Martin Luther: His life and his contribution to Christianity

One of my favorite part time jobs is to teach history at a folk high school. Recently we accepted Bismarck and the unification of Germany. The textbook states: Bismarck is the most important German leader since Martin Luther. For a second I felt tempted to explain why a theological thinker could receive such a high compliment, but then I remembered and ignored it.

Here it is taken up again: Why does a religious figure from Germany rank so high in an American textbook? An appropriately captivating introduction to one of the most impressive figures in world history.

How can a person do justice to God?

Martin Luther, the central figure of the Protestant Reformation, was born 1483 and died 1546. He was a giant in a time of outstanding historical figures. Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Erasmus and Thomas More were his contemporaries; Christopher Columbus sailed when Luther pushed to school at Latin school.

Luther was born in the Thuringian town of Eisleben. At a time when child and infant mortality was 60% and above, Luther was fortunate enough to be born. His father Hans Luder, a former miner, had brought it to prosperity as a metallurgist in copper shale mining. Luther's love of music compensated him for the strict education of his parents, who cared for him but also punished him with a hard hand. At the age of sixteen, Luther was already a competent Latvian and was sent to the University of Erfurt. 1505, at the age of twenty-two, earned there the MA and the philosopher's nickname.

His father decided that Master Martin would make a good lawyer; the young man did not resist. But one day, on the way from Mansfeld to Erfurt, Martin got into a heavy thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning threw him to the ground, and according to good Catholic custom, he shouted: Help me, Saint Anna, I want to become a monk! He honored that word. In 1505 he entered the order of the Augustinian hermits, in 1507 he read his first mass. After James Kittelson (Luther the Reformer), friends and brothers could not yet discover any of the outstanding traits in the young monk that made him such an exceptional figure in ten short years. Luther later said, if it had been humanly possible to win heaven as a monk, about his strict observance of the religious rules with their fasting and penance exercises, he would certainly have made it.

A stormy time

The Lutheran era was an era of saints, pilgrims and ever-present death. The Middle Ages came to an end, and Catholic theology was still largely backward-looking. Europe's pious saw themselves penned in an enclosure of legalistic claims, from the sacraments of the sacraments, confession and oppression by the priestly caste. The ascetic young Luther could sing a song of mortification, of hunger and thirst, of sleep deprivation and self-flagellation. Nevertheless, his conscience was not satisfied. The strict religious discipline only increased his sense of guilt. It was the trap of legalism - how do you know that you've done enough?

Although he lived as a monk without blame, writes Luther, he felt with the greatest conscience possible that he was a sinner before God. But I could not love the righteous God, who punishes sin, rather hated him ... I was filled with displeasure against God, if not in secret blasphemy, then with a mighty murmur, and said: Is it not enough that the God miserable sinners who are eternally damned by original sin are oppressed with all sorts of evil by the law of the Ten Commandments? Does God still have to grief the Gospel and threaten us with his righteousness and wrath through the gospel?

Such bluntness and open honesty has always been typical for Luther. And though the world knows well its further life and work - its crusade against a gushy, secular church of indulgences, alms, and arrogant justice of the arts - few acknowledge that it was always a matter of conscience for Luther. His basic question was of superber simplicity: how can a person do justice to God? Beyond all manmade barriers that obscured the simplicity of the gospel, Luther focused on what many in Christendom had forgotten - the message of justification by faith alone. This justice surpasses everything and is of a fundamentally different nature than justice in secular-political and justice in the ecclesiastical-ceremonial sphere.

Luther raised a thunderous protest cry against the perturbing ritualism of his time. Five hundred years later, it is worth seeing him the way his guilty fellow Christians saw him: as a passionate pastor who is usually on the side of the oppressed sinner; as an evangelist of the highest order for what matters most - peace with God (Rom 5,1); as the savior of the tortured conscience in questions related to God.

Luther could be rude, uncouth like a peasant. His anger against those who opposed him, as he thought, to his message of justification could be terrible. He has been accused of anti-Semitism, and not wrongly. But with all errors Luther has to consider: The central Christian message - salvation by faith - was in the West at that time in danger of dying out. God sent a man who could save the faith from the hopeless scrub of human accessories and make it attractive again. The humanist and reformer Melanchthon said in his homily on Luther that he had been a sharp doctor to the sick age, the tool for the renewal of the church.

Peace with God

This is art for Christians alone, writes Luther, that I turn from my sin, and I do not want to know anything about it, and turn to Christ's righteousness alone, that I know for certain that Christ's piety, merit, innocence, and holiness are mine Sey, as surely as I know, this body is mine. I live, die and drive towards him, for he died for us, rose again for us. I am not pious, but Christ is pious. In your name I was baptized ...

After a difficult spiritual struggle and many painful life crises, Luther finally found God's righteousness, the righteousness that comes from God through faith (Phil. 3,9). That is why his prose sings the song of hope, joy, confidence in thinking of the almighty, omniscient God, who, despite everything, stands by the repentant sinner through his work in Christ. Although he was a sinner according to the law with regard to the justice of the law, Luther writes that if he does not despair, he will not die because Christ lives, who is both, human righteousness and eternal heavenly life. In that righteousness and that life, Luther, he knew no more sin, no conscience, no worry about death.

Luther's shining calls to sinners to profess true faith and not fall into the trap of easy mercy are startling and beautiful. Faith is something that God works in us. He changed us, and we were born again of God. Unimaginable vitality and unimaginable power dwells on him. He could always only do good things. He never waits and asks if there are good works to do; but before the question is asked, he has already done the deed and continues to do so.

In the forgiveness of God, Luther placed unconditional, supreme trust: being Christian is nothing but the constant practice of the feeling that one has no sin - even though one sins - but that one's own sins are thrown upon Christ. That says everything. Out of this overwhelming faith, Luther attacked the most powerful institution of his time, the papacy, and made Europe sit up and take notice. Certainly, in open confession of his continuing struggles with the devil, Luther is still a man of the Middle Ages. As Heiko A. Oberman says in Luther - Man between God and the Devil: A psychiatric analysis would take Luther out of the rest of his chances of teaching at a modern university.

The great evangelist

Nevertheless, in his self-opening, in the defeat of his inner struggles, visible to the eyes of the world, Master Martin was ahead of his time. He had no qualms about publicly tracing his illness and just as powerfully proclaiming the remedy. His endeavor to undergo a sharp, sometimes unflattering self-analysis in his writings gives them a warm feeling that reaches into the 21. Century radiates. He speaks of the deep joy that fills the heart when man hears the Christian message that has received the comfort of the gospel; he then loves Christ as he never could because of laws or works alone. The heart believes that the righteousness of Christ is then his and that his sin is no longer Christ's own, but Christ's; that all sin is devoured by the righteousness of Christ.

What could be seen as Luther's legacy (a word so often used in the mouth today)? In fulfilling his great mission of confronting Christianity with salvation through grace, Luther made three fundamental theological contributions. They were monumental. He taught the primacy of individual conscience over oppression forces. He was the Thomas Jefferson of Christianity. In the northern European countries of England, France and the Netherlands, this ideal fell on fertile ground; in the following centuries they became bastions of human rights and individual freedoms.

In 1522 he published his translation of the New Testament (The Newe Testament Deutzsch) based on the Greek text of Erasmus. This created a precedent for other countries - no longer Latin, but the gospel in the mother tongue! This gave the Bible reading and the entire intellectual development of the West - not to mention German literature - a powerful boost. The Reformation insistence on Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) promoted the education system tremendously - after all, you had to have learned to read to study the sacred text.

Luther's painful, but ultimately victorious conscience and soul exploration, which he publicly promoted, fueled a sense of confidence, a new openness in debating sensitive issues that has influenced not only evangelists like John Wesley, but also writers, historians, and psychologists of the following centuries.

Eradicate the forest and the sticks

Luther was human, too human. Sometimes he embarrasses his most ardent defenders. His insults against Jews, peasants, Turks and Rottengeister still make one's hair stand on end. Luther was just a fighter, a forerunner with a curved ax, someone who was weeding and bartering. It is good plowing when the field is cleared; but destroy the forest and the sticks, and prepare the field, no one wants to, he writes in the letter of interpreting, his justification for his epoch-making Bible translation.

For all the downsides: Luther was the key figure of the Reformation, one of the great turning points in history, for believing Protestants the turning point after the events of the first century. If so, if we need to judge personalities against their background and their influence beyond their time, then the Christian can indeed be proud that Martin Luther stands as a historical figure at eye level next to Otto von Bismarck.

by Neil Earle


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