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Martin Luther: Point-Man of the Reformation

The name Martin Luther conjures up all kinds of images, some more dramatic than others. Most people have heard of Martin Luther, yet very few people know much about him. Who was Martin Luther? Where was he born? How did he die? What kind of life did he live? What impact did he have on society as a whole? And maybe the biggest question of all: what did he do 500 years ago that was so special? 

Luther was a man of many talents and faces. Compassionate and acerbic by turns he single-handedly set in motion what we know today as the Reformation. No other person has had as a greater impact on the spiritual progress of the church like Martin Luther.

Luther’s Early Life and Education

Martin Luther was born on the 10th of November 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. His father Hans, initially a miner and later a village mayor were quite poor. At one stage Martin was obliged to go door to door singing for meals on his way to school. Despite this, Luther’s parents were industrious and worked hard to provide for their children which would later see Martin attend university which was a rare exception among the peasants of his day.

Luther entered the University of Erfurt in 1501, graduated with a Bachelor and Masters degree of Liberal Arts in 1505. “As part of his schooling, Luther mastered grammar, rhetoric and Aristotelian logic and also became familiar with ethics and metaphysics of Aristotle.”[1]

In 1505, Luther’s life took a dramatic turn on his way back to Erfurt.  Having visited his parents, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and nearly struck by lightning. In fear, Luther called out to the patron saint of the miners, Anna, promising to become a monk if God would spare his life.  After returning safely to Erfurt, Luther made good on his promise, much to the dismay of his friends and joined the order of Augustinian Hermits. This placed a strain on the relationship with his father, who intuitively distrusted the entire monastic system. It would be two years before he would be reconciled to his father.

In 1507, Luther commenced his theological studies and would later graduate from the University of Wittenberg with a Bachelor in Biblical studies (1509) and a Doctor of Divinity in1512. 

Luther longed for the assurance of salvation and devoted long hours to various acts of penance to fill a void in his life. While he was a novice monk, he spent long hours tucked in a corner of the convent thumbing through the only Bible he had access to. During this time of mental turmoil over his spiritual condition, God brought him a much-needed friend to correct his course.

Luther and Staupitz

Johann Von Staupitz was a doctor of Theology and Vicar General of the Augustinian Monks in Germany. On this initial visit in Erfurt in 1506, Luther spent six hours confessing his sins to Staupitz. Staupitz was instrumental in helping Luther understand the basics of the gospel and pointed Luther to a God who was gracious and merciful and compassionate.  This picture of God was a far cry from the cruel and exacting judge that presided over the troubled thoughts in Luther’s mind. Luther himself said “if it were not for Dr. Staupitz, I would have sunk in hell”

Staupitz began to encourage the reluctant Luther to preach and after considerable pushing he agreed. Luther was a gifted speaker and a brilliant Bible scholar, a combination that attracted the masses like a magnet. Luther was fast becoming a formidable spiritual voice that the established church of the day would soon have to reckon with. 

In Luther’s mind, he continued to be a loyal and faithful son of the church and never dreamt he would separate from or challenge its authority. Luther was not the only reformer who faced these circumstances. Huss, Zwingli, Calvin, Latimer, Cranmer, Ridley, all great reformers were devoted Catholics and never dreamed of leaving Rome. Ultimately the desire to pursue the truth at any cost led to a schism between themselves and the church they deeply loved. 

Luther Sent to Rome

The catalyst that set Luther on his journey away from Roman Church was quite mundane. A quarrel broke out between the seven monasteries of the Augustinian order and their Vicar-General, Staupitz. The matter needed to be resolved by the Pope and Martin was chosen to address the issue. Luther happily obliged and set off for Rome on foot, never dreaming of the disenchantment that awaited him at his journey’s end.

The catalyst that set Luther on his journey away from Roman Church was quite mundane. A quarrel broke out between the seven monasteries of the Augustinian order and their Vicar-General, Staupitz. The matter needed to be resolved by the Pope and Martin was the man chosen for the job. He was happy to oblige and set off for Rome on foot, never dreaming of the disenchantment that awaited him at his journey’s end.

The Journey to Rome

On his way through Italy, he was appalled by the vice and excesses indulged in by the priests and monks. Reaching Bologna, he fell ill and was at the point death when a terrible fear gripped his soul. He was frightened by the prospect of what might await him beyond the grave. It was at this moment that he heard a voice saying to him “the just shall live by faith”.

This was the second time this verse had been vividly impressed upon his mind. The first instance had been when he had come across the verse at Wittenberg. This time though the words made a deep impression on his mind. They left him clinging to the thought that “holiness is restricted to no soil, to no system, to no rite; it springs up in the heart where faith dwells”. It comforted his heart and gave him hope.

Luther made a full recovery and continued his journey to Rome. He was convinced that the purity of Rome would compensate for the decadence he had witnessed elsewhere.

“Holy Rome, I Salute Thee”

As Luther approached the city, he was overcome with emotion and fell to his knees calling out “Holy Rome, I salute thee.” As Luther entered the gates of Rome, he was bitterly disappointed. He had believed Rome to be the very epitome of purity, but in reality, Rome was a cesspool. A swamp that teemed with every kind of vice imaginable the likes of which he had never seen. Luther struggled to make sense of what he encountered, writing “No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. Thus they are in the habit of saying, ‘If there is a hell, Rome is built over it: it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin.’

Preoccupied with these thoughts, Luther made use of an indulgence the Pope had issued to anyone that ascended “Pilate’s Staircase” on their knees. While ascending the staircase, Luther heard a voice saying to him for the third time “The just shall live by faith”. Luther jumped to his feet and left the scene feeling ashamed and afraid – the verse seared on his soul. This was a turning point for Luther and one that would alter the course of his entire life.

References

[1] Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther; An introduction to his life and work, Philadelphia, p22.

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What year did Martin Luther commence his theological studies?

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