I chose to write about Martin Luther for this blog because he was successful, due to his passion, abilities to execute and the circumstances he was granted to make it possible for his passion to come to fruition. This spells a person who made an impact on this world.
Martin Luther was born of devout Catholic parents. His father aspired for him to be a lawyer. Luther went along with his father’s plans at first. However, Martin Marty describes his law studies this way: “…he almost instantly dropped out of them, explaining that in his mind law represented nothing but uncertainty.” Already, at this early point in life, Luther demonstrates his passion for certainty. Marty goes on to say, “In the academy he now began to ask himself whether theology might offer him the certainty he was seeking in life, the assurance his soul and mind demanded, and a boon he could provide to others.” This too reeks of a passion for certainty. Even as he came to study theology, “he charged that Christian universities employed Aristotle’s approach to reason as a deceptive and finally unsatisfying means for coming to know God.” He then commenced challenging the literature of his educators as well.
Later, at the age of twenty-two, he decided to leave law school to become a monk. Luther himself claims this decision comes because of him fearing sudden death and divine judgment while traveling in a thunderstorm and praying “Help me, St. Anne. I will become a monk.” Luther continued in the monastery and eventually became an ordained priest and scholar. He started studying the Scriptures on his own and began to struggle more and more with being right with God. He did all the things a good monk would do but could not grasp the understanding of earning salvation and righteousness. He viewed God as wrathful and did not understand His love. Yet he pursued his study of the Bible and understanding this God he vowed his life to. In 1517 he began to recognize the flaws of the indulgence system in the church and wrote an appeal that became known as the 95 Theses. With this constant passion for certainty, knowing the truth about God became his driving interest in his life.
With that driving interest and passion, Martin Luther struck the match that started the Protestant Reformation. Luther had God-given abilities that made his passion come to fruition. He was obviously a deep thinker and the ability to reflect on the teachings of the Catholic church and analyze the Scriptures for himself led him to the 95 Theses, which became the catalyzer for the Reformation.
Furthermore, he had to be a gifted communicator. Otherwise, his theses and preaching and teaching would not have been so influential. Even after realizing the response and danger of his opposition to the church, he fought back with his speaking and writing, further proving his gifted abilities as a communicator. George Benedict, a Wittenberg student, described him this way:
“His voice could be as sharp as it could be gentle, i.e., gentle in tone, sharp in the enunciation of syllables, words, and caesuras. He spoke with quick wit and expression in such logical fashion as if each thought flowed from the previous one…Even the worst enemies of the gospel, having heard him only once, had to admit that on the basis of the surpassing significance of what they had heard, they had not been hearing a human being but the Holy Spirit speak…”
Dr. John Hannah adds to this opinion by stating “Luther’s tools were the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures, a growing literary productivity, and pastoral oversight of the spiritual health of the churches.”
On top of his gifted reflection of theology and his ability to communicate, he was extremely brave and bold to be a major voice of opposition against the Catholic church, and not afraid to challenge authority and historically accepted ideas and teachings. Even when the church started coming after him to try and stifle his influence he fought back. Marty stated, “He had the courage to stare popes and emperors in the face…”
As great as his God-given abilities were, I would argue his circumstances played an even greater role in God bringing his passion and abilities to fruitfulness.
First, the Protestant Reformation didn’t just pop up out of thin air with Martin Luther. There were forerunners for the Reformation like John Wycliffe and John Huss who started questioning the authority and teachings of the Catholic church before Luther was even born. Voices like these really set the stage for Martin Luther to make a major impact. In fact, Luther later confesses that he is a follower of John Huss. Furthermore, it may not be a stretch to think that if it hadn’t been for Luther’s favorable circumstances, his fate would have been similar to Wycliffe’s and Huss’s; having a smaller impact.
While his teaching was limited to only his students, and his preaching limited to a few hundred townspeople, thousands across Europe read his statements thanks to the newly invented printing press from Johannes Gutenberg of Nuremberg. Printers quickly started publishing his writings. Even the 95 Theses, without Luther’s knowledge or permission, was translated to German and published through the printing press and distributed throughout the country within two weeks. Thanks to this favorable circumstance, his publications increased additional backing to his emerging cause.
With his growing support and influence, Luther’s life was in danger from the Catholic church. Yet another favorable circumstance arose. Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s father-confessor at the monastery and ally, became “aware of the furies in Luther’s soul and the fires of response he was igniting” and came alongside Luther for both protection and facilitation of Luther to further his cause. Staupitz selected him to speak at the triennial chapter meeting of his order of Augustinian Hermits in Heidelberg. He even arranged for a friend to accompany him on the 250-mile trip to keep him safe. Prince Frederick the Wise, even provided a protective letter promising him safe passage. This meeting at Heidelberg proved to be a pivotal moment because it won over more key players like Dominican Martin Bucer and Johaness Brenz, who spread Luther’s ideas elsewhere, furthering the cause.
Days after the Diet of Worms, Frederick the Wise provided protective seclusion to the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. Here, Luther hid for ten months under the name Junker Georg or Knight George, growing his hair and beard. This protection allowed Luther to translate the New Testament into German in less than two months. Even at a time when Thomas Cajetan was trying to pressure Frederick the Wise into turning over Luther, Frederick protected him for both political reasons and unions with followers of Luther’s cause.
Luther even managed to have other favorable friends along the way. Philip Melanchthon was a significant friend of his. Marty describes him as “more cautious and more scholarly than Luther…Melanchthon complemented Luther and formulated their message in systematic ways while Luther stormed ahead, expressing himself more informally in sermons and tracts.” Luther even recognized the value of Melanchthon and their opposing approaches. He is quoted saying,
“I prefer the books of Master Philippus [Melanchthon] to my own. I am rough, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am here to fight innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove all stumps and stones, cut away thistles and thorns, and clear the wild forests, but Master Philippus comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.”
Luther also had influential friends such as John Bugenhagen of Pomerania, Justus Jonas, and Nikolaus von Amsdorf, all of whom were key players. Marty says, “without this set of co-workers it is hard to picture even a risk-taking Luther surviving and keeping his focus.”
As you can see, the success of Luther was much more than the man himself, or his efforts. Luther’s success in changing the world can be attributed to his deep passion for certainty and knowing God, his God-given abilities and his favorable circumstances.
Hannah John D. Invitation to Church History: World. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017.
Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer, directed by Stephen McCaskell. 2017. accessed November 5, 2018. https://play.google.com/store/movies/details/Luther_The_Life_and_Legacy_of_the_German_Reformer?id=XQ-uWohAgB8.
Marty Martin. Martin Luther. 375 New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2004.