In the almost 63 years he has lived (1483-1546), Martin Luther changed the world. Through him, Northern Europe separated from the Roman Catholic Church and went its own way. Millions of people learned to know God in a completely new way. Luther was aware of his unique purpose. He saw himself as the lever of God in a world mired down. Sometimes, he was extremely afraid that he had done everything wrong and that it would go totally wrong, then he would let it all go and he could surrender to God as a child. Well-known is his statement:
While I drank the Wittenberg beer with my friends, the Word did its work.
A description of Luther’s life could be found many places on the internet. The representation below is different, because of the many quotations drawn from Luther’s preserved Table Talks (WATR, look at Source Material). For the secondary literature and background look at the Luther encyclopaedia page.
Luther’s life can be divided into four stages (other divisions are also possible):
- Stage I (1483-1516): Youth and searching
- Stage II (1517-1521): The big breakthrough
- Stage III (1522-1530): Identifying the course
- Stage IV (1531-1546): Old and immobile
First stage: Youth and searching (1483-1516)
Luther was born in a peasant family in the village Eisleben on November 10th, 1483. A year later the family moved to Mansfeld. His father became a miner and is promoted gradually.
My forefathers were honest farmers. Later on my father went to Mansfeld and became a miner there. There are my roots. (WATR 5, 558; No. 6250)
His upbringing is very strict:
My parents raised me so strictly that I became wary of it. Once my mother gave me such a blow that the blood came out, and it was only about a nut. (WATR 3, 416; No. 3566b)
Later on Luther describes the next incident, showing how his strict upbringing went:
As a little boy I once went singing with a friend to collect sausages. Then someone came who shouted for fun: ‘Hey, what are you doing, scoundrels! I will make sure you won’t like it!’ He came with two sausages for us. But we ran away, while the man only wanted to give us something. This is exactly the same with God. We flee from Him Who only wants to give us something good. (WATR 1, 59; No. 137)
In 1497 (Luther was 14), Luther’s father sent him to the well regarded school in Eisenach, so he had to live as a non resident. Luther always had been grateful for the good time he had there. Three years later he was 18 years old and he was allowed to go to university in Erfurt. It was a modern, progressive institution, where Luther was introduced to Aristotle and other great philosophers. In line with his father’s will, Luther intended to specialize in the law.
On 2 July 1505 something crucial happened. He was on the way from Mansfeld (where his parents lived) to Erfurt (where he studied), when a great thunderstorm broke out.
The lightning struck near me. I was terribly scared and shouted: Help me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk! (WATR 4, 440; No. 4707)
Anne is the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Luther arrived safely at his destination and therefore he felt obliged to fulfil his promise, even though he regretted his promise and his father was furious that he discontinued his study of law.
My father was extremely angry because of my promise, but I kept it. (WATR 4, 440; No. 4707)
Luther chose to fulfil his vow at the St. Augustine’s Monastery (also in Erfurt), because it is well-known for its strictness and difficult discipline. After a probationary period of one year – not everyone endured a room with only a table, a chair, a candlestand and a straw mattress – he is admitted into the Augustinian order in September, 1506. Not even a year later he was ordained a priest, on April 4, 1507.
Soon it becomes apparent that Luther has talent. Therefore, in 1508, he is allowed to teach at the newly founded university of Wittenberg, first in philosophy. In 1510 he made a journey to Rome where he is amazed at the corruption and the excess of the official church leadership.
In 1512 he becomes ‘Doctor of the Holy Bible’, i.e. professor of the Biblical studies. From now on him is given the task of explaining the Bible. He starts with lectures on the Psalms (from 1513-1515), followed by the Letter to the Romans (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517) and Hebrews (1517-1518) and once more the Psalms (1519-1521). One of his first publications was an explanation of the seven Penitential Psalms (first edition 1517, revision 1525: translation NL).
It is generally agreed that the foundations were laid for Luther’s later reformational insights in these lectures. He did not become a reformer primarily because of deep spiritual experiences or because he was concerned about the decline of the church, but because he was occupied profoundly with the Bible. A lot of things are now making sense to him and this gets him into difficulties with the leading theologians and their theology (see his Disputation against Scholastic Theology from 1517: translation DE / EN). Luther takes his students and some colleagues at the university into his movement, as can be learned in his letters, for example to Spenlein (NL) and to Spalatinus (NL).
Finally, there is a breakthrough.
Second stage: The big breakthrough (1517-1521)
The bomb bursts when Tetzel starts selling indulgences.
The church earned vast amounts of money with the sale of indulgences. According to the official theology, you could buy yourself or your loved ones out of the punishment, which you had merited due to your sins with these indulgences. Indeed, your sins were forgiven by God (when the priest pronounced the formula: ‘Ego te absolvo’, I absolve you), but you also had to make up for them, for example you had to go on a pilgrimage or recite some prayers. And you could purchase these with indulgences.
According to Luther, this is theologically incorrect. When God forgives sin, then He is done with it. Grace is really grace. With this message Luther quickly became popular among common folk.
At that time Tetzel preached his indulgences. The people came en masse. But I more and more advised them to not do so, by explaining to them what the real meaning of grace and forgiveness of sins are. But Tetzel kept on being shameless, so at that moment I entered into the discussion about indulgences. That turned the world upside down. (WATR 5, 76; No. 5346)
At that time, Luther wrote his famous 95 Theses about the power of indulgences (translation: NL/ EN/ DE) and later on also a short sermon on indulgences and grace (DE). Because the art of printing had just been invented, Luther’s writings could be spread throughout the whole of Germany faster than ever. At the peak of Luther’s productivity there were multiple publishers that were solely engaged in printing and spreading Luther’s works. Luther had mixed feelings about this:
I do not want my books being spread, by no means the ones I wrote as first. I would prefer them to be forgotten, because the church is full of books, but the Bible is forgotten. (WATR 4, 87; No. 4029)
Tetzel was a monk of the Dominican Order, while Luther was a monk of the Order of Saint Augustine. However, the mighty Dominicans stood by their monk. They nonetheless allowed Tetzel to confront Luther on his own. The conflict became larger and larger after that. Four events are especially significant:
- The hearing before Cajetan, the highest ranked Dominican, in Augsburg (October 1518); meant to convince Luther of his haughtiness and to persuade him to come back from his ‘wrong direction’. However, Luther does not want to do that, because he is convinced that his insights are Biblical.
Even if in the privacy of one’s own person one should say something new, then those who disagree would still accuse him of haughtiness. Christ and the martyrs are killed, because they seemed to despise the old, established wisdom. Or because they did not first ask advice of those so-called ‘wise’ who thought they had a monopoly on wisdom. (WABR 1, Letter to John Lang, 11 November 1517)
- The discussion with John Eck in Leipzig (July 1519); here the debate is mainly about the question as to who has the last word in the discussion about Christian doctrine. According to Eck, it is the pope, and so Luther has to restrain himself. But due to this discussion, Luther realizes that only the Bible has the last word and that the church and the pope could err.
- The bull of excommunication. When it becomes clear that Luther is not going to restrain himself, Rome officially excommunicates him in June, 1520. Luther, in turn, also understands that Rome will not change and he becomes more radical. On December 10, he burns the bull outside of Wittenberg, together with other important writings, after his own works were burned by theologians from Leuven. The breach is permanent.
- More and more people side with Luther. Because of that, even important politicians are forced to choose because in that day there was no freedom of religion: everyone in a specified region practiced the same faith. The main question is, which side will the emperor Charles V choose and if he agrees to the excommunication of Luther. He instructs Luther to give an explanation at the Diet of Worms, a meeting at the highest political level, in April 1521.
Emperor Charles summoned me to the Imperial Diet. My friend Spalatin advised me not to come, because it would be far too dangerous. But I said that I would go to Worms anyway even if there were as many devils as there were roof tiles, because I was resolute and not afraid. God can make someone so foolish! (I do not know if I am still that…) So I just entered Worms in an open cart in my habit. The people came from all the streets and alleys to look at me. (WATR 5, 68v.; No. 5342b)
When I am not convinced by the Scriptures or by clear reasoning (…) then I am held captive in my consciences by the Word of God. Therefore, I cannot and will not recant, because defying your conscience is dangerous and not beneficial. May God help me, Amen. Here I stand, I can do no other. [Possibly not literally said by Luther].
After the Imperial Diet Luther has permission to return home. But he is ambushed on the way, but that is planned in advance, to take Luther to safety secretely. He is taken to the Wartburg, where he grows his beard and pretends to be ‘Junker Jörg’. Sometimes things almost go badly: as soon as Luther hears of a new book somewhere, he tries to get hold of it to read it, while traders never read so much then. Sometimes he also started a discussion about faith with people who do not know he is Luther. Further, Luther tells about how he had the feeling that all kinds of demons harassed him:
When I departed from Worms in 1521, I was captured and put in a room at the Wartburg. Nobody was allowed to visit me, except two boys, who brought me food and drink twice a day. Once they brought a sack of hazelnuts for me, which I stored in a box. But when I went to sleep late at night, I suddenly had hazelnuts all over me. They banged against the beams and against the bed. I just accepted it. When I fell asleep, there was a horrible noise in the staircase, as if a couple of beer barrels had rolled down the stairs. I knew the stairs were blocked, so nobody could go upstairs, so I went to have a look at what was happening. But there was nothing to see. Then I said: If it is you, devil, so be it. And I entrusted myself to the Lord, of Whom it is written: Thou hast put all things under man’s feet (Psalms 8). Sometimes it was so stormy at night that I thought there were a thousand devils inside. The best trick to make him disappear is to ignore him and call Christ, because he cannot stand that. (WATR 6, 209; No. 6816)
During the conflict with Rome in the year 1520 (so before the Wartburg), Luther writes what are seen to be his three most important writings: The freedom of a Christian (translation: NL / EN / DE), The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (translation: NL / EN / DE) and the open letter To the German Nobility (translation: EN / DE). In this, he extends the conflict with Rome much wider than only over the issue of indulgences. It shows that everything is connected with everything. When one piece turns, a domino effect occurs.
Third Stage: Identifying the course (1522-1530)
After the big breakthrough a period begins in which Luther had to make all kinds of choices and is faced with (internal and external) conflicts. He has to choose what he agrees with and with what not. Finally, these eight big decisions, events and developments define the Lutheran Reformation:
- Translation of the Bible into German;
- Conflict with Karlstadt about revolution;
- Peasants’ War;
- Conflict with Erasmus about ‘free will’;
- Luther’s marriage;
- Conflict with Zwingli about the Lord’s Supper;
- New organization of the church;
- Conflict with Agricola about the law.
Each of these points is discussed below.
- At the Wartburg, Luther must first recover his health. He has many problems with his bowels. When he has recovered, he returns to work. He writes many letters to his friends and all kinds of books. But the most important thing is that he starts translating the Bible into German. Until then, the Bible existed chiefly in Latin, which could only be read by highly educated people. However, Luther wants to recover the Bible for everyone. In eleven weeks he translated the entire New Testament for his first time. Later on the Old Testament was added. After a massive effort and in cooperation with his friends, the whole Bible was completed in 1534. A revision of this Luther Bible (the original can be found in a scientific edition here) is still in use in Germany.
In the time of Christ and the apostles the Gospel was material for instruction. During the popes it was merely reading material. But now it has become the explosive which eliminates its opponents. (WATR 2, 352; No. 2185)
- While Luther was at the Wartburg, Wittenberg became restless. Some of Luther’s followers think Luther’s work has to be finished and there should be a radical Reformation. They want to abolish all traditions, they harrass monks and ruin altars and statues. Andreas Karlstadt was especially proficient at causing problems. Luther’s friend Melanchthon does not really know what to do. Therefore, in March 1522 Luther decided to come back. For a period of a week he preached daily to calm down the people again (the Eight Invocavit Sermons: translation EN). His standpoint: you cannot push the rediscovered faith through by force, but it can only be accepted freely. A revolution does not work, it is much better to work for a gradual evolution (see his Faithful exhortation to guard against revolt and revolution, translation: NL / EN / DE). That is the spiritual way of interacting with each other. Faith without mutual love is dead.
- Luther gets everything in Wittenberg back on track. But he cannot prevent it from going wrong elsewhere in the country. The cause is out of control and cannot be brought back under control. A kind of revolutionary mood arises at many places in Germany, especially under the peasants. They do not only want to be free from Rome, but also with their oppressive government. Their leader Thomas Müntzer thinks Luther is doing far too little for the poor peasants. He becomes the leader of the Peasants’ War in 1525. Luther wrote a fierce essay in which he maintains that the government has every right to murder these peasants (Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, translation: EN / DE). So, he does not agree with the far ‘left’s’ interpretation of his ideas. The government has to be obeyed, he had already maintained in 1523 (Secular Authority: To what extent it should be obeyed, translation: NL / EN / DE).
- In the year 1525, during the Peasant’s revolt, Luther also acquires another opponent. So far he faced Rome on one hand and the radicals on the other hand. Now humanism was added. Humanism was a cultural renewal movement, with its great leader the Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus had sympathy for Luther, but he did not want to be viewed by Rome like Luther. Therefore, he now writes a book to clarify that he does not agree with Luther. He especially deals with the question of whethter or not man has free will: according to him men do have, it but according to Luther men do not have free will. Luther says in his reaction (About unfree will) that he is pleased that Erasmus has written about this subject, because according to Luther this is the heart of the entire issue between Rome and himself. All the other things (indulgences, pope, purgatory) are side issues. The most important question is whether man wants to serve God for himself. In this debate the much later break between Christianity and the Enlightenment is already revealed.
- Also in the important year 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora. He has a good marriage and together they have six children. For Luther as for everyone in his day, women occupy a lower social status, as usual for those times.
I love my Kate, even more than myself. Absolutely! I had rather die myself than that she and the children should die. (WATR 2, 135; No. 1563)
My wife can obtain everything she wants to get. She manages everything, so I mostly allow her to do it. But I am and remain the boss. A woman’s dominion never brought anything good. Adam was allowed to rule over all the animals, but as soon as Eve convinced him to be like God, it went wrong. Thanks to the woman! (WATR 3, 25v.; No. 2847a-b)
He loves his children and his children are used as an example in many of his sayings and works.
As normal as it seems now, Luther’s marriage is a big scandal at that time. Luther has been a monk, and monks had promised to remain single. Even some of Luther’s friends dislike his marriage. With it he gives Rome a huge opportunity to besmirch him! But Luther stays resolute that his marriage is a good thing, and that there is nothing wrong with it. Marriage helps to properly guide your desires, as Luther contended earlier (On Marriage, translation: EN / DE). It was his promise to become a monk that was a mistake.
I was misled by what the church taught. Marriage is necessary for almost everyone. Because when God says ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, then it is not only a commandment, but also something that God inspires. So you cannot hold back that. (WA 10/II, ‘Vom eheligen Leben’ (1522), 276)
The best method against sexual offence is to marry and a wife is your best mate for life. They bring forth children, take care of their upbringing, manage the household and are merciful in character. God has created them to bear children, to gladden men and to be merciful. (WATR 1, 5v.; No. 12)
Katharina lives with Luther in the former Augustinian Monastery (all the monks have relocated) and together they start a new life there. They have a lot of space and therefore they can give shelter to all kinds of people. Those people often eat at the big table, where, of course, there is a lot to speak about. At some point someone decided to write down Luther’s remarks in a notebook. Luther did not have any problems with that. This is how the notebooks are created which became the famous Table Talk (NL), full of captivating and moving stories.
- In the second half of the twenties some discussions in which Luther is involved focus on the Lord’s Supper. This is the so-called Great Controversy, with Karlstadt and especially Zwingli. It is very important for the political success of the Reformation that Luther and Zwingli agree with each other. Therefore the Marburg Colloquy was organized in 1529. But that went terribly wrong. Rome believed that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper really changed into the body and the blood of Christ (‘transubstantiation’). Karlstadt and Zwingli saw the Lord’s Supper more as a meal in remembrance of the death of Christ. Luther remained somewhere in the middle between both. It is essential for him that Christ said: ‘This is my body’. In the background of this discussion many more things are at issue, like the proportion of God’s presence in the earthly reality in general and the proportions of faith and reason. Therefore Luther writes almost nowhere as elaborately about Christ as he does in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper from 1528.
- Meanwhile Luther is also working on a new organization of the church, so the ecclesiastical life and the liturgy correspond to the newly discovered doctrine. Because church and state are not separate yet, the political leader of a territory becomes, at least on paper, the leader of the church in that territory. This is called the ‘territorial lord’s church ordinance’ (from ‘territorial lord’, the leader in a territory). Luther helps, among other things, by writing a Small and a Large Catechism (1529, translation NL / EN / DE). He also writes hymns (Spiritual Hymnal, 1524), he makes a new Form for Baptism and a new Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Form for Baptism, redesigned, 1525; German Mass and Order of Divine Service, 1526) and a Form for the Solemnization of Marriage (DE).
- Finally, a conflict arose about the meaning of the law (the first antinomian conflict) with Johannes Agricola. Agricola proposed the idea that the law only belongs at the secular realm, so it is only of value for the non-Christian. However, Christians are free of the law. Agricola supposes that he remained loyal to Luther’s earlier views with this view, but Luther did not agree. The law continues to be meaningful to the church.
This is how the Reformation begins to take root and how slowly but surely it becomes clear, through various conflicts, as to what Luther finally represents.
Last stage: Old and immobile (1531-1546)
Many of Luther’s biographers begin the last stage of Luther’s life with the Diet of Augsburg, from 1531, and continue till the end of his life in 1546. In these fifteen years Luther is less at the centre of world history and sometimes he gets very obstinate and cranky. Also, his health continues to decline. Nevertheless, even now he will write important works and his authority remains in play beyond all doubt.
All kings and devils cannot prevail against my doctrine! Further, I have nothing that makes me happy. I know very well that my life is not something to be proud of. I am a poor sinner and let all my enemies be saints or angels. I wish them much success in the future. However when it comes to my doctrine, I am the devil, the emperor and I dominate everyone. But about my life every child is above me. (WA 23, ‘Auf des Königs zu England Lästerschrift Titel Martin Luthers Antwort’ (1527), 29)
When the Reformation started, emperor Charles V was occupied with the war with Francis I of France. Therefore, he had to watch powerless as the Reformation split his Germany. But in the twenties the situating shifts and he becomes more powerful. In 1530, at the new Diet, in Augsburg, he wants to get the situation under control and to a proper conclusion. Luther and his colleagues accept the invitation and go on their way. But Luther himself is not allowed to go to Augsburg because he is still excommunicated. Therefore, he stays at the Coburg for many months (from the end of April till early October). From there, he advises and he writes letters to home. Sometimes Luther is despondent because of events:
If I died now and you would cut me up, then you would see that my heart is dried up completely through my sorrow and dejection. (WATR 2, 129; No. 1550)
He also does not make it easy for his colleagues. When Melanchthon asks him which compromises Luther believes are possible, Luther almost explodes.
I hate your miserable concerns. It is because of your philosophy, and not of theology! As if you can get anywhere with that! What can the devil do more than kill us? So what? I implore you, you who take on the fight in all other issues, now you are also fighting against yourself, your worst enemy, in arming the devil with weapons against you. (WABR 5, 398v.)
At the same time he writes them letters that were, during this period special pastoral letters of comfort. But it is not going to be fine in Augsburg. The division of Europe is final.
In the following years Luther goes back to work at the University. He lectures about the Epistle to the Galatians, about some Psalms and about Genesis and he attracts many students as usual.
Meanwhile, news from Rome that a council has been: a meeting of the worldwide church about the course the church needs to follow. Luther is asked to prepare the Protestants for this. This results in, among other things, the Smalcald Articles (1537: Later accepted by the Lutheran churches as their official confession of faith) and a study about the councils of the early churches, in which Luther relates his vision of the church (1539). He mentions seven features by which the church can be recognized: sermon, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, confession, the offices, liturgy and finally discipleship. He also calls the pope the Antichrist. It is obvious that he did not have any expectations of the council. Finally, it would start just before Luther died: the Council of Trent met, with intermissions, from 1545 till 1563.
A black mark on Luther’s biography is what he wrote about the Jews (especially) in his later life. It continues to be debated whether his comments can be called antisemitism, in the sense of hate against the Jews because of their alleged ‘race’, ‘character’ or ‘nationality’. It seems that Luther’s main concern is their rejection of Christ. Anyway, he does not eschew hard, subversive remarks and he calls for the burning of synagogues, compulsory purchase and other measures. Such comments could be easily used by the Nazis later in Hitler’s Third Reich. Luther also felt also strongly about Muslims (in his time: ‘Turks‘). He saw the rising of the Turkish Empire as a punishment of God, but the doctrines of the Turks had to be ‘handled’.
Luther had suffered from countless diseases and ailments, among which were kidney stones, buzzing in the ears, sleeplessness, dizziness, heart problems and intestinal complaints. He attributed those to the devil, but he regularly ate and drank more than was good for him.
When our Lord God can forgive me that I crucified Him and tortured Him for twenty years [namely in the Roman Catholic mass that he served before the Reformation], then He can also turn a blind eye to the fact that I sometimes raise a glass in His honour. (WATR 1, 60; No. 139)
In the night of February 17-18, 1546 it is all too much. Luther dies. The following note was found at his table:
Nobody can understand the Bucolics and the Georgics of Vergilius, if he has not been a shepherd or a farmer for at least five years. Nobody can understand the letters of Cicero if he has not been immersed in public policy for twenty years. Therefore, let also noone think that he understands the Holy Bible, when he has not presided within the church and with the prophets for a hundred years. John the Baptist, with Christ and with the apostles, are so wonderful that you are not in the same league, but only follow behind, full of wonder. We are beggars, that is what is important (Hoc est verum). (WATR 5, 317v.; No. 5677)