Born in 1483 at Eisleben, Martin Luther entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 and completed his Master of Arts in 1505. His father wished him to become a lawyer, but Martin was drawn to the study of the Scriptures and joined the Augustinian canons, spending three years at their monastery in Erfurt. In 1507 he was ordained a priest and went to the University of Wittenberg, where he lectured on philosophy and the Scriptures, becoming a powerful and influential preacher.
Luther had entered on the search for evangelical perfection with serious zeal and sought exactly to fulfill the rule of the Augustinian order, but he soon found himself struggling against uncertainties and doubts. His inward, spiritual difficulties were enhanced by theological problems, particularly the ambiguities in the nature and scope of the sale of indulgences and his discovery of the message of grace.
As professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg, his courses of lectures on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews during the years 1513 to 1518 show the growing richness and maturity of his thought. In 1514 he became preacher in the parish church, whose pulpit became the center of a long and fruitful preaching ministry in which Luther expounded profoundly and beautifully the Scriptures for the common people and related them to the practical context of their lives.
Having observed much that he found wrong with his Church and the world Luther “for the purpose of eliciting truth” drew up the Ninety-Five Theses and fastened them on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints’ Day. The theses did not deny papal prerogative, though by implication they criticized papal policy; still less did they attack such established teaching as the doctrine of purgatory. But they did stress the spiritual, inward character of Christian faith. Luther sent copies of the Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz (primate of Germany) and to his own bishop, but the printing press intervened. Copies of the theses circulated far and wide, so that what might have been a mere local issue became a public controversy discussed in ever widening circles.
The Reformation that was triggered soon spread over northern Europe and later over much of the world through Protestant missionaries. Luther’s recovery of the doctrine of “justification by faith” alone (sola gratia) led to a reformation of medieval doctrine and , along with other factors, to the rise of the protestant churches. [It should be noted that several unreservedly Roman Catholic clerics of the time, including Cardinal Contarini and Reginald Cardinal Pole, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recognized that justification was by God’s grace alone, and that the teaching of sola gratia was agreed upon by a number of Lutheran Churches and the Church of Rome in a statement formulated in recent years.] Luther was a prolific writer, and his commentaries, polemics, and practical devotional works became the hallmark of Reformation writings. His translation of the Bible into the vernacular High German made the Scriptures more widely available in his own homeland, influenced German literature, and influenced the translation of the Scriptures into many other vernacular European languages.
Luther remained professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg until late illness prevented his teaching, and he directed much of the reformation of the churches of Germany by personal contact and by his writing. He died February 18, 1546, in Eisleben, the town of his birth, and was buried in Wittenberg.
- Adapted from various sources.
O God, our refuge and our strength: you raised up your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew your Church in the light of your Word. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that, through faith, we may boldly proclaim the riches of your grace which you have made known in Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Martin Luther, Priest and Reformer, are published on the Lectionary Page website.