Martin Luther and the Reformation


October 31 - a date by which we remember the Reformation. It was on that date in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany, listing the abuses of the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Because of the stir and debate which followed, this date has long been considered the beginning of the Reformation. Even secular historians admit that the Reformation was the cause of monumental changes, not just in Germany, but throughout the world. Up to that time there was, for all practical purposes, only one Christian religion - Roman Catholicism. The Reformation brought about a separation into three distinct groups still seen today: Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Protestant. Almost all “Christian” denominations owe their beginning to Martin Luther and the Reformation.

The Roman Catholic Church was at one time a true-teaching church based on the doctrine of the apostles and prophets. But over time, power and greed began to control the church, not the Bible. In 593 the doctrine of purgatory was invented; already in the eighth century the church was declaring its power in temporal matters; in 1075 Gregory VII declared all clerical marriages invalid; in 1184 the church declared the right to torture or kill anyone who contradicted the teachings of the pope (the inquisition); in 1190 indulgences began to be sold offering less punishment for sins in purgatory; in 1215 the doctrine of transubstantiation was added; in 1226 the teaching of the adoration of the host; in 1229 the church condemned Bible societies saying that only the church could interpret Scripture; in 1303 Pope Boniface VIII issued a bull claiming papal supremacy in all things; and in 1415 they began to withhold the cup from the laity in the Lord’s Supper. All of this (and much more) led up to the movement for reformation within the church.

The Seed of the Reformation

Luther was not the first to stand up against corruption and false teaching within the Roman Catholic Church. There were many before him....

William Occam (1280-1349), and English theologian, was excommunicated because of his opposition to the teachings of the church. He taught that the pope was not infallible; that the General Council was the highest power of the church and not the pope; that Holy Scripture was the only infallible truth in matters of faith and conduct; and that in all secular matters the church and the pope were subordinate to the state.

John Wyclif (1320-1384) followed with a strong reform movement that spread over England and into Europe. Wyclif spoke out against transubstantiation, upheld the authority of Scripture, and even went so far as to declare the pope the antichrist. In 1377, Pope Gregory XI condemned Wyclif, but the English government protected him. Unfortunately, due to the political turmoil in England which followed, Wyclif was named a heretic, and his books were burned.

John Hus (1369-1415) began a reformation in Bohemia, teaching that the Church is the body of the elect, and Christ is it head – not the pope. As a result he was excommunicated, summoned before the Council of Constance, condemned as a heretic, and burned at the stake.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) continued the move for reformation in Italy. He taught that people could not be saved by their own works or by indulgences, but only by the grace of God through Christ Jesus, and that good works could only be expected where the heart had been regenerated by faith. In 1497 the papal ban was pronounced on him and an interdict against the city of Florence. The city gathered together and condemned him to death as a heretic.

The movement toward reformation was becoming stronger and more widespread, preparing the way for another “reformer.”

The Birth of the Reformation

Martin Luther (1483-1546) did not have grand plans to become a reformer of the church. But the LORD used him and many others to bring many out of the increasing spiritual darkness that was creeping into the church. Luther was not alone. The LORD also raised up many others who stood beside Luther and took his place.

Andreas Karlstadt (1480-1541) was a strong supporter of Luther and the Reformation and even participated in the Leipzig disputation against John Eck. But Karlstadt was a radical revolutionist, and incited the people to acts of violence. He was finally expelled from Saxony because of his actions.

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was very gifted. He went to college at that age of 12, and received a Masters degree at the age of 19. He excelled in languages, and studied and taught the Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. Melanchthon was instrumental in helping Luther with his translation of the Bible into German. At the age of 21 he came to the University of Wittenberg to teach Greek. It was there that he met Luther who became his mentor and encouraged him to take up the study of theology. Three years later he published a book on dogmatics. While instrumental in the reformation Melanchthon also had strong humanistic and synergistic tendencies probably due to the influence of his grandfather, Reuchlin. Melanchthon, though gifted in language and writing, had no backbone, and was given to compromise. As the main author of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology, his work had to be added to in order to take a strong stance against the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. Another problem was that Melanchthon was never satisfied with his work, and was continually re-writing his work (usually for the worse!). In his later years, Melanchthon was the cause of several controversies within Lutheranism.

Andreas Osiander (1498-1552) was a priest who was eager for a reformation of the church. He met Luther in 1529 and stood beside him at his meeting with Zwingli. He was also at the Diet at Augsburg where he remained strong against Melanchthon’s concessions, and attended many other meetings. Sadly he also was the cause of a controversy within the church on the doctrine of justification.

Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586) is often called “the second Martin” and is considered to be one of the most learned theologians of his time. He studied under Luther at Wittenberg in 1545, and later aptly took Luther’s place as one of the leaders of the Reformation. He stood up against the false teachings of Osiander and others, and took the leading part in writing the Formula of Concord, which condemned many of the false teachings that had arisen within Lutheranism since the death of Luther.

Jakob Andreae (1528-1590) was an active reformer in southern Germany. He worked hard to bring peace between the Lutherans who were dividing due to doctrinal controversy. Along with Chemnitz, Andreae was the chief author of the Formula of Concord which declared the true teaching of Scripture against the many errors that were being taught.

Nikolaus Selnecker (1530-1592) helped with the writing of the Formula of Concord. He also wrote several hymns found in our hymnal.

Let us give thanks to our gracious LORD for using these individuals to uphold the Biblical truth of Salvation by Grace alone through faith in Jesus. The Reformation theme remains ours today - Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Scripture Alone! Thanks be to God.

The Life of Martin Luther and the Reformation Era

1483    Martin Luther born at Eisleben, Germany

1498    Went to school in Eisenach, stayed with Ursula Cotta.

1501    Entered the University of Erfurt to study law

1505    Entered a cloister in Erfurt and became a monk.

1507    Became a priest

1508    Began teaching at the University of Wittenberg

1510    Luther made a journey to Rome

1512    Became a Doctor of Divinity; Continued to teach and preach in Wittenberg and grow in His understanding of the Scriptures.

1517    October 31 - Luther posted the 95 theses against the abuses of indulgences

1519    Luther debates with John Eck at Leipzig

1520    Pope threatened to excommunicate Luther

1521    Luther summoned to the Diet of Worms by the Emperor; Branded an outlaw, kidnaped, and taken to the Wartburg Castle where he translated the New Testament into German

1522    Returned to Wittenberg because of chaos there

1523    Luther wrote and published his first hymns

1525    Married Catherine von Bora

1529    Published Large and Small Catechisms; met with Zwingli at Marburg

1530    Diet at Augsburg - The Augsburg Confession and the Apology written

1534    Luther published German translation of the whole Bible

1536    Luther writes the Smalcald Articles

1545    Beginning of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent

1546    Luther died at Eisleben on February 18; the Smalcald war

1547    Augsburg Interim (Romanist compromise)

1548    Leipzig Interim (Lutheran compromise)

1579    Formula of Concord written by Jacob Andreae and Martin Chemnitz to settle Lutheran doctrinal disputes

1580    The Book of Concord compiled and published for the purpose of stating Lutheran teaching based on Scripture


Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.

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