Church Education Trust




The Protestant Reformation was a revolt against the authority of the Pope, a revival of true Christianity, the expression of a desire to return to the ways of the early Church, the discovery that a man could reach God without the mediation of a human priest. For a long time, doubts, criticisms and protests had been increasing in many parts of the western world.

The Renaissance gave rise to a new spirit of independence in thought and study. The Humanists led men back past the Vulgate of the Catholic Church to the original Greek and Hebrew documents of the Scriptures, and prepared the way for the translations of the Scriptures into vernacular languages which would make it possible for everyone to read them in their own language.

The Reformation brought services conducted in the native languages and the inpsiration of congregational singing. Luther himself was fond of music and hymn-singing.

MARTIN LUTHER (1483 - 1546).

Martin Luther was born on the 10th of November 1483 in the village of Eisleben, the son of a poor miner. His parents were God-fearing people and gave him a good education, sending him on to the University at Erfurt, where he studied law. But suddenly, to the surprise of all his friends and without reference to his father, he entered an Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.

It appears that he and a friend vere caught in a violent thunderstorm and the friend was struck dead by lightning, the experience made a deep impression on Martin, who offered himself to God unreservedly, and so entered the monastery in 1505. Catholic teaching was Pelagian: they taught justification by works, merit and effort. Luther was told to save himself by prayers, fasting and penance. But he found no rest for his soul.

In 1507 he was ordained priest; in 1508 he was called to the new University of Wittenberg to teach Aristotle and the Bible. In 1509 he was recalled to Erfurt. From there he was sent on a mission to Rome with a senior monk. His four weeks in Rome were a time of disillusionment; he became convinced that Rome had lost the keys of the kingdom.

On return he was transferred to Wittenberg again and was there allocated the room that had belonged to his predecessor, Staupitz, a room which he occupied as his study until his death. Luther's spiritual struggles grew more and more intense; he felt an overpowering fear of God and of the day of Judgment. In 1513, as he was studying the Bible, he came across the words of Romans 1:17.

He saw that it was not a case of God being far off in His righteousness and of man training to reach Him, but of man being far from God and of God moving all the way to him, not because of man's goodness but because of God's goodness. "When I realised this," he says, "I felt myself absolutely born again."

Luther thus rediscovered the primitive evangelical faith. During the next four years, under the providence of God, Luther had a comparatively light programme of work, and utilised his available time to develop his theology in the light of his new experience. The old terms now took on new meaning. Grace was now a personal, living experience of Christ resulting in a new birth.

Faith was no longer a human effort or achievement, but the gift of God, the birth of a new hope; a justification by faith apart from any works or merits. The Word of God now became central in his thinking. This led him on to a new conception of the Church; the Church was a company of believers, the elect who had heard the Word.

In this development of his theology Luther was greatly influenced by his study of Augustine. By 1515 Luther's students had noticed the theology expressed in his lectures and the difference when he preached. In 1516 Luther came into conflict with his academic colleagues and finally won them over. This began the fall of scholastic theology at Wittenberg and the rise of the Bible and Augustinean theology.


In the Middle Ages men were not so much concerned with the eternal punishment of hell as they were with the purgings of purgatory. They believed that if they died under the forgiveness of a priest they would ultimately reach heaven, but they would first have to purge away every sin they had committed.

In the Roman Catholic church the practice of doing penance for sin had become established in early times. Later penance could be commuted for money or pilgrimrage. So there eventually arose the system of purchasing indulgence or full remission of penance for money. The idea of indulgences became popular and people began to ask whether indulgences could be purchased for those in purgatory.

After initial papal resistance to the idea Sixtus IV established an indulgence for dead in 1476. These indulgences met with immediate favour among the people. They were taught that indulgences reduced or even removed the punishments endured in purgatory. Luther saw that this belief was opposed to the reality of divine forgiveness in Christ, and promoted a false sense of security.

Pope Leo X (1513 - 1521), in need of large sums of money for the rebuilding St. Peter's at Rome, extended the sale of indulgences. Near Wittenberg, an scrupulous Dominican monk named Tetzel made appeals in his sermons in the name of the dead languishing in purgatory, declaring that as soon as the coin rang in the coffer, the soul would be released from purgatory.

This brought matters to a head. Luther drew up ninety-five theses and on October 31st 1517 posted them on the church door at Wittenberg, the normal university notice board.

The main points were these:-

(i) Only God can remove guilt.

(ii) The Pope has no power over the dead in purgatory.

(iii) The living can have true forgiveness without indulgences.

In February 1518 Luther wrote to his bishop, explaining his theses and urging the need for a reformation, not merely as the concern of the Pope and cardinals, but as the concern of the whole Christian world. Later he wrote a tract in German to be circulated among the common people, explaining the issues involved.

In October 1518 Luther was summoned to appear before the papal legate, Cajetan at Augsburg. Cajetan announced that all that the Pope required of Luther was three things: to repent of his errors and recant, never to teach them again and never to disturb the peace of the Church. Luther refused to recant and stood his ground. Eventually he was brought back by a well-wisher and returned to Wittenberg.

In 1519 Luther went to Leipzig and took part in a disputation on the Wittenberg thesis with a formidable theologian and debater named Eck. Eck argued that Luther's was simply Hussite theology which had already been condemned by the Council of Constance. Luther said that many of the views of Hus were evangelical and Christian and that councils can make mistakes.

Luther and his friends then quietly returned home, while Eck remained in Leipzig to celebrate what he thought was a crushing defeat on the Reformers. But Luther now realised that "he had launched the ship of the Reformation on the high seas to find himself at the helm".

He saw in fact he was not merely concerned with the matter of indilgences, but the whole Catholic conception of priestly mediation. He was in fact denying both the divine right and the divine origin of the papacy and also the infallibility of a general council. He was standing for three basic principles: the authority of Scrpture, the right of responsible private judgment and faith.

Luther simply wrote, taught and preached the Word of God and left the result to God. In a book "On Good Works" he said that Christ taught that the first and only work was faith, from which stem all good works. In a book on "The Papacy at Rome", produced in 1520, he argued that the Church was not to be identified with the institution Rome had made of it but with the organism created by the New Testament, the congregation of men of faith called of God and sustained by His Word.

By now Luther had received the convincing proof that the Decretals and the Donation of Constantine, upon which the Pope had based their claims to almost limitless authority since the time of Nicholas 1 (858 - 867) were forged documents. He began to think that the Antichrist now ruled in Rome (he used the term rather in the sense of a power which claimed infallibility, set itself above the Word of God and held captive the minds and souls of men).

In 1520 Luther wrote the first of his great "Reformation Writings", his "Open letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation". In it he demolished the three claims of Rome that her spiritual power was superior to the temporal power of Kings; that no one can interpret Scripture except the Pope; that only the Pope can summon a general council. Immediately after this he brought out "The Prelude on the Babylonish Captivity of the Church".

In this he discussed the Holy Communion; he condemned the exclusion of the laity from the cup, the doctrine of tran-substantiation and the sacrifice of the mass. At this time Luther was persuaded to write to the Pope. This was his third and last letter to him. With the letter he sent a book, "The Freedom of a Christian Man", the third of the Reformation Writings.

It is a summary of the Christian life. The leading idea is a dual paradox. The Christian man is the lord of all and subject to none, by virtue of faith; the Christian man is the servant of all and subject to everyone, by virtue of love. In the same year the Pope issued a bull excommunicating Luther, ordering his writings to be burned and giving him sixty days in which to recant.

Eck and Alearder were ordered, to execute the bull in Germany. Aleander arranged a bonfire of Luther's books. On December 10, 1520 at Wittenberg, Luther also made a bonfire; on it he placed the papal bull; the Reformation had begun.


The emperor, Charles V King of Spain was at this time the most powerful monarch in the world. He was a fervent Roman Catholic and aimed at one united Empire and one united Church. In 1521 he called for a diet, i.e. an assembly of the representatives of the states of the Holy Roman Empire, to be held at Worms. Luther was called upon to attend and was promised a safe conduct.

Remembering Hus at Constance, his friends did not want him to go. But Luther was convinced that God wanted him to make his stand at Worms, and no one could dissuade him. On his journey to Worms, people turned out to welcome him in every place he passed through, and his progress was like a triumphal procession.

In the Diet he was asked two questions: whether he was the author of the pile of books on the table and whether he would renounce them. He asked for time for consideration and on the next day acknowledged authorship of the books and divided them into three classes:

(a) devotional works.

(b) works written against the papacy, which he would not recant add the truth of which no one could deny.

(c) works against private persons who defended the papal tyranny and sought to destroy Luther's doctrine.

He asked his critics to show the errors of his teaching and said, if he were refuted by Scripture, he would be the first to cast his books into the fire. When asked by Eck for a plain answer whether he would recant, Yes or No, Luther replied that unless he were proved wrong on the basis of Scripture, he could not and would not recant.

He was then given 21 days in which to return to Wittenberg and told the Emperor intended to take action against him. On the way back, Luther was ambushed by armed men sent by the Elector of Saxony in order to save his life, and kept under guard in the castle of Wartburg. Here had spent nearly a year and during this time translated the whole New Testament into German.

While Luther was at Wartburg, the leadership at Wittenberg was taken over by Carlstadt, who adopted a much more extreme attitude than Luther and caused considerable trouble. In March, 1522, Luther, ignoring the risk, returned to Wittenberg, and by his masterly preaching soon restored the situation.

Pressure of events now compelled Luther to declare himself on the relation of Christianity to society. Basing his doctrine on Romans 13 he saw the State as an authority which had the right to use force in the restraint and punishment of evil-doers and in the protection of persons and property against outside attack.

In 1524 a Peasant's Revolt broke out. There had bean several previous ones. The peasants had many just grievances, but were inflamed by fiery and fanatical leaders. Luther gave sane and sound advice to both peasants and rulers, but neither side paid attention. The revolt spread rapidly and the peasants committed atrocities.

When Luther found they would not listen to reason, he urged the authorities to take strong measures to quell them, bidding them "stab, kill and strangle" as they would a mad dog those who persisted in these wicked outrages. Luther realised his advice was harsh, but believed the seriousness of the situation demanded it.

Finally the revolt was quelled with merciless revenge on the part of the princes. The Romanists accused Luther of being responsible for the revolt. It was during this troubled period that Luther married Katharina von Bora.

In 1529 a diet was held at Speier by the emperor Charles V and a decision was forced through by the Catholics that would prevent the Reformation from developing. It was on this occasion that the evangelicals made their "Protest" and so gave rise to the use of the word, "Protestant".

In 1530 the Diet of Augsburg was convened. For this Diet a confession of faith was drawn up for the Wittenberg theologians by Melanchthon, the friend of Luther; it became known as the Augsburg Confession. It made a considerable impression, but was finally rejected by the Catholics.

During the next fifteen years Luther continued to be involved in a number of religious, social and political problems, and from time to time suffered painful attacks of ill-health. He was disappointed that the Reformation was not producing as high a standard of spiritual and moral life in the people as he hoped; even in Wittenberg, he could not see the fruit he expected. On February 18th, 1546 he died quietly in the village in which he was born, with the words of John 3:16 on his lips.

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