Christian Articles

Dr. Martin Luther - The Protestant Reformation

Luther's early years

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, now part of former East Germany. His father was prosperous enough to send him to school and aim him at the study of law. He graduated with a BA and MA from the University of Erfurt. But just when he would have entered the study of law, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and made a vow to St. Anne that he would enter a monastery if his life was saved. He duly entered the order of the Augustinians and their monastery at Erfurt in 1505.

The Augustinian Friars or Hermits were a preaching order whose name was based on their following the monastic Rule of St. Augustine, not because of any other particular connection with Augustine. But the name was perhaps ironic, for Luther was to derive much benefit from the study of Augustine as an antidote to the current theology of his day.

Luther advanced in knowledge according to the prevailing order of things, and was appointed to lecture at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in 1508. He was made Doctor of Theology in 1512 and joined the theological faculty at Wittenberg.

His growing understanding

Two experiences seem to have been important in the development of young Luther. In 1507 he became a priest and said his first Mass, and in the view of the church, he was now able to create the body and blood of Christ. This was one of many experiences which terrorized him in view of the majesty and justice of a holy God.

Secondly, he traveled to Rome in 1510 on monastery business. He was shocked to find Italy a breeding ground of corruption and secularized clergy. This was the time of the Renaissance Popes, and Pope Julius, the current occupant of that chair, was one of the worst of them all. (Erasmus later wrote a satirical tract called Julius Exclusus, which told the story of how Julius was excluded from heaven after he died.) This was the time period of the rebuilding of St. Peter's and the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- wonderful works of art, but from a Pope void of Christianity.

But the biggest influence on Luther was his continuing struggle over his salvation. He could not understand how a holy God could accept a sinful man, especially Luther, into heaven. He was told to take comfort in the sacraments, especially Penance (i.e. confession and absolution), but even the Roman church was not so doctrinally corrupt as to remove all personal repentance from the sacrament of Penance, and Luther doubted that he had the proper inward repentance and love and godliness to partake of the grace that was offered through the sacrament.

He also could not understand how, in Romans 1:17, it was said that the "righteousness" of God was revealed in the Gospel. If God's righteousness was revealed, how could it be good news, since God's righteousness could do nothing but condemn man's lawlessness? At last, in a flash of insight (or grace or faith), he understood that the righteousness in the verse was not the righteousness God displayed in judgment, but the righteousness he bestowed on a man through pure grace on account of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. "As it is written, the just shall live BY FAITH."

Now he understood that faith was the key. Faith was not a work. Rather, it was the empty hand receiving the gift of God offered without strings attached. Faith was utterly opposed to works. No works, not even the sacramental acts commanded by the church, could add to the free gift of God. For this reason, Luther added the word ALONE to his later German translation of Romans 3:28.

Luther was not reacting against a full Pelagian (or Judaizing) heresy of justification by works rather than faith. Rather, he was reacting to the seemingly reasonable Catholic teaching that our faith, which is required, works together with our use of God's sacraments and good works, which are also required. It was all of God's grace to offer such paths to salvation, but no man could be totally secure because such a life must be maintained before God lifelong.

Some of these insights actually came after the next item in our tour of Luther's life, the 95 Theses.

The Indulgences and 95 Theses

In 1517, Johann Tetzel appeared in Germany selling a special indulgence issued by the Pope. Luther's ruler, Elector Frederick, kept Tetzel out of his dominions, but Luther's parishioners were crossing the border and buying the indulgences anyway. According to Tetzel, the indulgence went further than previous indulgences, procuring not only release from earthly penance and Purgatorial punishment, but also full forgiveness of all sins.

Even by medieval standards, this was going too far. Technically, an indulgence only offered remission of the "temporal penalties," or satisfaction, associated with a sin. It did not affect God's eternal judgment, which was in theory left up to God alone. Rather, since the sufferings of Purgatory were thought to compensate for sins not confessed, absolved, and satisfactions performed on earth, which were imposed by the church, the indulgence, which remitted the penalties of the church, could not reach beyond Purgatory.

What Luther did not know at the time was that Tetzel's entire indulgence sale was worked up as a combination money-raising scheme for St. Peter's church (which was public) and debt repayment for Albert of Brandenberg, Archbishop of Mainz, to repay the Pope's hefty fees for installing him in a third archbishopric, and underage at that.

Complicating Luther's position was the fact that Frederick the Wise was a major collector of relics in his Castle Church at Wittenberg. If a pilgrim "venerated" all the relics in the Elector's collection, he would reduce his time in Purgatory by 127,799 years (Grimm, p. 91). The major festival which drew pilgrims to Frederick's collection in Wittenberg was the feast of All Saint's Day on Nov. 1.

Of course the entire doctrine was absurd and offensive, but Luther, in his initial stages, approached the matter cautiously. He wondered: why would not the Pope simply release all souls from Purgatory out of his sheer kindness, if such a thing were possible? Why demand payment first? Luther reexamined the entire structure of the sacrament of Penance and wrote out 95 debating points, intended for fellow scholars to debate with him. This was a common method of beginning a debate, not a Reformation of the church. He posted them, tradition says, on the door of the Castle Church the day before All Saint's, October 31, 1517.

Even though the theses were written in Latin and were only meant for academic debate, they looked like dynamite to others, who began running copies off on the printing presses, both in Latin and in German. Seemingly overnight, the theses were everywhere. Instead of a scholar's debate, the German people became involved. The theses by no means contained an expression of fully developed Reformation doctrine, but the challenge to the Pope's actions was lively enough that Germany was interested.

Text of the 95 Theses

Reactions of Church and State

Initially, the Pope wrote the whole issue off as a quarrel among monks. But local church officials were not so confident. They urged action. Three months after the Theses appeared, Pope Leo directed the Augustinian Order to quiet Luther. In April 1518 Luther was given the opportunity to defend his case at a meeting of the Augustinians. One of his hearers (and converts) was the Dominican monk Martin Bucer, who later became a great Reformer himself.

On August 7, 1518 Luther was given 60 days to appear in Rome to recant his heresies. Here Frederick intervened on the side of his university professor. He arranged a meeting with the papal legate, Cajetan, in Germany. After three days things were worse than ever. Cajetan threatened him with all kinds of papal punishment, and would not budge on any points. Meanwhile Luther had been developing and clarifying his thinking, but still believed that the Pope would take his side once he understood the issues. By November 28 he had lost this confidence and appealed publicly for a general council of the church to correct the Pope and the errors of the church.

In 1519 it was arranged for the great Dr. Eck to debate Dr. Carlstadt, Luther's senior colleague at Wittenberg. Luther was at first not invited (not given an imperial safe conduct), and attended only as a spectator, but he rose to the defense of the new evangelical doctrines after Carlstadt had faltered in the debate. This debate, which lasted three weeks, was very important for the future development of the Reformation. For it was here that Eck charged Luther with the errors of the acknowledged heretic John Hus. Thus challenged, Luther considered the question and finally declared that some of Hus's doctrines were true, that he was unjustly condemned by the (reformist) Council of Constance, and that both the Pope and a general council may err.

The next two years were filled with activity. After the rejection of Rome, Luther began his reforming appeals in earnest. He still was not trying to create a new church, just reform the old one. But this was not a time in Europe for compromise and discussion, much to the distress of peaceful leaders on both sides. Luther wrote three major works which consolidated both the direction of reformation and his theology: the Address to the German Nobility, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. The Babylonian Captivity, in particular, was the text in which Luther publicly taught against transubstantiation, although he never ceased teaching the Real Presence.

Meanwhile, in June 1520, the long-awaited bull of excommunication was issued, the famous Exsurge Domine, "Arise O God, plead thine own cause...." Luther was now officially excluded from the ancient Catholic church. But he was the beginning of a new branch of the Catholic church, not a sectarian heretic, but a true reformer, calling the church to return to first principles. He had gone far beyond justification by faith, which was the seed; he and his colleagues were reexamining the entire structure of Christendom, weighing each doctrine and practice, and finding that much that had grown up in the past 1000 years was anti-Biblical and not in agreement with the early church.

In December, Luther publicly burned the Pope's bull.

Repercussions Throughout Europe

In 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, summoned by the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles needed the support of every part of his splintered empire, and wanted to heal the church for the sheer sake of political unity, if for no other reason. He was a loyal son of the Roman church, and it was clear where his sympathies lay. Nevertheless Luther, like John Hus before him, trusted in God and in the Emperor's safe-conduct and came to the Diet.

At the Diet he was commanded once more to recant his teachings. He had expected an opportunity to defend his teachings before the Emperor and all the princes of Germany, but instead he was simply asked to recant. He asked for a day to consider his answer, and appeared the next day to defy the empire and replied, "Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience" (Schaff, vol. 7, p. 304). According to some accounts, he ended by saying "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Luther was able to get out of town under the Emperor's safe conduct before Charles could change his mind and seize him. Frederick was concerned for Luther's safety, since he was now declared an outlaw by the Empire as well as the Pope, so he secretly arranged to have him "kidnapped" and taken to the Wartburg castle for safekeeping. Here Luther worked for almost a year, and translated the New Testament into German from Greek -- the first modern translation from Greek into a vernacular language. He also wrote against monastic vows while in the Wartburg. By the time he returned to Wittenberg, the monastery there was entirely dissolved.

Luther and the Radicals

"Radical" reformers in his own home town (led by Carlstadt, his former friend), which caused him to return to Wittenberg to calm things down, were the foreshadowing of many such splits among the Protestants. Even though the differences in Wittenberg amounted mostly to (1) going too fast in the right direction, and (2) disagreement over using violent means to overthrow the old traditions, soon there was much more in the larger Germany, and Luther was distressed that the predictions of his enemies might come true in which he became the cause of the dissolution of society.

Luther soothed the radical elements in his own town, and some arranged for some people actually to leave town, but as he got older, Luther became more bitter and violent towards other elements of the Reformation which seemed to go too far. He approved of the suppression of the peasants in the Peasants' War, and his enmity towards Anabaptists, "enthusiasts," and other radicals only increased. He lumped Zwingli in with Carlstadt (who became more and more radical), and was utterly suspicious of any reformation other than the conservative German version.

We will deal with this topic more under Zwingli, and again in a special Anabaptist lesson.

Luther's Marriage

Luther's famous marriage to a former nun, Katherine von Bora, took place in 1525. Luther became the father of six children, and his views upon marriage, like those on everything else, were eagerly devoured by his students and became the basis for the Protestant interest in good marriages and families. Remember that up to this point, all godly literature was written by the unmarried who were under vows of chastity. A whole body of tradition entered Christian thought and literature at this point, and Luther's house, as is often stated, became the model for the "parsonage." But Luther didn't just speak on marriage, he lived it. He was well known to be devoted to his wife and family. His views were totally traditional, but within the tradition of Biblical patriarchy came Luther's humor and good will. He often referred to Katie as "my Lord."

Luther and Free Will

Erasmus had taken a mediating position for much of the early Reformation. He never identified himself with Protestantism even though he was friends with many of the Reformers, some of whom had been humanists before reformers. When he was finally induced to write against Luther, he chose a theological topic, free will, as the theme of his controversy. Luther replied with what he considered his best book, The Bondage of the Will. This book represents a more Calvinistic theology (by today's standards) than a Lutheran one. It is quite a joy to read. Luther's contemporaries, such as Melanchthon, never subscribed to the full predestination theology that Luther appeared to hold, and it disappeared from Lutheranism immediately upon Luther's death. Calvinists often refer to the book, however, and it was published in 1957 with a modern translation, and is still in print. It is one of the great books of the Reformation.

Luther and the German Reformation

After a while, the various German princes who had adopted Lutheranism began to take steps to systematize and regularize the reforms found within their various dominions. One such effort was the reformation of public worship according to non-Roman principles, via the "Visitations" commissioned by the various German rulers beginning in 1527. These were heavily influenced by the Wittenbergers and began the process of constructing a truly Protestant church system.

Another major undertaking for Luther was the introduction of congregational singing, and the consequent writing of new Protestant hymns. Like many other innovations of the Reformed period, all Christians take congregational singing for granted today (even Roman Catholics), but this was yet another blessing that had been withheld from the people until the Reformation.

Colloquy of Marburg

In 1529, representatives of the German and Swiss reformers met together at the instigation of Philip of Hesse, who wished a common Protestant political and confessional front. Luther and Melanchthon were there, as were Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Bucer. If at any time there was a chance for Protestants to get together, this was it. Of course no Anabaptists were invited.

Luther wrote with chalk upon the table, "This is my body." Immediately the heart of the matter was clear. Could the reformers agree on the Eucharist (Lord's Supper)? Luther's party believed that the "Real Presence" was essential, that is, even though the bread and wine were still physically present (contra the Roman church), nevertheless the physical presence of Christ's body and blood was still true. The reformers agreed that there was a "spiritual" presence of Christ (which actually was compromise on Zwingli's part, since he had taught a memorial Supper only), but they could not come to agreement on the physical presence of Christ.

Bainton's Here I Stand presents the argument this way:

Oekolampadius insisted that these words must be taken metaphorically, because the flesh profits nothing and the body of Christ has ascended into heaven. Luther inquired why the ascent should not also be metaphorical. Zwingli went to the heart of the matter when he affirmed that flesh and spirit are incompatible. Therefore the presence of Christ can only be spiritual. Luther replied that flesh and spirit can be conjoined, and the spiritual, which no one denied, does not exclude the physical. They appeared to have arrived at a deadlock, but actually they had made substantial gains because Zwingli advanced from his view that the Lord's Supper is only a memorial to the position that Christ is spiritually present. And Luther conceded that whatever the nature of the physical presence, it is of no benefit without faith. Hence any magical view is excluded.

No final agreement could be reached. Even though the reformers agreed on 14 other articles of faith, they could not on this one. The Protestants remained divided both confessionally and politically. There was to be no consistent reformed witness to one faith.

The Augsburg Confession

In their relations to the Holy Roman Emperor, an important milestone was the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. At this meeting the famous Augsburg Confession was submitted by the Lutherans to the Emperor Charles. Its author was Melanchton, who was accused of giving away too much in his desire to remain united to the Roman church. But it remained a reformed document, and became one of the primary confessional statements of all Lutherans.


Luther is much more complicated than can be presented here. The best advice is to continue studying him with a book like Bainton's Here I Stand, and to continue comparing his and other reformers' doctrine with Scripture. You will find that Reformation study will provide an inexhaustible supply of challenges to your thinking and living.

Luther provided the Reformation with a beginning, not an ending. By his death in 1546, Reformation was established, but its greatest fruits were yet to come.

The first Protestant martyrs were Hendrik Vos and Jan van der Eschen on July 1, 1523,
in the Low Countries, which were also ruled by Charles V. They were not

           Opening the Door to Luther: Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

In September, 2000, Rick Steves spent a week in eastern Germany with a Lutheran video production team making a new "Martin Luther and the Reformation" teaching video. This video was sent to all 11,000 ELCA Lutheran churches for use in adult education and new member classes. Here's the script:

[1. POV: camera rushing through vineyard, pope's voice]
"There's a wild boar in the vineyard."

[Title page Opening the Door to Luther: Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation]

A wild boar. This is how the pope, in 1520, described Martin Luther. Luther was a German monk who questioned the Church's practice of selling forgiveness. 

Hi, I'm Rick Steves and today, we're travel partners. The goal of our trip: to get to know Martin Luther. We'll see how one monk sparked the Reformation, which created the Protestant movement and, eventually, the Lutheran Church.

During Luther's time, Germany which is about the size of Montana was a confusing collection of over 300 little feudal states.

We'll travel from Eisleben where Luther was born to the university town of Wittenberg where he taught and preached. After a pilgrimage south to the Vatican in Rome, we'll follow the tumultuous events of the Reformation at Worms, Erfurt, Eisenach, Marburg and Augsburg.

When Martin Luther was born, nearly all of Western Europe looked to Rome as the head of the Church. By Luther's death in 1546, Europe was divided between Roman Christians and protesting or Protestant Christians.

Luther was born in medieval Europe but grew up in a time of great change. Imagine medieval life. Ninety percent of the people were poor, illiterate peasants ruled by kings, nobles and bishops. Most children died before adulthood. Thirty years was a long life. Plague was a constant fear. People worked the land, hoping only to survive the winter. Life for most was a dreary preparation for heaven. The Christian Church gave people hope for a better life after death.

But by Luther's time, the medieval Church administered from distant Rome was losing touch with people's needs. The Bible and church services were in Latin, a dead language spoken only by Europe's elite. Corrupt popes and bishops, living in luxury while others struggled, were tarnishing the Church's reputation.

And worst of all, the Church hierarchy had become entangled with politics. Popes waged war. Bishops were princes. In much of Europe, there was no real separation of church and state. Sins were crimes, and tithes were collected like taxes. Bishops were treated like royalty. When one entered the room, you knelt and kissed his ring.

Throughout Western Europe, the only acceptable way to be Christian was as part of the Roman Catholic Church and that Church had begun paying its bills by selling forgiveness.

In one turbulent generation, the Reformation changed all that. And Martin Luther known as the father of Protestantism is counted right up there with Gutenberg and Newton as one of the most influential people of the past millennium.

Big changes were percolating around 1500: Columbus sailed to America. Gutenberg's printing press made books affordable.

Imagine Europe's class of 1500. Along with Martin Luther, young Michelangelo was chipping his early masterpieces, Macchiavelli studied modern politics, and Copernicus was putting the earth in it's place.

The conservative Church which defended the notion that the world was flat and the center of the universe found itself at odds with these new ideas. Magellan sailed around the world. Renaissance thinkers embraced science. And humanists saw life as more than just a preparation for what happens after you die. With all this, the Church's ability to control the thinking of Europe took a big hit. The Church couldn't stop these revolutionary ideas or keep the printing press from churning them out.

Martin Luther was born in this house here in Eisleben, south of Berlin. His father was in the copper mining business.

And here in Eisanach, young Luther developed his appetite for learning, music, and the Bible.

Martin was a hard-working guy, smart enough to get into law school. His friends nicknamed him "the philosopher." They also called him things like the "king of hops" for his love of beer.

But Martin never became a lawyer. He had an obsession which came first finding deliverance from an angry God. According to a popular story, in 1505, returning to school after a trip home, he was thrown from his horse during a thunderstorm. Terrified, he promised St. Anne the patron saint of miners and his family that he'd become a monk.

Twenty-one year old Martin checked into this Augustinian monastery famous for discipline and scholarship in Erfurt. As a monk, Luther sought God's love with all his heart and soul and mind. Ignoring his worldly needs, he did everything he could to earn worthiness in God's eyes. He'd spend up to six hours in the confession booth and still, he found no peace.

He learned Greek and Hebrew in order to read the most ancient manuscripts of the Bible. By age 23 he was ordained a priest, said his first Mass in this church, and was on the fast track to become a professor of theology.

In 1510 Brother Martin was sent to Rome. He hiked there... about 700 miles, through a severe winter. He was enthusiastic about his trip to the Vatican. When he first saw the city, he dropped to his knees and said "Hail, holy city of Rome!"

Rome so rich in relics was a holy supermarket of merits for pilgrims interested in getting to heaven without a detour through purgatory.

Most Christians believed they would go to heaven only if they did more good than evil. And most figured they'd fall short. So when they died, God would need to purge them of their excess sin. They called this process purgatory and thought of it as thousands of years of misery. To reduce time in purgatory, many tried to pile up good works in this lifetime by venerating relics and doing penance.

In Rome, Luther did his Church business. Then, like any earnest pilgrim he spent his free time visiting relics.

Martin visited the reconstructed steps of Pontius Pilate's palace supposedly the very steps Jesus climbed on the day he was condemned. As Roman Catholic pilgrims still do today, he climbed the holy steps on his knees, saying the Lord's Prayer on each step. The pilgrim's reward for this climb: nine years less time in purgatory for each step.

Later, Luther wrote that, reaching the top, he stood up and thought "Who knows if it's true?"

Back home, Luther was sent here, to the remote outpost of Wittenberg to teach in Prince Frederick the Wise's new university.

Outwardly cheerful and devout, inside Martin Luther was in crisis tormented by feelings of his own unworthiness. Even as he blessed the bread for Mass, he silently hated God for demanding a moral standard no mortal could ever achieve. He devoured the Bible looking for an answer and found it in Paul's letter to the Romans.

There it was. Luther realized the "good news" is that God makes sinners righteous through their faith in Jesus Christ. Rather than earning salvation by fasting or doing good's a free gift to anyone who believes. As this concept of unearned grace took hold, Luther said, "I felt myself to have been born again."

As Luther studied, debated and taught his thoughts developed. As he preached here and throughout Saxony, his controversial ideas spiced his sermons. The pews were packed. People traveled to hear Luther's message.

[Luther's voice]
"In our Latin Bible, 'repent' has come to mean 'to do penance.' But in the original Greek it means 'to change one's mind' and that is what Jesus meant. Jesus didn't ask for penance... works, deeds or rituals... he asks for a simple change of heart. Salvation is not earned by pilgrimages to Rome, veneration of relics, or Masses attended. We need only Jesus Christ. Jesus paid for our sins. Salvation is a gift from God."

The more Martin read the Bible, the more conflict he found between salvation through faith and the Church's salvation through rituals and good works.

He kept returning to Romans 3:28: "A man is justified by faith"... for emphasis, Martin added, "and faith alone."

Coincidentally, as Luther struggled with these issues, the pope kicked off a capital campaign to build a grand new church in Rome.

The thousand-year-ld St. Peters was condemned and a glorious new church was planned. It would be very expensive and Germans would foot much of the bill. To raise money, the papacy sold church offices one young prince bought a bishopric for 10,000 ducats, based on 1000 per commandment. And the Church sold indulgences.

Indulgences were basically spiritual coupons relieving you from penalties you owed because of your sins. The Church got these merits from Jesus and the saints whose virtuous lives earned a holy warehouse of extra merits.

Papal fund-raisers came out in full force. With a fanfare of drummers and trumpeters, the super-salesmonk, John Tetzel, came to Martin Luther's neighborhood. He offered letters of indulgence promising "full forgiveness for all sins and absolution from all punishments." These were fully-transferable and ideal for bailing loved ones out of purgatory. Peasants lined up to buy as Tetzel's men sang, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs."

Luther countered, preaching "God's forgiveness cannot be purchased like a sack of potatoes. The pope needs more prayer than money."

Hoping a scholarly debate would lead to reform, Luther posted his famous 95 theses here. This is a copy of the original door. That date Oct 31, 1517 marks the most important religious event of the last thousand years. It kicked off the Reformation, and October 31 is still celebrated as Reformation day.

Luther, who had no thought of rebellion, began with a conciliatory tone

[Luther's voice]
"Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following thesis will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg University."

Topics ranged from giving alms to the scriptural basis of purgatory. But for most, the key issue was the sale of indulgences.

Luther's propositions quickly printed and circulated were the talk of Germany. He became famous almost overnight. People were energized by Luther's ideas. The sale of indulgences dropped dramatically. Tetzel had to actually go into hiding from angry German mobs who now sang "When the coin rings in the pitcher, the pope becomes richer."

Luther's challenge was taken up. Nearby, at the university of Leipzig, the famous scholar, John Eck, debated Luther. Declaring himself victorious, Eck headed for Rome and helped write a papal bull that's a decree issued under the papal seal threatening excommunication. It gave Luther 60 days to recant or be kicked out of the church.

Saying "The Romans can overcome us only on the grounds of reason and the Scriptures," Luther backed up his stand by publishing four influential pamphlets. These struck much deeper at church doctrine than his views on the simple sale of indulgences.

Luther argued that there were two church hierarchies: a visible one based in Rome and a more important spiritual one acknowledging only Christ.

He called on local governments to legislate reforms that the Roman Church refused to make.

He rejected the idea that Christians must earn salvation through good works.

And, he explained how a Christian is both lord of all and servant of all.

This war of words escalated. The pope ordered the burning of Luther's books. Luther responded.

[Luther's voice]
"If they damn my books, I'll burn the entire canon law."

As the pope's men burned Luther's books, Luther's supporters burned books of Church laws. Really heating things up, Luther tossed the papal bull into the fire.

The two most powerful people in Europe were the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. The pope was furious. And the emperor Charles V was a devout Catholic.

But he was also the German king. The Holy Roman Empire was a confederation of German states. Since these states elected the emperor, Charles' power required their continuing support. He needed to deal with Luther.

To further complicate things, the Turks were threatening Europe from the east. Charles knew he'd need German help to beat them. Knowing Luther had powerful German friends, Charles proceeded cautiously. He agreed to give Luther a hearing and called him to the imperial diet that's like a congress in the city of Worms on the Rhine.

Germany was thrilled with Martin Luther's challenge to Rome. Traveling to Worms, he was greeted with a hero's welcome at each stop. Pamphlets showed him with a halo, accompanied by a dove symbol of the holy spirit.

In one town, sixty horsemen escorted Luther to the church so filled with people eager to hear him preach that the balcony groaned and nearly collapsed.

Imagine the showdown here at Worms: Papal representatives, princes, Imperial troops all power-dressing... and Charles, sitting high on his throne. In the center of the room: Martin Luther stood beside a table stacked with his trouble-causing books and pamphlets.

[Luther's voice]
"Unless you can convince me by scripture or by clear reasoning, I am bound by my beliefs... I cannot and I will not recant. God help me. Amen."

The prosecutor, John Eck again, condemned Luther as a heretic. Summing up his case, he asked, "Who are you to go against 1,500 years of Church doctrine?"

Luther left Worms an outlaw. Now "outside the protection of the law," Luther could be captured and killed by anyone. On his way home, he was kidnapped.

Many thought Luther had been killed. The great German painter Albrecht Durer wrote "O God, if Luther is dead, who will teach us the holy Gospel so clearly? All you pious Christians, pray that God will send us another enlightened man."

But Luther was alive, safely hidden in the Wartburg Castle at Eisenach courtesy of Frederick the Wise.

Around 1500, emerging nations were becoming bolder. And many German princes like Frederick saw the Roman Church as an obstacle to greater power. After all: year after year local fortunes went to Rome in the form of tithes. The only people who could thumb their noses at a prince's laws were pope-appointed Church officials. And the biggest local landowner in their realm was the Church.

(Nobles often willed their land to monasteries and convents in return for prayers to speed them through purgatory.)

But breaking with Rome could cause a war. While Charles V with the mighty Spanish army at his disposal wanted a German alliance against the Turks, he was also ready to defend the Church. The battle lines if confused were drawn.

For nearly a year, Luther hid out at Wartburg Castle.

This was Luther's room. Restless, over-fed, and lonely in the castle he continued his lifelong battle with Satan. It was here that he employed his favorite weapon the printed word.

Believing that everyone should be able to read the word of God, Luther began the huge task of translating the New Testament from Greek to German.

He told his colleagues, "Give us simple words... not those of the court, for this book should be famous for its simplicity."

As protesting Christians read the new German Bible and found no mention of indulgences, purgatory, or even a pope, the fires of reform were fanned.

Eventually, Luther, disguised as a knight with a big beard, left the castle and returned home. Luther settled back into his monastery dormitory, at Wittenburg today called Luther Hall.

It was here that Luther wrote the Little Catechism used by centuries of Lutheran parents to teach their children, and composed many of his great hymns. With his inner circle, he gave direction to the reformation. This theological think tank was the birthplace of the Lutheran church.

Luther's faculty colleague the Greek scholar Philip Melancthon was the quintessential emaciated intellectual. Melancthon became Luther's lifelong ally and friend and the second most important figure in the Lutheran reformation.

The Lutheran movement introduced two essential changes: First, salvation is a gift from God we're saved by our faith not by good works or sacraments. Second, the Bible alone is the word of God and the only source of religious authority.

Luther rejected five of the Roman Church's seven sacraments keeping only those actions commanded by Jesus: Baptism and Communion.

Luther helped make Christianity accessible. In his "priesthood of all believers," whether a school teacher in front of a blackboard or a farmer behind a plow, we're all equally capable of understanding God's word and can receive salvation without the help of intermediaries.

Luther taught that those who call themselves bishops, popes, and priests are, in the scriptures, called shepherds and servants...their task is to care for the rest of us.

And pastors were free to marry. There's nothing in the Bible that says they can't. The former monk Martin married a former nun, Katherine von Bora.

Martin and Katherine had six children and raised four orphans. And Katie who ran the huge and busy Luther household was a welcome partner in Luther's circle.

[Luther's voice]
"Marriage is a better school for the character than any monastery for it's here that your corners are rubbed off."

Luther's dining room table was a social and intellectual jam session. It was where his students, house guests and fellow reformers gathered, drinking Katie's homebrewed beer and eating the Luthers almost out of house and home. They'd spend long hours discussing and debating religious issues and applying their faith concretely to everyday life. Luther's followers hung on his every word. Over 6,000 entries from silly to profound were collected by his students in an anthology later called "Table Talk."

[Luther's voice with soundbites in imaginary rowdy dinner setting, laughter, clinking, etc mixed in, with medieval table wear on rustic old table:]

..."The monks are the fleas on God Almighty's fur coat."

..."What lies there are about relics! How does it happen that 18 apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only 12?"

..."I would have died if I had been in the ark. It was dark, three times the size of my house and full of animals."

..."God uses lust to impel men to marriage, ambition to office, avarice to earning and fear to faith."


It's from these notes we sort through Luther's moral pluses and minuses. He was earthy and certainly enjoyed his beer. He was intolerant of Jews and everyone else who disagreed with his theology. He was also vulnerable. When his daughter died he was broken but found healing in the scripture.

Luther struggled with depression all his life. He fought the devil during these times.

[Luther's voice]
"Whenever the devil pesters you, at once seek out the company of friends, drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some form of merriment."

Luther loved music which he figured the devil hated. In perhaps his deepest depression he wrote one of Christendom's greatest hymns, "A Mighty Fortress." It declares that all the power of the devil and all the evils of the world cannot stand up to God.

Luther opened a flood gate of reform. He trained an entire generation of new pastors and church leaders. Pastors led worship in German without wearing the traditional robes. They purged churches of relics and put a halt to the lucrative enterprise of reciting Masses for the dead. City councils kept charitable money formerly sent to Rome for local needs.

And by breaking Rome's hold on Christianity, Luther opened a theological pandora's box. Some new religious groups reformed way beyond Luther's comfort zone: often tossing out all remnants of traditional worship.

The Roman Church warned that the Reformation would bring a storm of conflicting interpretations of the Bible. It did. And most protestant leaders were not particularly open-minded. One reformer wrote: "Individual interpretation of the Bible allows each man to carve his own path to hell."

The Anabaptists a group prominent in Switzerland believed in adult rather than infant baptism and were strictly non-violent. When Swiss authorities began executing Anabaptists for their refusal to serve in the local military, Luther supported the crackdown because he was against civil disobedience.

By 1529 a group of states protesting the emperor's attempt to force all of Europe to be Roman Catholic, realized that to survive, they'd need to hammer out a theological common ground and make a political alliance. Now called "Protestants," they met here at Marburg castle just north of Frankfurt.

The meeting included Luther, the leading Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, and a number of other reformers. They summarized their beliefs and agreed on everything except one point: the actual presence of Christ in the wine and bread of Communion.

On this issue, Luther still listening only to "logic backed by scripture" was inflexible. He said "God commands 'take, eat, this IS my body.' This issue how Christ is present in the sacrament still divides many Christians today.

Summarizing the results of Marburg, Luther wrote to Katie.

A world away from all this theological debate, the Turks were now actually threatening Vienna. Emperor Charles V returned to Germany. His mission: to settle these religious issues once and for all and unite Europe against the Turks. He reassembled the congress at Augsburg.

The Protestant leaders drew up a list of ways they differed with Rome. Luther still technically an outlaw was sidelined for his own safety at this castle in Coburg.

Luther enthusiastically endorsed this document the Augsburg Confession written and presented by Melancthon. To this day, this founding document defines the Lutheran church.

But the Roman theologians and the Protestants were unable to agree and the negotiations broke off. This exasperated Luther and left him believing the Roman Christians were hopeless. It also left Charles without his German alliance.

The German princes' break with Rome eventually led to a hundred years of religious wars. Many historians call this the first world war since virtually every part of Europe was involved.

In 1648, with Europe dazed and a third of Germany dead, a treaty was finally signed. The result: not religious freedom. But now the leaders of each country were free to decide if their subjects would be Roman or Protestant Christians. Much of Europe was divided between a Catholic south and a Protestant north.

After Augsburg, Luther returned to Wittenburg where he preached, wrote, and taught. Productive until his last days, he helped establish public education for both boys and girls. He was a valued arbitrator throughout the region. And he enjoyed lots more table talk.

Martin Luther died in 1546 in this house in Eisleben, the town where he was born. The biggest funeral procession in memory accompanied his body to the castle church in Wittenberg where he's buried. To this day pilgrims bring flowers.

For most of the 500 years since the Reformation, relations between Catholics and Protestants have not been good. But in our lifetime, huge strides have been made. Now, many of the issues have been resolved, and Lutherans and Catholics are working closer together as children of God and followers of Jesus.

Today, there are 350 million Protestant Christians. And Christians around the world understand what Martin Luther worked so hard to teach: that we are saved by God's grace through faith. And it's all in the Bible. Thanks for joining us, I'm Rick Steves. God bless each of you and... auf wiedersehen.