A Biography of Martin Luther

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ la...

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ lag in Todes Banden, and who, with Johann Walter, also wrote the melody (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Protestant Reformer – Martin Luther was born in the 15th Century in the year 1483 as the son of a coal miner – Hans Luder and his wife Margarethe. The Luders had a decent measure of wealth. Hans had acquired a number of coal mines and Margarethe a significant inheritance. As a result they were able to provide a more than decent education for their children. At the age of 14, Martin Luther left his home in Mansfield and was enrolled in a Latin school. At the age of 18 he enrolled at the University of Erfurt. He received his Master’s degree in 1505.

In accordance with Hans Luder’s wishes Martin enrolled in Law School that same year. However, his life took a significant turn on July 2, 1505. He was riding horseback during a thunderstorm when a bolt of lightning struck very close to him. He was so frightened by the nearness of death that he cried out, “Help me Saint Anna and I will become a Monk.” True to his word, he quit law school, sold his books and enrolled in an Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt on July 17, 1505. His father was furious over what seemed to be a waste of so great an education.

Luther dedicated himself to the monastic life with great passion. He later said, “If ever a man could be saved by monkery, he was that individual.” He was fiercely dedicated to fasting, spent many hours in prayer, and pilgrimage. During that time, he said, “You asked me if I love God.  At times I hate him.” He was tireless in his attempt to achieve peace for his conscience. He was accustomed to flogging himself and all manner of strict asceticism in an attempt to overcome his sinful impulses. He was known to spend hours a day in the confessional, then track down his fellow monks to confess things throughout the day. His father confessor became very frustrated with Luther and said, “Brother Martin, if you are going to spend so much time in confession at least make it for something significant like adultery or something and don’t spend all of this time with trivial sins.”

But it seems that Luther’s studies in Jurisprudence informed Luther’s knowledge of the law of God and made him fearfully aware of his sin and guilt. It was ever before him. Luther was experiencing what Paul called, “the law as a schoolmaster.” As a good servant of God, the law was doing its work. It was showing Luther his complete inability to make peace with God.

Eventually, his father got over his disappointment of Martin. When it came time for Luther to perform his first Mass as an ordained Priest, Hans Luder invited his friends to come and take part in the ceremony. But when Martin came to the part where they believe transubstantiation occurred (the bread becomes the body), Luther froze. Like a terrible fit of stage fright, Luther could not go on. He was painfully conscious of the holiness of the person of Christ and thought it impossible for him to carry out such a task.

Around this time a controversy developed in the Catholic church regarding the jurisdiction of various monasteries. The case became so significant that it was appealed to Rome. The Augustinian order in Wittenberg selected Luther and another monk to go to Rome to plead the case of the Monastery. Not only was this a great step in Luther’s career, it was also important because it was believed that one could acquire indulgences by taking a pilgrimage to Rome. Indulgences would, among other things, help spring a person or a person’s relatives from purgatory. Luther wrote at this time, “My one sad note about being chosen to go to Rome is that my parents are still alive and I can’t apply the merit to their account.” He dedicated the merits to his grandparents.

In 1510, Luther and his friend made the journey from Wittenberg to Rome on foot. But perhaps one of the greatest disillusionments in Luther’s life was when he discovered that sexual immorality was rampant in the heart of the Roman church including homosexuality and promiscuity. The Mass was disrespected and hurried through without any seriousness at all. Luther was appalled. There in Rome was a relic that was believed to be the steps from Pilate’s house that Jesus took as he was placed on trial. Luther climbed the steps, giving the rosary on his knees. When he got to the top of the steps he stood and cried out, “Who knows if it is true?” Serious doubts about the entire system of the church haunted Luther from the trip to Rome onward.

In 1515, Luther had acquired his Masters in Theology and became a professor in Wittenberg. He had taught an exposition of the Psalms and was working through Romans when the “Tower Experience” took place. He was reading the writing of St. Augustine on the text – Romans 1:17 (NASB95) 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”Augustine explained that this was in reference to how a person without any righteousness of his own could receive the righteousness of Christ by faith. Luther said, “It was as if the doors of heaven swung open and he walked right through.” It was then that Luther became a Christian indeed.

In the year 1518, Rome authorized the promotion of indulgences to help pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Now in Rome’s defense, the church made it clear that it was not selling these indulgences, but rather it was making them available for those who sincerely wanted to contribute to the work at St. Peters. But that intent was lost in the midst of a passionate attempt to raise funds. The preeminent salesman in the church was a Dominican Friar named Johann Tetzel. He was known for constructing the ditty, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” So, the popular idea was that one could buy forgiveness of sin by the purchase of these indulgences.

At this point Luther still embraced the penitential system even though he had a clear understanding of justification by faith. But he was deeply grieved over the misuse of these indulgences. It was on October 31, 1517 that Luther took his public stand against the problems in the church by nailing what is called his, “95 Thesis” to the door at the Wittenberg Church.

The 95 thesis was an outline of 95 points that Luther intended to address in his upcoming lecture. Nailing it to the door was typical protocol in that the door served as a bulletin board. This was Luther’s attempt to start a discussion between the scholars of his day. He published the thesis in Latin so as not to cause trouble among the common people. However, in 1518 some enterprising students translated his thesis into German and mass produced it on one of the new inventions, the printing press. The document quickly went viral.

At first the Catholic church believed this controversy created by Luther’s thesis would blow over – so they decided to address the issue in Wittenberg rather than Rome. Two meetings were scheduled with Luther. One was with Cardinal Cageinton, one of Rome’s most astute theologians. Another was with a German Catholic theologian named Ek. During these debates, they forced Luther into a public confession that he had his doubts about the infallibility of church counsels and the Pope (which linked him with John Hus who had been burned at the stake).

Having been fully briefed to the growing effect of Luther’s work – in 1521, the Pope released a Papal cyclical that read:

Arise, O Lord, and judge thy cause. A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard. Arise, O Peter, and consider the case of the Holy Roman Church, the mother of all churches, consecrated by thy blood. Arise O Paul, who by thy teaching and death hast and dost illumine the Church. Arise, all ye saints, and the whole universal Church, whose interpretation of Scripture has been assailed. We can scarcely express our grief over the ancient heresies which have been revived in Germany. We are the more downcast because she was always in the forefront of the war on heresy. Our pastoral office can no longer tolerate the pestiferous virus of the following forty-one errors. [They are enumerated.] We can no longer suffer the serpent to creep through the field of the Lord. The books of Martin Luther which contain these errors are to be examined and burned. As for Martin himself, good God, what office of paternal love have we omitted in order to recall him from his errors? Have we not offered him a safe conduct and money for the journey? [Such an offer never reached Luther.] And he has had the temerity to appeal to a future council although our predecessors, Pius II and Julius II, subjected such appeals to the penalties of heresy. Now therefore we give Martin sixty days in which to submit, dating from the time of the publication of this papal bull in his district. Anyone who presumes to infringe our excommunication and anathema will stand under the wrath of Almighty God and of the apostles Peter and Paul. Dated on the 15th day of June, 1520

Luther burned the Pope’s letter in a bonfire. From there he took up his pen to challenge the entire penitential system of the church. He was then summoned to them imperial Diet of Worms. When Luther arrived at the Diet of Worms a great procession gathered as his carriage drove into town. At the first meeting he was asked two questions: One, were the writings in question the work of his hand? Two, was he prepared to recant his writings. This greatly surprised Luther because he thought he would have the opportunity to defend his writings. Luther requested 24 hours to think it through. His request was granted.

The prayer Martin Luther prayed that night was as follows:

O God, Almighty God everlasting! How dreadful is the world! Behold how its mouth opens to swallow me up, and how small is my faith in Thee! . . . Oh the weakness of the flesh, and the power of Satan! If I am to depend upon any strength of this world – all is over . . . The knell is struck . . . Sentence is gone forth . . . O God! O God! O thou, my God! Help me against the wisdom of this world. Do this, I beseech thee; thou shouldst do this . . . by thy own mighty power . . . The work is not mine, but Thine. I have no business here . . . I have nothing to contend for with these great men of the world! I would gladly pass my days in happiness and peace. But the cause is Thine . . . And it is righteous and everlasting! O Lord! Help me! O faithful and unchangeable God! I lean not upon man. It were vain! Whatever is of man is tottering, whatever proceeds from him must fail. My God! My God! Dost thou not hear? My God! Art thou no longer living? Nay, thou canst not die. Thou dost but hide Thyself. Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it! . . . Therefore, O God, accomplish thine own will! Forsake me not, for the sake of thy well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, my defense, my buckler, and my stronghold.

Lord – where art thou? . . . My God, where art thou? . . . Come! I pray thee, I am ready . . . Behold me prepared to lay down my life for thy truth . . . suffering like a lamb. For the cause is holy. It is thine own! . . . I will not let thee go! No, nor yet for all eternity! And though the world should be thronged with devils – and this body, which is the work of thine hands, should be cast forth, trodden under foot, cut in pieces, . . . consumed to ashes, my soul is thine. Yes, I have thine own word to assure me of it. My soul belongs to thee, and will abide with thee forever! Amen! O God send help! . . . Amen!

The next day Luther stood before the counsel and said, “Unless convinced by scripture or evident reason, I can not recant, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me.”

Immediately the Emperor himself put a bounty on Luther’s head. Luther’s friends staged a kidnapping to protect him. He was taken away through the forest and hidden away for a year at Wartburg Castle where he was disguised as a knight. During that time he translated the bible into the German language.

In the following years the Reformation swept across Germany and throughout the World. Luther became an organizer of this movement and its figurehead. He gave the rest of his life to writing doctrinal papers, hymns, forming catechisms, structuring churches and preaching.

On his death bed, it was said that he was in a coma.  He was asked at one point by a fellow Pastor, “Brother Martin, do you still affirm the Gospel you have preached?” Luther raised up in his bed and said, “YAH”, then passed away. News reached Philipp Melanchthon at the University of Wittenberg. He was in the midst of giving a lecture and said, “Men, the charioteer of Israel has fallen.” Luther was dead but his legacy was to change the course of Christianity forever.

For more information – http://www.amazon.com/Here-Stand-Martin-Abingdon-Classics/dp/0687168953