Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a German professor of theology, monk and hymnodist whose actions and teachings led to the Protestant Reformation, the movement that caused a split in Christianity between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Due to this he is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity. Luther rose against the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church like indulgences, in which the clergy forgave people’s sins in exchange for money. Moreover, Luther preached a doctrine of justification “by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Scripture alone”. This was in contrast with the preaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which advocated good deeds as necessary for salvation; and defined authority coming from both the Scriptures and Tradition. Know more about the contributions of Martin Luther through his 10 major accomplishments.

 

#1 He protested successfully against the corrupt practice of indulgences

In Roman Catholicism, an indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins”. By the late Middle Ages, indulgences were being widely abused with the clergy using it as a tool through which they forgave people’s sins in exchange for money. It was in protest of this immoral and corrupt practice that Martin Luther began the Reformation Movement. Luther’s protest against indulgences gained widespread following. Though the practice continued during his lifetime, in 1562, more than a decade after his death, the Catholic Church limited the use of indulgences at the Council of Trent. A few years later, in 1567, Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.

Catholic sale of indulgences
Depiction of the Catholic sale of indulgences

 

#2 He wrote the hugely influential Ninety-five Theses

In 1516, Albrecht von Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, who was deeply in debt, got permission from Pope Leo X to conduct the sale of a special plenary indulgence, which would grant remission of the temporal punishment of sin. In response to this, on 31st October 1517, Martin Luther wrote a letter to Albert of Brandenburg in which he enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, which later became famous as the Ninety-five Theses. This is considered as the start of the Protestant Reformation with October 31 being commemorated annually as Reformation Day. The Ninety-five Theses; which were a scholarly objection to the ill practices of the church; were quickly reprinted, translated and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. They became the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. The first two thesis contained Martin’s central idea that God intended believers to seek repentance; and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The remaining 93 theses either supported this central idea or objected to indulgences.

Ninety-five Theses
1517 printing of the Ninety-five Theses

 

#3 Martin Luther stood firm on his stance at the Diet of Worms

On June 15, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a public decree that warned Martin Luther that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings within 60 days. Luther, instead publicly set fire to the decree on December 10. Luther was thus excommunicated by the Pope on January 3, 1521. Then, on April 18, he appeared at a meeting of the Diet (assembly) of the Holy Roman Empire held at Worms, Germany. At the Diet of Worms, Luther was again asked to recant his writings. He, however, stressed that he would only be swayed by reason or if it was written otherwise in the holy scriptures. He concluded his testimony with the defiant statement: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” As a consequence of this, Luther was condemned as an outlaw by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Luther, in fact, had to go into hiding. It is to be noted that it must have taken extraordinary courage for him to be firm on his stance despite intense pressure.

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms
Luther at the Diet of Worms – 1877 painting by Anton von Werner

 

#4 He put forward many ideas which were highly radical for the time

What Martin Luther did and taught was extremely radical for its time. Among other things, he challenged the authority and office of the Pope by stating that the Bible was the only source of divinely revealed knowledge. Moreover, at the time of Luther, it was believed that priests are meant to be mediators between God and humankind. Luther, instead considered all baptized Christians to be holy priesthood and he explicitly mentioned this in his writings. Also, it was propagated then that the clergy were pursuing a higher vocation then others, like farmers or even the king, as they were dedicated to the service of God. Luther, on the other hand, stressed on the ability of all Christians to function as equals under God no matter the nature of their work. This was a radically democratic notion at the time. In the words of famed Luther scholar Paul Althaus: “Luther brought down the community of saints out of heaven and down to earth.”

 

#5 Luther Bible was widely read spreading its teaching to the common people

Luther published the German translation of the New Testament in 1522; and the complete Bible, with the Old and the New Testament, in 1534. The complete translation of the Bible from original Hebrew and Greek texts was accomplished with the help of several other people. The Luther Bible, as it came to be known, was written in a version of German spoken in Saxony, which could be deciphered by both northern and southern Germans. Moreover, the recently invented printing press, allowed it to spread quickly. Luther aimed that the translation was as close as possible to the contemporary language of the people as he wanted the common man to easily understand the text. Though the Luther Bible was not the first German translation of the Bible, it was far superior to all its predecessors. Luther’s translation of the New Testament has been called as “the most important and useful work of his whole life” as it brought the teachings and example of Christ into the hearts of the common German people. People who could even read a little German studied it “with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth”.

1534 Luther Bible
Luther Bible, printed in 1534

 

#6 He wrote the Large and the Small Catechisms

A catechism is a summary of the principles of a doctrine. In April 1529, Luther’s Large Catechism was published. It was addressed particularly to clergymen to aid them in teaching their congregations. The same year, Luther also published the Small Catechism, which was a synopsis of the Large Catechism and was meant for the people themselves. The catechisms of Martin Luther provide easy-to-understand material on the Ten Commandments; the Apostles’ Creed; the Lord’s Prayer; the Sacrament of Holy Baptism; the Office of the Keys; and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Luther included questions and answers in the catechisms so that faith is understood and not mugged. The Small Catechism proved especially effective in helping parents teach their children; likewise the Large Catechism was effective for pastors. The Small Catechism, with a reputation as a model of clear religious teaching, is still widely used in Lutheran churches as part of youth education and Confirmation.

Luther's Small Catechism
Title page of Luther’s Small Catechism (1536)

 

#7 Luther is regarded as a pioneer of Protestant hymnody

Martin Luther had a great passion for music and he was a prolific hymn writer. Being an able amateur musician, he also possessed ability as a composer. Moreover, Luther regarded music, and especially hymns, as important means for the development of faith. He believed that the synchronization of sound and theology served a redemptive function. Working on tunes and sometimes modifying old ones, Luther composed dozens of hymns in collaboration with Johann Walter. Together, the two are widely regarded as the pioneers of Protestant hymnody. Luther and Walter composed hymns which had singable melodies and didn’t require too great of a vocal range. This helped in making them popular. Together, the two published the most popular German music publications in mid-16th century. They were Achliederbuch (1524), Enchiridion (1524) and Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (1524).

Martin Luther playing the lute to his family
Martin Luther playing the lute to his family – Painting by Gustav Spengenber

 

#8 He made hymns an integral part of Lutheranism

Martin Luther ensured that the hymns he composed were sung at home, at school festivities, and at religious and civic events. Most of his hymns were accompanied by the lute, later recreated as the waldzither, that became a national instrument of Germany. Even today, Protestant churches derive inspiration from Luther’s hymns. Most Lutheran churches have choirs, handbell choirs and children’s choirs. Luther thus gave Protestantism a rich tradition of music. The most famous hymns of Luther include Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), which has been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” and is one of the best known Protestant hymns; and “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” (“Praise be to You, Jesus Christ”), which remains the prominent hymn for Christmas Day in German speaking Lutheranism and has also been widely translated. One of the world’s most renowned music composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, was an ardent Lutheran who composed music for the Lutheran church, inspired by Luther’s hymns.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Early printing of Luther’s hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’

 

#9 He is one of the most influential figures in history of Christianity

The teachings and actions of Martin Luther led to the Protestant Reformation, a movement within Western Christianity in 16th-century Europe that posed a religious and political challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. Though there had been several earlier attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church, only Luther succeeded in sparking a wider, lasting and modern movement. The Protestant Reformation resulted in the division of Western Christendom between Roman Catholicism and the new Protestant traditions, mainly Lutheranism, Calvinism, the Anglican Communion, the Baptists, the Anabaptists, the Methodists and the Antitrinitarians. Today, Protestantism is the second largest form of Christianity with collectively between 800 million and more than 900 million adherents worldwide or nearly 40% of all Christians. As Martin Luther was the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity.

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Martin Luther (1529) – Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder

 

#10 Lutheranism remains one of the largest Protestant traditions

Lutheranism is the branch of Christianity that identifies with the teachings of Martin Luther and the 16th-century movements that arose from his reforms. Martin Luther put forward three central ideas which have become the basic tenets of Lutheranism. First is justification by faith alone, which asserts that God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith alone, excluding all “works” (good deeds). The second is the doctrine that scripture is the final authority on all matters of faith. The third is the priesthood of all believers regardless of their vocation. Lutheranism is one of the largest branches of Protestantism. The total membership of its churches is estimated to be over 74 million. Lutheranism is the largest religious group in Denmark; the Faroe Islands; Greenland; Iceland; Norway; Sweden; Finland; Latvia; Namibia; and North Dakota and South Dakota in the United States.

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