Martin Luther: The Unfinished Reformation

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Martin Luther

The Unfinished Reformation

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MP3 Audio (35.23 MB)


Martin Luther: The Unfinished Reformation

MP3 Audio (35.23 MB)

According to popular tradition, it was on Oct. 31, 1517, that a relatively unknown Catholic monk named Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the front door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther intended his work, written in Latin, to be read by priests and monks. The Ninety-five Theses concerned changes he felt were needed in the Catholic Church. Within a short time Luther’s Theses were translated into German, and a number of clergy and lay people began to agree with him.

Little did he know that this simple act would spark a revolution that would break the Catholic Church’s power over the spiritual life of Europe. Within a few years Western Christianity would split into competing branches. The world would never be the same.

Medieval fear of hell and purgatory

At the core of theological thought in the Middle Ages was the absolute terror of going to hell. Salvation was introduced to humanity through Jesus Christ, but pious people were plagued by the question of what would happen to them if in this life they weren’t totally cleansed from sin?

To die while still in “mortal sin” was terrifying. If a priest wasn’t present to perform the last rites a person could end up being eternally tormented by demons.

And then there was the problem of venial sin—sins not warranting eternal damnation but requiring punishment. To deal with this problem the medieval church became obsessed with the concept of purgatory.

Purgatory, the church taught, was where Christians would go after death. It wasn’t hell, where the eternally damned had no hope of escape, but it was a place of unthinkable anguish where the souls of Christians faced punishment and purification. You can imagine the anxiety experienced by pious medieval Catholics obsessed with thoughts of loved ones bound in a torturous existence waiting to be freed to join Jesus and the saints in heaven.

The Catholic Church taught there was something the living could do. In Luther’s day the Wittenberg church had numerous side altars where priests performed private mass. People paid for these sacraments as a means to lessen the time their loved ones had to spend in purgatory.

Other practices included the selling of “indulgences.” An indulgence was a promise by the church that when a person paid a sum of money to the church, he could reduce the amount of time a loved one spent in purgatory. A person could even buy an indulgence for himself—a kind of spiritual debit card.

Paying for masses and selling of indulgences had made the Roman Catholic Church extremely wealthy. One of the issues Luther attacked in his Theses was the sale of indulgences. The result was that the entire economy of the Catholic Church, the way the Vatican financed building projects and maintained military power, was under attack.

An unknown monk on a collision course with the pope

In his earlier years Luther had no intention of joining the clergy, but a dramatic event changed the course of his life. As a young man he was almost struck by lightning. At the time, most people believed that lightning was caused by the devil or demons. The idea that he could suddenly die without receiving the sacrament of last rites was terrifying. In Luther’s mind his soul could be lost forever.

Luther joined a monastery where he took a vow of chastity and poverty, received a doctorate in theology and was ordained a priest. His days were filled with prayer, ceremonies, self-denial and religious studies. But he struggled with the concept of sin and how a person could be accepted by God. He was wracked with guilt, depression and a sense of self-loathing. He concluded that God would forgive only a sinner who was consumed with self-hatred.

In 1511 Luther traveled to Rome. It wasn’t long before the idealistic monk began to experience grave disappointment. He was shocked by how priests hurried through one mass so they could get paid for the next one. He grew disillusioned with the opulence and immorality he witnessed among the priesthood.

There was a staircase in Rome reported to be the very steps Jesus climbed to appear before Pontius Pilate. Luther wanted to help his grandfather spend less time in purgatory, so he paid an indulgence and climbed the steps on his knees, stopping on each step to kiss it and say a prayer. Later he would say that when he reached the top of the steps he wondered if anything in this ritual was true.

The monk, who thought the way to God was through self- hatred and rituals, was now plagued with doubts about the teachings of his church. And this led to his changed beliefs.

After his Theses, Luther, a prodigious writer, produced books that became popular, and Rome began to take notice. One that especially drew notice was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in 1520. In this work Luther claimed that the papacy was antichrist.

The pope condemned Luther’s writings and commanded that his books be burned. Luther responded by publicly burning the pope’s decree. The next year Luther was called before the German emperor and at the Diet of Worms was condemned as a heretic. The unknown monk was now famous.

More revolutionary acts

The outlaw monk fled to the Wartburg castle. It was here, between 1521 and 1522, that Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German.

In our world of books and instant Internet access to information, it’s difficult to understand just how monumental it was for Luther to complete this translation. For more than a thousand years the Catholic Church had maintained ecclesiastical power by making sure the Bible was not translated into common languages. The study of the Bible was mainly reserved for monks and priests either in Latin or the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Even the regular mass, the everyday worship service centered on the Eucharist or communion rite, was said in Latin. This meant that most people throughout Christendom didn’t even understand the words of the mass.

Through the relatively new technology of printing, Luther’s supporters published many copies of the New Testament. It was now possible for literate people throughout Germany to obtain a copy of the Scriptures in their own language.

The next year Luther did something else that shocked the Catholic world. In spite of his priestly vow of celibacy, Luther married. And he didn’t just marry a common local girl—he married a former nun!

Luther’s disagreement with the book of James

Luther’s most lasting legacy is his teaching that justification, being made right before a righteous God, is through faith alone.

One passage that was foundational to his teaching is Romans 3:23-26, where the apostle Paul writes: “. . .  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Here Paul presents the good news that our sins are forgiven because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins as our substitute. Since no human works can earn God’s forgiveness, then we are justified when we have faith in God’s promise and embrace Christ’s sacrifice for us.

Luther concluded that to be justified, all one has to do is believe in Christ without any corresponding works. He pointed to Paul’s writings in Romans where God promised Abraham descendants in number like the stars in heaven even though Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and beyond childbearing years. Luther noted that Paul quoted from a passage in Genesis stating, “And he [Abraham] believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; quoted in Romans 4:3).

For Luther this was an open-and-shut case: Believe and you are justified. Once justified you are saved. Once you are saved, you remain saved without any influence of works—good or bad.

But Luther had a problem. The New Testament book of James teaches that more is needed for justification than mere belief. James, the half brother of Jesus Christ, wrote: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:17-20).

In his Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, Luther claimed that the writer of James’ letter is “in direct opposition to St. Paul, and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes justification to works . . .” (Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, John Dillenberger, ed., 1962, p. 35).

And that’s not all James penned that bothered Luther. James wrote: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:21-24).

Luther saw Paul and James as incompatible. “Scripture alone” was one of Luther’s guiding principles, but now he struggled with Scripture when it didn’t meet his understanding. He ultimately branded the epistle of James “an epistle of straw” that he felt like “throwing . . . into the stove” and wrote that he doubted that it truly belonged in the Bible at all (Luther’s Works, E.T. Bachmann, ed., 1960, vol. 35, p. 362, and vol. 34, p. 317).

Are Paul and James incompatible?

Luther believed that Paul and James were promoting two different and incompatible ways to be justified. But are they really?

The answer lies in the way both writers used the example of Abraham. Paul was writing to the church in Rome to explain how both Jews and gentiles can come into a relationship with God. Both are justified by God’s grace and faith in the work of Christ. Paul clearly teaches that no one can earn God’s favor because of their good works. Abraham was justified because he believed in God’s promises.

James, however, was dealing with a somewhat different problem. James was addressing the wrong idea that mere belief constitutes living faith. Remember, he wrote that Satan and the demons believe in God and fear His awesome power and glory. James made it clear that our faith must be much more than Satan’s belief! Faith involves completely trusting God, and trusting God is a motivation for obedience.

Think about James’ argument. Abraham believed God’s promise that his son Isaac would give him descendants. Then God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. God’s promise and command for obedience seemed inconsistent to say the least.

What if Abraham would have said to God: “I believe your promise to give me descendants through Isaac, and since that can’t happen if I sacrifice him, I have decided to disobey you. But I still believe in your promise!”

James argued that if Abraham had refused to obey God, his belief would not have been real faith. If a person truly trusts God, then his actions will be rooted in that trust.

We can’t erase our own sins or impress God enough to earn salvation. We must also not fall into the trap of thinking that belief is all God requires. Faith must submit to God’s working in us. In this submission, real living faith produces works. Paul is correct in teaching that human beings can’t earn justification but must have faith in Christ. James is also correct in teaching that faith without works is dead—useless and empty because it doesn’t really change the person.

Moreover, Paul himself said that “the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13)—that is, made right before God. We must understand that we receive initial justification from God whenever we repent, apart from any deeds of obedience (Romans 3:28). But remaining justified before God is conditioned upon continuing to actively obey Him. There is no contradiction. 

The revolution’s unforeseen results

It seems that after marrying, Luther thought he could finally settle down to pastoring and enjoying family life. But his break with Rome had other serious consequences.

More Protestants began to stand up to the Catholic Church. While most shared many of Luther’s biblical interpretations, they also disagreed on a number of important subjects. Issues like infant baptism, predestination, the state of the dead and free will would bring heated debate among the reformers as the movement spread across Europe and fractured into different groups. 

The leading reformer would spend his last years not only defending himself against Rome, but attacking other Protestants with the same vigor he used against the Catholics.

The movement he started led to more than a century of unrest and conflict between Catholics and Protestants—and the deaths of millions from warfare, massacres, genocide, famine and disease, all perpetrated in the name of God.

The unfinished revolution

Martin Luther exposed the avarice, ritualistic enslavement of the common person, and some of the unbiblical dogmas of Catholicism. He stood up to a religious system that had misinterpreted and misused Scripture. It was an awakening that unleashed the Protestant Reformation.

But is the movement he inadvertently spawned that much better? Five centuries after Luther presented the Ninety-five Theses, it’s time for Protestants to examine if their teachings have degenerated into a watered-down and corrupted version of what the Bible actually teaches. Has the idea that belief is all that’s needed for salvation led many to use God’s grace as a license to sin?

How many times do Christians excuse living with a boyfriend or girlfriend out of wedlock, disregarding one of the Ten Commandments, or living a lifestyle like unbelievers with the simple argument, “I’m justified without works; I’m saved by grace; God loves me just the way I am”?

This way of thinking is nothing more than using God’s grace as a license to sin. It has serious consequences. Jesus gives this warning in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23). 

Paul and James aren’t contradicting each other in their statements about faith and works. When combining the teachings of these inspired writers, we see that living faith is much more than simple belief. It is the complete and total surrender of the will and body, heart and mind, thoughts and works to the sovereignty of God and His power in us.

When a person surrenders his will to God, and in faith accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Master, then God will empower Him to do good works. And the person must do so, “striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4), to continue in justification with God. If he sins, he must repent anew in trusting faith and genuine commitment.      

Salvation is more than God’s forgiveness. Salvation is God’s work in human beings to create eternal children. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6:18, “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” We participate in His work as we faithfully submit to His working in us.     

The world desperately needs a spiritual awakening. We need to return to the Bible as the guiding Word of God. Pick up the book and prayerfully ask for God’s guidance. Let the spiritual revolution begin with you! 


Martin Luther’s Hatred of Jews

Martin Luther was a complicated man. His writings against those whom he considered enemies of the gospel are filled with spiteful statements. He often wrote that those who opposed him were speaking for the devil himself. And one book he wrote had particularly horrific impact on history—both at the time and centuries later.

Early in his career Luther encouraged Christians to be friendly to Jews. He believed that they were in need of hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. He even wrote a book titled Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.

He thought that once the falsehoods of Roman Catholicism were stripped away, and the Jews were shown that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, they would obviously see the light, convert and join the reformed church (despite centuries of persecution in the name of Christ). When they didn’t convert as he expected, Luther attacked their religion with a call to violent action.

Luther’s attack on Jews was not because of their race. The book he wrote against them was titled The Jews and Their Lies. His attack was because of what he saw as their denial of Christ. He viewed them as blasphemers and a threat to Christianity. The only way to deal with this threat, he argued, was to remove them from Germany.

In his book he promoted the violent burning down of Jewish synagogues and schools and argued that Jewish writings should be taken away from them. Rabbis were to be forbidden to teach. And he encouraged Christians to drive Jews from Christian neighborhoods.

Luther’s reprehensible anti-Semitism was in no way justified or biblical. His desire to eradicate Jews from Germany would be picked up by the Nazis centuries later as part of their propaganda leading to horrendous crimes against humanity, including genocide.

Following are some shameful statements from his book The Jews and Their Lies:

“. . . Eject them forever from this country. For, as we have heard, God’s anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them!”

“Over and above that we let them get rich on our sweat and blood, while we remain poor and they suck the marrow from our bones.”

“. . . Dear princes and lords, those of you who have Jews under your rule—if my counsel does not please you, find better advice, so that you and we all can be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews . . . Do not grant them protection, safe­conduct, or communion with us . . . ”

“Thus we cannot extinguish the un-quenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames.”

“My advice, as I said earlier, is: First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. That would demonstrate to God our serious resolve and be evidence to all the world that it was in ignorance that we tolerated such houses, in which the Jews have reviled God, our dear Creator and Father, and his Son most shamefully up till now but that we have now given them their due reward.”

“I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people, as suggested above, to see whether this might not help (though it is doubtful). They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them . . . It would be wrong to be merciful and confirm them in their conduct. If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all their other vices and thus merit God’s wrath and be damned with them.”

(From Luther’s Works, E.T. Bachmann, ed.,1971, vol. 47, pp. 268-293.)