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People: Martin Luther
Why was Martin Luther so important for the Christian church?
Martin Luther was born in 1483, in the Eisleben region of Germany. Like everyone at the time, he was part of a Roman Catholic family. Following his father's wishes, he studied law at first, but quickly found it didn't suit him. He was drawn to theology and philosophy, which he felt answered so many questions that he had.
In 1505, he was travelling on a horse when he was suddenly struck by a bolt of lightning during a storm. It seems this experience was what helped him decide to become a monk. He cried out for help during this storm and promised to become a monk. Much to his father's fury, just over two weeks later he entered St Augustine's Monastery in Erfurt.
Unbeknown to anyone, Martin’s actions were to start a split in the medieval church which would eventually bring about the Protestant Reformation across Europe.
Luther did nothing by halves. As a monk, he was devoted to his duties and always worried that he had not done enough to satisfy God. He was sure that God wanted more from him than he could provide. He tried all the ways the church then offered to help someone find peace with God.
When he was sent to Rome on business, he used the opportunity to make his visit a pilgrimage. This, he was told, would please God. He visited the churches that claimed to have sacred relics, things like the head of St Peter. He even climbed, on his hands and knees, the 28 steps in front of the Lateran church, at each step saying the Lord's Prayer. At the top, instead of feeling a deep sense of peace, he found himself asking, "But what if it doesn't work?"
In Rome, he also saw how dishonest many of the most powerful men in the Church were. He came back to Germany with two things he had to do:
- He had to put right the many wrong practices of the church of his time.
- He had to find a way to be sure he was right with God.
Back at Erfurt, he asked for help from the monk who was his spiritual adviser. This man told him to read the books St Augustine had written. This then started Luther reading the New Testament, and Paul's letters in particular. Here, after several years, he was to find his answer in the words: 'The righteous will live by faith.'
He became convinced that people become 'right with God' through faith in Jesus, not by good things they try to do. And that became the centre of what the Protestant Reformation believed. The other thing Luther's adviser did was to try to take Martin's mind off his worries by giving him hard work to do. He was sent to another town, Wittenberg, to become a professor of theology at the town's university.
That was where he read St Paul's words. And there he began to tell others what he had learned from Scripture. Today, if you want people to talk about something, you might post an article on the Internet. Then, in Luther's town, he nailed a list of 'articles' (things for discussion) to the doors of the Castle Church.
On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 things he had concerns about to the church door in Wittenberg. These are known as the 'Ninety-Five Theses.' They were about the 'indulgences' the church offered. The Catholic Church had begun taking money from people in exchange for prayers and forgiveness. Luther knew that God gave these things freely and was really cross that the Catholic Church was charging money from even poor people.
This list was translated from Latin into German, printed, and distributed to thousands of people. Luther had gone public. Soon the debate was out in the open. And as he argued with others, Luther found himself asking bigger questions. If things like indulgences were wrong, why had the Pope allowed them? Could the Pope be trusted? If you shouldn't believe something just because the church told you to, what were you to trust?
The answer the Reformers gave (for Luther wasn't on his own by now) was the Bible. And did you need a Priest to bring you to God? No, Luther reasoned, you could come directly to God through Jesus Christ. These were the main things the Reformation stood for.
The rest of Luther's life was spent making them known to other people. He translated the Bible into German. He organized his churches. He preached and wrote books. He did the work of ten men. And when he died, he left the world a different place.
You can read even more about Martin Luther here.