Martin Luther was born on November 10th, 1483, in Eisleben, a little town in Saxony, northern Germany. He attended grade school in Mansfeld, and went to high school in Magdeburg and Eisenach. At the age of 17 he entered the University of Erfurt, and graduated with his Master’s Degree four years later, in 1505. His father wanted him to study law, but Martin was more interested in religion. He therefore entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt in 1505, since he thought that being a monk was the best way to be sure of being saved. He was ordained as a priest in 1507. It was in the monastery that he found a Bible—the first Bible he had ever had a chance to read; and now he devoted all his spare time to studying the Scriptures.
In 1510 Martin was sent to Rome on monastery business. While on this trip he saw how corrupt the church of his day had become, and how ignorant the people were. After his return he continued his studies and was made a Doctor of Theology in 1512. Then he was called to become a professor at the University of Wittenberg, a position he held until he died. At Wittenberg Luther lectured on the Bible, and it was there that he made his great “discovery”—that a person is not saved by his own good works, but by trusting in the merits and death of Jesus. This biblical teaching had been almost completely forgotten for several hundred years among the monks and priests of the church, simply because the Bible itself was seldom studied, even by the priests.
In 1517 another priest came to a nearby town in a province just beyond the border of Saxony on his mission of selling indulgences. People were told that by the purchase of these certificates of penance, which were a cancellation of works of penance, they could gain release from purgatory for themselves and even for friends or relatives who had already died. Luther then decided that he must without delay share with others what he had learned about the way to salvation. He published 95 theses (sentences) which showed how far the church had moved away from the teaching of the Bible. This was on October 31, 1517, which we now celebrate as Reformation Day because it marks the beginning of the great Reformation of the Church.
These theses were not favorably received by the church authorities, however, and Luther was sharply criticized. The Pope issued a ban, ordering him to be silent and to say or write no more on this topic. His writings were attacked by other leading men in the church. In 1519 Luther had a great public debate with a famous professor, Dr. Eck, in Leipzig; it was there that Luther boldly declared that the Pope and the church were teaching things contrary to the Bible. The result of Luther’s criticism of the church was that the Pope excommunicated him in 1520 and ordered him to take back all that he had said. In 1521 Luther was required to appear before Emperor Charles V in the city of Worms, to be questioned about what he had said and written. Here he bravely stated that he would not take back any of his statements, since he was simply teaching what the Bible taught. Then the emperor issued the order making Luther an outlaw, subject to arrest and death.
However, the Elector of Saxony, Prince Frederick, was a great admirer of Luther and would not permit the Emperor’s men to arrest him anywhere in Saxony. Luther therefore stayed in Saxony, spending all his time teaching, counseling and writing. In 1522 Luther translated the entire New Testament from Greek into German to replace a number of inadequate translations of the official Latin Bible. In 1534 he completed the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew language. In his concern for the pure Gospel, which he had learned from the Scriptures, Luther visited all the churches in Saxony. On this trip in 1527 he learned that most of the priests did not know very much about the Bible or the way of salvation, and that the people were terribly ignorant. The result was that in 1529 he published his Small Catechism, so that the priests and the people would have a clear, simple summary of the main teachings in the Bible.
In 1530 Luther and some of his coworkers were asked to write out a complete statement of what they believed, so that the emperor could determine what their doctrine really was. This document was then delivered to the emperor in the town of Augsburg on June 25th and has ever since been known as the Augsburg Confession. For the next sixteen years Luther continued to be very busy. He taught his classes at the university; he preached several times a week; he wrote hymns, articles, books and letters—so many that his writings fill more than fifty large volumes in English. He died on February 18th, 1546, at the age of 62, in Eisleben, where he had been born—one of the greatest servants God has given to His Church.