freedom of expression.

Who Was Martin Luther? Martin Luther Life and Reforms

Luther’s Reform Program. 

The papacy, for political reasons, dallied, and not until January 1520 was Luther summoned to submit within 60 days by the bull Exsurge Domine. The time clock did not start ticking until the bull was actually delivered, and this happened only on October 10, » giving Luther until December 10. In the interim he set forth an entire program of reform. In the summer of 1520 he came out with The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he called for a reduction of the papacy to a spiritual institution, stripped of pomp, power, and wealth. Finances should be handled by national churches. The clergy should be allowed to marry. The most ominous passage was the one in which Luther identified the papacy with the mythological, demonic figure of Antichrist.

The tract was addressed to the rulers of Germany, including the new emperor, Charles V, in whom Luther had not yet lost confidence. There is some ambiguity as to the basis of their right to reform the church in externals. Sometimes Luther regarded them as the temporal arm of an all-embracing Christian society, at other times as convinced Christian believers.

The difference involves the concept of the church as well as of the state. Does the church itself consist of all those living in a given area and, as such, is the church closely coordinated with the state? Or is the church a conventicle of genuine believers, comparatively independent of the state except in emergencies? Luther was clear that whereas the state might reform the church, the church should not impede the state in the civil sphere. The church claimed that because the humblest priest administering the sacraments could do more for man’s salvation than the greatest emperor, the church should direct the state.

Luther flatly rejected this claim on the grounds that spiritually magistrates, along with all Christians, are priests able to administer the means of grace to each other. This is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Because of this defense of the state Luther has been accused of endorsing political absolutism. His point was merely to vindicate civil government against ecclesiastical interference.



A second tract was entitled The Babylonian Captivity, meaning that the sacraments had been taken captive by the church of Rome. Luther reduced the seven sacraments-baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, holy orders, marriage, penance, and extreme unction—to essentially two. A sacrament, he said, must have a visible sign, like the ring in marriage, of an invisible grace and must have been instituted by Christ himself. Only baptism and the Mass (called also the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) qualify.

Confirmation, ordination, and marriage may be celebrated as rites of the church but not as sacraments. Marriage does not qualify because it was not instituted by Christ but by God in the garden of Eden and is valid as much for Turks and Jews as for Christians. Penance consists of contrition, of which no one can be sure; satisfaction, which no one can render; and confession, which is wholesome, but which should be voluntary and may be made to any fellow Christian. Extreme unction should be discontinued.

The Mass. 

The great change in interpretation came with the Mass. Christ did institute the Lord’s Supper. The Mass is not a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, who died once and for all upon the cross. The wine, as well as the bread, should be given to the laity. No Masses should be said for the dead, nor by the priest alone, since communion is not only with Christ but also with fellow believers. Luther denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. According to this doctrine, when the priest pronounces the words “This is my body,’ the elements retain their accidents of color, taste, and shape, but their substance is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ.

Luther rejected the whole concept of substance, but he did say that Christ s body is physically present upon the altar, because Christ is present spiritually and physically everywhere. His presence on the altar is special only in the sense that there he is disclosed to those who by reason of their infirmity do not discover him everywhere. There are two modes of God’s self-disclosure. The one is the preaching of the word from the pulpit, the other the administration of the elements at the altar.

These views of the sacraments were bound to have a profound social effect, particularly in the case of the removal of ordination from the list. If the priest was not empowered by the sacrament of ordination to administer the means of grace, then the humblest priest could not be said to have greater power than the loftiest emperor to save men’s souls.

Luther’s next tract of the summer of 1520 was called The Freedom of the Christian Man. In it, Luther contended that the Christian is of all men the most free from legalistic rules of morality, but of all men the most bound out of love to do for his neighbor in some measure what Christ has done for him.

The Diet of Worms. 

When Luther’s 60 days expired on December 10 he burned the papal bull together with a copy of the Canon Law, defining the great juristic system of the church during the Middle Ages. Condemnation by the church was inevitable, but the church did not have the power to inflict the penalty of death. Luther was brought to trial before a secular tribunal, the Diet of the Empire, which met at Worms in the winter and spring of 1521. The papal representative wanted to have him simply outlawed at once.

Who Was Martin Luther? Martin Luther Life and Reforms

The party of Frederick the Wise insisted that he be given a fair hearing. The examiner offered Luther a way to escape the consequences of condemnation by repudiating some of his books, or at least some of his teachings. He answered: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” The earliest printed version added the words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”


Emperor Charles issued the Edict of Worms that condemned Luther as a heretic and as subversive of the state. Frederick the Wise was convinced that Luther had not had a fair hearing and therefore contrived to hide him. He was whisked away to an isolated castle, called the Wartburg, and there lived for a year in exile.

Overwhelmed momentarily by his depression following the public appearance, Luther speedily rallied. He set himself to the herculean task of translating in six months the entire New Testament from the Greek text of Erasmus into a fluid, vigorous, virile, sensitive, overpowering German. Later in life he also translated the Old Testament, making it available in printed form to the common people. No work from his pen did so much to disseminate his reform. His rendering also contributed to giving shape to the German language.


Reform at Wittenberg. 

While he was in hiding his followers at.Wittenberg moved in more radical directions than he had envisaged. Not only priests but also monks began to marry. He had said in his Address to the Christian Nobility that priests should be allowed to marry. That would be the cure for clerical concubinage. But he had not included monks. However, finding no warrant for monastic vows in the Scriptures, he declared them abrogated.

In the meantime the reform at Wittenberg took on an ever more disorderly form. The town council begged Luther to come back to restore order. A return involved great personal risk for him because he was now under the ban of the church and the empire. Frederick the Wise informed Luther that his prince could give him no protection if he came into the open. Luther answered that he would trust to God, not to the sword, and went home. His role now altered. He had hitherto been the magnificent rebel. Now he became the leader of a movement in danger of inner disintegration.

Luther pleaded for moderation, consideration for the weak, and restraint of violence. He wished to see and in fact accomplished the discontinuance of indulgences and the Mass. Some of his followers went beyond his wishes and started smashing images, including the crucifix, and removing organs from the churches. They interpreted the Lord’s Supper as purely spiritual. They regarded everything physical as an impediment to religion. Luther’s colleague Carlstadt went further in the direction of obliterating the distinction between the clergy and the laity. The minister should have no special title, no special dress, and no salary, but should support himself.

Peasants’ War. 

A more disconcerting figure was Thomas Münzer. Münzer looked upon himself as an Old Testament prophet called upon to mobilize the new Israel of God: the elect, the predestined, and the company of the saints, all of whom should march under the banner of Christ to wipe out the ungodly and set up the kingdom of the saints. Münzer found a following only among peasants already in revolt.

They were objecting to the introduction of Roman law, which recognized only private property and deprived them of communal lands, woods, and waters. They also wanted a great share in the affairs of the church. They had no integrated program and no unified leadership. In isolated bands they began to ravage the land, sacking cloisters and guzzling from the wine cellars. Luther, who had at first tried to mediate, now called for swift suppression, but after the peasants were beaten he pleaded for mercy.

The debacle of the Peasants’ War did not mean that Luther had lost all peasant following. Luther has frequently been criticized on the ground that he had no feeling for the oppressed. His point was that the oppressed, by taking the sword into their own hands, do not secure justice but create chaos.

Luther’s Marriage. 

In the midst of all of this confusion Luther married. He found that a provision had to be made for Katharina von Bora, one of a group of nuns who had fled from a cloister and come to Wittenberg. He solved the problem by marrying her himself in 1525. The couple had six children. Their home set a pattern for the ministerial parsonage and helped establish a tone that has been called characteristic of German domestic life—authoritarian, paternalistic, ftnd tenderly affectionate.

Who Was Martin Luther? Martin Luther Life and Reforms

Later Career. 

Luther was able to carry on despite the fact that he was under the ban of the church and the empire. The reason was that Emperor Charles V was too busy fighting the French, the Turks, and the pope to deal with Luther. Luther was consequently able to operate at Wittenberg from 1522 to his death, which occurred on a visit to Eisleben on Feb. 18, 1546. His output during those years was prodigious. He wrote Biblical commentaries, catechisms, sermons, tracts, and hymns together with their music. Witness the famous A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Work on the revision of his translations continued throughout his life. His Biblical expositions were rich, vivid, vital, scholarly, and experiential.

Luther’s later life was fraught with unending controversies with the Catholics and with the radicals in his own camp. He grew more harsh toward the Papists, the Jews, and the “fanatics.” But the tracts in which he railed at his opponents were few in comparison with his magnificent Biblical expositions, which never lost their amazing vigor and profundity. He was a titan in an age of giants.


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