Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Martin Luther

Martin Luther

 

Martin Luther is famous for posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg and for attempting to reform the Catholic Church, but what exactly did he believe, and what else did he contribute to Christendom? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther—and why he still matters today.

Who Was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was born in Eisleben, Germany, just as the Middle Ages were coming to an end. His plan was to become a lawyer, but while experiencing the terror of being caught in a thunderstorm, he vowed to become a Catholic monk if St. Anne would rescue him. Serving as an Augustinian friar and priest, Luther was often insecure about whether God would truly forgive him. He wondered whether he could ever be assured of salvation by following the church’s practices of confession, repentance, and performing good works. In order to encourage him, a spiritual advisor counseled him to study Scripture. It was his biblical studies and his discovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith that led him to protest certain medieval Catholic beliefs and practices and subsequently birth the Protestant Reformation. He became the greatest theologian of what would become the third major branch of Christendom—Protestantism. Martin Luther’s words and actions changed Christendom and thus Western civilization forever.

What Did Martin Luther Write?

Luther was a truly prolific author, but perhaps his two most important books are The Bondage of the Will and his Catechism. The first is considered a theological masterpiece in which Luther responds in debate to theologian Desiderius Erasmus on the topic of the freedom of the human will in salvation. The second book, which includes both his Large Catechism and Small Catechism, summarizes the faith and contains specific discussions of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

CRASH COURSE- LUTHER

What Did Martin Luther Believe?

Christians of various traditions continue to defend several of Martin Luther’s beliefs. Martin Luther’s three most important theological ideas reflect the truths of the Protestant Reformation:

  1. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone): Salvation comes solely by the grace (unmerited favor) of the Triune God and not by human works.
  2. Sola Fide (Faith Alone): Salvation comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, apart from human good works.
  3. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone): Scripture is the final authority in justifying belief and practice for the corporate church and for the individual Christian believer.

Why Does Martin Luther Matter Today?

Martin Luther is criticized today for the controversial and condemnatory statements he made about the Jews of his time. Though to provide some context, Luther’s unfortunate words came near the end of his life when he was quite ill and emotionally unsettled. Yet Martin Luther is considered one of the greatest Christian theologians and one of the most influential people in Christian church history. As the father of the Protestant Reformation, he rediscovered and transformed many Christian beliefs and left an enduring mark on the world. He is buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany—the church on which he nailed his 95 Theses, sparking the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Evangelical Christians today are deeply influenced by Luther’s beliefs about salvation by grace and by his conviction that Scripture is the believer’s supreme authority. In fact, to understand the ethos of Protestantism, one must study the life and doctrinal beliefs of Martin Luther.

Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards; Søren Kierkegaard; St. Bonaventure

Reflections: Your Turn

Knowing that salvation is a free gift of divine grace, how should this truth affect how we live as Christians?

Resources

  • For an outstanding biography of Luther, read Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton.
  • A defense of some of Martin Luther’s more controversial statements is found in In Defense of Martin Luther by John Warwick Montgomery.
  • I highly recommend the 2003 film Luther in which Martin Luther is portrayed by actor Joseph Fiennes.

  One thought on “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Martin Luther

  1. August 6, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for writing this up! “The Bondage of the Will” is one of my favorite theological works ever. I have struggled with it for many years, finding new layers of meaning and insights, while still fighting against its conclusions and then ultimately accepting them. I’m a Lutheran so this post made me particularly happy.

    I think one aspect of Luther’s theology that cannot be missed is that he remained staunchly sacramental in his theology and sees Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as central to a life of faith.

    • August 6, 2016 at 7:38 pm

      JW:

      I didn’t know you are Lutheran. I took my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Irvine, California.

      Luther is one of my favorite theologians. Your point about his commitment to sacramentalism is very important.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • August 12, 2016 at 11:53 am

      Thanks, JW.

      Ken Samples

  2. Rita Gorski
    August 13, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I’m very late in reading the previous interaction, but want to add a few words. I think Chris is a deep thinker and wants to be right in his theology. But what I hear missing is an intimate love relationship with the Lord where His presence and fellowship with us settles our salvation within us and His love evokes in us enormous gratitude for that precious gift purchased by His sacrifice. Thinking we have to do more to earn that salvation is to mock that sacrifice as not sufficient. Our love for Him causes us to want to please Him, which is a natural response to anyone we love. Besides more reading of Luther, I humbly submit Charles Stanley’s,Eternal Security (Can you be Sure?). He presents all the arguments anyone can come up with and deals wit them. Simple, but profound.

    • August 13, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      Thank you, Rita.

      For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

  3. J.D. Collner
    August 15, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Ken, I appreciate your short course on Luther. It would seem that he was Arminian in his theology. I used to believe that way when attending the Methodist Church, but now am Anglican and the Doctrine of Election makes clear a lot of Scripture that I never understood before. Still though, Does “Free Will” play a part with Irresistible Grace in Salvation? Comments? Thanks JDC

    • August 15, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      Hello, JD.

      Modern Lutheranism paradoxically affirms that believers can fall away from their faith but this apostasy can never be permanent for the elect (a type of perseverance or assurance if you will). So for Lutherans, salvation is not graspable in sin (regenerative grace is needed), but salvation is resistible in grace (except for the elect).

      In the Augustinian (Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, Anglican) tradition, God’s regenerative grace frees the once enslaved human will. So for Augustinians, the only person with genuine freedom is the person who is the recipient of irresistible grace.

      Here’s my crash course article on Augustine: https://reflectionsbyken.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/christian-thinkers-101-a-crash-course-on-st-augustine/

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  4. J.D. Collner
    August 15, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks Ken.

  5. January 30, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Reblogged this on Is Christianity True? and commented:
    Given that this year is the 500 anniversary of the Reformation, this post by Kenneth Samples is timely:

    • January 30, 2017 at 9:54 am

      Thanks for the reblog, Steve.

      Ken Samples

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