Summary: Marin luther, with a warped sense of scripture became the Father of the reformation.
artin Luther was a tortured soul, if ever there was one. He grew up with a warped understanding of God as harsh and severe. And becoming an Augustinian monk only made matters worse. He followed all the rules of the Catholic Church with diligence: praying, going on pilgrimages, attending mass, and doing everything he could think of to make himself acceptable to God. But none of this brought peace to his distraught mind. He thought of God as a cruel tyrant rather than a kind heavenly Father.
However, through a careful study of Paul’s writings, especially Romans, Luther came to understand that righteousness is a gift that God gives to those who believe in Jesus. He came to realize that he didn’t have to do all manner of penances and fasting and prayers in order to be acceptable to God. Rather, his acceptance by God was gained simply by believing that God covered his sin with Christ’s righteousness. Romans 1:17 became the theme of Luther’s theology: “The just shall live by faith” (KJV). This simple concept gave Luther peace of mind—and it revolutionized Europe!
starting the Reformation
In October 1512 Luther joined the faculty at the University of Wittenberg in Germany as a professor of theology. Four years later, in 1516, the Catholic Church commissioned a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences as a way to raise money to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In Catholic theology, an indulgence is a way to reduce the amount of punishment that a person has to undergo in purgatory for his or her sins. Luther was horrified. He had found peace of mind through the Bible’s teaching that salvation is a free gift that God offers to anyone who believes in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and here was a churchman selling freedom from the punishment for sin! Luther protested to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, and sent him a copy of what has come to be known as the Ninety-Five Theses. On October 31, 1517, he also posted these theses, written in Latin, on the door of the church in Wittenberg.
Luther, the theology professor, had no intention of starting a reformation in the church. He simply wanted to start a discussion among the members of the theology faculty at the University of Wittenberg. However, in January 1518 friends of Luther translated his Ninety-Five Theses into German, and within two weeks they had spread throughout Germany; within two months they had spread across Europe!
And the church took notice!
The official church response
It’s critical to understand that for hundreds of years the Catholic Church had held tremendous political power over the nations of Europe. There were two authorities in the world: the church and secular governments, and in any differences between the two, the church claimed to be the higher authority. The church especially used its authority to enforce its dogmas. Anytime a church court condemned a heretic and pronounced a judgment on him or her, it turned the person over to the state to carry out the punishment. Thousands of people had been executed in the centuries prior to Luther for daring to challenge church teaching—and Luther was challenging a critical part of the church’s theology!
When word of Luther’s teachings reached Rome, Pope Leo X deployed Cardinal Thomas Cajetan to meet with Luther in the German city of Augsburg and bring him back in line with church teaching. The debate, which occurred in October 1518, was heated. Luther explained his convictions about justification, and Cajetan demanded that he recant, but Luther refused. He was convinced from the Bible that he was right, and he stood his ground. Cajetan warned him that if he insisted on maintaining his views he would be imprisoned and deported to Rome. But Luther held fast to his convictions.
In July 1519 Luther met with the Catholic theologian Johann Eck in Leipzig, Germany, and they discussed purgatory and indulgences. Luther stated that the Bible is the only foundation for church teaching, and neither of these is mentioned in the Bible. Eck demanded that he recant his views, but Luther again refused.
It’s hard for us today to imagine a theological disagreement of this sort being life-threatening, but as I said a moment ago, in the centuries prior to Luther thousands of people had been imprisoned and executed for holding beliefs that disagreed with official church teachings, and Luther’s convictions struck at the heart of church doctrine. Luther put his life on the line in defense of his beliefs!
As a result of his debate with Johann Eck, Luther was warned by Pope Leo X via a papal bull that he would be excommunicated unless he recanted 41 sentences from his writings. A defiant Luther set fire to the bull in public on December 10, 1520, in Wittenberg. The pope excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. He was now officially a heretic, and the church turned him over for punishment by the highest political authority in Europe at the time—the Holy Roman Empire.