Most people know at least a few key Bible verses and many of us look to, or read, the Bible for various reasons; inspiration, getting closer to God, understanding God’s wants, nature, and intentions, or simply just embracing the incredible love mercy and grace shown by both God and His Son Jesus. For these things you can thank God and Martin Luther. The fact that we know and/or can read the word of God, via the Bible, can be attributed directly to Luther, his work as the great reformer, and a little divine intervention from God.
To understand why Luther is called the great reformer, you have to understand the Church of the 14th, 15th, and 16th century. During this period, the Church totally controlled the “Word” of God. They made it illegal to translate the Bible from its only written languages Greek and Latin, and of course only priests were educating in these two languages. The church felt that priests were extensions of God and their word was God’s equal, and the church leaders required people to pay for their sins to be forgiven. So, if you had enough money, or power and influence, you paid for, earned, and thus deserved, forgiveness before any of the common people.
That’s what the church was in those days, but who was Martin Luther? Many people know who Martin Luther is, but for those who may not, here’s a brief biography. Martin Luther was a German monk who began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, becoming one of the most influential and controversial figures in the history of Christianity.
Luther called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition. His actions set in motion tremendous reform within the Church. A prominent theologian, Luther’s desire for people to feel closer to God led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers.
Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, located in modern-day Germany. His parents, Hans and Margarette Luther, were of peasant lineage. However, Hans had some success as a miner and ore smelter, and in 1484 the family moved from Eisleben to nearby Mansfield, where Hans held ore deposits. Hans Luther knew that mining was a tough business and wanted his promising son to have a better career as a lawyer. At age seven, Luther entered school in Mansfield.
At 14, Luther went north to Magdeburg, where he continued his studies. In 1498, he returned to Eisleben and enrolled in a school, studying grammar, rhetoric and logic. He later compared this experience to purgatory and hell. In 1501, Luther entered the University of Erfurt, where he received a degree in grammar, logic, rhetoric and metaphysics. At this time, it seemed he was on his way to becoming a lawyer.
In July 1505, Luther had a life-changing experience, and very likely an intervention from God, that set him on a new course to becoming a monk. Caught in a horrific thunderstorm where he feared for his life, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” The storm subsided and he was saved. The decision to become a monk was difficult and greatly disappointed his father, but Luther felt he must keep his promise.
Luther was also driven by fears of hell and God’s wrath, and felt that life in a monastery would help him find salvation. The first few years of monastic life were difficult for Luther, as he did not find the religious enlightenment he was seeking. A mentor told him to focus his life exclusively on Jesus Christ and this would later provide him with the guidance he sought.
At age 27, Luther was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a Catholic church conference in Rome. He came away more disillusioned, and very discouraged by the immorality and corruption he witnessed there among the Catholic priests. Upon his return to Germany, he enrolled in the University of Wittenberg in an attempt to suppress his spiritual turmoil. He excelled in his studies and received a doctorate, becoming a professor of theology at the university (known today as Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg).
Through his studies of scripture, Luther finally gained religious enlightenment. Beginning in 1513, while preparing lectures, Luther read the first line of Psalm 22, which Christ wailed in his cry for mercy on the cross, a cry similar to Luther’s own disillusionment with God and religion. Two years later, while preparing a lecture on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he read, “The just will live by faith.” He dwelled on this statement for some time. Finally, he realized the key to spiritual salvation was not to fear God or be enslaved by religious dogma but to believe that faith alone would bring salvation. This period marked a major change in his life and set in motion the Reformation.
On October 31, 1517, Luther, angry with Pope Leo X’s new round of indulgences to help build St. Peter’s Basilica, nailed a sheet of paper with his 95 Theses on the University of Wittenberg’s chapel door. Though Luther intended these to be discussion points, the 95 Theses laid out a devastating critique of the indulgences - good works, which often involved monetary donations, that popes could grant to the people to cancel out penance for sins - as corrupting people’s faith.
Luther also sent a copy to Archbishop Albert Albrecht of Mainz, calling on him to end the sale of indulgences. Aided by the printing press, copies of the 95 Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months. The Church eventually moved to stop the act of defiance. In October 1518, at a meeting with Cardinal Thomas Cajetan in Augsburg, Luther was ordered to recant his 95 Theses by the authority of the pope.
Luther said he would not recant unless scripture proved him wrong. He went further, stating he didn’t consider that the papacy had the authority to interpret scripture. The meeting ended in a shouting match and initiated his ultimate excommunication from the Church. Following the publication of his 95 Theses, Luther continued to lecture and write in Wittenberg. In June and July of 1519 Luther publicly declared that the Bible did not give the pope the exclusive right to interpret scripture, which was a direct attack on the authority of the papacy. Finally, in 1520, the pope had had enough and on June 15 issued an ultimatum threatening Luther with excommunication. On December 10, 1520, Luther publicly burned the letter. In January 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
In March 1521, Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of secular authorities. Again, Luther refused to recant his statements, demanding he be shown any scripture that would refute his position. There was none. On May 8, 1521, the council released the Edict of Worms, banning Luther’s writings and declaring him a “convicted heretic.” This made him a condemned and wanted man. Friends helped him hide out at the Wartburg Castle. While in seclusion, he translated the New Testament into the German language, to give ordinary people the opportunity to read God’s word.
Though still under threat of arrest, Luther returned to Wittenberg Castle Church, in Eisenach, in May 1522 to organize a new church, Lutheranism. He gained many followers, and the Lutheran Church also received considerable support from German princes. Following Lutheranism, many other, soon to be called protestant, church’s sprung to life.
So why do we owe our ability to read the Bible to Martin Luther. Yes, he was the first to translate the Bible into a common person’s language, German. But there were just a handful of copies which certainly didn’t make it easy for common people to travel to, locate, and read the few copies in existence. The reason, I believe, was due to another divine intervention. I believe God nudged a man named Johannes Gutenberg, famous for his printing press invention, directly into the path of Luther.
Gutenberg was about 70 years older than Luther and lived in Mainz, along the Rhine River. Not much is known about him personally, said Claus Maywald-Pitellos, curator of the Gutenberg Museum Mainz. But “do not think of Johannes Gutenberg as primarily an inventor,” said Judith König, a town art historian. “He was a businessman.”
The Chinese and Koreans actually printed books hundreds of years before Gutenberg, as did the Babylonians, König said. But the printing press that Gutenberg developed, with the innovation of removable type, made mass production of books possible, vastly speeding up the process of printing. Previously, it would have taken about a year and a half to print one large book like the Bible, she said. With Gutenberg’s machine, roughly 200 could be printed in the same time. As Gutenberg the businessman sold his printing press design to other shops and trained other printers, the technology “spread like a disease all over Europe,” König said. Prices dropped, so “people like you and me could finally afford to buy a book, if you could read Latin.”
Then came Luther, who with his translation of the New Testament into German “united all German dialects and made a general language out of it.” With the Reformation, people could read the Bible in their native language and decide for themselves “is it really true what the priest tells me every Sunday, or did he twist it?” König said. “Did Jesus really say it?” Not only could they now read the Bible, but they could find copies and most importantly, they could afford to buy copies for themselves and their family. These events also gave birth to the beloved Family Bible.
On a personal note, I have been to Wittenberg. On a business trip to Dahlewitz Germany, a town outside of Berlin, I added an extra day to my trip for personal reasons. That extra day allowed me to see the very church where Luther started the protestant reformation. I have toured his home and visited his grave within this very church. It was honestly very very spiritual and moving and I have ever since followed the man with a great deal of respect and reverence. Not that I would dare compare Luther to the Son of God; Jesus, but very much like Jesus, who taught His followers that the Jewish leaders of that time were not being true to God’s, word. Luther taught all, that the Catholic church of his day was also not being true to the word of God and His Son Jesus Christ.
I am forever thankful to my dear friend John McCartney, for taking me to Wittenberg to get to see, feel, and experience the presence of Luther, and God, in that tiny and beautiful German community.
Luther died following a stroke on February 18, 1546, at the age of 62 during a trip to his hometown of Eisleben. He was buried in All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, the city he had helped turn into an intellectual center. Luther's teachings and translations radically changed Christian theology. Thanks in large part to the Gutenberg press, his influence continued to grow after his death, as his message spread across Europe and around the world.
As you look back on his life, one would be hard pressed to expect this young man, of peasant lineage, to become such an astute theologian. The example of Luther reminds us, or at least me, that you can never judge the character of a person based on their background or upbringing. It also taught me that you cannot always count on the word of a church or a church leader to be a factual account of the Word of God.
What it does mean, is that to know the Word of God, the lessons from Jesus, and the grace and love they have for all of us, you must read, and know, the Bible. Thanks to Martin Luther, reading the Bible is a treasure all of us can seek out and enjoy!!!