How Luther Accidentally Sparked the Reformation

“They were superhuman.”

It’s easy to think that when it comes to the Reformers. They stood up to the world’s strongest power. They did what others didn’t dare to do. They changed the world. 

We think, “These people were extraordinary!” We forget that, in many ways, they were just like us. God is extraordinary.

For example, what drove Luther to the monastery wasn’t devotion. 

Find out what it was in this excerpt, adapted from Logos Mobile Education course Milestones of the Protestant Reformation, taught by Dr. Jennifer Powell McNutt, associate professor of theology and history of Christianity at Wheaton College and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

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The first Reformation Day

On October 31, 1517, a completely ordinary event occurred: An obscure monk named Martin Luther, teaching at the new University in Wittenberg, launched a debate in the customary manner of a university professor. 

With academic freedom, he nailed ninety-five theses to the local church door according to the current scholarly practice and in the accepted scholarly language of Latin.

Luther’s intention was to spark an academic debate over the current practice of indulgences in the church—as was his right as professor of theology. Yet, what transpired from 1517 on could in no way be predicted or anticipated. This was not the first time that indulgences were criticized. . . . This was not even the first time that Luther himself voiced concerns over the corruption of indulgences. Moreover, Luther did not even call for the abolition of indulgences at this point but merely its reform. 

Nevertheless, and thanks to the printing press, within two weeks, Luther’s Latin ninety-five theses had circulated throughout Germany.

Quickly, Luther’s ninety-five theses were translated into German without his permission. And from that point on, concerns originally intended for the attention of the scholars and clergy of the church became fodder for the masses. . . . 

It was this milestone moment that proved to be the catalyst for daring the Church to reform.

luther reformation day blogpostLuther’s start to a monastic life

Luther’s entrance into the monastery was initially not part of the plan. In the tradition of Luther’s mother’s side of the family, the Lindemanns based in Eisenach, Luther began his study of law at the University of Erfurt in 1505. 

In July of that year, however, Luther’s life would change dramatically. 

As he was returning to Erfurt after visiting his family, he was caught up in a thunderstorm. And fearing for his life, he called upon Saint Anna to deliver him, and in that moment he committed to becoming a monk if his prayers were answered.

Luther was true to his word, and weeks later he entered the observant Augustinian monastery at Erfurt . . . Until 1518, Luther just devoted himself in earnest to monastic life. 

With echoes of Paul recounting his zealous devotion as a Pharisee before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Luther declared, “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.”

In particular, Luther became known for his painstaking acts of confession that led even his mentor and the vicar general himself, Johann von Staupitz, to dismiss his sins as trivial at most.

luther reformation day post

Luther discovering transformative grace

Luther upheld a rigorous standard of contrition, wherein the penitent was expected to feel sorrow and offer confession for every single sin committed. Luther experienced, therefore, a great deal of spiritual angst that would follow him throughout his life, both before and after the Protestant Reformation began. 

Staupitz had often challenged Luther to turn his anxious eyes to the transformative grace, mercy, and love of God offered to believers through union with Christ. 

These lessons would always be cherished by Luther and were certainly formational upon his own theological outlook. It was not until Luther found himself in the university lectern that he began to move in a new theological direction.

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Follow Luther’s movement to a new theological direction—and learn much more in Church history—with the Logos Mobile Education course Milestones of the Protestant Reformation, available on its own or as part of the Reformation Bundle.

luther reformation day blogpost