Today marks 31 weeks until 31st October – the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To celebrate, Lion & Phoenix will feature 31 notable Protestant Christians in a series called Protestant Profiles. Picking just 31 figures from five centuries means there will be notable omissions and I am conscious that there will potentially be disagreement from readers as to the particular merits of the selections, exclusions and overall diversity reflected in the series. Thus, I submit this not as a comprehensive or authoritative list, but as a collection of noteworthy figures from our evangelical heritage, whose lives and ministries are worth commemorating as we celebrate the Reformation this year.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Born: Eiselben, Thuringia (modern Germany)
Role: Augustinian monk, university lecturer, theologian, pastor, Reformer, founder of Lutheranism
Theological emphases: Repentance; justification by faith alone; authority of Scripture; priesthood of all believers; predestination; “theology of the cross”
Protested against: indulgences; abuses of papal authority; Catholic sacramentalism; free-will theology
Probably not much can be said about Luther that hasn’t been said already. His attempt to initiate a proper theological debate about the appropriateness of ‘indulgences’ (more on this below) in the practice of the Church in 1517 led to him becoming one of the most significant figures in Church History and in recent Western history.
To borrow a football analogy, Luther did not do all of the work on the field that contributed to the lengthy process that was the Protestant Reformation – nor did he necessarily score the most goals during his playing career. But he was something of a squad captain for the three decades between his nailing of 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door and his death – providing inspiration and leadership to many Christians throughout Europe. And he most certainly had the God-ordained privilege of executing the kick-off – though no one (but God) could have known that at the time.
Life & Ministry
Luther had an interesting spiritual journey, becoming an Augustinian monk at age 22, as a result of a panicked vow (see the more extensive biography linked below). Prior to the Reformation, Luther underwent an intense crisis of personal faith that led to a significant process of spiritual formation – in which he discovered what would become one of the central emphases of the Reformation.
Luther’s insight came through wrestling with the meaning of two phrases in Romans 1:17 – “the righteousness of God” and “the just (or ‘righteous’) shall live by faith.” If the righteousness of God was divine justice directed against the sinner, Luther considered himself and other transgressors to have no basis for hope of eternal life. But if the righteous lived by faith – perhaps the Christian’s hope came through trusting in the saving work of Christ and their righteousness depended on Him rather than some unobtainable, perfect moral obedience to God’s revealed will.
This developed into the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ – whereby the believer’s right standing before God came solely through trusting in the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God as the basis of salvation. This removed the possibility of contributing to one’s salvation by good works or extrabiblical rituals prescribed by the Church.
But while this doctrine emerged as a signature emphasis of Luther (he later wrote that justification by faith was “the main hinge on which religion turns”) and Protestantism, it was not the point of contention that ignited the Reformation. The Reformation in fact sprung out of Luther’s pastoral concern for his congregation being harmed by false teaching and practices which had the official endorsement of the Vatican.
Luther’s 95 theses heavily criticised the Catholic practice of selling indulgences: a means of reducing the time that a person (or their deceased relatives) might spend in purgatory (a kind of cross-between a waiting room and an offshore detention centre where people awaited admission into heaven, after being appropriately purified of any remaining sinful taintedness that would make them unfit for heaven). Apparently this practice had been widely embraced by people under his pastoral charge when a friar named Tetzel came to Wittenberg spruiking indulgences in a highly ostentatious and avaricious manner.
The 95 theses addressed the nature of true repentance; the role of the Pope in granting remission of penalties for sin; false assurance based on indulgences and abuses of power and doctrine by those peddling indulgences as a means of pardon. Luther did not initially reject the idea of purgatory, indulgences or papal authority – that came later as he saw the unwillingness of the papacy to stamp out the abuses of the practice. But he wrote as a concerned Catholic who felt that error was being promoted in the name of the Pope and the local archbishop. Luther’s concerns were not well received by the hierarchy of the Church, but found acceptance amongst many Christians who could see the problematic nature of these practices.
As the Church became increasingly hostile towards Luther and his teachings, Luther continued to go where his reading of the Bible led him. In many cases this took him on a path of significant departure from Roman dogma and therefore increased suspicion that he was a rogue preacher or even a heretic. He was excommunicated in 1520 by an official Catholic edict known as a ‘papal bull’ and called before an Imperial assembly the following year, now known as the Diet of Worms. Upon being urged to reject his own teachings – which by now included an insistence on the true authority of Scripture above the false authority of the papacy; exchanging the select priesthood of the Church for a priesthood of all believers and denial of five of the seven traditional Catholic sacraments – Luther refused on the grounds that he must be convinced of error by Scripture not by official church teaching. He famously declared his steadfastness to the assembly with the phrase: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Luther is significant because of his willingness to challenge grossly unbiblical practices with biblical truth and for tenaciously following through on his convictions – despite the enormous risk and cost involved in where they led him. We are indebted to his love for the Scriptures and the Gospel, which the Holy Spirit graciously birthed in his heart for the benefit of millions across continents and throughout the centuries.
Main Source: “Luther,” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals