Martin Luther—Our Spiritual Guide
Our history is strongly influence by our spiritual guide—Martin Luther. Even though he died nearly 450 years ago, he still is very much alive in what we do and say.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. Young Luther showed a great deal of promise. By 1502, he took his bachelor's degree and his master's in 1505. Then he began to study law. One day Luther was caught in a violent storm. Lightning struck a nearby tree. Luther fell to the ground in terror. He prayed frantically to St. Anne, the special saint for miners (at one- time his father had been a miner). He promised that if she would save his life, he would become a monk. At the age of 22, in spite of his father's opposition, Luther entered a monastery in the Augustinian order.
Luther was ordained as a priest in 1507 and assigned to teach at the new university in Wittenberg in 1508. In 1512, he became a doctor of sacred scripture and professor of Bible at Wittenberg University.
Like many others in his time, Luther was terrified of a God who wanted vengeance on sinners. He was obsessed with trying to please God. The medieval church taught that a person had to earn God's acceptance. As Luther studied and taught, he gradually began to realize that the New Testament teaches that grace cannot be earned. God freely accepts people. This became the doctrine of "justification by grace through faith."
Pope Leo X needed money to complete the Church of St. Peter in Rome. One fundraiser was a Dominican prior, John Tetzel, who began to sell indulgences in a parish near to Luther's. The sale of indulgences developed from a medieval system in which people were expected to pay penalties imposed by the church for their sins. They could earn an indulgence by doing special acts of penance such as making a pilgrimage. This shifted into a system of buying indulgences instead of earning them, and that lead to many abuses.
On October 31, 1517, Luther tacked up a notice on the door of the Castle Church. It was an invitation to the theologians of Wittenberg to meet with Luther and to debate the indulgence situation. Luther put down his ideas on the notice in 95 points or 95 theses. As Luther tacked up his notice, the sound of his hammer echoed in Rome.
Within two weeks, Luther's 95 theses were being discussed all over Germany. Attempts at diplomacy failed when John Ek and Luther entered into a debate at Leipzig University. Luther forcefully stated his case and directly challenged the authority of the pope. After that Luther began to write several books which criticized the pope's power.
Rome's authority was being directly challenged. On June 15, 1520, Pope Leo signed a papal decree charging Luther with heresy. Charles V, the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, whose father was German, convened an imperial assembly [called a "diet"] at Worms, Germany. When he appeared before the Diet, Luther was asked two questions: Did he write the books which were standing on a table? Was he willing to recant what he had written?
The following afternoon witnessed Luther's famous reply: "Unless convinced by the testimony of Scripture or right reason for I trust neither the pope nor councils inasmuch as they have often erred and contradicted one another, I am bound by conscience, held captive by the Word of God in the Scriptures I have quoted. I neither can nor will recant anything, for it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. God help me! Amen."
Although Luther was declared a heretic, he enjoyed the protection of powerful German rulers. A new denomination began to emerge. Luther encouraged congregations to take responsibility for themselves, to choose pastors and provide for the education of the people.
He wrote The Small Catechism so that people would have a simple way of learning and teaching the basics of the faith. He revised worship. He put it into the language of the people and wrote a number of popular hymns. His translation of the Bible became the foundation of modern German.