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Martin Luther and His Impact on the Modern Church Essay

Western Europe was in desperate need of change during the sixteenth century. The popular cry among the Europeans was a call for “reform”. The political atmosphere was unstable as a result of violent leadership changes during the dismantling of the feudal system. This disunity of the people created a general atmosphere among the Europeans of discontent, unrest, and frustration. Economically, the inhabitants experienced increased poverty and financial troubles. The church was severely plagued by greed and corruption among the clergy, even in the upper echelons. The spiritual quality of the clergy was being degraded through the appointment of familial or political candidates. The theological minds, like Martin Luther’s, sought a reformation of church doctrine and a return to the basics of Christianity. The emphasis placed on Luther’s doctrine of justification and scriptural authority helped to reform church traditions and break the binding hold of corrupt leaders over the church.

The sixteenth century was a tumultuous time for Western Europe and the Church. Many Europeans were fraught with worry concerning the economical, religious, and social disorder. As the printing press became popular, the middle and lower classes were being flooded with information that had previously been unavailable; several competing doctrines were being given a voice through printed media. Previously, people would turn to religious institutions for hope and guidance amidst this type of chaos. However, the state of the church in the sixteenth century was fragile. This is due in part to the effects of the Great Schism in the fourteenth century. “[The Great Schism] divided the political, as well as the ecclesiastical world, and breaks up the Christian Europe into several hostile camps”.

The Great Schism was a result of a gradual decline along political and theological lines. Prior to the Great Schism, the Papacy had risen to a level of prominence in the hearts and minds of Western European Christians. The Church controlled virtually every aspect of human life within Western Europe and the Pope was looked to as the authority on all matters; spiritual and secular. The Church possessed a large percentage of the region and had established one of the most efficient systems of government in history. At this time, theological justification for the supremacy of the papacy had been established under the principle of “the subordination of the state to the church” by Pope Innocent III.

However, in Eastern Europe, the Pope was more of a foreign authority; available only when their own political leadership could not settle matters. The empire was recognized as the supreme power. They argued that unity for the citizens could only be realized through obedience to one authority; the empire. Since Christ had not given the authority of the state to the church, the church had no right to claim supremacy over the empire. Several religious leaders in the East sought to inhibit the power and authority of the Papacy. The climate of Europe was poised for division.

The beginning of the division came in the form of the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” that lasted from 1309 to 1377. During this period, the French King Phillip IV held Pope Boniface VIII captive, and sequestered the College Cardinals to Avignon. This would introduce a reign of corruption among the French papacy and introduce a dividing line between European Christians; one side supporting the French papacy and another side that opposed it. These factors led to a final cataclysmic event that earned the title “The Great Schism”. When Gregory IX, the final Avigonese pope, returned to Rome, the Church attempted to re-establish the papacy in its historic setting. Upon his death, the papacy faced a great challenge. Urban IV, an Italian pope, was elected at the urging of the local mob, while Clement VII, a Frenchman, claimed rights to the seat as well. This caused confusion over the authority of the church and division among political lines; England, Germany, Italy, and their allies support Urban IV, while France, Scotland, Spain, and their allies supported the “anti-pope” Clement VII.

The Great Schism had a great effect on the faith and spirituality of the masses. There was a general feeling of distrust toward the Church and leadership. Even after the Great Schism had ended, “many found it difficult to reconcile their faith in the papacy with their distrust for its actual occupants”.Corruption and bribery were now commonplace among the upper level clergy; the practice of “the sale of indulgences” would even substitute for the process of salvation. Morally, the church was failing the believers. However, there were other flaws within the church during the sixteenth century.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Western Europe had been flooded with literature from divergent theological schools of thought. “New philosophical outlooks were introduced”. Mysticism and humanism were now beginning to replace the previously solid scholastic theology of the church. Supporters of Reform were calling for a change of the traditional practices.

It is in this context with which Martin Luther was influenced during the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Martin Luther grew up in an austere environment in Germany in the 1500’s. As a young adult, Luther entered the monastery out of concern for his own salvation. He thought, “’Oh, if I go into a monastery, and serve God in shaven crown and cowl, he will reward and welcome’”. Luther began a diligent study of theology during his time at the Augustinian Priory in Erfurt. He excelled intellectually and spiritually, though he experienced severe personal struggles.

“He sought to work out his own salvation by careful observance of the monastic rule, constant confession, and self mortification”. This careful obedience to the monastic life was to no avail; Luther was plagued with despair at the thought of his sinfulness. Added to his frustrations, Luther had experienced disillusionment during his tenure at the monastery. The carnally minded clergy of Rome shocked him. “In Rome, the first sparks of doubt flew into his soul, which, perhaps, while he was unconscious of it, faintly glimmered, but which, with the first opportunity that might present itself, were destined to rise up into a flaming fire”.

It is through these experiences that Luther would come to significant theological conclusions concerning the doctrine of justification by faith. These conclusions helped to spark a movement that would forever change the mindset of the Christian community.

As Martin Luther continued his studies of scripture, he was tortured by the guilt of sin. “He was struck by the prayer of Psalm 31:1, ‘in thy righteousness deliver me’. But how could God’s righteousness deliver him? The righteousness of God was surely calculated rather to condemn the sinner than to save him”. His questions required him to review Paul’s’ doctrine of justification detailed in Romans.

The doctrine of justification by faith is the basic message of God’s forgiveness towards the sin of man. Job pondered this question in the Old Testament; “How can a person be justified before God?” (Job 9:2, HCSB). Justification, then, is an act of grace by God, where he accepts the righteousness of Christ as our own by our faith in Christ. Paul comments that

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-16, HCSB) The righteousness of God now holds new meaning for Luther; the message of the gospel, or good news in Christ. The justice or righteousness of God does not mean punishment as Luther originally thought, but rather the imputation of God’s righteousness to the believer.

The righteousness of God is imputed to the believer, even as the believer is a sinner, because of God’s grace and mercy. Essentially, as Christians we are both sinful and justified. God does not excuse or ignore the sin of man. However, God declares us as justified because of the sacrifice of Christ once we believe and trust in Him. Our faith is not the cause of justification, as if we are rewarded for faith. But rather, faith and justification are free gifts to sinners who accept them.

Luther’s new revelation led him to a new way of thinking and preaching. His thoughts concluded that “I soon felt as if born again; as if I had found the gates of Paradise thrown wide open to me. Now I also looked upon the blessed Scriptures more reverently than in former times, and read them through rapidly” . This message of justification was received warmly by the masses. The western Europeans felt that Luther spoke to their condition, and increased their desire for reform.

For Luther, the Word of God was of utmost importance and it helped him find the answers to the issues of salvation that overwhelmed him. In the mind of Martin Luther, the Word of God was more than the text of the Bible. “For the laws of the Bible become sweet unto us when we read and understand them, not only in books, but in the wounds of our precious Savior”. The word of God is essentially more than scriptural text; it is the revelation of God and the Word of God working together.

In the primary sense we are told in John 1:1 that the Word of God is actually God himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Here detailed, the Word of God is actually the personage of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. This means that when God speaks, He also acts. This is depicted in Genesis as the Word of God is involved in creation; God said, let there be…and there was. Christ, now God’s greatest action is also His greatest revelation; the victory of God through Christ.

The Bible is the Word of God, not because it is infallible, but because in it we find Christ. The final authority of the Word of God is now realized in Christ. “Luther responded that it was neither the Church that had made the Bible, nor the Bible that had made the Church, but the gospel, Jesus Christ, that had made both the Bible and the Church. Final authority rest neither in the church nor in the Bible, but in the gospel, in the message of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God incarnate”.

Luther came to a transformative knowledge through his theological doctrines of justification by faith and the scriptural authority of the Word of God. His new emphasis greatly challenged the traditional views of the church. In sharing his knowledge, he penned ninety seven theses to stimulate debate about the theological traditions of the church. He expected to cause a stir, but the theses never received a wide circulation outside of the university.

Luther pens another theses in response to the misrepresentation of doctrine by John Teztel, a German Dominican preacher. Tetzel, authorized by Pope Leo X, was responsible for the sale of indulgences in Germany. The sale of indulgences was the practice of granting absolution to a sinner through a monetary remuneration. Family members were also able to purchase an indulgence for the deceased. Pope Leo granted the authorization of the sale of indulgences with the conditions that half of the proceeds would be used by the papal coffers. The monies would then be used for the refurbishing of Rome; more specifically “the refurbishment of the great basilica that is now the pride of Roman Catholicism”. With righteous indignation, Luther refutes the practice of the sale of indulgences in his Ninety Five Theses.

The sale of indulgences was popular at the time, though a theologically gray area. Luther believed that this practice was indicative of the loss of the foundational truths present in the gospel. Luther wrote the theses through his new mindset in the doctrine of justification by faith. Luther established that the sale of indulgences financially exploited the believer whereas salvation was intended to be a free gift from God. He also inadvertently challenged the authority of the Pope: “if it is true that the Pope is able to free souls from purgatory, he ought to use that power, not for trivial reasons such as the building of a church, but simply out of love, and freely”. With his nailing of the Ninety Five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, on the Eve of All Saints, Luther is said to have sparked the Protestant Reformation

Though the religious nature of the Reformation reverberated throughout Western Europe, there was a significant political aspect as well. Though Luther was nothing more than a friar, however, his text was an endangerment to the profits of the empire. The Emperor Maximillian wanted to silence the indignation of Luther. To the emperor’s chagrin, this could not be accomplished through Luther’s Augustinian Order; many of his fellow friars favored his teachings. The pope was forced to use an alternate method in commissioning Cardinal Cajetan to arrest Luther; an unfruitful undertaking.

When Luther learned of Cajetan’s plans, he escaped back to Wittenburg to file an appeal with the general council. During this time he remained under the protection of Frederick the Wise, and attempted to gain support for his cause. Shortly following this, the Emperor Maximillian died. The Imperial Throne was vacant, and Pope Leo was searching for a candidate that he could control. Out of the three possibilities, he believed Frederick the Wise would help to balance the power in the region and allow Leo greater influence. Leo allowed the condemnation of Luther to be postponed.

During this time, Luther gained the support of a colleague, Andrea von Karlstadt, at the University of Wittenburg who helped him to reform the schools theological curriculum. Karlstadt and Luther would enter into the academic debate with a shrewd theologian, John Eckk at the University of Leipzig in Ingerstoldt. It proved disastrous for Luther. His theological doctrine concerning the authority of scripture agreed with the findings an early theologian, John Huss, who had been declared a heretic. By agreeing with Huss, Luther, was therefore declared a heretic. This catalytic event began a series of struggles and triumphs for the Reformers.

To his success, the debate with Eckk gained him support among humanists and the German nationals. Throughout Germany, and beyond, Luther’s protest began a movement in those who desired reform. Luther also ignited the ire of Charles V, the new emperor, with his seemingly heretical stance. Through a series of events, Luther was issued a papal bull that required the burning of his books and his excommunication. He burned this order in public, which prompted him to be brought before the Imperial Diet at Worms. It is here that Luther refuses the opportunity to recant and makes his boldest affirmation “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me. Amen”.

The Reformation that Luther desired was a positive renewal of the church internally. However, Luther was unable to carry out the necessary steps to cement the reform movement. After the Diet of Worms, Luther retreated and Karlstadt was left to further the Reformation. Initially Luther was advocated the changes taking place, including the marriage of monks, the simplification of worship, and the abolition of mass for the dead. However, things soon began to spiral when rebellion broke out among the peasants. Luther never supported rebellious undertakings and urged a more peaceful solution, but to no avail. “Protestantism” would be blamed and it would create a division in the religious community; Protestants on one side, and Catholics on the other.

The Protestant Reformation did not cause other reform movements, but would parallel them. Reform movements would spring up in various European states. In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli would be credited with the beginning of the reform movement.

Zwingli was a pastor who would draw national attention by declaring many of the same theological doctrines as Martin Luther. He spoke out against the requirement of pilgrimages for salvation, and denounced the exploitation of the Swiss people at the hands of church leadership. Similar to Luther, Zwingli even spoke out against a seller of indulgences that had come to Zurich.

The Swiss Reformation saw the New Testament as central to its program of renewal. Their main goal was the “restoration of biblical faith and practice”. This is where Zwingli held differing opinions than Luther and his followers. Zwingli believed that they should return to the ways of the New Testament and Christ. Zwingli agreed with Luther on several points, but they could not agree on predestination or the understanding of the sacrament. Concerning predestination, Zwingli saw it as a natural consequence of the all knowing nature of God. Luther though content to determine that salvation was the work of God, could not completely agree with Zwingli. This affected their understandings of the sacrament. “Zwingli dreaded a physical interpretation; Luther, on the contrary, dreaded the evaporation of the of the spiritual element of the sacrament of communion”.

The religious community and the citizens of Western Europe were in a state of chaos during the sixteenth century. In desperate need of change, the Europeans called for reform against the traditions passed down from the medieval era. Through the revelations of Martin Luther concerning his doctrines of justification by faith and scriptural authority, the popular sentiment was organized into a movement that would of forever change the religious landscape of the West. Ultimately, a reformed Europe would be divided between the Catholic states of the south and the Protestant states of the north. From these efforts, several differing denominations would result that would inspire religious diversity and other reforms within the church. No longer would the believer be held to the sacrilegious traditions that had pervaded the papacy for over two centuries. Luther’s reformation was more than a “protest against the pope”; it [was] a positive and constructive renewal of the church”.


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