Reformation: How It All Started

11 minutes to read


Medieval serfs of XV century Europe self-medicated the course of their existence with fantasies of a leisurely afterlife. Landowners controlled all, managing people like cattle from their impregnable fortresses. The Roman Catholic Church owned plots of land all over the world, the total sum of which exceeded the landmass of any European state. The popes called crusades, dabbled in sports and art, and built luxurious palaces and castles. Clergy competed in bribery for administrative positions, in which they managed to accrue riches despite starting with exorbitant debts. Sermons were preached in one out of every ten churches.

People were especially concerned with the fate of their relatives. They believed that even the righteous had to withstand purgatory, where souls were tortured lengthily for each unconfessed sin. One could pray in this life to reduce this penalty. After dying, only the disciplined prayers of living friends and relatives could help. Some could afford to hire a priest for additional prayers. Occasionally, the pope redistributed the righteousness of the saints for one’s benefit for a certain fee, and with holiday discount, of course. The fee became known as the “indulgency.” It soothed the conscience of panicky peasants quite well.

The hope for a change remained with the scholastics, who committed themselves to learning. Most were monks. The invention of the printing press made their quest easier. Dozens of publishing houses printed hundreds of tomes for the city-dwellers, among which the intelligencia began to emerge. The Bible in Latin and the Greco-Roman classics were especially popular.

German prince Frederick III the Wise, elector of Saxony, established a university at Wittenberg in 1502. He hired the best of monks he could find. He fantasied that his little university would one day be one of the best in the world, and that it would become the foundation of an independent and enlightened Germany. His dream began to materialize ten years later, when Johann von Staupitz, the professor of theology, gave up his place to his acolyte. His name was Martin Luther, and he was 29 years old when he completed his doctorate of theology.

Howling soul

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben in a family of a well-to-do miner and businessman in 1483. His father put him through 7 years of Latin school, and then sent him to Erfurt university to study law. Martin struggled with depression from his youth. Medieval superstitions excited his imagination. He saw the world filled with demons trying to tempt him and consume his soul. When one day a lightning strike almost hit him, he swore: “St. Anna! I will become a monk!” And so he went for the surest path of salvation, as he thought, and joined the strictest nearby monastery - the Augustinian one.

The monastic life exacerbated Martin’s internal unrest. He worked his vows resolutely. He prayed and fasted much more than it was required. He refused warm clothes and the mattress. But all the effort instead of bringing salvation burdened his conscience with feelings of inadequacy. He almost fainted during his first celebration of Mass! That is how much fear overwhelmed him, when he was addressing God in prayer. Luther, after spending hours confessing his sins, would often return to confess more that he had previously forgotten.

Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s confessor and mentor at the monastery, saw his maniacal depression and tried everything he could to help him recover. Once Luther was made a priest, Staupitz relieved him of all physical labor and sent him to memorize the Bible for a year. He tried to focus Luther’s attention on something productive. He assigned Luther to supervise seven churches, to study, and to teach theology.

Disappointment in Rome

To his great joy, Luther was sent with an assignment to Rome in 1510 with a friend. Rome was the best place for acquiring indulgencies. You could get them for ministry, visiting holy sites, keeping certain vows, taking part in battles, touching relics, and for cash. The lack of personal holiness was offset by merits of the saints. An indulgence is basically a letter of papal transaction from the “bank of the saints” to a personal holiness account. This way one was able to reduce the duration of time spent in purgatory personally or for another, even a dead relative.

The belief in purgatory and in indulgencies grew widespread during the era of crusades. Raising the sword against the heathen cleansed all sins. Later, those who were not able to personally participate in the crusades could earn partial merit for financing them. The sale of indulgencies became the market of bliss. This was the choice method of fleecing uneducated masses. Pope Leo X organized the largest global sale of indulgencies in order to finance the construction of buildings in Vatican, which were designed and decorated by the greatest craftsmen and artists. Among them were Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravagio, and Raphael.

Rome became the “Disney Land” of holy sales. The greatest attraction was the staircase Scala Sancta, which was brought from Jerusalem. On it walked lacerated Jesus Christ, when he was brought to Pilate. If you crawl on its 28 steps, saying a prayer on each, you can release a soul from the purgatory. Luther spent a month in Rome making the most of every opportunity to gain indulgencies. He also climbed those steps, kissing each, and praying for his grandfather. He moped about the fact that his parents were still alive and missed such a great chance to gain divine grace.

As Luther observed the pilgrims crawling around and kissing relics, a dart of doubt pricked his heart. What if all of this was fruitless? He saw the ignorance and immorality of the priests, drunkenness, prostitution, and poverty in the city. Everything most holy and everything most vile tangled. He saw priests drunk from the repetitions of Mass, which they mumbled senselessly for the benefit of the rich who had hired them. Luther described his visit to Rome with those words: “I went there with an onion and returned with garlic.” He was disappointed.

Upon his return to Rome, he spent even more time in confessions, which could last as long as six hours. Unconfessed sin cannot be forgiven! After confession, he could still recall additional impure thoughts and intentions. Once Luther earned his doctorate, Staupitz gave him his job at the university of Wittenberg. But the flares of the heart were not quelled with preoccupation, nor with feats of faith, nor with submission of the body. The medieval Catholicism chased Luther’s conscience into despair. He often confessed that he hated God.

95 Theses

Soon after, Albrecht von Brandenburg bought out the episcopate of Magdeburg. He then borrowed 34,000 florins, which is about 5 million US dollars, and became also the archbishop of Mainz at his ripe old age of 24. At 28 he was made a cardinal. The pope allowed Albrecht to sell indulgencies within his lands to keep him from going bankrupt over his debts. The profits were divided equally between Rome and Albrecht’s creditors. Peddlers of hope swarmed over Europe.

Frederick III did not allow this circus to enter his domain, but this did not stop the peasants of Wittenberg. Many of them chased the salesmen in nearby villages. Forgiveness of sins at a discounted rate was hard to pass by. Even souls could be rescued from purgatory, as Dr. Tetzel put it: “When the coin rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” When Luther got a wind of this, he was distraught. He hastily nailed the “95 theses” written in Latin to the door of the Wittenberg church, in which he called for an academic debate on the subject of indulgencies. For example, thesis 82 reads: “And why does not the pope release all the souls from purgatory out of holy love and for their own sake, if he releases multitudes of souls for worthless money…?”

The church authorities did not pay any attention to the theses at first, but somebody took them down and brought them to a printer. They were translated and distributed all over Europe. Soon, the sales of indulgencies plummeted. The Roman bureaucracy took notice and started sending theologians to debate Luther. They were tasked with acquiring a written recantation from Luther and failed repeatedly. Staupitz begged Luther to chill, fruitlessly. The sales continued to fall.

While Luther was busy destroying his impeccable career, some unexpected developments occurred at the debates. First, Luther noted that the arguments of his opponents contradicted both the Bible and the sacred Tradition. Second, even though Luther lost each debate, a few of the observers were convinced by his arguments. Many of those were well educated including the new professor of ancient Greek at Wittenberg, Philipp Melanchthon.


Melanchthon and Luther became close friends. Luther often sought help from Melanchthon in preparation for his lectures on the New Testament books, which were written in Greek. He was especially concerned with divine justice and righteousness. He wanted to understand the way by which repentance made the sinner righteous in the sight of God. Luther knew that the common Latin translation of Matthew 4:17 and Acts 2:38 was wrong, where Jerome translated the term “repent” as poenitentiam agite (“do penance”). He alluded to this in the second of his 95 theses. One night during his preparation to the lecture on Paul’s letter to Romans, Luther put his thoughts on paper:

paraphrased I struggled to understand the words of Paul to the Romans and nothing challenged me more than one phrase: “the righteousness of God.” I believed that it refers to justice, by which God justly judges the unjust when He punishes them. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was still a sinner with an upset conscience. I had no confidence in supposing that my achievements would satisfy God. So I did not love the righteous God --- I hated Him… Night and day I sulked until I saw the connection between the divine righteousness and the phrase “the righteous shall live by faith.” It dawned on me that God’s righteousness is the same which He gives to us by faith according to His mercy and grace. In that moment, I felt as if I was born again and entered paradise. I understood all of the Bible in a new way. If the phrase “divine righteousness” had filled me with hatred before, now it became unimaginably sweet with great love. This little phrase became to me the gates to heaven.

This is how Luther resolved the conflict between God’s strict justice and His deepest love for the people. What God demands from us He also supplies. He grants the righteousness of His Son Jesus Christ to all who believe. Then, we do good works to express gratitude for salvation that He has already provided; and not out of fear of purgatory. Christian faith is established by joy of embracing God’s sure promises rather than by dread of punishment.

Brave Stand

Losing one debate after another, Luther nonetheless endeared sympathy among his own. He was becoming a legend. Alas, one man defiantly stands up to the corrupt system poised to censor and crush him. The more he spoke and wrote, the more Germans saw in him a national hero making a stand against abusive foreign powers.

The pope had to proceed with an ultimatum: Luther must recant within 60 days or he will be excommunicated. Catholic excommunication is akin to eternal damnation, the highest punitive measure. When Luther got the official letter, he burned it with the whole university watching. And there was much rejoicing. The pope excommunicated Luther, declared him a heretic, and called for the destruction of all literature and property belonging to Luther or anyone in agreement with him. The emperor, Charles V, had to enforce the decision of the pope.

Charles V summoned Luther to Worms in 1521. Some of the most influential people of Europe also were present at the meeting. Charles V wanted to deal with Luther in a way that would appease the pope and keep German princes happy at the same time. The Ottoman Empire threatened the safety and sovereignty of his lands more than ever. He understood that many German princes secretly admired Luther. What is a life of one petty heretic worth? Every knight is needed. The happier the Germans, the more soldiers they would provide when asked. What can Charles do?

Luther stands before the emperor and his retinue. His knees are shaking. His life’s work, all his books, are on the table. Two questions are voiced: (1) “Do you recant of your errors?” and (2) “Who are you to question 1500 years of Church dogma?” Luther loses the nerve and asks for some time, and everybody is surprised when Charles allows it. Luther departs and prays --- he thinks he is dead. Similar questions were asked of John Huss, and he was burned at the stake in Bohemia in 1415. Charles V dealt Luther a sure threat. Luther returns. Everybody quiets to hear his answer. Speaking in German language with a trembling voice, but without stumbling, one man defies the world:

paraphrased Unless I am convinced by the Bible and common sense --- I reject the authority of the pope and the councils, because they contradict one another --- my conscience is bound by the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant of anything, because to go against conscience is wrong and dangerous. May the Lord help me… Amen.

Luther remained at Worms for another ten days. He was offered money and a cardinal’s hat, but to no avail. He had thought everything through in advance and was prepared to die for his words. Frederick III had also thought everything through. He went into the annals of history as “Frederick the Wise” for a reason. Once Luther stepped out of the city, Frederick’s men grabbed him and dragged away to Wartburg, where he remained disguised as a knight. Europe was reeling from his words, while he took to translating the Bible into German. In seven weeks the translation of the New Testament from Greek was finished. This feat has still not been repeated.

When Luther got the word that violence began to spread to every city, he left the castle and returned to Wittenberg. He committed himself to organizing and defending a new movement of spiritual renewal. By then it had already splintered into streams known to us as “European Reformations.” Many were prepared to go to war against the Vatican. Some thought it better to remain with the Roman Catholic Church and to try to reform it from within. Some found changes in doctrine insufficient and called for removal of everything not found in the Bible. Others insisted that secular and clerical authority must be divided in order to form a new society, one where each could choose his own religion.


When Reformation spread to England, a new translation of the Bible would be provided by William Tyndale, hymns by Isaac Watts, prayer book by Thomas Cranmer, sermons by Hue Latimer, and catechesis by the Westminster Council. In Germany, almost all of this came from one person - Martin Luther. He wrote the music and words for 43 hymns. In 1534 he finished translating the Old Testament. Luther’s Bible is still used today with hardly any changes. His particular lexical choices and blend of dialects is what is now considered classic German language.

But all his great achievements pale in comparison with the greatest treasure of his life. In 1525 he married a run-away nun Katharina von Bora. They had six natural children and adopted four. Katharina managed a farm and a brewery, and Luther worked as a pastor and a professor. Their home sheltered many vagrants and the sick. Evenings were spent with guests, including many students, whom Luther entertained with great food, wisdom, music, and humor. When an epidemic occurred, the house was converted into a hospital, and Katharina took care of the patients.

Bonus Facts