Key figures of the Reformation: Martin Luther

Detail, "Portrait of Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532. Photo: Public Domain

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a nine-part series in which Fr. Dwight Longenecker examines the conflicts of the 16th century through its main players. Each article connects with contemporary Church life, showing the origin of the Protestant denominations and the challenges we face in the Catholic Church today.

In 2017, Pope Francis led the Catholic Church in a commemoration of the Protestant Reformation. Five hundred years earlier, on Oct. 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. With these proposals Luther set out his argument against the practice of selling indulgences. He kindled a fire that surged through the Church, eventually leading to the greatest division the Church had ever seen.

The roots of a revolt

Luther was born in 1483 to a middle-class but ambitious family. His father was eager for Martin to train as a lawyer to advance in the world. He enrolled in university to study law in obedience to his father’s wishes. But he soon changed course. Unhappy with legal studies, he shifted to theology and philosophy.

Then one day, riding back to university after a visit home, he was nearly struck by lightning. Terrified, he cried out to St. Anne for help, telling her that he would be a monk. He was spared, and he considered his promise to be an unbreakable vow. Martin returned to university, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. His father was furious.

As a young monk, Luther was extremely devout. He devoted his time and energy to long sessions of prayer and penance, pilgrimages, and fasting. His religious superior said he should not focus so much on his own sin, but on the merits and love of Christ. But Luther couldn’t hear it. He continued to berate himself as being unworthy. No amount of rigorous religious activity could soothe his conscience. Was he trying hard to please an angry Heavenly Father — as he must have tried hard to please his angry earthly father? 

We don’t know, but we do know that Luther’s personality was developing into a powerful blend of contradictions. The brilliance of his intellect was fired with a kind of passionate anger. His rage was directed toward the powerful authority of the Church and focused on the abuses and corruption that riddled it. Luther is the perfect example of a man and his mission coming together with other factors beyond his control to bring about a total revolution.

Reform or revolution?

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Church was at the height of its worldly wealth and power. With that wealth and power came financial corruption and moral decadence. The people were oppressed by greedy and lustful churchmen who were peddling salvation by the sale of indulgences. This was just one of many forms of corruption in the Church.

At the same time, political and economic influences contributed to the upheaval of the times. There was a population shift from the country to towns. When populations shift, power shifts. The rulers of the nations of Europe were flexing their muscles. Nation states were emerging under strong monarchs who were less and less inclined to submit to the political power of the pope. In Germany, the local princes clashed with the Church over positions, power, and finances.

When populations shift, power shifts.

Technology also had a part to play in the sudden revolution in religion. In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type. Combined with lighter and cheaper printing presses, moveable type meant that books and pamphlets could be printed quickly and cheaply. As books became more available, more people were learning to read. Luther’s revolutionary ideas could be spread across Europe with lightning speed to an audience hungry for the latest learning.

At the heart of Luther’s revolt was a genuine passion for an authentic Christian faith. Luther was desperate in his own life to experience a true encounter with the Lord. His own conversion experience sparked the heart of his reformation of the Church.

Conversion and a controversy

As Luther continued with his harsh regime, he agonized over the state of his soul. Then there was a breakthrough. In reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he came to understand that we are not saved by good works and harsh religious practices. We are saved by having faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross. 

He explained it this way in one of his writings: 

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in his blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. … Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31).

Such a belief was bound to bring him into conflict with the prevailing mood in the Catholic Church. The pope was ramping up the sale of indulgences to raise money to build the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. What could reflect a religion of salvation by good works more than buying your salvation? Luther taught that salvation was a free gift of God obtained through faith empowered by God’s grace alone. Selling salvation? Buying your way into heaven? No wonder he was outraged!

The Church studied Luther’s writings. He was put on trial in the town of Worms in 1521. The emperor presided. Frederick III, the elector of Saxony, provided Luther with safe passage. At the Diet of Worms, he was tried and condemned as a heretic. He stood firm and was ready to suffer martyrdom for his beliefs. As he left the trial, he was captured and taken for safekeeping to Wartburg Castle by Frederick III.

Revolution and violence

While he was lodged safely at Wartburg, Luther continued his scholarship and writing. He translated the Bible into German, but he also ramped up his attacks on the Catholic faith, not only criticizing indulgences, but also rejecting the Mass as a sacrifice and the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. He taught that the pope was the Antichrist and rejected all Church authority. He took his beliefs to their logical and absurd end by teaching that good works intended to please God were actually sinful. 

A page from Martin Luther’s New Testament, 1523. Photo: ZU_09/iStock

He said monks and nuns could violate their vows because religious vows were good works intended to please God. The vows were therefore sinful, so to break the vows was a good thing. This led to many priests, monks, and nuns leaving the religious life to marry. Luther himself at the age of 41 married Katharina von Bora — a 26-year-old nun he had helped escape from a convent by hiding her in a herring barrel.

Outside the walls, back in Wittenberg, the religious reformation turned into a civil revolution. Monks rose up in rebellion. The people followed. Monasteries and churches were sacked and vandalized. In 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg, but seeing that things had gotten out of hand, he turned against the rebels and called for calm. Nevertheless, the radical rebels continued, and the Peasants’ War that erupted ended in suppression and bloodshed.

The Lutheran legacy

What is Martin Luther’s final legacy now, 500 years later? It must be admitted that Luther was more of a revolutionary than a reformer. His zeal for the truth was admirable, but his stubborn and aggressive personality drove a wedge between him and the Catholic Church. He was a radical, but his followers were even more revolutionary. 

Their revolution brought widespread destruction and fractured forever the unity of Christ’s Church. Not only did they form the Lutheran church, but Luther’s ideas are the bedrock for the multitude of other Protestant sects, denominations, and church bodies.

On the positive side, Luther’s protests helped to bring about much-needed changes in the Catholic Church. The Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church corrected the abuses while also correcting the errors that Luther and his followers had fallen into.

Luther’s protests helped to bring about much-needed changes in the Catholic Church.

Luther’s efforts spurred conversations that eventually helped many Christians learn and understand the faith better. Translating the Bible into the language of the people helped better spread knowledge and love of the Scriptures. Through the centuries, Luther’s Scriptural arguments aided stronger theological discussions among Catholics and Protestants alike with regard to St. Paul’s teaching about salvation — especially justification, and the freedom to live in God’s grace.

In 1999 the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation published the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification — a document that expresses substantial agreement between Catholics and Lutherans on this important doctrine.(You can read the document at 

Perhaps most importantly, Luther’s own personal conversion from a life of trying to please God with a harsh religious regime was liberating. He experienced the freedom and power of personally accepting God’s forgiveness and love through faith in Christ’s saving work on the cross. This is the revolution and reformation to which we all are called.

As we live out our Catholic faith, we do so not out of mere duty, guilt, and fear, but because we have been touched by God’s grace. We serve him who loved us and gave himself for us — not with the servitude of slaves, but in the glorious freedom of his sons and daughters. 

Key figures of the Reformation: Henry VIII

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