Thanksgiving for Martin Luther, Doctor and Reformer of the Church
By Rob Durocher
Minister of Worship and the Arts, Deacon
This week, we remember and give thanks for the life and ministry of Martin Luther who was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, a small city then in the Duchy of Saxe-Anhalt, Germany. The Duchy of Saxe-Anhalt was part of the federation of German states and principalities that made up the Holy Roman Empire. Luther was baptized in the St. Peter and St. Paul Roman Catholic Church (now a Lutheran congregation) on the Feast Day of St. Martin, and thus named after him.
The son of Hans Luther, a copper smelter and his wife Margetta, Hans Luther had great hopes that Martin would study law. Martin Luther attended the University of Erfurt receiving his MA in 1505. It was that same year that while he was returning to the University after visiting his parents, he was suddenly caught out in the open in a severe and threatening thunderstorm. He sought shelter under an oak tree that was struck by lightning. This experience shook him so badly that he cried out to St. Anne to save him. (Traditionally St. Anne was the mother of the virgin Mary and was revered as the Patron Saint of unmarried women, miners and laborers). After this fright and despite his father’s wishes, he vowed to give up his life as a lawyer and became an Augustinian monk in Erfurt dedicating his new life to study and prayer. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1507 and became a doctor of theology in 1512.
As a monk, Luther began to struggle with questions about his faith. In 1510, he went on a pilgrimage to Rome to help restore a sense of his call and to soothe his questioning and conflicted spirit. He was shocked by what he saw and experienced there. An apparent lack of piety and priests seeking pleasure instead of spiritual things left a bitter taste in his mouth. Luther was already aware of his own sinfulness and when he returned to the St. Augustine Monastery in Erfurt, he studied the Bible diligently and delved into the writings of the Apostle Paul. Through his studies, his conscience led him into personal conflict with some of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Luther came to strongly believe that salvation is obtained by faith only (Ephesians 2:8-9) and that it could not be earned by good works. His spiritual convictions were soon to put him in direct conflict not only with his monastic order, but the sacred and secular political powers of his region and eventually the Pope, Leo X (Giovanni de Medici).
His thrust into this conflict began when in October 1517, Martin Luther wrote 95 theses where he mostly objected to the sale of indulgences which were documents written by the Church that released individuals from punishment from their sins. Indulgences could be purchased by the living on behalf of those who died and who were (so it was believed) in a state of limbo, or purgatory. Luther was outraged that something not based anywhere in scripture and was a grave theological error was allowed to be propagated and spread throughout known Christendom! He was probably not aware that the monies collected for indulgences was also going to rebuild the great St. Peter’s Church in Rome. These 95 Thesis were nailed to the main doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church for the community to see and to read. (The big doors of churches and other public buildings were usually common places for notices and news to be nailed to in Luther’s time).
With the newly invented Gutenberg printing press allowed for Luther’s 95 Thesis were soon reprinted and distributed throughout different parts of Germany and then across Europe. While it was never Martin Luther’s intention to break from the Catholic church, he probably assumed that his call for ecclesiastical and theological and reform would be heard, and debated by professional theologians.
Luther became more prolific in his writings as his popularity spread. In 1519 and 1520 Martin Luther wrote several works, especially one fiery pamphlet “The Address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Freedom of a Christian, and On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” where he denied that there were seven sacraments as taught by the Catholic Church. Luther insisted that there were only two, baptism and the Lord’s supper. Another key belief that Luther held was that all baptized Christians were part of the priesthood of all believers.
Pope Leo X finally had enough of what he perceived to be Martin Luther’s ‘heresy’ and disrespect of the authority of the Catholic church and excommunicated him in January 1521. While excommunication did not daunt Luther, his life was in danger when in April 1521, he was summonsed to appear before the Diet of Worms, a secular assembly including the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V where he endured many hours of interrogation challenging his beliefs. Luther refused to change his views saying: ‘Unless I am convicted by scripture and 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’. “Here I stand. I can do no other”. The Diet of Worms in May of 1521 declared that Luther was now an outlaw and a heretic and banned his writings and authority as a priest, but Luther was protected by powerful friends including those in the German nobility and he took refuge in Wartburg Castle where he continued to write and where he translated the New Testament into German.
Luther was eventually safe enough to return to Wittenberg in 1522. The German peasants rose up in revolt in 1524 against the nobility and high taxes that were imposed on them. Luther condemned the revolt in his pamphlet, Against the Murdering, Thieving Hords of Peasants because of their violence. He urged the nobility to put down this rebellion with force and it was put down in 1525. The same year Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora (a former Nun of the Benedictine Order) which was forbidden by the church. Martin and Katharina had 6 children and a happy marriage complete with normal struggles. It was also in 1525 that Luther published one of his greatest works, On the Bondage of the Will. This was actually his response to the celebrated Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus who had earlier attacked Luther’s writings. Luther continued to write and translated the Bible into German which was published and made available in 1534. Luther also wrote many hymns of which A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD is the most beloved and well-known.
Luther also began to organize a ‘new’ worship experience that was both confessional and yet personal. He began to establish a supervisory church body with a new form of worship in German as opposed to Latin. He wrote a very clear summary of his new faith in the form of his Small Catechism (much of what our Confirmation classes learn today comes directly from Luther’s Small Catechism, and his Large Catechism which was addressed particularly to clergymen to aid them in teaching their congregations.
Luther was certainly not perfect. He became strongly anti-Semitic as he got older because he had hope that Jews would be converted to Christianity by his preaching which of course did not happen to his disappointment. Some of his later writings reflect his deep anger against them.
For the last 15 years of his life, Luther suffered from poor health. This made him short tempered and irritable. His last sermon was preached in the town of his birth, Eisleben in February of 1546 just a few days before his death. He was in his hometown mostly to help his family’s interest in the local copper mine which was being threatened by neighboring authorities. Negotiations were finally settled on February 17, 1546. In the evening of that day, Luther began to experience chest pains which became worse through the early morning. It is said that his final prayer was from Psalm 31:5, “into your hand I commit my spirit.” Surrounded by family and two friends he suffered a serious stroke which deprived him of speech and died some time after 2 am the morning of February 18, 1546 at the age of 62. He was buried at the Wittenberg Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in front of the pulpit that he preached from for so many years. Both Philipp Melanchthon and Johannes Bugenhagen, contemporary theologians and friends of Luther were responsible for his funeral.
The impact and influence of Luther’s contributions are hard to adequately describe. He would never know that his faithfulness, preaching and teaching would lead to the birth of many Protestant churches over the next 500 years of which the Lutheran Church would be most prominent. His legacy, though highly controversial, has led a parade of equally faithful reformers who modeled Luther’s example and passion for letting God’s Word be known and understood personally by everyone. To say that almost every branch of modern Protestant Christianity owes some portion of its spiritual heritage to Martin Luther, a man of radical faith is no exaggeration. So we give thanks to God for Martin Luther, a saint of God, a Doctor and Reformer of the church.