MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546)

18 Apr

by Providence Crowder


One of the greatest Christian intellectuals of all times, sixteenth century German reformer Martin Luther, sought to make the Scriptures “the starting and final authority for his theology.”[1]  Historically, Martin Luther was credited with initiating the German Reformation, a movement in Germany which challenged the medieval theology and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church and sought doctrinal and moral reforms.  Martin Luther’s “95 Theses on Indulgences,” which were posted on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, came to be regarded as a declaration for reform.  The Wittenberg act agitated the religious and political climate and stirred a polemical debate between Luther and the church in Rome.  Luther bore significant theological variances with his paternal church, namely concerning grace and works.  He addressed these concerns in his exegetical writings and throughout his program for reform.  Lutheranism was birthed from Luther’s theology and soteriology, and his teachings influenced several Protestant reformers after him.  The main theological concerns addressed by historic Lutheranism were: the authority of the Pope, justification, and free-will.

The Authority of the Pope

The Lutheran agenda for reform sought to free Christianity from the corrupt practices of the Papal authority, such as the selling of Indulgences,[2] and return to Scripture alone as the basis for authority in the Church.  Luther championed the rights of the laity against church abuses, and challenged the Pope’s civil and ecclesiastical authority, arguing that the powers are not to be confounded; the ecclesiastical power has only the commandment to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments.[3] Luther especially opposed the Pope’s profession of being the sole interpreter of Scripture, maintaining that Scripture was sufficient to interpret Scripture.  When addressing Pope Leo X in a letter, Luther wrote, “They err who ascribe to you alone the right of interpreting Scripture.”[4] He as well had criticisms of the sacramental theology and certain other practices instituted by the papacy.

Luther found no scriptural basis for Roman Catholic practices such as celibacy of the clergy, monastic vows, Masses for the dead, and the worship of saints and images. Concerning the worship of saints, the Lutheran theology could not have been expressed any clearer than in the declaration set forth in the Augsburg Confession:[5] “The Scripture teacheth not to invocate or to ask help of saints . . . Christ is to be invocated, and he hath promised that he will hear our prayers.”[6] Regarding the Lord’s Supper, Luther maintained the bodily presence of Christ during the Eucharist but denied that the elements in the bread or the wine were somehow changed.  His view on the Eucharist thereby differed from the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, and differed from other forms of Protestantism, such as views held by Swiss Reformer Zwingli, who denied the bodily presence of Christ; believing that the Eucharist ceremony was merely symbolic.  Luther would later be excommunicated for his stance against the papacy and be summoned before the Diet of Worms for refusing to recant his statements.  Luther’s teachings on justification further placed him at odds with the Roman Church.


Lutheran soteriology is built firmly upon the foundation and presumption of original sin.  In the polemical writings of Lutherans and others, original sin is taught as a result of Adam’s fall.  Due to Adam’s sin, all men are born with a sinful nature much like a man born of a slave into slavery; the sin being a disease of sort or original fault that condemns and brings eternal death.  In reality, man, who was once righteous and perfect before God was now sinful and depraved.  The work of Christ on the cross was to redeem mankind back to God through enduring man’s penalty or requirement for sin, which is death.  Those who believed or had faith in God’s promised redemption through his Christ was declared righteous, without actually being righteous.  This act of mercy by God is called justification. 

Luther’s pilgrimage to reform did not come without great challenge.  His harsh upbringing and monastery life ultimately led Luther to question his own salvation.  The good works and penance that were supposed to provide relief and justify Luther before God only amplified his sense of sinfulness.  Through his studies, Luther eventually concluded that both faith and justification were the work of God, a free gift.[7]  In his quest for reform, the medieval practices of the Roman Catholic Church, those such as selling indulgences, and performing other good works to merit justification were powerfully rebuked by Luther.  Luther argued, “Works cannot reconcile God, or deserve remission of sins, grace, and justification at his hands, but these we obtain by faith only, when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake, who alone is appointed the Mediator and Propitiatory.”[8] The ineptness of works and the power of faith as the only means to obtain justification unto salvation by God’s grace was described by Luther as the very highest worship of God that we can ascribe to God.  Anything less than ascribing truthfulness to and having faith or belief in his promise was to make God a liar.  Luther’s declaration of justification by faith alone became formative for Protestantism.

Free Will

Luther’s summation about the power or lack thereof of the human will set him at odds with many of his closest Protestant companions.  Many sought to give man a greater role in his own salvation, suggesting that man could by his own power, turn from evil and do good.  Luther maintained that the human will was not free, but a prisoner to either the will of God or the will of Satan.[9]   Moreover, aside from God’s grace, “the free-will can do nothing but evil.”[10] He argued that some were predestined to receive grace and while others scorn the offer for grace.  Luther, in expounding on the justice of God, said that God must be held in awe, because in his mercy, he justifies totally unworthy people. Furthermore even when he seems unjust, one must believe that he is just, not according to human reasoning or justice but because he is the one true God whose knowledge and wisdom is incomprehensible.[11] 

Luther brilliantly illustrated man’s lack of freedom concerning his will in the Exodus account when God used Pharaoh’s hardened heart and resistance to demonstrate his glory, pointing out that God could not have with certainty proclaimed that Pharaoh’s heart would remain hardened if Pharaoh, by his own power, had the freedom of will to turn and do good; thereby making God out to be a liar.[12]  Luther concluded that “God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my workings, but according to His own grace and mercy.”[13]


  The Lutheran theology fought to revive the brilliance of the Scriptures in an age when the Church had turned to its own devices and tradition suppressed truth.   In Lutheranism, the papacy was met with moral and doctrinal grievances, and a plea to return to the Word of God as the final authority for the Church.  Luther’s soteriological beliefs placed total trust in the work of Christ above the works of man and his polemical writings expounded beautifully on exactly how faith alone justified.  

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 29.

[2] Indulgences were the remissions by the Church of the temporal penalty due to forgiven sin, in virtue of the merits of Christ and the saints.  The Church, by her power of jurisdiction, had the right of administering the benefit of these merits in consideration of the prayers or other pious works undertaken by the faithful. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Indulgences.”

[3] The Creeds of Christendom, the Greek and Latin Creeds, Volume 3.  Edited by Philip Schaff, revised by David S. Schaff.  6th edition; (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990),  61

[4] Ibid.

[5]  The Lutheran Confession of faith, mainly the work of P. Melanchthon, which, after receiving Luther’s approval, was presented at Augsburg to the Emperor Charles V on June 24, 1530.  Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Augsburg Confession.”

[6] The Creeds of Christendom, the Greek and Latin Creeds, Volume 3, 26.

[7] Gonzalez, 19.         

[8] The Creeds of Christendom, the Greek and Latin Creeds, Volume 3, 21.

[9] Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, ed.  John Dillenberger, (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 190.

[10] Ibid., 195.

[11] Ibid., 200.

[12] Luther, Selections from His Writings, 197.

[13] Ibid., 199.


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One response to “MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546)

  1. michael

    April 24, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Scripture is not Subject to Private Interpretation

    “True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God].” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4,33:8 (inter A.D. 180-199).


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