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The Monk with a Mission

Perhaps the greatest figure of the Reformation was the would-be-lawyer-turned- monk-turned-renegade-reformer, Martin Luther. Like the early reformers, Luther never set out to break away from the Church or to start a new religion. He wanted to reform the Church. As it turned out, though, Luther set in motion events that would help change not just the religious history but the social and political history of Europe, and, indeed, the world.

Luther's Early Days

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born to a relatively well-to-do mining family in Mansfeld, Germany. Luther was very bright as a young boy, but he faced undue pressure to succeed from his father, who decided early on that Martin would become a lawyer. Many biographers go so far as to say that Luther’s father, Hans Luther, probably abused him both physically and emotionally. To say the least, it was a tough childhood for Luther. He worked hard in school, studying the traditional subjects like Latin, music, and religion.

As a Matter of Fact

While at the university at Erfurt, Martin Luther honed his musical skills. Among other things, the musically inclined Luther played the lute. Some historians note that Luther may have helped pay his way through school by singing and playing music in the streets. His love of music led him to compile a number of hymnals including hymns that he wrote.

After excelling as a youngster, Luther moved on to university at Erfurt. There he studied logic, rhetoric, and more Latin, the usual subjects for a lawyer-to- be. A staunchly devout Catholic, Luther practiced his religion faithfully through daily prayer and mass, growing more and more interested in his faith. He did well at the university and received his degree in 1502, then taught at the university for a few years while he worked on a more advanced degree, which he received in 1505. Despite being unhappy about attending law school, Luther honored his father’s wishes. He worked hard, but his heart was never in it—and, as it turned out, he didn’t stay very long.

As the story goes, Luther was headed home to Mansfeld from Erfurt one stormy night in May of 1505. Thunder and lightning raged as he walked along the road. The intense weather had Luther on edge. Suddenly lightning struck dangerously close, or so he later claimed. In sheer panic and terror, he cried out to St. Anna and begged for his life. Luther feared for his life, but he also feared damnation upon death. Luther’s strict upbringing included a heavy dose of vengeful, wrath-of-God religion. According to the Catholicism Luther had been taught, the Maker whom he feared he was about to meet could be unforgiving. Luther vowed that if his life were spared, he would join a monastery.

While most people conveniently forget promises made under such extreme circumstances, Luther believed he was bound by his word. He kept his vow and, to the dismay of his friends and family, entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.

Luther Struggles with Salvation

If ever there was a model monk, it was Luther. He prayed hard, went to confession, memorized much of the Bible, and studied Greek and Hebrew. After a few years of diligent work at the monastery, Luther became a priest. Once again, his father expressed his discontent with Martin’s decision.

Ironically, Hans Luther wasn’t the only one with doubts. Martin should have felt great about becoming a priest, yet he felt a deep sadness and despair. For years he’d had questions about his own salvation, and these doubts only intensified after he joined the monastery. Dating back to his early education, Luther had been taught the traditional Catholic idea that salvation came through a combination of God’s grace and good works through the Church. Luther knew there was nothing more he could do for himself. He did as the Church suggested and, as one of the most devout Catholics, became a monk. He worked as hard if not harder than anyone else at being a monk. He even practiced flagellation, or physically hitting himself to punish his flesh for sinning. Luther was convinced he had done everything he could—but he wasn’t convinced that God saw it that way. In his heart, he believed that man couldn’t do enough to save himself.

Would You Believe?

Instead of finding a sacred, holy city in Rome, Luther discovered that the headquarters of the Catholic Church had become taken with materialism and corruption. His image of the city, and to some extent the holiness of the Church, was shattered.

Luther continued to study and visit with other members of the clergy in a search for the answer. He visited Rome hoping that he might find answers, but returned to Germany more disillusioned than when he left.

Finally, after years of studying the Bible, Luther’s doubts began to fade while he spent time at the monastery in Wittenberg. The more he studied the scriptures, the more he believed that the Bible was a divine text more important than any other source. While in the tower at the monastery, Luther rediscovered a passage that spoke to him:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17

Continental Quotes

All who call on God in true faith, earnestly from the heart, will certainly be heard, and will receive what they have asked and desired."

—Martin Luther

The passage focused on faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the key to salvation. In this passage, Luther found perhaps the key theological tenet of the entire Reformation. No amount of good works could equal Christ’s sacrifice; therefore, God required faith in the sufficiency of the sacrifice rather than works for salvation. In other words, Luther determined that there was no amount of good works and good deeds that man could do to earn salvation. For Luther, salvation came only from a believer’s faith in God’s grace.

This was welcome news for Luther theologically; however, it tormented him concerning his relationship with the Church. He had taken an oath to interpret the Bible in light of Church tradition.

In his mind, though, Church tradition and his interpretation of this passage didn’t mesh. No longer was the Church necessary for man to be saved.

Tetzel Ticks Him Off

After his epiphany, Luther didn’t exactly run out and challenge the pope, open his own church, or start an insurrection. Rather he kept to himself and went about his duties. It came to his attention, though, that some of the parishioners from Wittenberg had traveled to nearby towns to purchase indulgences.

Luther never really had any problems with indulgences because they were part of Church tradition, dating back many centuries. However, indulgences had traditionally served as restitution, or satisfaction, as part of penance for sins. In 1517, though, the pope used indulgences as a fundraiser. Pope Leo X, a Medici by birth, needed money to complete the construction of St. Peter’s Church in Rome. Because of his family’s long history of managing money, Leo was no stranger to fundraising. To raise the cash, the pope signed scores of indulgences to be sold throughout Europe. One particularly good salesman, a preacher named Johann Tetzel, made his way through Germany, raking in the cash. The indulgences he peddled were hot commodities, because the pope claimed that they were good not only for the remission of past sins but also for future sins not yet committed.

Would You Believe?

Indulgences could be purchased for those who were already dead to release their souls from purgatory. According to Catholicism, God required payment or restitution for sins, so even the dead whose sins were forgiven still owed payment. Those dead went to purgatory, where their sins would be purged, before they entered heaven.

Furthermore, the indulgences could be purchased for friends, family, or anyone else— living or dead. What a deal!

Luther knew that the pope, Tetzel, and the other salesmen were abusing indulgences.

Although he was upset, he didn’t want to raise a big stink. He did, however, wish to debate the issue at the local university. According to legend, although there is no historical evidence that he actually did it, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, the customary way to post a topic for debate.

The document itself, of course, is in no historical doubt. Officially titled The 95 Theses Against the Sale of Indulgences, Luther’s landmark document laid out his arguments for why the Church’s recent sale of indulgences was an abuse of the practice with no basis in scripture and no place in Catholicism.

A good clue that Luther never meant to mix things up with the Church is the fact that the document was written in Latin. The document clearly was intended for academics, scholars, and theologians; common people could barely read or write their own language and certainly couldn’t read Latin. Luther did put some thought into the way he wrote the document, but he probably should have known that the episode would not be pretty. Several significant scholars before him questioned the Church on that very issue and most of them ended up dead as heretics.

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