“Dad, who is Martin Luther?” ​

I had just picked up my two oldest girls from school, and we were in my office before going home. Sitting on my desk was a package that had just arrived. I opened the package and inside was a small Martin Luther figurine from Playmobil that someone had sent me. As I showed it to my girls, one of them asked me the question, “Dad, who is Martin Luther?” 

My daughter is not the only one who is asking that question. While Germany is seeing a rise in tourism this year because of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, knowledge of who Martin Luther is at an all-time low in the United States. According to Religion News Service, “53% of U.S. Protestants know virtually nothing about the importance of Martin Luther or the Reformation.” Here are ten things that everyone needs to know about Reformation history:

1. Reform Started Before the Reformation

Martin Luther is the name most commonly associated with Reformation, and rightly so. But the initial fires of Reformation happened years before. Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and John Huss are just three of several church leaders who preceded Martin Luther.  They, too, worked on reforming the church on such matters as the accessibility of Scripture, preaching, and papal reform before the sixteenth century. Like Luther, they were branded heretics by the church. They were arrested and executed for their faith.

2. The Religious World Was in Turmoil

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were dark days for the church. For a while, there were even two rival popes. It was a time of chaos and confusion. Seven successive popes abandoned Rome in favor of Avignon in France. Rome was sidelined, and Saint Peter’s Basilica fell into disrepair.

Giovanni de’ Medici was made a cardinal at the age of thirteen and became Pope Leo X at thirty-eight. He loved the comforts and trappings of the world and went on a spending spree as soon as he became Pope. He wanted to leave behind a legacy of rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica and making Rome great again. He spent all of the Papal Treasury within two years of assuming the role of Pope. In order to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, pay for the papal wars, and continue his lavish living, Pope Leo X needed new ways to raise money. One of the ways he decided to do this was by the selling of indulgences.

3. Forgiveness Was For Sale Through Indulgences

For a fee, grieving relatives could pardon a deceased loved one from Purgatory. But it got even better! For the right price, individuals could also pay up for their own future sins. These were sometimes called plenary (full) indulgences.

4. The Ninety-five Theses Attacked Religious Abuses

On October 31, 1517, 33-year-old Martin Luther posted theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The door functioned as a bulletin board for various announcements related to academic and church affairs. Luther attacked the abuse of indulgence sales in sermons, in counseling sessions, and, ultimately, in the Ninety-five Theses.

Here are two examples of the Theses:

  1. “Every Christian who truly repents has plenary [full] forgiveness both of punishment and guilt bestowed on him, even without letters of indulgence.
  2. “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share in all the benefits of Christ and the Church, for God has granted him these, even without letters of indulgence.”

Imagine how angry the Pope was when he heard this! Luther attacked the foundation of his money-making machine.

5. New Technology Helped Spread the Reformation

Without the new innovation of the printing press, introduced by Johannes Guttenburg, new protestant ideas could not have spread across Europe on the scale that they did. A copy of the Ninety-five Theses fell into the hands of a printer, and it spread across Germany and, eventually, Europe. The printing of the Theses made Luther both a hero and an enemy. He was an overnight hero to the German people, and an enemy of the Roman Catholic Church.

I often wonder how effective Luther’s message would have been without the new technology of the printing press. Even though the world was dark, God was moving behind the scenes, and when everything was ready, He ignited a fire that was never stopped!

6. “A Mighty Fortress” Was The Battle Hymn of the Reformation

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written by Luther sometime between 1527 and 1529. The words are a paraphrase of Psalm 46. Often called the Battle Hymn of the Reformation, it is popular among many Evangelical churches.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

7. The Reformation Produced Some Negative Results

Sadly, not every result of the Reformation was great. The Reformation produced shockwaves socially and politically. The Reformation resulted in many socio-political conflicts that culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) between a Roman Catholic royal family and the Protestant princes; this war killed 25-40% of Germany’s population.

8. The Reformation Increased Literacy

The Protestant Reformation helped propel the spread of literacy, since one of its emphases was personal piety and appropriation of Scripture, including the use of catechisms for children. Luther developed the Small Catechism as a tool for parents to teach their children. In Germany, literacy rates ranged around 30% before the Reformation. In the late 1500s literacy had almost doubled.

9. Three to Five Principles Drove the Reformation

There are five theological principles (sometimes condensed to three) that unified the various streams of the Reformation: Sola Fide (by faith alone); Sola Christus (through Christ alone); Sola Gratia (by grace alone); Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone); Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory to God alone).

10. Courage and Conviction Led to Awakening

One of the things that I most admire about Luther is his courage. Courage to stand in the face of evil and say some things are just not for sale. He was mocked and branded as a heretic, but he still stood courageously. Because of him and others, Germany experienced an awakening through God.

​In our day, we need men and women to live courageously and with conviction. We need to stand for Biblical truth and live abandoned to God. He will send the awakening.