Martin Luther is well known for his 95 Theses, a document listing various oppressive and unbiblical practices of the Roman Catholic Church, and as the father of the Protestant Reformation. Luther posted his Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, now known as Reformation Day.
Martin Luther was of German origin, born in Eisleben in 1483. At the age of 13, Luther began attending a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life where he became interested in monastic life. However, Luther’s father was a businessman and wanted his son to become a lawyer, so he withdrew Martin from the school. Luther later attended the premier university in Germany at the time—the University of Erfurt—where he studied the usual curriculum and obtained a master’s degree. Shortly after he graduated, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and nearly struck by lightning. He took this as a sign from God and vowed to become a monk should he survive the storm. Thus, in July 1505 Luther moved into an Augustinian monastery.
While in the monastery, Luther continued his studies both at Erfurt and at a university in Wittenberg. In 1510–1511 he served in Rome as a representative for the German Augustinian monasteries, but upon his return he finished his studies and obtained a doctorate degree in 1512. Luther then became a biblical studies professor.
In the 16th century, theologians and scholars across Europe were starting to question the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. During the same time, translations of texts such as the Bible and the writings of early Christians became more widely available. It was in this context that Luther came to adopt two of Augustine’s beliefs: that the Bible, not the church, was ultimately authoritative; and that salvation is by God’s grace alone, not by good works. On his visit to Rome, Luther was troubled by the extravagance and corruption of the Pope and clergy. He began specifically to question the sale of indulgences, purported to absolve sinners. Believing the sale of indulgences to be corrupt, Luther posted his 95 Theses (also called the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”) to invite scholarly debate on the subject. The 95 Theses were fairly quickly disseminated throughout Germany and made it all the way to Rome.
In 1518 Catholic officials called Martin Luther to Augsburg to defend his position before an assembly. After three days, no agreement was reached. In November 1518 the Pope spoke against Luther’s writing as contradictory to Catholic teachings. After several papal commissions, which found his work to be either heretical or at least scandalous and offensive, Pope Leo X issued a decree in July 1520 calling Luther’s ideas heretical. Luther was given 120 days to recant; he refused and was thus excommunicated from the Catholic Church in January 1521. In May 1521 the Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that Luther’s writings be burned. Luther hid in Eisenach, Germany, and worked on his German translation of the New Testament, a project that he completed in four months and published in September 1522. Luther’s translation of the entire Bible was released in 1534. In Wittenberg, meanwhile, the reform sparked by Martin Luther’s writings had become more political rather than simply theological.
In 1525 Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun; the couple had six children. Luther continued to write profusely the rest of his life. Some of his important works include Of the Liberty of a Christian Man (1520), On the Bondage of the Will (1525), the Great Catechism and the Small Catechism (1529), Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535), and several hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Later in life Luther seemed to become more stubborn in his views and could be quite acerbic at times. His meeting with Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli in 1529 only emphasized the sharp disagreement the two men had over the nature of the Eucharist. Unfortunately, Luther said some shameful things in criticism of the Jews, including one particularly harsh tract published in 1543. Luther died in February 1546.
Martin Luther is an influential figure in church history, and Lutheranism still thrives today. Luther certainly was not flawless, but his emphasis on the authority of the Bible and on salvation by grace through faith has proved foundational to Protestantism. Luther recognized that only God’s grace, not good works, could save him (Ephesians 2:8–9). His courage and commitment to the Word literally changed the course of history.