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Martin Luther: A Sketch of His Life

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This article first appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard BearerStandard Bearer (vol.78, No.2) and was written by Rev. G. Eriks, then pastor of Loveland Protestant Reformed Church in Loveland, CO.

Luther Becomes a Monk

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben in Prussian Saxony. His parents were very poor, but they were hard-working and pious members of the Roman Catholic Church. In home and in school, Luther was taught to be a good Roman Catholic. His parents taught Luther to pray to God and the saints, to revere the church, and to fear devils and witches. In school, Luther learned the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and several Latin and German hymns. 

In 1501, at the age of 18, Luther entered the University of Erfurt, where he studied scholastic philosophy. Luther studied some of the ancient classics and he sufficiently mastered Latin so that he could write it clearly. During these years of his education, Luther became concerned about his personal salvation. He often despaired because of his sinfulness. Therefore, Luther was drawn to the study of theology, but according to the wish of his father Luther began to study law.

But God led Luther to the monastic life through two events. First, the news of the sudden death of a friend shocked him. Secondly, soon after his friend died, Luther was caught in a terrible storm. Thinking he would die in that storm, Luther cried out, "Help, beloved Saint Anna! I will become a monk." Luther honored his promise, entering the Augustinian convent at Erfurt two weeks later. But God would not allow Luther to remain an Augustinian monk his whole life.

As a monk, Luther's sole concern was to earn a place in heaven. So he solemnly vowed a life of poverty and chastity. No one in the convent surpassed Martin Luther in prayer, fasting, and confessing sins. Luther himself observed afterward, "If ever a monk got into heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there." But none of these pious exercises gave him peace in his soul. He saw sin in everything he did. When he read Scripture, the justice of God terrified him.

In this period of spiritual agony, an old monk, Johann von Staupitz, comforted him. He directed Luther to the gospel and to the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. Staupitz reminded Luther that the law makes known sin, but it cannot heal. Through Staupitz's spiritual mentoring, Luther was directed from his sins to the merits of Christ. Luther began to learn through this spiritual struggle that salvation is not by the works of man, but by the grace of God alone.

Luther's Conversion

During the second year of his monastic life, Luther was ordained into the priesthood. He said his first mass on May 2, 1507. Luther was called by Staupitz from the convent in Erfurt to the convent in Wittenberg. After completing his doctorate in theology, Luther became a professor in the University of Wittenberg. In his lectures, Luther treated different books of the Bible: Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and Psalms again. The Psalms and the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians remained his favorite books. 

Through his study of Scripture, Luther began to understand and experience the gospel. This came about especially in his newfound understanding of Romans 1:17: "For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith." For a long time, Luther had been troubled by the concept of God's righteousness. Luther knew that he could not attain perfection before God. He saw God's righteousness as His burning wrath against those who could not perfectly keep His ways. Therefore, he could not see the gospel in Romans 1:17. Then God opened his eyes. He understood that "the righteousness of God" is the perfect righteousness of Christ, which God imputes to sinners. This righteousness is freely given by faith. A crushing weight was suddenly lifted from Luther's soul. He experienced that he was without sin, not because he did not sin, but because of the freely given righteousness of Christ. This truth brought him the peace he desired in his own heart. By His providential leading, God was preparing Luther to be a reformer of the church, although Luther did not have this intention.

The 95 Theses

Through the course of Luther's early life, God exposed some of the errors of Roman Catholicism to Luther. God exposed the error of works righteousness through Luther's spiritual struggle. When Luther visited Rome at the suggestion of Staupitz, Luther's eyes were opened to the immorality and worldliness of the papacy. Although his faith in the Romish hierarchy was not shaken at the time of his visit, these memories of Rome returned to his mind during the Reformation. Then he had no problem calling the popery "an institution of the devil."

Another error that concerned Luther in 1517 was the abuses in the sales of indulgences. Indulgences, according to the Roman Catholic Church, removed or reduced the satisfactions required by sinners as a part of penance. The temporal punishment for sin could be removed on the condition of penitence and the payment of money to the church. Members of the lower classes of the Romish Church were led to believe they could buy their way into heaven. The sale of indulgences spread to Germany also. Tetzel, who became a famous orator and seller of indulgences, would prey on the emotions of the lower classes, convincing them to buy indulgences for their departed loved ones. Tetzel approached the Elector of Saxony to request permission to sell indulgences in Saxony. Although the Elector had great confidence in indulgences, he would not allow Tetzel to sell indulgences for fear that this might take too much money from his subjects. So Tetzel set up his business just outside the border of Saxony. Convinced that the sale of indulgences was evil, Luther chose the orderly way of a debate among the monks of the Augustinian order. To open up a public discussion, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Latin Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. 

No one accepted the invitation and no discussion took place. But this did not mean the Theses went unnoticed. The Theses were copied, translated, and circulated throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. The Theses, along with other Reformation literature, spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Although Luther wanted only to discuss the issue of indulgences, God used these Theses to begin the Reformation. Luther's fame from the Ninety-Five Theses drew him into many other disputations.

Disputations

The printing of the Ninety-Five Theses began a war of tracts. Roman Catholic scholars wrote publicly against Luther's Theses. But their defense was weak because they could not defend indulgences from Scripture. Luther responded directly and indirectly to his opponents from the pulpit and with the pen. 

The controversy over Luther's views led to a disputation in a large hall in Leipzig from June 27 to July 15, 1519. The main debaters were Martin Luther and John Eck. Eck was a skilled, conceited, and ruthless debater. Although Luther was not a skilled debater, he greatly surpassed Eck in the knowledge of Scripture. The debate between Luther and Eck turned chiefly on the subject of authority. With his skillful debating techniques, Eck drove Luther to positions that he had not previously held. For example, Luther denied the infallibility of church councils and the final authority of the papacy. Because of these denials, Eck charged Luther with being a Hussite. Luther admitted that Hus held some scriptural views and was unjustly condemned and burnt to death. Therefore, from a formal point of view, Eck won the debate. 

These debates were important in the history of the Reformation for two reasons. First, Luther gained many followers from these debates. Secondly, under the providential hand of God, Luther stood on the sole authority of Scripture, which became one of the great "sola's" of the Reformation.

Diet of Worms

After the Leipzig Disputation, John Eck returned to Rome calling for the condemnation of Luther and his followers. In June of 1520, the bull of excommunication was completed in Rome. This bull called for the burning of all Luther's books and tracts. But Luther returned fire for fire by publicly burning the bull in the streets of Wittenberg. This burning signified the complete break between Luther and Rome. 

In 1521, the Diet of Worms was called by Emperor Charles V to settle the problems that arose from Luther's new teachings. The ruling princes of the provinces of Germany and some Romish officials were present at this Diet. Charles V summoned Luther to this meeting with the guarantee of safe travel to and from the meeting. Luther's friends remembered that John Hus had been given the same promise and Rome did not honor that promise. They urged Luther not to attend. But Luther insisted on going for the cause of Christ. 

Luther was not given an opportunity to defend his teachings, but was simply asked if the books lying on the table before him were his. After acknowledging they were his, he was asked if he would recant what he taught. Being unprepared for the question, Luther asked for a day to consider his answer and the emperor granted his request. When asked the same question the next day, part of Luther's well known answer was, "My conscience is bound in the Word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen." 

The Emperor upheld the promise of safe conduct. But Frederick, Luther's elector, afraid that Luther would be captured, had Luther taken secretly to the castle at Wartburg, where Luther stayed for eleven months.

Luther's Family

Although much could be said about Luther's family life, space does not allow us to go into great detail. Convinced of the error of his monastic views, Luther married Katherine vonBora, whom he often called, "Kitty, my rib." She was a hardworking woman who served the constant stream of guests in their home while rarely having enough money. To Martin and Katherine were born three daughters and three sons, but two of the daughters died when they were young. The home of Luther was filled with spiritual activities: prayer, Bible study, and theological discussions. God brought reformation even to Luther's family life.

At the age of 63, Luther traveled to the city of his birth, Eisleben. There he died on February 17, 1546. During the last years of his life, Luther suffered from many ailments. But in life and in death Luther trusted in his heavenly Father. Through his life and work, God laid the foundation of the Reformation. The true church continues to give thanks to God for the work of this reformer.

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Eriks, Garrett J.

Rev. Garry Eriks (Wife: Jennifer)

Ordained: September 1999

Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1999; Hudsonville, MI - 2005

Website: www.hudsonvilleprc.org/

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