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The Life of Martin Luther with emphasis on the Reformation

Updated on November 4, 2015

While there are many key figures to Christianity, it could be argued that, other than Jesus and his disciples, none were quite as influential as Martin Luther was – at least from a Protestant point of view. For the purpose of this paper, I will discuss key life events in Martin Luther’s life, paying special attention to the Reformation and its effects on the Church as a whole.


1483 - 1505

Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483, in Saxony, Germany, to Hans and Margarethe Luther. As was common at that time, Martin was named after the saint upon whose feast-day he was born – St. Martin[1]. While little was known of his life at the time, we do know that he was the oldest of seven and that he was always a very religiously sensitive person – he was evidently terrified of the graphic religious pictures at the time.[2] Luther’s father, Hans, was a miner and worked hard to put Luther through college – at the age of 21 Luther received a Master of Arts and proceeded to enroll in law school, as per his father’s wishes[3]. However, fate had different plans for him; while on his way home from school Luther was caught in a thunderstorm – in fear he promised St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, that if she would protect him he would become a monk. Even though his father objected, Luther kept his promise and entered a monastery within the month.

[1] Biography of Martin Luther.

[2] Et al

[3] Et al

1505 – 1513

Luther took monastic life very seriously, confessing sins sometimes twenty times a day and punishing himself often by sleeping on the hard floor for transgressions – all for the hope of shortening his time in Purgatory. Purgatory, the catechisms teach, is a place of purification that is necessary for souls to go through, as nothing unclean may enter the presence of God. [1] To further this question, Luther agreed to represent his monastery in a tour of Rome, where he was horrified at the immorality of the Roman priest. In yet another attempt to decrease his time spent in Purgatory, Luther dutifully kissed each of the stairs known he Scala Sancta, known then as Pilate’s Stairs[2]. Pilate’s Stairs are purportedly the stairs that Jesus climbed for His trial before Pilate.[3] It was as Luther dutifully made his way to the top, desperate to earn salvation, he began to doubt the churches teachings on merits and relics.[4] A relic is something that was part of the body of a saint, part of their clothing, or something they touched and the Catholic Church teaches that these items are to be shown reverence.[5] The word merit is synonymous with the Greek word for reward[6], and to be fair to the Catholic Church the Bible does teach that the faithful will be rewarded, in Heaven, for the good works we do while in this world[7]. That said, at the time of Martin Luther priestly services could be bought, a system called ‘Indulgences’, reducing the time the buyer would spend in purgatory.[8] It is important to note that the Catholic Church claims that, while some specific Catholics sold Indulgences, the Catholic Church has never condoned the selling of Indulgences[9]. Either way, when Luther returned from his trip to Rome he was troubled and fighting disillusionment with the church.

Luther took his concerns and worries to his superior, Johann von Staupitz, who counseled him to stop worrying and just love God, which only made Luther’s confusion worse – how could he love someone he feared as much as Luther feared God? In fact, later in Luther’s life, he admitted that at that time of his life, he hated God – and who would not hate a Being that he had been taught to fear? Finally, Staupitz recommended that Luther return to University, to get a doctorate in theology.

[1] Purgatory.

[2] Biography of Martin Luther.

[3] Livarius.

[4] Biography of Martin Luther

[5] Mangan.

[6] Reward and Merit.

[7] Matthew 5:12, James 1:12, Matthew 16:27, Revelations 2:10


[9] Does the Catholic Church still sell Indulgences?


1513 – 1521

Whether Staupitz ended up regretting his suggestion, Luther took to University like a fish to water. It was while studying the Scripture that he realized, first, that both Jesus and King David had faced the same desolation of spirit as Luther when they cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”[1] Later, in Romans, he learned that the just live by faith.[2] These verses helped ease his mind, as evidenced by recorded lectures and conversations.[3]

Unfortunately, for Luther, about this time the Pope ran short on funds, and began the sale of Indulgences. Indulgences, as mentioned before, were merits that could be bought so as to lessen time spent in Purgatory. While the Pope claimed that these Indulgences were just for the aforementioned merits, he put the sale of them in the hands of a Dominican monk named John Tetzel, who further promised forgiveness of sins through the sale of Indulgences, along with the purity of soul that happened only after baptism. He further promises that you could buy Indulgences for deceased family members, lessening their time spent in Purgatory.[4] Luther was outraged, and in October, of 1517 penned an argument against Indulgences, which he then nailed to the doors of the castle church. This argument, called 95 theses, was written in Latin, and were only intended to initiate discussion among his colleagues, but it was quickly translated to German and distributed to the people – eventually it was brought to the Pope’s attention. In April of 1518, when Luther was invited to his orders next meeting he feared for his life – a valid worry as heresy was a crime punishable by death at the time. Luckily, for him, he was not the only friar to disagree with the sale of Indulgences. That said, later that year, the Pope sent a representative to Augsburg, not only to convince Germany to join in the Crusades, but also to convince Luther to recant some of his theses’. Luther asked them to prove him wrong, scripturally, and was informed that if he did not recant he would be arrested.

Fearing for his life, Luther fled back to Wittenberg. Fortunately, for him the Pope did not want to anger Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise – he wanted Frederick’s support for the Crusades - and so a truce was called between the Pope and Luther. However, Luther was still pulled into the occasional debate and in 1521 Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. That same year, in a diet – the Diet of Worms – he was again given the chance to recant. Again, Luther refused saying,

“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."[5]

[1] Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46

[2] Biography of Martin Luther.

[3] Biography of Martin Luther.

[4] Et al.

[5] Biography of Martin Luther.

1521 – 1546

After the Diet of Worms, Luther mysteriously (or so it was thought at the time) disappeared on his way back to Wittenberg. It is now known that Frederic the Wise, Luther’s prince, had him ‘kidnapped’ and taken to the castle, where he grew a beard and took on the name of Jörg. During this sojourn, Luther continued to work on his translation of the New Testament, which was published in 1522.

It could be argued that what happened afterward had been brewing for a while, but nonetheless, this led to quite a furor. Many of Luther’s former colleagues began to renounce pieces of their faith, such as their vows of celibacy.[1] Others began to neglect their pilgrimages and fasts.[2] Luther reluctantly agreed with some of the changes, as they had been taken with the view of earning a shorter time in Purgatory, and did not approve of others – such as the removal of mass and communion. Eventually, things led to the Peasants War, which Luther initially approved of, but ended up changing his tune as the atrocities committed by the peasants increased. Beyond that, from a political point of view, Luther was dependant on his prince’s generosity and had to be careful not to anger him.[3]

In 1530, Emperor Charles V called another diet; this called the Diet of Augsburg, inviting the Protestants to present their arguments. The Lutherans submitted what is now called the Confession of Augsburg and which later became the Lutheran’s statement of doctrine. Several other Protestant groups submitted statements, too. This diet only led to more disagreement and eventually the negotiations broke down. However, because of the opposition of the Catholic Church and Charles V, the smaller groups of Protestants joined together into a larger league; the Schmalkaldic League.

There is not much else known of Luther’s life, other than through his writings. Martin Luther died on 18 February 1546 at the age of 63. It was years before the Roman Catholic Church stopped fighting the growth of Protestantism and many people died in the process – many Protestants appreciate his efforts while the Catholics feel that Luther’s viewpoints only lead only to chaos.[4]

[1] Biography of Martin Luther.

[2] Et al

[3] Et al

[4] Serpa.


The Reformation

It is important to know that while Martin Luther was a key player in the Reformation, he was not the only key player and he did not see Protestantism prosper in his life time. The year that he died, Charles V went to war with the ‘Protestant Princes’.[1] The Schmalkaldic War was fought between 1546 and 1547 – the Schmalkadlic League was quickly defeated, largely because of ineffectual leadership and internal disagreements. However, in 1551 a new league was created, that included Maurice of Saxony, and so in 1552, at the Peace of Passau, Charles V accepted the existence of the evangelical church and promised to hold a diet to discuss peace. In 1555, Charles followed through on his promise in what is now called the Peace of Augsburg.[2]

This led to a decrease in wars and added stability, but it was not the end of these changes. While the Protestant church was now acknowledged, it lacked organization – there was much internal doctrinal controversy.[3] Because of this, the princes of Germany sat down and put together documents, such as the Formula of Concord, then they took on the task of making a complete statement of the Lutheran theology, which was called the Book of Concord. That said, not only Germany was Protestant, and Lutheranism was not the only denomination of Protestantism.

In Switzerland, a man named Huldreich Zwingli, pastor at Einsiedeln, began to oppose the abuses of the Roman system, the selling of Indulgences, and the selling of the Swiss as mercenaries. Zwingli, himself, prepared something he called the sixty-seven articles, which emphasized salvation by faith, the authority of the Bible, the headship of Christ, and the right of clerical marriages (Zwingli was already in a secret marriage at the time to Anna Reinhard). However, Zwinglianism and Lutheranism developed separately, largely because of a disagreement between Zwingli and Luther regarding the presence of Christ in the Communion.[4]

Another group of Protestants was the Anabaptists. Anabaptists are the spiritual and lineal ancestors of the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterite churches in the world and felt that infant baptism has no biblical warrant, something Zwingli initially agreed with. However, because lack of spiritual foundation, Zwingli gave up this stand, and eventually imposed fines and exile on people believing this way. The Amish, led by Jacob Amman, emerged in Zurich shortly after, with about 120,000 later moving to Pennsylvania where they still are.[5]

Another key player in the reformation movement was John Calvin, who founded the Presbyterian Church. Calvin was born higher in the social class than Luther and had humanistic and legal training – because of this he was more of an organizer of Protestantism whereas Luther was more of a prophet.[6] That said, they differed on much theologically. Calvin became a Protestant in 1533 and gave up his income from the benefices; the benefices is ‘a position or post granted to an ecclesiastic that guarantees a fixed amount of property or income’[7]. Shortly after that, he was forced to leave France because of an address he wrote that called for a biblical reformation – rather like that of Luther’s. [8] That said, it is considered by many that Calvin’s greatest contribution to the reformed faith was his Institutes, in which he laid the foundation on the importance of doctrine and the centrality of God in Christian theology. Furthermore, he wrote commentaries on almost all of the books of the Bible. He was also a great believer in education, and his emphasis on education affects America to this day.[9]

[1] Johnson 2014


[3]Cairns 1996, 289-230

[4]Cairns 1996, 295

[5]Cairns 1996, 299

[6]Cairns 1996, 300


[8]Cairns 1996, 305

[9] Et al

In conclusion, Martin Luther was pivotal to the Reformation and to the beginnings of the Protestant faith, but in and of himself he could not have done it himself – largely because he was not looking for a split in the church. Would the reformation have happened without him? In truth, it likely would have, as the people were beginning to be angered by the many injustices of the Roman Catholic Church. That said, the path of reformation would have probably taken an entirely different path and only God knows how it would have come about.


Arnold, Jack, Dr. "THE ROMANCATHOLICCHURCH OF THE MIDDLE AGES." (accessed April 7, 2014).

"Biography of Martin Luther." (accessed

April 7, 2014)

Brady, Thomas. "From the Reformation to the Thirty Years War (1500-1648) ." http://germanhistorydocs.ghi- (accessed April 8, 2014).

Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI:

Zondervan, 1996. (accessed April 8, 2014). April 8, 2014.

"Does the Catholic Church still sell Indulgences?."

Indulgences (accessed April 7, 2014).

Graves, Dan. "Peace at Augsburg."

1600/peace-at-augsburg-11629989.html (accessed April 8, 2014).

Johnson, Phillip. "Protestant Reform." , MultnomahUniversity, 2014.

Livarius, Oliger. "Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs)." (accessed April 7, 2014).

Mangan, Charles, Rev. "Church Teaching on Relics." (accessed April 7,



(accessed April 7, 2014).

"Reward and Merit." (accessed April 7, 2014).

Serpa, Vincent, Fr. "Did the Church change its doctrine during the Counter-


the-church-change-its-doctrine-during-the-counter-reformation (accessed

April 8, 2014).


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    • Melindas Mind profile image

      Melinda 2 years ago from Oregon

      Pretty much. If he wasn't saying what people wanted to hear they would have had him burned as a heretic.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think you are right that had there been no Martin Luther, the Reformation would still have occurred, though not perhaps in the same time or the same way. Leaders like Luther become leaders because they embody principles that are already gaining momentum among the group of people the leader comes to represent. So, there would have been a "Great Reformer," even if his name wasn't Luther.

    • Melindas Mind profile image

      Melinda 2 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you! It's honestly rather difficult to sum up his life and how important he was without writing an entire book. lol That said, I'm seriously considering doing a paper on Calvin, too. I think that Luther was the key point to the turn in Christianity, but that it might not have gone any further if not for Calvin.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      This was an excellent and very comprehensive Hub detailing the history of Martin Luther and his enormous impact on Christianity. Catholicism had run off the tracks in Europe and they were more interested in power, influence, and wealth. Luther exposed and changed all of that. Great job, Melinda.