The emaciated monk wept bitterly, kneeling on the floor of his cell at the monastery. Try as he might, he could not break the chains of impurity and sin in his life. The pious monk had renounced the world. He had tried unsuccessfully to flee all temptation. He had taken the Augustinian vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In his search for absolution, the man had left a promising legal career and had given away all of his worldly belongings. He had come to the monastery to find peace and seclusion from the world. However, even there away from all evil, he had discovered to his horror that his own heart was full of sin. Masses, candles, beads, fasting, penance, and even painful flagellations (beatings) could not drive lust, pride, and sin from his heart.
In this miserable condition, an elderly brother monk comforted his distraught companion with the consolation of Scripture. He exhorted the disconsolate man, Martin Luther, to look away from his own heart and to seek righteousness in the Lord Jesus Christ. This wise friend taught Luther that repentance is not a system of self-imposed punishment but a change of heart and mind. The change in the heart and mind results from an appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice for us upon the cross of Calvary. By the grace of God, the heart of Martin Luther was gradually transformed, and he eventually found peace and satisfaction “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The theses were a series of questions, propositions, and observations that were intended to cause men to consider and compare the Word of God with the current practices of the Church of Rome. Luther was not intending to start an exodus from the Roman Catholic church. Rather, he was seeking to purify and instruct. He suggested that the command of the Lord Jesus to “repent” was a call for believers to live in a spirit of humility and repentance rather than to perform specific acts of penance. He questioned the church’s practice of indulgences, which was the selling of pardons for a fee. He asked why, if the Pope had power to deliver souls from purgatory, did he not empty purgatory out of Christian charity rather than “for filthy lucre” by selling indulgences?
These observations made quite a stir throughout the country, and soon the monk from Wittenberg and his bold theses became a flashpoint throughout Europe. He was placed under the Pope’s curse and under the Emperor’s ban. He was summoned to Rome. But under the protection of his Saxon prince, Martin Luther remained in Wittenberg, out of the reach of his enemies.
Luther continued to write and debate with scholars as God gave him opportunity. He issued “An Address to the German Nobility,” calling them to loyalty to the Word of God over the pope. He wrote a pamphlet titled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”; it described the apostasy and unfaithfulness of the Church of Rome. His bold speech at the Diet of Worms, where he was promised safe conduct, has become famous throughout the world: “I neither can nor will retract anything. . . . Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
On the way home from Worms, Luther was seized and carried off by armed horsemen. The Duke of Saxony, knowing that Luther was a wanted man, arranged for this capture in order to preserve Luther’s life. In an isolated fortress known as Wartburg, Luther engaged in perhaps his greatest life’s work—the translation of the Greek New Testament into the common language of the German people.
Luther increasingly began writing against the unbiblical state of enforced idleness and celibacy of the monastic system, whereby men and women withdrew from society to become monks and nuns. Luther had seen by difficult personal experience that the monkish life of self-penance could not gain peace with God or freedom from sin. All over Germany, monks and nuns began leaving cloisters and convents to return to their families. Instead of withdrawing from the world, they began to seek to influence the world with the power of the Gospel.
One group of nine nuns that were smuggled out of the convent of Nimptsch included a young nun named Katharina von Bora. Martin Luther had consistently begun to advocate that the married state was the Biblical norm, and that the Roman view of celibacy had caused many to fall into temptation and uncleanness. “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22).
Acting on the truth of this verse, Luther encouraged monks and nuns to get married. Eight of the nine nuns from Nimptsch were readily married, but Katharina would not have the man that had been chosen for her. Instead, she named Martin Luther as the man she desired to marry! Luther’s own father, Hans, had been encouraging Luther to get married. At first, Luther would have none of it. He believed that he would soon meet a martyr’s death. But at last he yielded, and said, “Well then, I will do it: I will play the devil and the world this trick; I will content my father, and marry Katharina.” On June 13, 1525, Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora. Luther’s father was delighted and braved the rigors of travel and the scorn of the local clergy by attending the wedding feast of Martin and Katharina. Since nuns and monks were not supposed to be married, this marriage caused great uproar in the church. Luther’s enemies were horrified and predicted that a child born of a marriage between a monk and a nun would certainly be the Antichrist. Since the immorality of the cloisters was notorious all over Europe, Catholic theologian and philosopher Erasmus quipped that if this were true, how many antichrists must already exist in the world!
Luther found great blessing in his marriage to Katharina. He said, “God’s highest gift on earth is a pious, cheerful, God-fearing, and home-keeping wife.” She was truly “a helpmeet” for Martin Luther. They lived happily together for twenty-one years, and raised six children—three sons and three daughters. Luther’s home was filled with music and cheerfulness. He called his wife “Katie,” and he had many playful nicknames for her, including “My lord, Katie,” Lady Doctor,” and simply “My Rib.” Luther delighted in her companionship and always spoke with the highest esteem of his wife.
The victory over sin and lust that Luther could not find in the cold halls of the cloister he found in the warmth and blessing of a family. Accountable to his wife, responsible for his children, shepherding his flock, Martin Luther was setting a pattern for married clergy, which was a novel idea for Europe at the time. However, that pattern would be followed many times in the coming centuries. Reformation implies “transformation.” What could not be accomplished by external human work had been accomplished by an internal Divine work, and Martin Luther experienced the joy and peace of a changed heart. This changed heart affected his family, his church, his country, and eventually the entire world!
Sources and Further Reference:
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle. History of the Reformation. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2003.