Martin Luther – Survey of Church history

martin luther

Survey of Church History (Mar 2019) written by Scott Willingham 


Born the son of a German miner in 1483, Martin Luther found himself brought up during the waning years of the decline of the Middle Ages, a time when papal prestige was decreasing, papal corruption was increasing, and the turmoil within the church was at an all-time high. In 1505, at twenty-two years old, Luther was well on his way to becoming a lawyer when he was caught in a lightning storm that scared him to the point of appealing to St. Anne, the patroness of miners, and promising her that he would become a monk if she would but spare his life. At the protests of his parents, Luther became a monk just two short weeks later. Over the next dozen years, Luther would devote himself to the monastic lifestyle in its most severe form, later recounting that if he had continued on at the pace he was going, he would have likely killed himself by his unwavering devotion to the work of a dedicated monk. He would later say that if any monk had ever been saved by his sheer monkery, it would have been him. That all began to change in 1515 when God used Paul’s letter to the Romans to show Luther that righteousness does not come by law keeping, but rather by faith in the merit of Jesus Christ.

            Having his understanding of Scripture, and of God in general, radically changed by this concept led Luther to question and ultimately criticize a number of Roman doctrines and practices. This came to a head when John Tetzel made his way through Germany selling indulgences as a part of a fundraising campaign for the completion of St. Peter’s basilica. Luther had had enough. In response, Luther wrote his famous ninety-five theses, intended for debate over such practices, and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. This proved to be the act that ignited the Reformation.

            Luther quickly gained support from those who suffered as a result of the corrupt church practices, and opposition from those who benefited from them. This support made waves that were noticed by those in power and Luther quickly found himself having to defend his positions. In 1519, John Eck challenged Luther’s position on indulgences claiming that anyone who opposed indulgences was a heretic. It was during this eighteen-day debate with Eck at Leipzig that Luther appealed to what would later become known as one of the Five Solas. Luther placed ultimate authority in Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), not in church councils or popes. And Luther didn’t stop there. He wrote a series of pamphlets challenging corrupt church practices, calling for their reform, and elevating the “common man’s” position with God and within the church to its rightful status- as priests who serve God within their particular vocational callings, all of which equally sacred. This push against the corrupt church order earned him an official papal bull from Pope Leo X in 1520, who demanded that Luther recant his positions. After refusing, Luther was excommunicated from the church in 1521. Later that same year, Luther was called by emperor Charles V to defend his positions at the now famous Diet of Worms. After refusing to denounce his position again, Luther was declared an outlaw and was forced to go into hiding for nearly a year. During this time of exile in the Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the New Testament into German, personifying a later motto of the Reformation “post tenebras lux”, “after darkness, light.” After Luther came out of hiding in Wartburg, he pressed into the task of reforming the church all the more, abolishing the office of bishop, reforming the practices of monks and nuns, exhorting those in ministry to marry, and himself marrying a former nun; all of which solidified his status as an outlaw. But the damage to the Roman church was done. The Reformation was underway and, in many ways, still is today. 

The Law of God had done its work in showing Luther his need for a Savior

            During Luther’s years as a monk, he found himself racked with guilt brought about by the painful realization that he was a wretched sinner who was unable to live up to the Law of God, and who consequently stood condemned. This led to Luther hating God for giving him a standard to meet that he was unable to, regardless of his extreme efforts and devotion. Luther’s objective view of the Law and his conviction that no man could live up to its standards brought him to a point of despair for his own life and disdain for his own utterly inadequate internal righteousness. The Law of God had done its work in showing Luther his need for a Savior, a position that would later become known as Luther’s second use of the Law. From this point of despair Luther searched for an answer to his problem. His revolutionary “discovery” of justification by faith alone would prove to play an invaluable part in the Reformation of the church and would take Luther from being a God-hater to one who loved God greatly and who would risk his life so that others could experience and know this scandalously free grace of God.

            Rather than relativize the Law of God and turn it into something palatable and achievable by us on our own, as is painfully common in evangelical churches today, Luther took the Law for what it is- the perfect expression of God’s holy, blameless, unwavering character and the standard to which we are held. This objective view of the Law led to Luther’s recognition of his need for a Savior and for a righteousness that comes from outside of himself. The Law did its work on Luther, and if we are to love people well, we must bring that same Law to bear on the people we minister to and allow it to crush them, as it crushed Luther. But we cannot leave them there under the crushing weight of the Law. Our job, more accurately- our privilege, as ministers, as priests, as Christians is to bring the Law to bear on people and then, when the full weight of the Law has done its work, we are to offer the hope that only comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The perfect, personal, perpetual obedience of Jesus Christ to every aspect of the Law of God is the only answer to the demands of the Law and it is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone that we obtain Christ’s obedience as if it were our own. We need this good news to free us from the burden of the Law, as did Luther, and the people we minister need the same good news, but in order for the good news of the gospel to in fact “be” good, our people need to first feel the burden of the Law. As Luther came to stress, we must distinguish between Law and gospel rightly. For the good of our neighbor, we must correctly proclaim Law as Law and gospel as gospel, because any failure to rightly distinguish between the two, or any overlap between the two is, as Theodore Beza said, “one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupts Christianity.” [1] If we take Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount and prescribe them to our people as attainable by great personal effort and sacrifice, we fall into the same category as the Romanists who Luther fought so strongly against. If we soften Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” into, “you need to try your best,” we downplay the righteous requirements of God and make them something we can achieve on our own, thus negating our need for Christ’s active obedience. In order to love people well, we must first bring the full weight of God’s Law and then offer the only Solution- the person and work of Jesus Christ. From there we can move to Luther’s third use of the Law, where the Law of God serves as a guide for a life of gratitude for the Christian. When we properly distinguish Law from gospel and then present the appropriate uses of the Law, we offer true freedom for our neighbor.

[1] “The Word of God: Its two parts — the Law and the Gospel,” Monergism,—-law-and-gospel.


About Scott: Scott is a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church Fort Worth OPC, is currently studying online at Westminster Theological Seminary, and is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes director for the state of Texas for FCA Motocross. Scott is also one of the voices behind the Gospel Driven Athlete podcast.

You can find more stuff about and from Scott here: , and here


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