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Weekly Reflections

Key Builders of the Church – 5. Martin Luther 10 Oct 10

Key Builders of the Church – 5. Martin Luther

Born in Germany in 1483, Luther joined an Augustinian monastery after a terrifying experience in a thunder storm in which he feared for his soul. However his experience in the monastery led him to despair of ever being saved.

The reason was that the practice of the time was that penance had to be done for sins so that grace could be received (mostly through the sacraments) as a reward and thus  they could move towards a state of justification. Except that none of this seemed to break the cycle of sinful acts.

Luther became a teacher of the Bible and through his lectures on Psalms and Romans he gradually came to a different understanding of God’s grace. Instead of putting his trust in his own penance he had to put his trust the righteousness of Christ which God promised to those who trusted him. He came to realise that the whole of salvation was by grace – sola gratia – one of the great themes of the Reformation.

He began to see that justification was really full forgiveness, not a reward for things he had done, and was obtained by faith alone – sola fide. Luther soon came into conflict with his fellow monks and church officials. He objected strongly to a sale of indulgences (letters from the Pope allowing people to spend less time in purgatory) then making the rounds n Germany – a fund-raiser for the construction of St Peter’s in Rome.

The debate escalated, drew in the Pope (who excommunicated him), the Emperor Charles V (who tried to suppress his teaching) but eventually rallied many of the German rulers behind him and led to significant political as well as church divisions in Europe.

Luther denied the Pope’s infallibility and claimed that scripture alone – sola scriptura –  was the source of authority in matters of faith – and that it could be interpreted by all Christians. To this end he translated the Bible into German (making an impact on that language similar to that of the Authorised Version in English).

Luther made a major impact on the history of Christianity in Europe – indeed church life was no longer the same after Luther, although others joined his reformation and developed a theology that, like Luther’s, owed much both to Augustine and to the Bible. One of the impacts was to undo many of the accretions and bad practices of the middle ages. We are still in his debt.


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