Minister And Witness: The Callings Of Martin Luther
“But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to your for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things you have seen and of the things which I will reveal to you.”–Acts 26:16
This October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg Castle church door. Some might respond with, “Oh, okay,” or some other equally disinterested comment. Others might say, “Martin Luther? Oh, the guy who gave the “I Have A Dream” speech.” Not quite. Martin Luther is one the most important figures in Christian history in the last 550 years. And his Ninety-five Theses? This document ranks up there with the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution in importance. It is a document that, once shared, changed the world.
Eisleben, Saxony, in what is now southwestern Germany, in a simple two-story house, Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483. His parents, Hans and Margarette Luther, had him baptized at the nearby Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Hans was a miner and an ore smelter, but his desire was for his son to become something better. He set his son on the educational course to become a lawyer. In 1501, at the age of 17, Martin entered the University of Erfurt. Despite the bright future of promise, the young man could find no peace within. Romans 3:17 tells us, “And the way of peace have they not known.”
In 1505, Martin was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Like so many, the young man, fearing for his life, called out for help. Calling out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, he begged to survive the night. If he were to live, he vowed to God he would leave the practice of law and become a monk. The storm subsided and, although his father was disappointed, Martin fulfilled the promise he made. Despite entering into service for the Lord, however, Martin was still unable to find the peace he sought.
Time and again, he returned to Romans 1:17. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith”.” His focus was not on the word “faith”, but upon the word “righteousness”. Believing that only the righteous could live by faith, he sought to make himself righteous. He spent hours at a time in confession until a mentor told him to forget everything else and focus on Christ. It was during lectures on the book of Psalms and studying the book of Romans that he finally had a breakthrough.
“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 entered into paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” By turning his focus to Christ, Martin began to see many things in a new light. It was these new revelations that brought his conscience into conflict with the Catholic Church.
In 1517, Pope Leo X was seeking funds to help build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As a way to raise money, he began to issue indulgences—basically “Get out of Hell” pardons—for a small donation. Many of these were sold throughout Germany by a man named Johann Tetzel. His sales pitch was simple and effective. “Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!” Who could resist the urge to buy a loved one into heaven? Martin Luther made his opinion of these indulgences—as well as many other church practices—known on the eve of All Saints’ Day.
When Martin nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church door, his intent was not to start a world-changing movement. All the man wanted was to start a debate as is evident by his opening words. “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter. In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
It didn’t take long, however, before Martin’s fame—or infamy, depending upon who you asked—spread throughout Germany. By 1519, the man who challenged Rome was living under the threat of excommunication, meaning he would no longer be a part of the church community. Rather than cower in fear, he returned to his writing desk and produced three treaties.
The first, The Address to Christian Nobility, called upon the princes of the German states to help reform the Church. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, examined the sacraments and compared them to what the Bible said. In this work, Martin also referred to the pope as the Antichrist. On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther’s third treatise, spoke of free will. If Christians were the forgiven children of God, they should serve Him freely and willingly, not be compelled to do so.
Initially called to go to Rome, Martin, instead, ended up standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V at Worms, Germany. Thinking he was partaking in another debate, he was surprised to find himself being called upon to recant his writings. Requesting time to think about he was being required to do, the emperor granted him a day to reflect. Martin did just that.
When called to stand before Charles the following day, Martin Luther spoke these words. “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they contradict each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
Thanks to a letter of safe conduct, he was permitted to return home rather than be arrested. After leaving Worms, he was declared an outlaw and a heretic by the emperor, and anyone who found him had the right to kill him without fear of punishment. Suspecting something like this, one of Luther’s supporters, Frederick the Wise had him kidnapped on his way home. Martin’s destination was Wartburg Castle and he remained there for 10 months. It was during this time of seclusion that Martin translated the New Testament into German.
From 1522 until his death in 1546, Martin Luther found himself in more debates and even a scandal or three. In 1524, he supported the princes when the peasants revolted. Katharina von Bora, a former nun, became his bride in 1525. In 1543, he wrote the highly anti-Semitic treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies. He was plagued by stomach disorders and kidney stones, as well as the effects of malnutrition from his days at the monastery. Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546 in Eisleben, the town of his birth.
Despite the controversial actions of his latter years, we need to look at the example of Martin Luther’s life as a whole. At a time when the Catholic Church controlled nearly every aspect of daily life, Martin reminded the people—and the world—that only God could forgive sin. Acts 4:12 tells us this. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”
Martin is also an example of what it means to stand steadfast in the faith. Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 10:33. “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven”. When faced with the possibility of excommunication, the accusation of heresy, and the threat of death, Martin stood firm. “I cannot and I will not recant…” Throughout the world, Christians are being called to recant their belief in God, to deny Him, or face death. I pray we can follow Martin’s example and stand. Ephesians 6:13 prepares us for such a day. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
Martin Luther was just one man who stood in the face of adversity. Through it all, he continued to minister to the people.His faith helped change the world. In his fear, he found purpose. When God calls, don’t be afraid to step out; sometimes, He just needs one person to make a change.