“The Battle-Ax of the Reformation”

Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds of reasoning . . . then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. 

Perhaps one of the most influential Germans ever to live, Martin Luther was instrumental in not only shaking loose from the foundations of the Catholic Church, but in bringing about the modern German language, as well as a renewed appreciation for the arts. Much like his predecessor, John Hus, he searched the Scriptures and discovered the truth regarding the love of God and His plan of redemption through faith and not works. And like Hus, he burned to bring the truth of the Gospel to the people in their own language. Though he was unreserved in his convictions, he seasoned his boldness with compassion. As a fearless visionary and leader, exceptional theologian, prolific writer, translator, and composer, he made time to converse with his students and dote on his children.

Luther sought to dispel the deception of the Church and expose its abuses. He challenged the Pope at every turn, from posting and distributing his ninety-five theses, to burning papal decrees and the Church’s canon law, to liberating nuns and priests “imprisoned” in convents and monasteries, and then marrying them off to one another. He even married himself while continuing his duties as a priest. He wrote a German mass and a catechism for both adults and children; and gave the people a Bible in their vernacular German. Luther composed hymns and led his congregation in revolutionary worship with singing and instruments, calling them all to attend a music practice weekly.

All the while, Martin Luther expected any day to be tried and burned as a heretic. Though he suffered continual ailments and illnesses, he remained a gentle husband and father, as well as a dedicated teacher and mentor. Luther was not only an unconventional pastor and priest, but he was a compassionate servant of the people, taking in orphans and needy students. He even intervened during times of social unrest to bring understanding between the peasants and nobles. Martin Luther is truly one of history’s most notable reformers, and certainly one of God’s most heroic Generals.

The Early Years
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. His father worked in the copper mines, and eventually established two smelter furnaces. Through hard work, they were no longer looked upon as peasants and the family became social with people of stature in the community. Martin’s parents were religious, praying with their children every night, as well as strict disciplinarians, never sparing the rod. The schools carried on the custom by administering whippings if students fell short in their Latin drills.

Martin flourished in this atmosphere of routine and discipline. He completed his baccalaureate and masters degrees in record time with the intention of studying law, which was his father’s greatest ambition for him. An unexpected event would suddenly change the direction of his life when he was just twenty years old.

It was on July 2, 1501, as he was walking back to school after visiting his family, when a thunderstorm overtook him. As the lightning struck violently around him, he feared for his life as he remembered how a friend has been struck dead by lightning. Caught in a clearing with nowhere to hide, he cried out in desperation to the only help he knew, “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.” He kept his vow, and that is how Martin Luther entered the priesthood to the great dismay of his father.

In Search of Holiness
If nothing else, Martin seemed to do whatever he did wholeheartedly and without reservation. He threw himself into his new calling with gusto and joined the strictest monastery of his day, the Order of the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, Germany. He knew full well that he was committing to at least one probationary year of “scant diet, rough clothing, vigils by night, labors by labors, mortification of the flesh, the reproach of poverty and the shame of begging.” Martin was so driven to appease God, that he couldn’t seem to fast, pray, or torture himself enough.

After his probationary period, Martin vowed to commit his life to God and continued as the most devout monk in the degree to which he labored, fasted, and debased himself—yet for all his works the peace he sought with God ever eluded him. No matter how he strived for holiness and to be counted worthy in the sight of God, no matter how many hours he spent in confession, or how long on his knees praying, reading, or chanting, no matter how much he fasted from food, drink, or sleep, he couldn’t bring himself closer to God. Yet it was through these dark years of pursuing endless works in search of holiness that he came to the revelation that the righteousness of God can only be attained through grace by faith in the Blood of Christ.

The Long Road to Revelation
In 1510, Luther traveled to Rome as a representative from his cloister to settle a dispute with the Pope. While there, he discovered the priests to be irreverent in the way they rushed through Mass and the comments he overheard them make while preparing Communion. This was his first taste of disillusionment with the established Church. When he returned home he was transferred to an Augustinian Cloister in Wittenburg, Germany, which was a small town compared to the city of Erfurt. It was here that he found a mentor in Johann von Staupitz who would remain faithful to Luther until the end of his life.

When Luther seemed inconsolable in his efforts to find peace with God, it was Staupitz who gave up his position at the University of Wittenburg to Luther so that he might be absorbed by the challenges of studying and teaching the Scriptures. As a result, he was made a doctor of theology in 1512 at twenty-nine years of age, and so began his exodus into the freedom that knowledge of the truth brings.

And so Luther studied the Psalms and the Pauline Epistles for the next five years and entered into a growing revelation of righteousness and the justice of God. Meditation and study over this period brought Luther to a new theology of justice and justification. He wrote of his experience during this critical time: “At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I . . . began to understand that the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.”

Coming to the Cross
Somewhere between 1518 and 1521, Luther’s final revelation came to him—and it would set off a revolution. He wrote of the days immediately preceding his breakthrough as a time when he was depressed. Historians refer to this transformation from depression into freedom as his “evangelical breakthrough” or his “tower experience.” You can almost feel the peace of God in Luther’s heart as he wrote of his revelation, “If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is neither anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.”

Luther’s new revelation of Scripture resolved all the worries about falling short of God’s approval that had been instilled in him since childhood. All his personal battles of unworthiness stopped with the Cross and he could see there the mercy of God and Christ’s victory over Satan. This new understanding of his position in Christ as a result of the Cross is summed up in the following hymn:

Thus spoke the Son, “Hold thou to Me,
From now on that wilt make it.
I gave my life for thee
And for thee I will stake it.
For I am thine and thou art mine,
And where I am our lives entwine,
The Old Fiend cannot shake it.” 

Nailing His Revelation to the Church Door
When Luther saw the truth of God’s redemptive plan, he came face to face with the greed and hypocrisy governing church affairs. Grieved by the deception and abusive practices taking place, he determined to expose the Church and bring its followers to a clear understanding of God’s redemptive work on the Cross. Luther began this daunting task by compiling a list of concerns.

By the time he finished writing down his concerns and objections, there were ninety-five statements. It was his intention that these would provide the basis for open discussion. Not even sure of their scriptural accuracy, he nailed them to the church door with an invitation to explore the topics further during a time of public debate. He had no idea that what he posted would ignite a revolution that ultimately changed the course of history. The main points of Luther’s theses were: 1) his objection of indulgence money going to build St. Peter’s Basilica; 2) his denial of the Pope’s power over purgatory; and 3) his consideration of the welfare of the sinner.

The ninety-five theses as they came to be known had been translated into German and were circulating among the common people as well as the church officials. At the same time that they angered Church leaders they were opening the eyes of the people. Within a matter of weeks, all of Germany knew of the articles and nearly everyone praised Luther’s boldness. It wasn’t long before Rome was alarmed and a case was established against Luther.

Rome’s Reply
The Pope set a trap and invited Luther to a forum in Augsburg to engage in a public debate. It was the fall of 1517 when Luther arrived ready to make his case heard. Soon Luther discovered the Pope’s true agenda for the meeting, and that was to intimidate Luther into recanting without any room for discussion under threat of being bound and taken to Rome. Luther boldly declared that he would not and stated that a common man armed with Scripture had more authority than the Pope and all his councils.

Somehow Luther was not bound, nor taken to Rome, but simply thrown out of the building. He made his way back to Wittenburg where he was safe from the arm of the Church due to his popularity among the people there. The Church hierarchy became increasingly frustrated and determined to ensnare Luther.

An order was issued by the Pope declaring his official stand regarding the sale of indulgences—one of the main issues Luther had spoken out against. This put Luther one step closer to being charged with heresy. The papal bull was issued in October of 1520 and Luther was given sixty days to recant. Meanwhile, as a result of the bull, Luther’s books were being burned throughout Europe. Luther’s response was to issue a statement in which he declared:

“Know that I, with all who worship Christ, consider the Seat of Rome to be occupied by Satan and to be the throne of the Antichrist, and that I will no longer obey nor remain united to him, the chief and deadly enemy of Christ. If you persist in your fury, I condemn you to Satan, together with this Bull and your decretals for the destruction of your flesh, in order that your spirit may be saved with us in the Day of the Lord. In the name of Him whom you persecute, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.”

When the sixty days passed, Luther posted another invitation—this time he invited the public to witness a grand display of burning not only the papal bull, but also the precious canon law! Like Hus, he asserted that Scripture alone was the final authority, not the Pope, nor his councils, nor the canon law—and that furthermore, the Pope had no power over purgatory. In fact, there was no biblical basis for any such thing as purgatory in the first place.

New Waves of Reform and Rebuke
Threatened with excommunication, Luther remained undaunted. He pressed on with a renewed fervor in his preaching, teaching, and writing. He published devotional booklets, tracks on prayer, studies on the book of Psalms and a commentary on Galatians. Four thousand copies of Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation sold within eighteen days of it printings and a number of reprints went to press. Almost the entire upper class of Germany read it. Next he published On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and shortly after that he wrote On the Freedom of a Christian.

In response to these writings, a second attempt was made to silence Luther. It was now 1521 and the annual meeting of a secular court of judges was being held called the Diet of Worms, in the city of Worms. Luther was summoned there to answer for his writings. Again, he was given the opportunity to claim responsibility for the writings and to recant. Again, Luther refused not being able to “act against his conscience.” He was condemned and given twenty-one days to return to Wittenburg. The Edict of Worms legally condemned Luther as a heretic which meant anyone could murder him without consequences.

A high-ranking friend arranged for a fake arrest as Luther made his way home and brought him to one of his castles. Luther hid there in a room behind a retractable staircase for ten months. He grew his hair and a beard and was referred to as “Knight George.” When he left the castle he was not even recognized by a close friend. It was during his time in hiding that he translated the entire New Testament from Latin to German.

Life back in Wittenberg
A peasant revolt broke out on the heels of Luther’s stand for reformation. There were violent clashes between the classes, and the churches were being desecrated. Luther stepped in to keep the peasants from destroying religious artwork and relics; and to keep the nobles from retaliating too harshly against the peasants. He aided in liberating monks and nuns from being held against their wills in monasteries and convents, and began social reforms that included care of the poor, orphans, students at the university, and providing dowries for poor brides.

One of the nuns he helped to liberate, Katherine von Bora, had been placed in the convent against her will by a new stepmother when she was only nine or ten. She was now twenty-six years old and Luther was having a difficult time finding a suitable husband for her. Katherine suggested Luther himself, and despite their age difference—Luther was forty-one—and the two became close friends. On June 13, 1525, they were married. She was an excellent administrator and financial manager. The two complimented each other well, she cared for his ailments and kept his affairs in order. Together they had six children.

Luther continued his pastoral duties—preaching, teaching, writing, and mentoring students. He wrote a German Mass that was centered on Scripture and two catechisms for both children and adults to study. He wrote hymns and brought music and singing into his services. And most importantly, in 1534, he expanded his translation of the Bible to include the Old Testament. He assembled a team of the best scholars and visited different regions to hear how they spoke so he could make the translation relevant to all. Every German sought to possess Luther’s Bible and it remains a popular translation in Germany today. It not only brought the light of Scripture into the homes and hearts of the laity, but also laid the groundwork for the formation of the modern German language.

His Last Days
On January 23, 1546, Luther set out on a journey to settle a dispute between various dukes and their subjects. Although he was weak from illness and had to stop and rest along the way, when he arrived he still managed to preach four times, administer Communion twice, and ordain two ministers. He commented, “If I can but succeed in restoring harmony amongst my dear princes and their subjects, I will cheerfully return home and lay me down to the grave.”

By February his illness had grown worse, and on the night of February 17, Luther prayed continuously that the Lord would take him home. In the early hours of February 18, he closed his eyes and entered peacefully into eternal rest.

Works Consulted 

  1. “Martin Luther, The Early Years,” Christian History Magazine 11, no. 2, issue 34 (Carol Stream, III.: Christianity Today, Inc.): 16
  2. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand—A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1978), 25
  3. Liardon, God’s Generals II, 125.
  4. “The Early Years,” 15
  5. Ibid.
  6. Bainton, 50.
  7. Ibid, 51.
  8. God’s Generals II, 141.
  9. God’s Generals II, 145.
  10. “The Early Years,” 14.
  11. God’s Generals II, 153
  12. Back to the Bible Publisher, Martin Luther, The Reformer (Lincoln, NE: Moody Press): 125.