The great Reformer Martin Luther belonged to a peasant family. Luther once wrote that “his father, grandfather, and all his ancestors were thorough peasants.” Luther’s father made his livelihood by mining for copper. Margaret was Luther’s strong and strict mother. In fact, you can see that Luther’s personality comes very much through his mother. There is some record of the strictness and sometimes harshness in the Luther home. On one occasion, “His mother whipped him till the blood flowed, for stealing a hazel-nut.” In fact, Luther writes that it was the strictness and the rigorous life that led him to the monastery and made him a monk. a
One of the remarkable events in Luther’s life was one that is often unknown. Growing up in a peasant home, Luther’s opportunities to move to a higher rank of society were minimal. One of the things young Luther did to help with schooling and food was to go around from door to door with his friends and sing. It was in one of those occasions where he met Mrs. Ursula Cotta. She welcomed Luther to her table and exerted a great influence on Luther. Specifically, Mrs. Cotta taught Luther the ways of a more refined home circle. Essentially, she taught Luther proper mannerisms. This actually provided Luther opportunities to move to a higher rank in society than the ones his parents belonged b. At 18 Luther entered into the University of Erfurt and as always Luther distinguished himself. The author S.M. Houghton observed: “Little did Luther realize that even at this time God was preparing him for a career of activity which was to astonish Europe, and which was to shake a proud and polluted Church to its foundation (79).” It was at Erfurt that Luther came across a copy of the Bible. Contextually, we need to remember that peasants did not have copies of the Bible, so this was Luther’s first engagement with the Word of God. What caught his attention was the story of Hannah and Samuel, and how Samuel was called by God. This is all the background formation of Martin Luther before he became the great Protestant leader.
When Luther finished his studies, a series of events occurred, which really led Luther to consider his life and what he wanted to do in the future. There are two main events. The first was the day when one of Luther’s best friends got involved in a fight and was killed. At that moment he asked himself the question: “What if I had been killed instead of my friend?” The second and legendary event was the day when during a trip, a vicious thunder-storm broke over Luther. Luther believed that he was surely going to die before he reached his destination, and “stricken with fear he fell prostrate to the ground, crying out: ‘Help, Anna, beloved saint, I will become a monk.’” Luther kept his vow and after a big farewell party, the next day he presented himself at the door of an Augustinian monastery. Growing up in a peasant home, the last thing Martin’s father wanted was his son to pursue an ecclesiastical life. He wanted him to pursue law and achieve fame and wealth. But Luther wanted something different than fame and wealth, though as result he certainly achieved fame and the respect of many of the wealthiest in Europe. Luther—ultimately—wanted peace with God. For Luther, the way to obtain this peace was to isolate himself. He obeyed the very strict monastic rules, performed menial tasks, and went on begging on behalf of the monastery c. One author said that Luther was the “most sincere, conscientious monk who ever tried in genuine earnestness to merit salvation by human effort (81). He even became proud of his humility. This is important because this is shaping Luther’s thinking and how drastic his theological change was. He sacrificed everything to find peace. “He observed every detail of discipline, praying, fasting, watching, confessing his sins and he literally tortured his body to obtain peace for his soul.” Luther’s conscience plagued him so much that he despaired of salvation, and his physical strength began to waste away (Sketches, 80). His fellow-monks couldn’t help him, the departed saints that Luther prayed to so fervently could not help him. One person who brought some consolation to Luther was John von Staupitz, the head of the Augustinian monastery in Germany. He visited Luther often. Luther would cry often to his friend, Staupitz: “Oh, my sins! My Sins! My Sins!” Luther could not view God as the punisher of sin. Staupitz offered Luther many great theological truths that sank into Luther’s head. Once he said to Luther: “ Your thoughts are not according to Christ; Christ does not terrify, he consoles.” In God’s grace, the Spirit revealed to Luther that our works can never merit salvation before God. Only the mercy and grace of God can bring sinners to true faith. Luther once wrote that the phrase The Just Shall Live by Faith was the very gate of Paradise.
The result of a changed mind is a changed life. Martin Luther began proclaim the light of the gospel far and wide, and before long he became aware that this was not received well by the Church of the day.
Martin Luther was deeply troubled when he was commissioned to go to Rome in 1510. In his way to Rome he discovered that there was deplorable wickedness being done in the name of the Church, he saw the remarkable ignorance in the monasteries. The priests did not know the Scriptures well. Luther was so enamored with Rome in the beginning of his trip, but at the end, he wrote: “If there is a hell, Rome is built over it.” (Sketches, 84). When Luther returned to Wittenberg , he received a doctorate degree and began to preach in the parish church. He was loved by the people, because here was a man opening the word of God. As the people began to learn, Luther desired that more people hear the Word of God. As a result, Luther began to protest more and more.
And his protest came to a culmination when the popes decided that St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome should be rebuilt. The expense was to come from every area of society where the church had influence. One of Rome’s fundraiser experts was a man named Tetzel. Tetzel taught that those who donated to the project of re-building would deliver their loved ones who had died from purgatorial torments. Tetzel, and other issues of corruption infuriated Luther who began to preach vehemently against Tetzel. Luther wrote down 95 theses attacking indulgences. And at mid-day 1517 on October 31st, Luther nailed them to the Wittenberg Castle. His intention, of course, was to begin a conversation, but the conversation has been going on for over 400 years now. There was the printing press that made Luther’s theses popular, but what really got the attention of the citizens was that following October 31st was All Saints’ Day. Multitudes flocked to church. Luther’s theses were read, copied, printed, and distributed all over Germany, and eventually all over Europe (Sketches, 88). Luther’s these was received with little protest by the church, but as the popes and priests began to see how much it was affecting the population.
As Luther’s fame went far and wide, he quickly became the leader of this new movement emerging in Europe. In Luther’s day, Emperor Charles V was requested to deal with the case of Martin Luther. He ordered Luther to appear before him in the city of Worms. Luther’s friends reminded him of what had happened to John Huss. But Luther was committed to going to Worms. This is the famous Diet of Worms. The Council of Worms as is commonly known. Luther arrived at Worms and the streets were crowded with people all waiting to see the man who was taught to be the “devil personified” (88). He was the man who stood up against church and state, and not church and state were ready to crush him. As Luther entered the hall of the assembly he was astonished that the great religious and political leaders of the day were all present. The presiding office, Johann von Eck, opened the proceedings by asking Luther if he was the author of the writings on the table, and secondly he asked Luther if he would retract the doctrines in the books. Luther answered that he was the author of the books, but he said he wanted to think through his doctrines carefully to make sure he was being truthful to the Word of God. Luther spent the rest of the evening in prayer. April 18th, 1521 is described as the greatest day in Luther’s life. One author describes the day as “one of the sublimest scenes which earth ever witnessed, and most pregnant with blessing.” Luther came back and Dr. Johann von Eck posed the question again: “Luther, do you recant of the doctrines written in your book?” And here is the English translation of what Luther said:
“Unless I am convinced by testimonies of Scriptures or by clear arguments that I am in error—for popes and councils have often contradicted themselves—I cannot withdraw, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. It is unsafe to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.”
Several days after this statement, Luther was declared to be an outlaw and anyone who lodged him or gave him food or drink were liable to be charged with treason. Nothing stopped Luther’s mission and throughout the rest of his life he wrote, preached, translated and left a remarkable legacy. In these times he held very dear to Psalm 46, and in fact, wrote his greatest hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God. God became his fortress in his time of trial.
In 1546, Luther fell ill and shortly thereafter he died. It is said that one of his closest friends asked Luther if remained determined to stand fast in Christ and in the doctrine which he had preached! Luther responded with a distinct Yes. Luther died and was buried at the Wittenberg Castle; the same place where 29 years earlier he had nailed the 95 theses.