A little bit about his life . . .
Luther was born on November 10th, 1483, in Eiselben, Germany. He was the son of a successful miner–they were an affluent family–and at the age of eighteen, he was sent to study at the University of Erfurt, where he took a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy, and at his father’s instruction, who was convinced he would be able to advance the family’s fortunes, advised him to study law, which he began to do, and he gained a Master’s Degree in law. Here are some snapshots of the presumably restored house Martin Luther was born in; and an archway at the University of Erfurt.
And then, as the providence of God would have it, there was a change of plans. Martin Luther, walking in a field one day, was nearly struck by lightning, and out of fear, he cried out rashly to, “St. Anne! Save me! I’ll become a monk!” he promises. And immediately he enters an Augustinian monestary, in the library of which, he discovers a Latin Bible. In Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s he tells us that he studied it “very greedily,” and began to develop a pronounced conviction of sin.
This is one of the things that astounds me the most about his life and his testimony: he was so aware–and people have attributed to his legal skills–looking in the Word of God, discovering God’s Law, and how thoroughly it applies to us and convicts us of our sins in a manner that many of us would never be aware.
Here’s the monastery that he lived in.
Here’s an engraving someone made of Luther poring over the Scriptures.
And because he was so troubled by his sins, he would spend hours, literally, in the confessional, wearing out his confessor, confessing the most minute sins–things that you and I would overlook and dismiss–to the extent that his confessor, in fact, instructed him not to return to confession until he had committed a sin worth confessing.
But Luther labored on, and when he was withheld from the confessional, he would find his brothers and confess his sins to them. Until one day, an abbot visited the monestary. Johann Von Staupitz is a man that Luther would never forget. Staupitz advised Luther to look to the Word of God, and look to the blood of Christ; for there he would find remission for his sins. This eased Luther’s anxiety tremendously.
here’s the day we must also remember fondly. In this tower at Luther’s monestary, meditating heavily on Romans one, verse seventeen–a verse which has come to be known as “Luther’s Verse.” It reads, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.” Or, in the Latin Scriptures which Luther was reading, it used the word “justice”–and he was struck by this phrase, “the justice of God,” or “the righteousness
of God,” the terms “righteousness” and “justice” are synonymous. I heard a man explain it this way, “Righteousness is private justice, and justice is public righteousness.” So the righteousness
of God is revealed. Luther meditated on this phrase; he prayed about it, asking God to reveal to him the meaning of this, for he was already thoroughly aware that unless a man attains to the absolutely perfect righteousness that God demands, he would not see heaven. The anxiety was so great that he confesses that he, indeed, began to hate
God for the righteous requirements of his Law.
Until, he says, he looked at the passage in its context: “the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last
, just as it is written, “the righteous will live by faith.” When Luther stopped meditating on the phrase itself, and looked at it in its context, he understood, “Oh, it’s in the gospel
that the righteousness of God is revealed. And that it is a righteousness that is given to us by faith,
as it says here, “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,” and that, “the righteous live by faith,” and not by their works.
And he testifies,
“All at once I felt that I had been born again, and entered into Paradise itself through open gates. Immediately, I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.”
And he goes on to say that the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” he began to love it with just as much love as he ever hated it before.
was the beginning of the end of the status quo in Roman Catholic Europe.
Pope Leo’s predecessor began building St. Peter’s Basillica in Rome. By the time Pope Leo took the reins the treasuries in Rome were exhausted. Well, they needed to start a “building fund,” so to speak. “What can we do?” Well, the church takes in money from the sale of indulgences, which were papal declarations for the forgiveness of sins if a man would pay a large sum of money. These indulgences were expensive, rare, and they were reserved for extreme circumstances. But Pope Leo decided, “We’re going to be innovative!” I look at it as, he adopted the “Wal-Mart” model of business: he cut the price–made it available to all–for much more minor offenses. Pope Leo abused the sale of indulgences to raise money for St. Peter’s. This is the way Martin Luther looked at it. Being the good Roman Catholic that he still was, he had no objection to the sale of indulgences, per se, but when Pope Leo dispatched indulgence preachers throughout Europe to preach indulgences in the excessive manner that they did. For instance, John Tetzel was dispatched to Wittenberg, and he made such outrageous claims, not only could these indulgences remit your sins, but they could do so even if you’ve gone so far as to violate the Mother of God herself, he said. But the line that really became famous, was a little couplet he wrote, that explained to the people that, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, asoul from purgatory springs!” You could purchase years off of your dead relatives’ experience in purgatory if you would merely pay a nominal fee. And here’s an illustration of John Tetzel, his arm resting on his coffer, encouraging the people to put their money in it.
Martin Luther decided that’s just a step too far. We need to have a discussion about this! Martin Luther never intended to turn the Roman Catholic Church on its head. He never intended to change the world. He wanted to have a debate. He wrote in Latin, what we
call the Ninety-Five Theses, but it’s actually entitled, A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
I thought I would share just a select few to give us an idea of what these were like–just bullet statements, really, sentences numbered, kind of like verses in the Bible, I guess. These two in the middle, theses numbers twenty-seven and twenty-eight, are my favorites, because I believe they are vintage Luther. He was a master of hyperbole. He knew how to speak in a controversial manner, and he knew how to cut to the quick effectively, and get straight to the point. He writes,
“There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clings in the bottom of the chest. It is certainly possible, however, that when money clinks in the bottom of the chest, avarice and greed increase, but when the Church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God.”
Then, toward the end, Luther points out what would be the consequences of suppressing debate on serious matters of conscience such as this one raises. He wrote,
“To suppress them by force alone, and not to refute them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christian people unhappy.”
Do you like it when others refuse to answer the serious questions that you have? Martin Luther reminds his colleagues that this is true.
wrote for three or four years after that–that was the event–the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, 487 (489!) years ago today. Like I said, he had no intention of turning the Church on its head. However, an unknown citizen, I’m told, translated Martin Luther’s Latin theses into German, had them printed, and distributed them throughout Germany, and so the word got out, and there became a great public outcry, and Luther’s fame spread. So Luther began to write. He wrote three books that are considered at this “Diet of Worms,” which is actually a council held in the city of Worms (pronounced, “Vorms”), Germany. Here’s the cathedral in Worms in which Luther was tried, and a portrait of him giving his answer. Luther was questioned on the contents of the three books he’d written, and he was challenged to recant. Now, everyone knows the name Martin Luther today because of another man. A beloved American, by the name of Martin Luther King. And we know Dr. King had his seminal speech, “I Have A Dream.” If Martin Luther King has his “I Have A Dream,” surely, this
statement made by Martin Luther, is his most famous. When he was commanded to recant of his positions, he, first of all requested twenty-four hours to think it over. And then, the following day, Luther meekly rose, and made this statement:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, or by evident reason–for I can believe neither popes nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly, and contradicted themselves. I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis. My conscience is held captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot, and will not, recant. Because, acting against one’s conscience is neither safe, nor sound. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Thus concludes the biographical portion.