When tasked with writing about Martin Luther, there are many ways to approach the man. There are books on his influence on the Christian life, biographies aplenty, commentaries on his Tabletalk’s commentaries on his letters and writings, there are even books devoted to the sheer volume of pithy sayings he had. I myself am quite fond of The Wit of Martin Luther and find the collection of sayings to be useful in sermon prep or whenever I want to rib one of my friends or family members. For example, I once sent this quote to my father on the occasion of his birthday, “Whoever is not handsome at twenty, not strong at thirty, not wise at forty and is not rich at fifty might as well give up hope. Age does not protect against foolishness.” All this to say, the man is well written about, so one must ask, “What else needs to be said?”
Luther is, in fact, one of the most written about men except the Lord Jesus to ever walk the face of the earth. My goal is not to write anything relatively new or newsworthy; I don’t have the historian qualifications like Steven J. Nichols or Carl Trueman or any of Luther’s other magnificent biographers to do that. My goal is to give a fresh perspective on the very beginnings of Martin Luther and to open the door to some who’ve never experienced the monk from Wittenberg and invite them in to study him for the first time. I love the personality of Martin Luther, his stubbornness, wit, bluntness, and courage. I also love that God used one of the most unlikely people this side of Heaven to change the world forever. I love that God used a man who once exclaimed, “Love God? I hate him!” to bring the Scriptures to the people in their own language and give them a powerfully glorious love for God. I have done my best in this article to give a broad enough overview of who Martin Luther was before he became the Martin Luther many Christians know today to whet the appetite for more in-depth study and reflection.
For reference and personal help, I’ve included two timelines that depict major milestones in the life of Martin Luther. The first is a timeline before his exile, and the second picks up right after the Diet of Worms and his subsequent exile. This is not an exhaustive biography, and I only deal with Martin Luther up till the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses on the door at Castle Church in Wittenberg. Still, my sincere prayer is that those who take the time to read this will desire to learn more about the monk who set the world aflame.
Martin Luther was born on November 10th, 1483, to Hans and Margaret Luther in the small town of Eisleben. His father, Hans, was born to be a farmer and grew up in a farming family. According to archaic medieval inheritance laws, he was relegated to finding his own fortune and profession in life. Hans started out working as a miner in Eisleben and worked his way up to mine manager before the family had to move to Mansfeld just a few short weeks after Martin’s birth. Hans did very well for himself and his family and quickly earned the manager’s position in Mansfeld’s mine. This would give the Luther family social mobility and a sense of financial freedom and moved them out of the poor class to the upper levels of the working class.
At the age of five, a young Martin Luther was sent to school in Mansfeld and then a private school at age thirteen in Magdeburg, roughly forty miles from his parents’ home in Mansfeld. He then was transferred to a school in Eisenach, approximately one hundred miles away from home. Luther didn’t write much about his early childhood days or schoolboy days, but what he wrote paints the picture that he hated grammar school and despised his parents for sending him so far away. As Martin grew up in this working-class home, his father became increasingly insistent that Martin should not be relegated to a life of hard labor. Martin was to become a lawyer, and his parents both encouraged him to pursue liberal arts and law at Erfurt University. This law background would later be a useful skill to rely on as Luther penned his arguments for Reformation and debated the scholars of the Catholic Church, Erasmus, Zwingli, and others. Still, for now, Martin was focused on graduating and appeasing his father’s wishes.
Martin graduated from the Erfurt University in one year with his Bachelor’s degree and then only two years later with his Master’s degree. Hans was very proud of his son and was known to brag about him in the taverns and city square in Mansfeld. Hans was so proud that he began to address Luther with the German pronoun ihr, which is the more formal and respectful “you” instead of the very familiar du, demonstrating he, Hans, considered his son an equal. A professional man. Martin was now well on his way to continuing at Erfurt in pursuit of a Juris Doctorate until the stormy evening on July 2nd, 1505, that radically changed not only Martin’s life but the very fabric of the Roman Catholic Church and all of Christendom.
On the night of July 2nd, 1505, Martin was on his way traveling back to Erfurt from the village of Stotternheim, where his family had relocated. All at once, he was caught up in a sudden summer thunderstorm, and fearing for his life, began to run erratically to the cover of some trees. While the lightning was flashing around him and the deafening thunder filled the countryside, Luther clung to a tree and cried out to Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and patron saint of miners, “Saint Anne, help me! I shall become a monk!” And so it was, this young promising German law student was to become a monk. What though drove young Martin to make such a serious vow or to even keep to it?
Well, for one thing, Martin was already struggling with his faith in God. He was caught up in such spiritual anxiety that it would keep him up at all hours of the night. He would relentlessly pray to God, to the saints, and go to confession as a law student, even to satisfy the vengeful and wrathful God that he believed was out to get him. Therefore because of all of this and in a moment of panic and fear, Luther cried out to his family’s patron saint that he would become a monk if he survived the storm, and so a monk he became. Thus the life of this quiet, introverted law student would forever be changed, and by the sheer sovereignty of God, so too would the world be changed.
Upon entering the cloister in Erfurt, Luther was put on “probation” for one year, during which he was referred to as a “novice,” and nothing could be further from the truth. Luther was a novice in spirituality, pursuing personal holiness, knowing God, and, most significantly, feeling loved by God. You see, Martin joined the cloister in hopes that this would bring him out of spiritual depression and loneliness, but in fact, Luther never felt more abandoned by God than he did in the cloister. This sense of abandonment accentuated his feelings of being lost, that he was always condemned by God, and fueled his spiritual anxiety or anfechtung. This word, anfechtung, can roughly be translated and described as “crisis” or “intense struggle,” or in Martin’s case, “an intense spiritual struggle and a crisis. It is better to use the word in the plural, anfechtungen, for, in reality, a series of spiritual crises marked Luther’s early life of study.”
During this time of intense spiritual struggle, he devoted himself to the rigid lifestyle of a monk in hopes that it might free him from his depression and bondage. Luther said once during one of his Tabletalks that he later felt tortured during his twenty years as a monk:
“I tortured myself with praying, fasting, keeping vigils, and freezing…the cold alone was enough to kill me…and I inflicted upon myself such pain as I would never inflict again, even if I could.” Martin would go on to recount that “if any monk ever got to heaven by monkery, then I should have made it all. All my monastery companions who knew me can testify to that…if it had lasted much longer, I would have killed myself with vigils, praying, reading, and the other labors.”
In all this, Luther never found the hope and the freedom from sin that he was looking for. In all of this, Luther never felt the love of God, the hope, or peace that God affords those who cry out to Him or the true forgiveness of his sins. Yet, in all of his struggles, he persisted and clung to the vow he made to Saint Anne because he didn’t want to incur the wrath of God for a broken vow.
During one of his marathon confession sessions with his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, Martin was instructed to go to school once more to learn the Bible and learn theology so that maybe this would bring some comfort to him. Upon graduating in 1509 with his second B.A., but this one in the Bible, Luther moved back to Erfurt and the Augustinian cloister to continue his monk duties and see his oath fulfilled.
While back in Erfurt, Luther was tasked with taking some important monastery documents to the Vatican in Rome. Staupitz saw this request from Rome as an incredible opportunity for Martin to “make peace with God” and draw near to God and seek true repentance for his sins. While Luther was in Rome, he ascended the Scala Sancta, the staircase that led to Pontius Pilate’s throne, stopping to pray at each step as was tradition to relieve time in purgatory once he died. Well, when he made it to the top, Luther recalls that he cried out, “Who knows if this is true?” in regards to how this could free him from sin and some time in purgatory.
The Vatican and Rome trip did nothing to silence Luther’s fear, anxiety, and disillusionment towards God, but only exacerbated it. Upon his arrival back at Erfurt, Luther confessed to Staupitz that he could not love God or understand God’s love for him; in fact, Luther said, “Love God? I can’t love God; I hate him.” Staupitz then recommended that Luther devote himself to the studies of the church fathers and medieval theology. When he completed his doctorate in 1512, he summarily joined the faculty at the University of Wittenberg as a lecturer of theology and preacher.
Luther did not realize at the moment, but his time spent in Wittenberg was just what the doctor ordered. Staupitz, albeit in a roundabout way, would finally be right. Luther would find the spiritual relief he sought, and in doing so, he would change the world. But for now, we still need to understand his backstory before we get to the rest. Luther, a generally stubborn man, was going to need more than a quick fix before he was able to be reconciled to God and feel the love of God. So Luther saw more spiritual heartache and depression before he saw the light shining brightly through Scripture. It would take Luther the better part of five years, from 1512-1517, to work through lectures on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.
Some scholars like Carl Trueman, for example, have pointed out that it was during this time that Luther saw some of the Catholic Church’s teachings as seriously misleading and flat-out wrong. Trueman points out that Luther shifted his views on the nature of sin and baptism to the radically left of what the Catholic Church taught:
“First, he changed his mind on the nature of sin and baptism. He had been taught that sin was a fomes, akin to a piece of tinder. The implication was that sin was a weakness that needed to be dealt with via the sacraments. One might say that such an understanding of sin meant baptism was understood as kind of damping down of the problem or a temporary fix. Once sin reared its ugly head within the life of the subject after baptism, then there was need for further moral triage in the form of the other sacraments. Luther, however, became convinced that sin meant that human beings were morally dead.”
During his doctoral work, Luther was led to Peter Lombard’s book, Four Books of Sentences, which was the quintessential systematic and logical treatment of doctrine, from Augustine and his many writings finally to Paul the Apostle. It was in the writings of Paul that Luther became so engrossed with the Bible. In Paul, Luther saw the glory of how beautiful Scripture truly was and how magnificent God really was. It was in the Psalms’ poetry, and through the letters of Paul, Luther changed his thinking and theology.
The countless nights spent laboring over the text in exegetical work only strengthened his new found views on sin and baptism. Luther realized that sinners were not merely defected humans (as the Catholic Church taught) and that sacraments could fix the sinner, but that sinners were morally and spiritually bankrupt and dead. Sin was the core problem, the weed in a person’s life that had to be eradicated by the salvific death of Jesus Christ, and that no amount of sacraments could bring life to a dead person.
Lombard’s book became trash to Luther, and he never once lectured from it again due to how it misconstrued Scripture and doctrine. Luther chose the Bible as his textbook and became a master at lecturing from it. In his lectures to his students, he expounded on Scripture through a humanistic hermeneutic, not like modern secular humanism that we’ve grown accustomed to that’s used by liberal theologians and atheists, but a humanism that attempted to reclaim and return to Greek and Roman cultures. In many ways, it was an attempt to understand the context of Scripture more faithfully and remove the blinders of scholasticism that had become popular in the medieval tradition. Luther adopted the battle cry of humanism, “Ad Fontes,” which means “to the fount” or “to the source,” and in doing so, based all of his study and teaching of Scripture alone. He went beyond the obstruction of tradition and directly to the original biblical text. Ultimately it was during these years that Luther, the monk, started to see his known world crumble and realize that God did love him and that righteousness was within reach, but it would take some time before he was “all in.”
The year is 1517, and no one in all of Christendom, much less Martin Luther, could ever imagine the changes that were about to occur in the known world. The Catholic Church had no idea just how offensive they were going to come across, and Martin had no idea how radical he was about to be painted. All this to say, 1517 was going to become a year worth remembering.
From the 1400s and well into the 1600s, the practice of selling indulgences was quite common and thought to be a perfectly normal part of Catholic life even though the Church officially decried its practice at the Council of Trent from 1545-1564. Indulgences originated around the veneration of the saints and the idea of purgatory. In Catholic theology, it was believed that saints had amassed a surplus of merit through their exceptionally holy lives. This surplus could then be conferred upon both living and dead souls, so as to alleviate any time they’ve racked up on their purgatory sentence, the place in which they must be purged of any remaining unholiness and unrighteousness before entering the gates of Heaven. Since this surplus of merit originated from the long-dead saints, it seemed reasonable to give this merit to those who venerate their relics, bones, homes, etc. These gifts of merit from the supposed saints’ surplus were called indulgences, and more often than not, they were instituted in the form of a payment that had to be made to venerate or pray to the relics of the saints. In truth, it was a horrible fund-raising scheme that Rome had put together to raise funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica and support other papal projects that the Church could not afford using their own funds. It’s to this specific controversy and a certain Pope Leo X that we now turn.
Pope Leo X, like his predecessors Nicholas V and Julius II, wanted to make St. Peter’s Basilica was the most glorious and spiritually inspiring building in all of Rome. His greed and desire to spend his—or the Church’s—money, though in such a way to maintain his high society lifestyle and lifestyle of his family, would seemingly come to ruin the Catholic Church and stall the construction of St. Peter’s indefinitely. Pope Leo X needed an excessive amount of money to continue to the construction of the Basilica. He also required capital and caches of money to support his agenda and lifestyle. These circumstances all came to a head when Pope Leo decided to institute the sale of special indulgences to raise the money for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica, and in doing so, empowered a certain Dominican friar, who would become the bane of Martin Luther’s immediate existence.
Johann Tetzel was a seventy-three-year-old Dominican friar who just happened to be the Catholic Church’s most prolific and successful seller of indulgences since the early 1500s. Tetzel began to work for Pope Leo X’s initiative to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica in 1516 and was well taken care of in this venture. Tetzel would go into villages throughout Germany and professionally have people turn out their pockets to fill the coffers of Rome by promising them that “as soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,”; meaning that as soon as people paid for an indulgence, either for themselves or a deceased love one, their soul in purgatory would immediately be transported to Heaven.
The more of these indulgences that Tetzel sold, the richer Rome got, so he helped to sell more and acted to guilt people into buying more indulgences. Tetzel’s preaching played to people’s sense of responsibility to do all they could to free their loved ones from the bonds of purgatory and see to it that their eternal destination was one of Heaven and not Hell. The richer Rome got, the richer Tetzel got, and so it was a mutually beneficial relationship that stemmed from greed and essentially a tax on the poorest of people who were looking for hope in all the wrong places. Thankfully, however, Martin Luther now enters the picture and truly sees the Catholic Church as the greedy and selfish entity it had become.
Tetzel made his way to Juterbog, a village near Wittenberg, proselytizing the sale of indulgences and stealing the people’s money out from under them. Luther heard word of this charlatan and what he was doing. He became intensely enraged that an authorized emissary of Pope Leo X was going around telling people they could buy their way and deceased family members way to Heaven. In response to Tetzel’s peddling of indulgences that was authorized by Pope Leo X, Luther, on October 31st, 1517, posted a series of objections on the church door at Castle Church in Wittenberg. These objections, now known as the Ninety-Five Theses, clearly laid out how biblically wrong the selling of indulgences to free deceased people’s souls and the still living from the bonds of purgatory. These objections took the form of a challenge to an academic disputation on the issue of indulgences consisting of ninety-five these or topics of debate. In the posted Theses, Luther asked many questions directed to Pope Leo X, such as why the pope would not release all the souls from purgatory out of love, while instead charging insurmountable amounts for it. He publicly called those who sold them “hawkers of indulgences” and referenced them as being “lustful” for fortune at the expense of the poor and uneducated. At the core of the Theses, though, was that the practice of selling indulgences became superior to the true need for repentance of the heart and trust in the death of Jesus Christ to forgive all sins.
Luther insisted that through the practice of buying and selling indulgences, people would no longer trust in God for salvation, or trust in the Scriptures, but trust in the act of paying for their own sins with money. This transaction obviously could never be authorized by God because of what Scripture teaches regarding how the wages of sin is death. Still, the gift of God is eternal life and how Jesus the Christ became sin so that in Him, all of mankind might become the righteousness of God.
At first, Luther wanted to condemn Tetzel for what he was doing and expose him as a fraud and swindler. He stated, “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that St.Peter’s church should go to the ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” But later on, after the posting of the Theses, Luther realized the papacy was in on the scheme. Luther was only trying to point the Church back to Scripture, point out the egregious error of the Pope for what he had authorized, and have Tetzel held accountable for his usurping actions. He supported his argument by using the same text that the sacrament of penance was associated with from the Latin Vulgate, and found it to be a mistranslation. Luther went back to the Greek text and saw that Matthew 4:17 was, in fact, not saying penitentiam agite (do penance), how the Latin Vulgate translated it, but it was literally saying “change your mind.”
The clear notable difference was that it was an internal heart change and not something that was ever meant to justify an external action. Luther, wanting to free his fellow Germans from this mistranslation and unbiblical action, never saw how his nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door would begin to unravel the fabric of Catholic teaching and fan into flame what came to be known as the Reformation. Still, soon he realized it was more than about a mistranslation. He realized it was about church authority and what the people should trust: the Holy Scriptures or the papacy? He could never have foreseen the consequences of his actions that fateful All Saints’ Eve. And while he still had some ways to go before he finalized his theology on justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, which didn’t take place till the famous “tower experience” in 1519, Luther’s action was ordained by God at just the right time to help draw people back to God and the authority of the Bible.
Luther, a man originally bound for a career as a lawyer who took on the tunic of a monk, at the same time became the most hated man in the Catholic Church and most beloved German citizen by the populace. He became a man of the people, a savior to end their plight, and a pestilence to the Catholic Church. The events happening soon after his nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses propelled him into the spotlight where he had various debates with Catholic scholars and theologians. His writings became published and mass distributed across the Holy Roman Empire as far as Switzerland, England, and Rome.
Luther never had the support of Pope Leo X for what he had written and instead found himself staring down the road that would lead him completely away from Rome. One might argue that Luther “repented” from Rome, in a sense, when he changed his mind and realized what Scripture really taught. Luther had no intent to break completely from Rome; he only sought to reform the Catholic Church from within and persuade Pope Leo X to see the error he had made. Still, alas, the Church did not wish to go along with Luther and eventually excommunicated him by papal bull in 1520.
Yet, in all this, the flame was lit. The light of the Reformation had been turned on, and where there is even a small glimmer of light flickering in the darkest of night, there is hope. The flame of truth would continue. Luther was this first flame. He was the light shining in the darkness and was willing to stand up for truth and the authority of Scripture over man’s life, even over Pope Leo X’s life.
Many men and women have been part of the Reformation. Many men died labeled as heretics for standing for the truth of Scripture, and that justification was had by faith alone in Christ alone. Many people fanned the flames of Reformation even before Luther took center stage, but he was the man who caught the attention of the Church and turned it into a roaring blaze. Much more can be said about the man Martin Luther, his extraordinary life, and how he continued to lead people to the brightest light of all—the glory of Christ crucified. I hope this brief addition to the volumes already written about Luther has whet your appetite and give you time to pause and thank God for this monk from Wittenberg.
James Forbis is a graduate of The University of Arkansas, a former Jr. High and High School football coach, and American history teacher. He is completing his M.DIV at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Great Commission Studies and Expository Preaching. He’s a self-proclaimed sweet tea connoisseur and Tex-Mex addict. Most Saturday’s you can find him cheering on his Arkansas Razorbacks, hiking or fishing, or reading up on his favorite subject, the Revolutionary War, or spending time with his wife.