Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. Luther’s father was a successful miner with aspirations for his son to be a lawyer, and in 1501, Luther enrolled in the University at Erfurt to study law. However, in the summer of 1505, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm. Here, in the face of a death, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the judgment of God came to life, and Luther knew that he was not ready. Thrown to the ground by lightning, he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk.” Luther had seen the ascetic life of the monks growing up and he understood that this was the way to prepare himself for eternity. Against the wishes of his father, Luther left behind his career in law and presented himself to the reformed congregation of the Augustinians at Erfurt.
Though Luther sought to escape from God’s judgment, he would come face-to-face with his own sinfulness in the monastery. Here began Luther’s pursuit of holiness in the monastery to make himself right before God. Whatever good works existed, whether charity, poverty, obedience, fastings, vigils, and more, Luther was determined to carry them out. Yet, no matter how much Luther did, he still found sin and pride within himself and he knew that he had not done enough. The Roman Catholic Church provided a solution to this problem. Through the Treasury of Merits, a store of superfluous merits of the righteous saints and of Christ, the Church had the authority to transfer that credit to sinners through indulgences and the visitation of relics. Luther would come to see this system in full display during a visit to Rome in 1510 and wonder if it could be true.
Returning to Germany, Luther became a Doctor of Theology in order to teach at the University of Wittenberg. His first lectures were on the book of Psalms and Paul’s epistle to the Romans and there he found a completely different picture of Christ. Rather than a God of pure wrath and judgment, Luther encountered a Savior who bore the wrath of God upon himself in order that sinners might be declared righteous, justified by God through faith alone. Here, in this discovery of Paul’s teaching of “justification by faith,” Luther found the gate of heaven.
Having discovered the Gospel, Luther began to see the contradiction between Paul’s teaching and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. This would come to head in 1517, when Pope Leo X granted a plenary indulgence in the surrounding areas of Luther’s parish. For all who would purchase this indulgence, they gained a perfect remission of all sins, for themselves or for their loved ones in purgatory. And this could be had without any contrition or confession. This was too much for Luther. On October 31, 1517, seeking to begin a debate, Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenburg. According to Luther’s Theses, the proper response to the Gospel was not the purchase of indulgences, but repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The 95 Theses was eventually translated into German and, through the printing press, widely distributed throughout the region.
The Roman Church, however, refused to put up with Luther. Rather than curtailing their abuses, they demanded his recantation. However, as Luther debated Roman Catholic representatives, he found himself more convinced of the authority of Scripture. Rather than backing off, Luther continued to preach and write tracts exposing the abuses of the Church and calling the German nobility to rise up. For all this, in 1520, Luther was excommunicated by the pope and summoned to the Diet of Worms. There, Luther was once again called to repudiate his books and writings, and with trembling, Luther gave his famous reply,
Since then You Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
For this reply, Luther should have been executed as a heretic by the authorities. Instead, Luther was kidnapped by his allies and hidden away at the Wartburg Castle. There, Luther translated the Scriptures into German, making them available for the common person.
In 1522, Luther would return to Wittenberg to find the reformation in disarray. For the rest of his ministry, Luther would throw himself into combating the doctrines of Rome on the one hand, and the spiritualized teaching and violence of radicals on the other. Through preaching, writing, conferences, catechizing, and more, Luther worked tirelessly to establish the Protestant church and advance the message of justification by faith, in spite of persecution, sickness, and intense spiritual anguish. For his efforts, the German Protestant movement would spread beyond its borders throughout the rest of Europe. And yet, despite his many accomplishments, Luther never lost sight of his sin and his gracious salvation. As he lay dying in Eisleben in 1846, he would write his final words, “Wir sind Bettler. Hoc est verum.” – “We are beggars. This is true.” - GC
Where to Begin
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton
The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves
The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther
Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther
Martin Luther: Lessons from his Life and Labor by John Piper