The Life of Martin Luther
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Martin Luther taught people that the Bible is the highest authority, and that salvation is a gift from God, received by God's grace alone.
When Martin Luther was born, in 1483, the Church had grown corrupt in doctrine and practice. The Church had adopted doctrine that was not in the Bible, and placed those teachings on the same level as the Bible. For example, the Church taught that human effort played a part in salvation. In order to be forgiven by God, people needed to do good deeds, give money to the Church, perform rituals, and pray to saints. The Church also taught people about a state called "purgatory," in which they would suffer after death to pay for their sins. They could, however, purchase an indulgence if they wanted to suffer less time in purgatory. An indulgence was a piece of paper the Church sold, granting people less time in purgatory. The doctrine regarding Purgatory lead to corrupt practice, as the Church exploited the belief in indulgences to obtain wealth. Poor peasants, eager to obtain forgiveness, rushed to buy indulgences. Those who wanted even greater eternal security could become monks or nuns, some of whom committed to living in total poverty and performing difficult duties in an effort to earn salvation.
As a young man, Luther joined a monastic group called the Augustinians. He hoped that by being a monk, he could gain salvation. He worked to be the best monk he could, and once said that if anyone could have been saved by being a good monk, he would have been. He prayed and fasted for long hours, obeyed all the rules of the monastery, and lived what looked like a very holy life. But Luther knew that, despite all his external deeds, he could not change his heart. He knew he was a sinner, and that he couldn’t do anything to save himself.
Despite his anxiety about salvation, the other monks believed that Martin Luther had the ability to become a good theology teacher. He went to the University of Wittenberg, to study and serve as a professor of theology. His study of the Bible eventually brought him an understanding of the gospel, and with it, assurance of salvation.
The university assigned him to teach on the Psalms and the writings of Paul. In studying the Psalms, he learned that only a righteous person could be at peace with God. Luther was frustrated, because Psalms also stated that no one was righteous. While studying the book of Romans, however, he came to understand that "the righteous live by faith." Luther learned that people became righteous when they have faith in Christ. God gives those who trust in him the righteousness of Christ when they rely on Christ alone to make them righteous. While Luther could never earn salvation, Christ's work on the cross could make him righteous in God’s eyes alone. Luther now believed that salvation was a gift of God, given to the one who has faith in Christ alone.
In addition to learning about God's grace, Luther came to question other Church teachings. He believed the Bible was the only authority for doctrine and practice. He rejected beliefs in Purgatory, praying to saints, and gaining salvation through one's works, since these beliefs could not be confirmed by Scripture. The Church taught that forgiveness could be earned by one's deeds or even purchased with money, but the Bible taught that salvation was a gift and one could only be saved by receiving it as a gift.
When a monk named Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences to peasants in a town across the Rhine River, Martin Luther officially declared his disagreements with the established Church. Luther's study of God's word had taught him that purgatory was a myth, and that forgiveness could not be purchased with an indulgence. He was also disgusted by the Church's greed, swindling poor peasants by selling false assurance of forgiveness. Tetzel's sale of indulgences inspired Luther to write his 95 Theses. The 95 Theses included many of the points Luther had learned by studying the Bible. The 95 Theses taught that only God could forgive sin, that forgiveness could not be purchased, that the Church should seek to save souls rather than to gain money, and that the Church should teach the Word of God. These were points for debate in which Luther declared his disagreements with the Church. He nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517. The nailing of the 95 Theses marked the beginning of the Reformation, a movement to restore Scripture as the authoritative guide for, and Christ as the supreme head of, the Church.
The 95 Theses brought Luther into sharp disagreement with the Church. He did not intend to split with the Catholic Church, but to reform the existing Church. Pope Leo X, however, would not tolerate Luther's teachings. He ordered Luther to stand trial for his teachings in the city of Augsburg. Luther appeared before Thomas Cardinal Cajetan, a papal representative. Cajetan ordered Luther to stop holding to and teaching the views he expressed in the 95 Theses. When Luther attempted to discuss his views with Cajetan, Cajetan refused to and demanded that Luther submit to papal authority. Afraid for his safety, Luther left Augsburg in the middle of the night and returned to Wittenberg. Later Pope Leo ordered the prince of Wittenberg, Prince Frederick the Wise, to send Luther to Rome to stand trial. Prince Frederick refused, demanding that Luther receive a fair trial by his fellow Germans.
An opportunity came for Luther to debate one of his fellow Germans when Johann Von Eck invited him to a disputation at Leipzig. The argument at this disputation centered on the authority of the Church and the Pope, as opposed to the authority of the Bible. Luther emphasized that Christ was the head of the Church and called into question the supremacy of the Pope. He stated that neither the Pope nor a Church council had the authority to make laws that were not in the Bible, since both could err. Since only the Bible was without error, the Bible was the highest authority for the Church.
When Luther returned to Wittenberg following the disputation, Pope Leo issued a papal bull, excommunicating him from the Church. Pope Leo condemned Luther, but Luther knew he had only taught what was in the Bible. He responded by burning the papal bull, stating that God, not the pope, determines who is the true member of the Church.
Although Luther and his followers were officially cut off from the Church, Prince Frederick continued to insist that Luther receive a fair trial before his fellow Germans. Luther wrote more tracts that infuriated Pope Leo, teaching that there were only two sacraments (communion and baptism) instead of the seven affirmed by the Church, that people had the right to disobey the Church when the Church taught things contrary to the bible, and emphasizing the headship of Christ over the Church.
Luther's tracts also gained the attention of Prince Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor of Europe. Charles V called for a meeting of German political and religious leaders, called the "Diet of Worms," supposedly to discuss Luther's views. However, Charles V was a devoted member of the Catholic Church, and actually intended to force Luther to obey the Church. Luther traveled to the city of Worms and attended the imperial diet, in hope that he would have the opportunity to defend his views. When he appeared before the diet, however, Luther did not have the chance to defend or even discuss his views. The diet simply ordered Luther to recant, or take back, all of the things he had taught in all of his books. Luther was surprised, expecting a debate, not an order to recant. He now understood that the emperor had no interest in learning more about his views, and that Charles would most likely have Luther arrested if he did not recant. He requested more time to think about his response.
The next day, Luther stood by his teachings. He explained that his teachings agreed with the Bible, and that denying them would go against his conscience. He said he would only recant if someone could show him from Scripture or from clear reasoning that his teachings were unbiblical. In response, Charles V issued the Edict of Worms (which the German princes at the diet never approved). The Edict of Worms condemned Luther as a heretic and called for his arrest. To protect him, Prince Frederick had Luther "kidnapped" by some of this knights and hidden in a castle fortress called the Wartburg. The knights kept the location secret, and Charles V never found Luther. Luther continued to work during his stay at the Wartburg. He wrote theological tracts, books, and sermons. He also studied Hebrew and Greek, and translated the New Testament into German.
While Luther stayed in the Wartburg, more radical teachers used his teachings to condone violence against the state and the Church. So, after staying at the Wartburg for about 10 months, Luther felt compelled by God to return to Wittenberg and lead the Church in true reformation. Upon his return, Luther again emphasized the gospel, as well as teaching on the Christian obligation to "love thy neighbor." Although another diet, the Diet of Nuremburg, upheld the conviction against Luther, Charles V was powerless in his efforts to capture him because Luther had such great support among the German people.
Luther continued writing in support of the Reformation of the Church: lecturing, preaching, and writing hymns. He eventually married a former nun, named Katharina Von Bora, and had a family. Luther loved his family very much. He and Katharina lived out Reformation teachings as an example to other Christian couples. After the publication of his German New Testament, Luther worked with a committee on a complete translation of the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments). With the publication of the complete German Bible, people from every part of German society read it, including the uneducated, the poor, and women. Luther also wrote catechisms to assist in training believers in Christian doctrine.
In 1530, Charles V called another diet, the Diet of Augsburg. Turkish armies threatened to invade Europe, and Charles V needed the support of all the German princes to defend Europe, including the princes who favored Luther. Rather than agree to turn from Luther's teachings, the German princes proposed 28 articles that supported Luther's teachings. These articles were called "The Augsburg Confession." While the Diet of Augsburg did not result in an official affirmation of Luther's teachings, the Augsburg Confession summed up his teachings well and these teachings received official recognition from the princes who signed the confession.
Luther kept up the work of Reformation, pouring himself into teaching and writing until his death. In 1546, toward the end of his life, Luther traveled to help resolve a dispute. He was very weak at this point and died on his journey home.
Martin Luther's work helped restore a reverence for the authority of Scripture and for Christ as the head of the Church. His focus on Biblical doctrine produced a clear understanding of salvation and of how to live the Christian life.
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