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Martin-Luther (300 x 322)

Martin Luther - Part I. Luther’s Theses
Historical Accuracy Has Given Place To Popular Legend And Over Simplification

Carol Brooks

PART I - Luther’s Theses
istorical accuracy that is invariably quite complex has, all too often, given place to popular legend and over simplification that most Christians unquestioningly and uncritically accept.


Martin Luther [1483-1546]

Theses, Indulgences, and A Man Named Tetzel
What seems to be little known is that Luther's 95 Theses were not statements of fact, nor a final statement of belief,
but tentative opinions some of which he had doubts about.

Wittenberg Church Door Posting - Fact or Fiction?
It is more than likely that popular legend has dramatized the entire incident.

The Intention Behind and Reason For The 95 Theses
Luther's 95 Theses were not statements of fact, but tentative opinions - some of which he was not quite certain of.
They were presented only as objections that needed to be discussed

Popular Fallacies About The Theses
Misconceptions about the content of Luther's Theses abound.
He was actually Luther was calling for the practice of indulgences to be reformed, not abolished.

Rome's Reaction and Luther's Counter Reaction

Luther and The Five Solae of The Reformation

Luther's Theology - Salvation By Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) And Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
Reformed and other Protestant websites are often very quick to point out how much Luther underscored the hugely important 'grace and faith only' doctrine, and how that grace alone was a recurring theme in several of his later sermons and his commentaries

OR Salvation Through Grace AND Baptism
In his Small Catechism, Luther added baptism and the sacraments to grace and faith as requirements for salvation. Did Luther flatly contradict himself or was he just a very confused man?

Luther's Reasoning Behind What We See As a Blatant Contradiction
What, According to Luther, Constituted "Works"
Context, Context, Context - It is truly remarkable how many people will pull isolated text to prove a point - completely ignoring what was said immediately before and after.

uther's Doctrine: Luther’s views on Infant Baptism, Consubstantiation, Purgatory, The Ten Commandments etc. differed very little from Rome’s beliefs.  Luther's Vitriolic Polemics against those he considered to Be 'enemies' of the faith - The Jews, Catholic Bishops, The Anabaptists etc. How Nazi Germany Viewed Luther. The Peasants War. Summary and Conclusion.

Luther and Mary: Unfortunately, in order to prove Luther was an impostor who worshipped Mary until he died, numerous people dishonestly and deceptively quote him out of context. In reality, Luther disagreed with the Catholic position on almost every count except for one. He retained a lifelong commitment to Mary's perpetual virginity.

It never ceases to amaze me how relatively easy it is to deceive the Christian world.

Most of us have managed to stand firm in the face of the teachings of cult leaders like Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Charles T. Russell etc. However, when it comes to the wolves in our midst an enormous number of believers have fallen over with a collective thump. Largely due to the fact that all too many professing Christians are Biblically ignorant, the evangelical church has literally been overrun by an unending stream of usually slick, often charming, but always persuasive frauds like Joel Osteen. We apparently cannot see past their routinely preached anti-Biblical 'feel good' messages, nor that their main focus far from being people's souls, is self enrichment - something they are very, very good at.

Note: Joel Osteen's doctrine is indistinguishable from that of Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale. In fact he uses a particular phrase that was one of Napoleon Hill's hallmark expressions also used in toto by Peale. The kicker is where the doctrine and the phrase originated. See Joel Osteen - The Blind Leading The Blind - Chapter VI of The Prosperity and Word of Faith Doctrines.

If this isn't bad enough, ignoring both the Bible and basic common sense, believers from both traditional and evangelical churches have embraced the teachings of a number of Roman Catholics priests and monks who assure us they can show us how to achieve closeness with the Almighty. We have elevated many of them to a saint like status totally ignorant of the philosophy that underlies their practices and where they learned their techniques. See Contemplative Prayer Ch.7 - The Pioneers, Merton, Nouwen, Manning, and Keating.  

Even conservative Christians who usually belong to traditional denominations are not exempt. They may have managed to escape the snares of the very deceived people mentioned above, but have their own 'gurus'. This is probably due in part to the fact that the leaders, authors, and/or pastors tout this one or that being a 'great man of God'. Most people, reading just the bare minimum about the person and not taking the time to do any research on their own, take this as gospel truth.

Unfortunately, the beliefs and teachings of many historical figures are at variance with the Scriptures. Their main achievement often little more than an unparalleled ability to put pen to paper and produce a mind-boggling and unending stream of words which, in some cases, amounts to little more than philosophical gobbledygook. God ‘wrote’ one book. Collectively they wrote a million.

Sadly, it is often the case that a completely skewed view of certain Biblical doctrines is masked by a barrage of words that many confuse with great wisdom and theological insight. Some of the more outstanding examples are the Cappadocian fathers and their terrifyingly heretical mentor Origen who, God help us all, has actually been called "one of the greatest Christian theologians" (See Footnote II),

John Calvin came up with complex bewildering ideas that, find no basis in Scripture for all that they are presented with a deluge of words, intricate arguments and endless repetition (DETAILS). Many leading Calvinists agree that the writings of Augustine were the actual source of most of what is known as Calvinism today.  In view of the endorsements by some very prominent Catholics, an examination of some of Augustine's beliefs and teachings should not really bring any surprises. For example Augustine believed that salvation is not to be found outside of a 'pure' Catholic Church, which is the supreme teaching authority because of apostolic succession. He believed that the Catholic Church can forgive sins and that tradition is on par with the authority of the Scriptures. Furthermore he believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, to say nothing of purgatory and praying for the departed. (DETAILS)

The list is a fairly long one.

And then there is one other category - those who did get some things right. However, historical accuracy that is invariably quite complex has, all too often, given place to popular legend and over-simplification that most Christians unquestioningly and uncritically accept.

Ignoring everything they were wrong about, we have made them the object of great attention and devotion, held them up as icons to be emulated, written numerous books about them, and even erected statues to their memory.

This article is devoted to one such person... 

Martin Luther [1483-1546]
Although Martin Luther is well known throughout the Protestant world with an entire denomination bearing his name, all the average person probably knows is that, in 1517, he is supposed to have dramatically posted 95 theses on the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg, an action usually seen as the spark that set alight the Protestant Reformation. In fact, many people know Luther as the 'father' of Protestantism.

Unfortunately, people see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe. Those who hold Luther in very high regard are firmly convinced that he, rejecting the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic, was responsible for the spread of the Biblical principles of 'grace alone' and 'faith alone', Others point out that Luther did not really believe in the doctrines he claimed to because in his large and small catechisms he specified that baptism and the sacraments were requirements for salvation.

In what seems to be an ongoing tradition of the Christian church, both sides have used isolated text from Luther's own writings to support what they believe. Few have taken the time and trouble to delve into the thinking that underscored what appears to be a glaring contradiction.

There is no question that Martin Luther's refusal to bow down to the dictates of the Catholic Church let the genie out of the bottle. It helped empower the peasants, gave rise to Protestantism as we know it and even  (in the long run) contributed to democracy and changed the course of Western civilization. He even so inspired Martin Luther King Sr., that the Baptist pastor changed his and his young son's name. The son, originally Michael, became Martin Luther.

On the other hand, not many Martin Luther devotees seem to be aware that while Luther and the church of Rome went their separate ways over one particular issue that he valiantly fought against, several Catholic doctrines remained firmly entrenched in his belief system.

And that is not all.

All too many Christians tend to gloss over the fact that Luther slandered everyone he disagreed with. He made strident and offensive verbal attacks against both the papacy and the Anabaptists, while his violent polemics against the Jews are appalling examples of extreme anti-Semitism so much so, that the Nazis literally claimed kinship with him. Even worse, while there is no question that the peasants were themselves violent, Luther took the side of the nobles in the 1524 'Peasant's War' that saw thousands of already down trodden serfs killed for attempting to overthrow the feudal system that had them at the mercy of the landowners.

What we need to remember is that God can use anyone He chooses to, even people who make huge mistakes.

Martin Luther was a German monk and theologian - the son of a Saxon miner who wanted him to become a lawyer. To this end he enrolled in the University of Erfurt and obtained a Master of Arts degree in metaphysics, logic, rhetoric etc. However, this plan came to rather an abrupt end when, as a young man, he was almost struck by lightning. Fearing for his life, Luther petitioned St. Anne (Mary's mother and the 'patron saint' of miners) promising he would become a monk if she would save him.

Luther escaped unscathed from the storm and, despite his father's opposition, kept his promise. He joined the Cloister of Augustinian Friars in Erfurt and was ordained to the priesthood in 1507. It is said that just three years later a trip to Rome opened his eyes to the depravity and worldliness of the Catholic Church. A year after that he was sent to the University of Wittenberg, where he completed his doctorate in theology and occupied the position of "Chair of Biblical Theology". 

Wittenberg was no known center of learning. As Philip Schaff informs us, it

    .. was a poor and badly built town of about three thousand inhabitants in a dull, sandy, sterile plain on the banks of the Elbe, and owes its fame entirely to the fact that it became the nursery of the Reformation theology. Luther says that it lay at the extreme boundary of civilization, a few steps from barbarism, and speaks of its citizens as wanting in culture, courtesy and kindness. He felt at times strongly tempted to leave it. Melanchthon who came from the fertile Palatinate, complained that he could get nothing fit to eat at Wittenberg. Myconius, Luther's friend, describes the houses as "small, old, ugly, low, wooden." Even the electoral castle is a very unsightly structure. [00]

Theses, Indulgences, and A Man Named Tetzel
As the account goes, in the year 1517 Martin Luther, protesting the reprehensible doctrine of indulgences, posted ninety five theses on the door of the castle/church at Wittenberg.

A thesis (singular) is a statement, theory, or proposition put forward for consideration, to be discussed and proved or maintained against objections. Often used in the religious world as the basis of a theological discussion, Luther's theses proposed an academic discussion regarding the practice and efficacy of indulgences.

Indulgences were a particularly deplorable practice that rested on the belief in purgatory and the idea that forgiveness of sin and punishment for sin are separate issues (t the risk of stating the obvious -  this renders the word "forgiveness" quite meaningless) As explained by the Catholic Encyclopedia,

    "The Catholic doctrine of purgatory supposes the fact that some die with smaller faults for which there was no true repentance, and also the fact that the temporal penalty due to sin is at times not wholly paid in this life. [01]

A person's good works such as alms, pilgrimages, charitable acts, etc. reduced how long he, or she, would need to spend in purgatory after their death for sins that were forgiven but not paid for. Although they did not forgive sin, punishment in purgatory could also be reduced or remitted through papal dispensations (indulgences) confirmed, believe it or not, by certificate.

Johann Tetzel: This false system soon fell prey to commercialism in which monetary payment often took the place of sorrow and repentance, good deeds etc. It is possible that the popes started encouraging this practice to fund the Crusades and, from the 12th century onward, salvation was increasingly tied to cold hard cash and increasingly subject to misunderstanding and abuse. For example, history.com relates how "In 1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter's Basilica in Rome' [02], for which he was reportedly well paid. Certainly this heinous practice incurred a great deal of criticism and ridicule.

There is, quite naturally, a substantial difference between the accounts of how these indulgences were dispensed. Most sources say that the Catholic church actively sold indulgences. Denying this, the Catholic church claims that indulgences could never be bought, but could be granted based on good works such as the "the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation...". [03].

No matter!

Luther's Opposition to 'Indulgences'
Luther, who found the outrageous claims being made for the power of indulgences repugnant, preached against the practice several times, perhaps as early as 1514. He taught that receiving an indulgence was worthless unless the penitent had confessed and repented.

However, the last straw probably came in the spring of 1517 when Tetzel was busy earning his money only a few kilometers away from Wittenberg. Regardless of Luther's preaching, Wittenberg church members traveled some distance to obtain indulgence letters from Tetzel and, on their return, showed the letters to Luther. They wanted him to absolve them without on the basis of the certificates they had purchased - without any repentance and any change in their lives.

Apparently Luther's sermons had little effect and he, concerned that innumerable people we being led astray, determined to take it a step further.

Theses Posting at Wittenberg - Fact or Fiction?

Whether Luther actually posted his theses on the door of Wittenberg church on November 1st 1517 is very debatable. In fact, it is more than likely that popular legend has dramatized the entire incident.

There is no eyewitness testimony to the public posting, no reference to the event in any of Luther's later writings, nor in any of the numerous documents written during his lifetime. The first time the supposed event is mentioned is in the preface to the second volume of Luther's collected works, written by his associate Philip Melanchthon in 1546 - close to a year after Luther's death.

All we can be sure of is that Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg telling him that papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter's were circulating under the Archbishop's "most distinguished name". In the letter, Luther begged him to restrain the exaggerated preaching that was giving the common man "wholly false impressions", including the idea that indulgences ensured their salvation and freed them from "all penalty and guilt", including the most heinous of sins. They were being led to believe that as "soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory".

Although a letter does not have the dramatic appeal of a public posting, documentary evidence shows that the letter to the Archbishop was dated the 31st of October 1517- the day before he was supposed to have used the churches 'bulletin board'.

We also know that the packet sent to the Archbishop contained other documents because, in the letter itself, Luther "mentions that the Archbishop can examine the enclosed disputations in order to understand how doubtful the doctrinal basis of indulgences actually is". The Archbishop himself provides evidence that he received both the treatise and the theses. In a letter sent from his residence to the diocesan officials in Magdeberg he acknowledged receiving the "treatise, conclusions, and other writings" and had sent them on to the Pope.
See cdn.theologicalstudies.net/28/28.3/28.3.2.pdf  for more information.

Thus we can conclude that Luther sent  the Archbishop not only the Theses themselves, but also what he called "proof for my Theses" in the letter to Christoph Scheurl (below).

The Intention Behind, and Reason For The 95 Theses
What seems to be little known is that Luther's 95 Theses were not statements of fact, nor a final statement of belief, but tentative opinions some of which he was not quite certain of - hence his desire for a discussion and debate. This is borne out in a later letter to Christoph Scheurl of Nurnberg who had complained that he had not personally received a copy of the Theses. Luther wrote, (All Emphasis Added)

    You are surprised that I did not send them to you. But I did not want to circulate them widely. I only intended to submit them to a few close friends for discussion, and if they disapproved of the Theses, to suppress them. I wanted to publish them, only if they met with approval. But now they are being printed and spread everywhere far beyond my expectation, a result that I regret. It is not that I am against telling the people the truth, in fact that is all that I want, but this is not the proper way to instruct the people. For I have doubts about some of the Theses, and others I would have put much differently and more cogently, and some I would have omitted, had I known what was to come. Still, the spread of my Theses shows what people everywhere really think of Indulgences, although they conceal their thoughts 'out of fear of the Jews.’ Therefore, I had to write out proof for my Theses, but I do not yet have permission to publish these. [04]

This letter in which Luther clearly states that he only intended to submit the theses to a few close friends for discussion together, with the academic tone of the theses themselves disprove the very popular idea that in protest one lone pioneering monk nailed a paper to the door of the church for the world to view. In any case, although the church doors were the bulletin board of the day, if Luther had intended the theses for the everyday person, he would not have penned them in Latin which very few Germans could read.

What we do know is that the preface to the theses sent to the Archbishop indicated that he intended to defend his statements in Wittenberg - inviting to the debate those he had sent his theses to.. 

    Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen (Emphasis Added)

How the theses fell into the hands of the general public cannot be stated with any degree of certainty. Obviously someone translated them into German, had them printed, and circulated. They certainly found favor among the rank and file, especially the poor German peasants who resented the fact that their hard earned money was being used to support a very rich papacy in Rome, and the civil authorities who didn't much like the idea that much of their revenue disappeared into Rome's coffers.

His own words tell us that Martin Luther's purpose was not trying to start a new church or split the old one, but to persuade the church to correct the dangerous fallacies being spread by men with no principles or scruples. It was only after his Theses had been widely circulated causing quite a stir, did they literally become a manifesto that turned a protest about an indulgence scandal into something much more than it was originally intended to be.

Popular Fallacies About The Theses
Additionally, all too many Christians, even those who venture to write articles about Luther, seem to know little or nothing about the content of his theses. The misinformation being wafted around makes me doubt that any of the authors have actually read them for themselves. All Emphasis added in the following quotes. For example, one site says

    Luther's 95 Theses have these main ideas:
    All of the Church's teachings should be based on the Bible
    The Pope can't free people from Purgatory- clergy have no special powers
    Christians can only be saved through faith-The Bible does NOT offer indulgences as a way out of sin
    The Bible needs to be the in vernacular so all people can read it and find a personal relationship with God. [05]

While many of these ideas came later, History.com says Luther's 95 theses

    ".... propounded two central beliefs - that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds - was to spark the Protestant Reformation [06]

The Constitutional Rights Foundation states (see Theses 73 below)

    Works" like indulgences had long troubled Martin Luther. His close reading of the scriptures (the Bible, especially the New Testament) led him to conclude that a person could only be saved by personal faith in Jesus Christ and the grace of God. Luther considered indulgences, praying to saints, pilgrimages, and many other such "works" as worthless and a fraud inflicted on the people by the church. [07]

And a well known Christian web site says

    Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, challenged the authority of the pope and, in particular, the selling of indulgences. [08]

Another oft repeated fable is that, in his theses, Luther taught that

    the Bible, not the pope, was the central means to discern God's word -  a view that was certain to raise eyebrows in Rome. [09]

I urge you to go and read them all short 95 points for yourself and you will discover that much of the above is untrue. In fact...

Luther Was Not Even Against Indulgences
While one certainly has to appreciate his courage and willingness to bring the matter to the Archbishop's attention, the following points from his Theses show at the time Luther was not against indulgences. (All Emphasis Added)

    41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love".

    73. Just as the pope justly thunders against those who by any means whatever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences. 74. Much more does he intend to thunder against those who use indulgences as a pretext to contrive harm to holy love and truth.

The bottom line was that Luther was calling not for the practice of indulgences to be reformed, not abolished.

    91. If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.

What Luther opposed was the exaggerated claims made by people like Tetzel that were dangerously misleading Christians, i.e. Indulgences alone could ensure salvation taking the place of contrition and confession.

    32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

    35. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.

    36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

He also taught if buying indulgences supplanted charity, it gained nothing but God's wrath.

    45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath.

Rome's Reaction and Luther's Counter Reaction
Obviously, a probably very annoyed Archbishop forwarded Luther's theses to Pope Leo X, who took a very tough stand against Luther- for which there was good reason (from his point of view anyway).

Although indulgences were condemned by many Catholic theologians, Rome had no intention of damning what had become a lucrative revenue stream. Besides which, Pope Leo X could not possibly admit that the indulgences he had permitted Albert to issue were invalid. Dealing with the troublemaker must have seemed like a far better option, and the next year Luther was called to renounce his opinions which, of course he refused to do. Several events occurred in the intervening years, but suffice to say that in June 1520 Pope Leo X condemned 41 of Luther's Ninety-five Theses. In response Luther publicly burned the papal bull.

One has to wonder what Luther thought at the time. His theses might have criticized papal policy but did not deny papal rights and were presented only as objections that needed to be discussed. In fact, Luther was pretty light on the pope (See point 91 above). Although I could be wrong, it almost seems to me that the threat of excommunication aroused something in Luther. He cast off the humble tone of the theses and went into overdrive with an outpouring of written material in both Latin and German that was anything but. The three major treatises he had published n 1520 were,

     In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Luther railed against the papacy and urged the lay leaders to take the reform of the church into their own hands. He quite rightly criticized the artificial division between the spiritual and temporal state - the clergy and the laity, the Pope's claimed sole authority to interpret (or confirm interpretation) Scripture, or call a council to discuss spiritual affairs.

    In A Prelude Concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther attacked the sacramental system of the Roman Church. Not only were their man made traditions and regulations a distortion of Christianity but the church used them to control every important event in the Christian life from birth to death.

    Finally there was On the Freedom of a Christian Man (also called Concerning Christian Liberty), in which he made known his position on justification and good works.

The last of the pieces mentioned above was prefaced by a letter to pope Leo X in which Luther attacked the church using very explosive language,

    "the Church of Rome, formerly the most holy of all Churches, has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.

However, it is interesting that in spite of their ongoing feud, in the same document Luther repeatedly spoke well of the pope himself. Luther wrote of the popes "conspicuous innocence", told him that the Roman court was not worthy of him, and likening him to a lamb in the midst of wolves and Daniel in the midst of lions. [10] (This was a far cry from his position in his later years when one of his last books was directed "Against the Papacy at Rome, founded by the Devil", in which Luther addresses Paul III as "Your Hellishness." instead of "Your Holiness.")

Anyway, to cut a long story short, after refusing to recant his position, Luther was excommunicated by the pope in 1521. Three years later he married Katherina von Bora -  a former Cistercian nun with whom he had six children. However, a quiet life in retirement was not quite what he envisaged for his future. "His reforming work during subsequent years included the writing of the Small and Large Catechisms, sermon books, more than a dozen hymns, over 100 volumes of tracts, treatises, Biblical commentaries, thousands of letters, and the translation of the entire Bible into German." [12]

The Five Solae of The Reformation

The word sola means 'only'. The five solae or solas of the Protestant Reformation are five Latin slogans that summarized the Reformer's position on the essentials of Christianity and salvation. Each sola represented a key Protestant belief that stood in contradistinction to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the slogans themselves may not have been systematically articulated until much later, the principles were the rallying cry of the reformation. Contrary to popular opinion, these concepts found no place in Luther's theses.

    1) Sola scriptura - by Scripture alone,
    2) Sola fide - by faith alone,
    3) Sola gratia - by grace alone,
    4) Solus Christus or Solo Christo - Christ alone or through Christ alone, and
    5) Soli Deo gloria - glory to God alone.

Sola Gratia - Salvation By Grace Alone...
Luther came to his understanding of salvation by grace and faith alone after a tremendous struggle with Roman 1:17 which he understood as Catholic theologians taught, i.e. the holy righteousness of God condemns the guilty sinner. He eventually realized that, in Romans, 'Gods righteousness' means God's verdict of righteousness upon the believer."

In their wholehearted endorsement of Martin Luther, reformed and other Protestant websites are often very quick to point out how much he underscored this hugely important 'grace and faith only' doctrine. They often stress how grace alone was a recurring theme in several of Luther's later sermons and his commentaries on Paul's epistles, most often in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. Examples from Luther's writings include (All Emphasis Added)

    The fact is, the more a person seeks credit for himself by his own efforts, the deeper he goes into debt. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God. In actual living, however, it is not so easy to persuade oneself that by grace alone, in opposition to every other means, we obtain the forgiveness of our sins and peace with God. [13]

    Every teacher of work-righteousness is a trouble-maker. Has it never occurred to you that the pope, cardinals, bishops, monks, and that the whole synagogue of Satan are trouble-makers? The truth is, they are worse than false apostles. The false apostles taught that in addition to faith in Christ the works of the Law of God were necessary unto salvation. But the papists omit faith altogether and teach self-devised traditions and works that are not commanded of God, indeed are contrary to the Word of God, and for these traditions they demand preferred attention and obedience. [14]

    Now the true Gospel has it that we are justified by faith alone, without the deeds of the Law. The false gospel has it that we are justified by faith, but not without the deeds of the Law. The false apostles preached a conditional gospel. So do the papists. They admit that faith is the foundation of salvation. But they add the conditional clause that faith can save only when it is furnished with good works. This is wrong. [15]

The 'Reformed Reader' also points out "some great words from Luther on salvation by grace alone" "found in volume 3 of Baker’s 7-volume set of Luther's sermons (edited by J. N. Lenker and others)".[16] They can also be read  on pages 147-148 and 151 of Luther's Christmas Sermons available on Amazon (Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform).

    So he (Paul after conversion) discards all boasted free will, all human virtue, righteousness, and good works. He concludes that they are all nothing and are wholly perverted, however brilliant and worthy they may appear, and teaches that we must be saved solely by the grace of God, which is effective for all believers who desire it from a correct conception of their own ruin and nothingness."

    Yes, dear friend, you must first possess heaven and salvation before you can do good works. Works never merit heaven; heaven is conferred purely of grace.

    He who does not receive salvation purely through grace, independently of all good works, certainly will never secure it.

All of the above is just a sampling of Martin Luther's comments on Sola gratia. So let's see what he had to say about Sola Fide or faith alone.

And Sola Fide (Faith Alone),
As early as 1920 in Concerning Christian Liberty, Luther directly referred to faith as opposed to works, saying (All Emphasis Added)

     To preach Christ is to feed the soul, to justify it, to set it free, and to save it, if it believes the preaching. For faith alone, and the efficacious use of the word of God, bring salvation. "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." (Rom. x. 9.) And again: "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Rom. x. 4); and "The just shall live by faith." (Rom. i. 17.) For the word of God cannot be received and honored by any works, but by faith alone. Hence it is clear that, as the soul needs the Word  of God alone for life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by any works. For if it could be justified by any other means, it would have no need of the Word, nor consequently of faith...

    Since then this faith can reign only in the inward man, as it is said, "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness" (Rom. x. 10); and since it alone justifies, it is evident that by no outward work or labour can the inward man be at all justified, made free, and saved; and that no works whatever have any relation to him. And so, on the other hand, it is solely by impiety and incredulity of heart that he becomes guilty and a slave of sin, deserving condemnation, not by any outward sin or work... Hence a right faith in Christ is an incomparable treasure, carrying with it universal salvation, and preserving from all evil, as it is said: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (Mark xvi, 16.)  [17]

OR Salvation Through Grace AND Baptism
Luther's Large and Small Catechisms (published in 1929)
The word 'catechism' means a summary of the basic principles of a Christian denomination, usually in question-and-answer form". In other words, it teaches Biblical truth is an succinct and systematic way.

Two of Luther's most famous works published in 1529 are his Small Catechism and his Large Catechism (geared toward children and adults respectively) documents on which the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) was founded. Both catechisms cover exactly the same five topics: The Ten Commandments; The Apostles Creed; The Lord's Prayer; Baptism; and Communion. About the Catechism Luther himself said, (Emphasis Added)

    In the catechism, we have a very exact, direct, and short way to the whole Christian religion... The catechism is the most complete and best doctrine, and therefore should continually be preached; all public sermons should be grounded and built thereupon. I could wish we preached it daily... the catechism, I insist, is the right Bible of the laity, wherein is contained the whole sum of Christian doctrine necessary to be known by every Christian for salvation... We should esteem and love the catechism, for therein is the ancient, pure, divine doctrine of the Christian church. [18]

Baptismal Regeneration
In his Small Catechism, Luther added baptism and the sacraments to grace and faith as requirements for salvation. The section on Baptism is prefaced by the words "The Sacrament of Holy Baptism: The Simple Way a Father Should Present it to His Household".

    I. Q. What is Baptism?

    A. Baptism is not just plain water, but it is water contained within God's command and united with God's Word.

    II. Q. What does Baptism give? What good is it?

    A. It gives the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the Devil, gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as God's words and promises declare. (Emphasis added.) [19]

Here Luther clearly says that baptism forgives sin and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this. In other words, salvation is achieved by God's grace plus baptism. The believer has to have faith and be baptized.

Luther's Large Catechism expressed exactly the same views. (All Emphasis Added)

    It remains for us to speak of our two sacraments, instituted by Christ. Every Christian ought to have at least some brief, elementary instruction in them because without these no one can be a Christian ... First we shall take up Baptism through which we are first received into the Christian community... For as truly as I can say, No man has spun the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer out of his head, but they are revealed and given by God Himself, so also I can boast that Baptism is no human trifle, but instituted by God Himself, moreover, that it is most solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved, lest any one regard it as a trifling matter, like putting on a new red coat.

    Thus we must regard Baptism and make it profitable to ourselves, that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body... [20]

    "No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than baptism, for through it we become completely holy and blessed, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire."

Quite obviously one cannot have it both ways - salvation either comes by grace alone, OR salvation is obtained through grace and baptism. Since his writings in his Catechisms are not exactly in harmony with his claims of salvation through grace and faith alone made in some of his other writings, one is forced to ask whether Luther flatly contradicted himself or whether he was just a very confused man?

In reality it was neither.

Luther's Reasoning Behind What We See As a Blatant Contradiction
When it comes to making the effort to understand the overall picture of the mind set of the author - accomplished by reading verses in context and taking into account everything that the person had to say on the subject, Christians are, for the most part, abysmal failures. Their habit of relying on isolated text wrenched from its context can, and does, lead many to believe what is simply not so. For example, many who are pro-Luther claim that the following words from his commentary on Titus are one of his many "great words on salvation by grace alone". 

    you must first possess heaven and salvation before you can do good works. Works never merit heaven; heaven is conferred purely of grace. (see above)

On the other hand, others who do not see Luther as quite so saintly will quote his Large Catechism in which he wrote,

    we must be baptized or we cannot be saved" and "if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body".

What, According to Luther, Constituted "Works"
However, in his Large Catechism, Luther gives us a glimpse into the workings of his mind. In his words, (All Emphasis Added)

    But if they say, as they are accustomed: Still Baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation; Baptism, however, is not our work, but God's (for, as was stated, you must put Christ-baptism far away from a bath-keeper's baptism). God's works, however, are saving and necessary for salvation, and do not exclude, but demand, faith; for without faith they could not be apprehended. For by suffering the water to be poured upon you, you have not yet received Baptism in such a manner that it benefits you anything; but it becomes beneficial to you if you have yourself baptized with the thought that this is according to God's command and ordinance, and besides in God's name, in order that you may receive in the water the promised salvation. Now, this the fist cannot do, nor the body; but the heart must believe it. [21]

In other words, Luther clearly specified that it our works that avail nothing for salvation, ie the works invented by the church to obtain indulgences, i.e. pilgrimages, alms, charitable acts, and even monetary donations. Because God Himself instituted baptism - It was His work, not ours and considered by Luther to be part of God's grace.

The importance Luther places on the Lord's Supper, instituted by Christ Himself, is also made clear, (Emphasis Added)

    Now, it is true, as we have said, that no one should by any means be coerced or compelled, lest we institute a new murdering of souls. Nevertheless, it must be known that such people as deprive themselves of, and withdraw from, the Sacrament so long a time are not to be considered Christians. For Christ has not instituted it to be treated as a show, but has commanded His Christians to eat and drink it, and thereby remember Him. [22]

Context, Context, Context
If read in isolation, Luther's comment "works never merit heaven; heaven is conferred purely of grace" [23] would easily lead one to believe that Luther was opposed to all 'works'.

It is truly remarkable how many people will pull isolated text to prove a point - completely ignoring what was said immediately before and after. If we actually took the trouble to read the lead-in to these verses on the same page, it would become perfectly obvious that Luther was speaking specifically against purgatory and indulgences. In his words,

    the fact that we expend so much by reason of purgatory and, forgetful of faith, presume to secure ourselves against purgatory or to liberate us from it by good works, unquestionably indicates we are under the influence of the devil and of Antichrist.

He added that he wished that "purgatory had never been instituted or introduced into the pulpit for it is very destructive of Christian truth and true faith" and the devil's influence has been so great that "nearly all institutions, cloister ceremonies, masses and prayers have reference simply to purgatory, leading us to the pernicious inference that through works we must improve our condition and secure salvation."

When Luther used the word works underlined in the quote directly above, he could not have included baptism which had always been a one time ritual and thus could not have been used but once to "improve" people's condition, i.e. obtain indulgences. However, Luther also pointed out that after being baptized people who should have trusted in their salvation, were offered a false security. 

    Instead of imitating Christ and Paul and teaching Christians to "consider themselves, after baptism or absolution, ready for death at any hour and waiting for the manifestation of the salvation already theirs" we, by relying on purgatory afford them indolence-fostering security." [24]

And, if we bothered to read the very next page after "works never merit heaven...", Luther referred to part of Titus 3:5 (Through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit), about which he wrote,

    How beautifully the apostle in these strong words extols the grace of God bestowed in baptism! He refers to baptism as a washing; whereby not out feet only, not our hands, but our whole bodies are cleansed. Baptism perfectly and instantaneously cleanses and saves. For this vital part of salvation and its inheritance, nothing more is necessary than this faith in the grace of God. Truly, then are we saved by grace alone, without works or other merit. [25]

Quite clearly, baptism was not included in Luther's idea of good works.

If you remember, what set the whole thing off was Luther's strenuous objections to the false claims being made by the indulgence preachers. Very obviously, his opposition to indulgences (and the concept behind them) continued throughout his life, finding its way into a number of his sermons and commentaries.

In other words, contrary to prevailing wisdom, Luther was NOT preaching salvation solely by grace and faith - not as we understand it. It is we who, taking the bit between out teeth, have run with one of two opinions 1) Luther taught salvation by grace and faith alone or 2) Luther taught Baptismal regeneration. It was a wee bit more complicated than that. While most of us now know that baptism is not necessary for salvation, I can see how and why Luther arrived at the conclusions he did.

However, when all is said and done, there is no question that what Luther believed and taught was a gigantic step forward giving people of the time independence from Rome and freedom from the tyranny of the church. Having said that, for the most part Luther's theology did not markedly differ from that of the Catholic church.

Continue On To Part II: Luther's Doctrine  HERE


Luther Part I - End Notes
[00] Philip Schaff History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation. 26. The University of Wittenberg. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc7.ii.ii.xii.html

[01] Hanna, E. (1911). Purgatory. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 24, 2017 from New Advent:  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm

[02] History.com. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses by History.com Staff. 2009

[03] Myths about Indulgences. Catholic Answers. https://www.catholic.com/tract/myths-about-indulgences

[04] Luther: A Life by John M. Todd. Chapter 7: Crisis. Religion Online. http://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-7-crisis/

[05] https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:_aiENsafsdQJ:
https://www.watertowncsd.org/cms/lib/NY01914021/Centricity/Domain/1028/Reformation.ppt+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us. This is the html version of the file https://www.watertowncsd.org/cms/lib/NY01914021/Centricity/Domain/1028/Reformation.ppt.

[06] History.com. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses by History.com Staff. 2009

[07] Luther Sparks the Protestant Reformation. Constitutional Rights Foundation.

[08] What was the Protestant Reformation? Got Questions Ministries. https://www.gotquestions.org/Protestant-Reformation.html

[09] The Protestant Reformation. United States History. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1136.html

[10] Letter Of Martin Luther To Pope Leo X. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/christianliberty.ii.html

[11] Philip Schaff. History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.

[12] Martin Luther. General Teachings/Activities. Biblical Discernment Ministries.

[13] Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Chapter I. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[14] ibid.

[15] Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Chapter II. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[16] Luther on Grace Alone (Sola Gratia) by Reformed Reader.

[17] Martin Luther: "Concerning Christian Liberty" Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[18] The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Translated By William Hazlitt, Esq. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[19] Project Wittenberg. Luther's Little Instruction Book. (The Small Catechism of Martin Luther) Translated by Robert E. Smith. May 22, 1994

[20] Martin Luther. The Large Catechism. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.  https://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/largecatechism.vi_2.html

[21] ibid.

[22] Martin Luther. The Large Catechism. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/largecatechism.viii_2.html

[23] Martin Luther. Luther's Christmas Sermons. Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Pg. 151

[24] ibid.

[25] ibid Pg 152

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