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Martin Luther towers over Western history as one of the most important people who has ever lived. He lived from 1483 to 1546 during the amazing period of history that included the revolution wrought by the printing press and men such as Copernicus, Henry VIII, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, John Knox, Christopher Columbus, and John Calvin. The copper miner's son was born in Eisleben, Germany, which is about 120 miles outside of Berlin. Luther's keen intellect was apparent from a young age. He began studying law at the university when he was only thirteen; he finished both his bachelor's and master's degrees in the shortest time period allowed by the university.
I Will Become a Monk
At the age of twenty-one, while traveling home during a severe thunderstorm, Luther was nearly struck by lightning. Fearful, he interpreted it as a sign from God and cried out, "I will become a monk."
Living in Terror of the Wrath of God
As a Catholic monk Luther lived in terror of the wrath of God and sought by every means available to make himself righteous in God's sight. This included a life of prayer, severe fasting that caused him intestinal problems later in life, sleepless nights, freezing cold, and even beating his own body to the point of considerable pain-all in an effort to pay God back for his sin. All of Luther's self-denial and pain were the result of poor theological instruction. Simply, he had been told that the world is filled with good people and bad people and that God lovingly saves the good people and angrily damns the bad people. Therefore, the only hope a person has is to essentially save themselves by doing righteous things to make themselves holy.
Entirely Born Again
While pursuing a doctorate in Bible, Luther began to see the gospel rightly through devoted studies of the Psalms and book of Romans. Speaking of that time, Luther said, "At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I . . . began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which 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 the gates that had been flung open."
Righteousness Through Faith
By God's grace through the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, Luther rightly came to see that righteousness is not a state that a sinner merits for himself or herself. Instead, righteousness is a gift that God gives to the sinner who simply trusts in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. The great biblical truth of justification by faith alone through grace alone by Jesus Christ alone was liberated and the power of the gospel was unleashed to reform the church.
The Ninety-Five Theses
The conflict over the nature of the gospel started with Luther studying Scripture and gained momentum on All Saints' Eve in 1517, when Luther publicly denounced the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were sold by the Catholic Church for the living to purchase-for themselves or their dead relatives suffering in the mythical purgatory-relief from the punishment for sin. Luther called for a public debate on this and other theological matters that he rightly saw as incongruent with the teachings of Scripture, outlining his complaints in the now-legendary Ninety-Five Theses.
Here I Stand
Luther's criticisms of the church gathered enough support that in 1521 he was required to stand before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at Worms, Germany. Great pressure was exerted on Luther to recant of his teachings, which caused him much anguish. In the end, Luther boldly said, "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." Then he added, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen." Luther was subsequently denounced as a heretic, declared as a "demon in the appearance of a man," and forced into hiding for ten months. The remainder of his life was essentially lived as an outlaw on the run.
Nonetheless, Luther translated the entire Bible into German, wrote the great hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," published many books and pamphlets totaling some sixty thousand pages, and published both the Larger and Smaller Catechisms, which have been loved by Lutherans as well as other Christians ever since for their clear teaching of essential biblical doctrines, despite his own wishes that "all my books would disappear and the Holy Scriptures alone be read." By the end of his life, Luther knew most of the New Testament and large sections of the Old Testament by heart as he clung to the Scriptures for guidance in tumultuous times. Eventually, Luther simply burned out after years of exhausting work that included extensive preaching; he died in 1546 at the age of sixty-three.
For Further Reading
For those wanting to benefit more from Luther's amazing insights on the cross of Jesus Christ, Alister McGrath's work Luther's Theology of the Cross is very helpful. Furthermore, his insights on a theology of the cross as contrasted with a theology of glory are timeless. Also, everyone who preaches and teaches should read Luther's Lectures on Galatians. Whereas his Commentary on Galatians can be polemical about the papacy as it was for more of a public audience, his lectures on Galatians were for his congregation and hold some unparalleled gospel insights. Today the influence of Luther's theology of the cross is often echoed in the teachings of Tim Keller and can be read in the amazing book The Cross of Christ by John Stott, in which he explores the many rich sides of the cross from a classic Reformed perspective. Everyone who wants to more fully appreciate the cross should take the time to carefully and prayerfully read this book.