"At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."
In the sixteenth century, the world was divided about Martin Luther. One Catholic thought Martin Luther was a "demon in the appearance of a man." Another who first questioned Luther's theology later declared, "He alone is right!"
In our day, nearly 500 years hence, the verdict is nearly unanimous to the good. Both Catholics and Protestants affirm he was not only right about a great deal, but he changed the course of Western history for the better.
Martin was born at Eisleben (about 120 miles southwest of modern Berlin) to Margaret and Hans Luder (as it was locally pronounced). He was raised in Mansfeld, where his father worked at the local copper mines.
Hans sent Martin to Latin school and then, when Martin was only 13 years old, to the University of Erfurt to study law. There Martin earned both his baccalaureate and master's degrees in the shortest time allowed by university statutes. He proved so adept at public debates that he earned the nickname "The Philosopher."
Then in 1505 his life took a dramatic turn. As the 21-year-old Luther fought his way through a severe thunderstorm on the road to Erfurt, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near him.
End of Eastern Roman Empire
Gutenberg produces first printed Bible
Establishment of Spanish Inquisition
Martin Luther born
Martin Luther dies
Book of Common Prayer released
"Help me, St. Anne!" Luther screamed. "I will become a monk!"
The scrupulous Luther fulfilled his vow: he gave away all his possessions and entered the monastic life.
Luther was extraordinarily successful as a monk. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices—going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. As he later commented, "If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I."
Though he sought by these means to love God fully, he found no consolation. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God: "When it is touched by this passing inundation of the eternal, the soul feels and drinks nothing but eternal punishment."
During his early years, whenever Luther read what would become the famous "Reformation text"—Romans 1:17—his eyes were drawn not to the word faith, but to the word righteous. Who, after all, could "live by faith" but those who were already righteous? The text was clear on the matter: "the righteous shall live by faith."
Luther remarked, "I hated that word, 'the righteousness of God,' by which I had been taught according to the custom and use of all teachers ... [that] God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner." The young Luther could not live by faith because he was not righteous—and he knew it.
Meanwhile, he was ordered to take his doctorate in the Bible and become a professor at Wittenberg University. During lectures on the Psalms (in 1513 and 1514) and a study of the Book of Romans, he began to see a way through his dilemma. "At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I ... began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open."
On the heels of this new understanding came others. To Luther the church was no longer the institution defined by apostolic succession; instead it was the community of those who had been given faith. Salvation came not by the sacraments as such but by faith. The idea that human beings had a spark of goodness (enough to seek out God) was not a foundation of theology but was taught only by "fools." Humility was no longer a virtue that earned grace but a necessary response to the gift of grace. Faith no longer consisted of assenting to the church's teachings but of trusting the promises of God and the merits of Christ.
It wasn't long before the revolution in Luther's heart and mind played itself out in all of Europe.
"Here I stand"
It started on All Saints' Eve, 1517, when Luther publicly objected to the way preacher Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences. These were documents prepared by the church and bought by individuals either for themselves or on behalf of the dead that would release them from punishment due to their sins. As Tetzel preached, "Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!"
Luther questioned the church's trafficking in indulgences and called for a public debate of 95 theses he had written. Instead, his 95 Theses spread across Germany as a call to reform, and the issue quickly became not indulgences but the authority of the church: Did the pope have the right to issue indulgences?
Events quickly accelerated. At a public debate in Leipzig in 1519, when Luther declared that "a simple layman armed with the Scriptures" was superior to both pope and councils without them, he was threatened with excommunication.
Luther replied to the threat with his three most important treatises: The Address to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian. In the first, he argued that all Christians were priests, and he urged rulers to take up the cause of church reform. In the second, he reduced the seven sacraments to two (baptism and the Lord's Supper). In the third, he told Christians they were free from the law (especially church laws) but bound in love to their neighbors.
In 1521 he was called to an assembly at Worms, Germany, to appear before Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Luther arrived prepared for another debate; he quickly discovered it was a trial at which he was asked to recant his views.
Luther replied, "Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds of reasoning ... then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience." Then he added, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen."
By the time an imperial edict calling Luther "a convicted heretic"was issued, he had escaped to Wartburg Castle, where he hid for ten months.
Accomplishments of a sick man
In early spring of 1522, he was able to return to Wittenberg to lead, with the help of men like Philip Melanchthon, the fledgling reform movement.
Over the next years, Luther entered into more disputes, many of which divided friends and enemies. When unrest resulted in the Peasants' War of 1524–1525, he condemned the peasants and exhorted the princes to crush the revolt.
He married a runaway nun, Katharina von Bora, which scandalized many. (For Luther, the shock was waking up in the morning with "pigtails on the pillow next to me.")
He mocked fellow reformers, especially Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, and used vulgar language in doing so.
In fact, the older he became, the more cantankerous he was. In his later years, he said some nasty things about, among others, Jews and popes and theological enemies, with words that are not fit to print.
Nonetheless, his lasting accomplishments also mounted: the translation of the Bible into German (which remains a literary and biblical hallmark); the writing of the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God"; and publishing his Larger and Smaller Catechism, which have guided not just Lutherans but many others since.
His later years were spent often in both illness and furious activity (in 1531, though he was sick for six months and suffered from exhaustion, he preached 180 sermons, wrote 15 tracts, worked on his Old Testament translation, and took a number of trips). But in 1546, he finally wore out.
Luther's legacy is immense and cannot be adequately summarized. Every Protestant Reformer—like Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and Cranmer—and every Protestant stream—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist—were inspired by Luther in one way or another. On a larger canvas, his reform unleashed forces that ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern era.
It has been said that in most libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelves than those concerned with any other figure except Jesus of Nazareth. Though difficult to verify, one can understand why it is likely to be true.
Luther's diseases were caused by the way he lived rather than by genetic disposition. Years of malnutrition in the monastery, long days and nights of hard mental labor, as well as his later thorough enjoyment of food, drink, and sex had their effect on Luther's health.
During his exile at the Wartburg, Luther was plagued by stomach disorders and constipation. "The Lord has afflicted me with painful constipation," he told Melanchthon in May 1521. "I did not sleep all night and still have no peace. Please pray for me."
From 1526 on, Luther endured sporadic gall and kidney-stone attacks, which reminded him of death because of the excruciating pain. He frequently talked about these attacks, complaining about pain. He distrusted physicians and linked the experience to the kind of Anfechtungen [combination physical illness and depression] sent by God to remind Christians that life is indeed a struggle with sin, death, and the Devil.
"I was dead"
One of his worst kidney-stone attacks occurred when Luther attended the convention of the Schmalkald League in 1537. He told his wife, Katie, "I had not been healthy there for more than three days, and from the first Sunday to this night, not one little drop of water passed from me; I had no rest nor did I sleep, and I was unable to retain any drink or food. In summary, I was dead; I commended you, together with the little ones, to God and to my gracious Lord, since I thought that I would never again see you in this mortal life.… But many people prayed to God so hard on my behalf that their tears moved God to open my bladder this night … and I feel as if I were born again."
Those who were with Luther during this attack heard him ...
Changing the Tempo of Worship
“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise,” Luther declared. He thus stood in sharp contrast to other reformers of his era.
Ulrich Zwingli, leader of the new church in Zurich, was a trained musician. Yet under his influence, Zurich’s magistrates banned all playing of organs, and some of Zwingli’s followers went about smashing organs in their churches. Though Zwingli later permitted some vocal music, he rejected instrumental music.
John Calvin, though he considered music a gift of God, saw it as a gift only in the worldly domain. Thus, its role in the church was severely limited. He considered instrumental music “senseless and absurd” and disallowed harmonies. Only unison singing of the Psalms was permitted.
Not so for Martin Luther. “I am not of the opinion,” he wrote, “that all arts are to be cast down and destroyed on account of the gospel, as some fanatics protest; on the other hand, I would gladly see all arts, especially music, in the service of him who has given and created them.”
Music in congregational worship remains one of Luther’s most enduring legacies. “Who doubts,” he said, “that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings or responds to while the bishop is consecrating?”
In fact, Luther’s hymns—especially “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”—are the only direct contact many people have with Luther. Modern Lutheran hymnals may contain twenty or more of his hymns, and many non-Lutheran hymnals include several.
What were Luther’s beliefs about music? What role did it play in worship? And what did Luther himself contribute musically to the church?
Was Luther Anti-Semitic?
“Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.” Still, this wasn’t enough.
Luther also urged that “safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews,” and that “all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them.” What Jews could do was to have “a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade” put into their hands so “young, strong Jews and Jewesses” could “earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.”
These fierce comments have puzzled and embarrassed Christians who otherwise admire the Reformer. And they have led to charges that Luther was “one of the ‘church fathers’ of anti-Semitism.” More seriously, Luther’s attacks have been seen as paving the way for Hitler.
Was Luther anti-Semitic? How should we understand his words?
“Receive Jews Cordially”
In 1523, Luther accused Catholics of being unfair to Jews and treating them “as if they were dogs,” thus making it difficult for Jews to convert. “I would request and advise that one deal gently with them [the Jews],” he wrote. “ … If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, ...
Luther's Living Legacy
Martin Luther has been called “the last medieval man and the first modern one.” Though raised in the distant medieval world, he has profoundly shaped our own. To understand better Luther’s impact on today’s church and world, Christian History talked with Lutheran historian Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, and member of the editorial advisory board of Christian History. Marty is author of numerous books, including, most recently, the multi-volume Modern American Religion (University of Chicago).
Christian History: If Luther were alive today, what would he be writing theses about?
Martin Marty: Every historian says we can’t answer that kind of question, and then every historian answers it!
We have to remember that every historical figure is, in one sense, inaccessible to the modern world. Historian Heiko Oberman reminds us that Luther lived in a different world—a world of witches and unstoppable plagues. So it’s not easy to grab somebody out of his or her context.
That said, we can have some fun hazarding guesses. There’s no more consistent strand in Luther from 1513 [when he begins lecturing on the Bible] to 1546 [when he dies] than the gospel of forgiveness. That theme still isn’t heeded well.
In our day, we emphasize the gospel of self-esteem, marketing the church based on people’s needs, saying, “I found it!” and “I’m the little engine that could.” Our culture promotes human ability and human will, as did the indulgence culture in Luther’s day, as a way to bring salvation. So I have a hunch Luther would still feel compelled to speak his central message.