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Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation of 1517

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Famous portrait of Martin Luther.

Famous portrait of Martin Luther.

Martin Luther's Early Life

Martin Luther was born on November 10th, 1483 to Hans Luder and his wife Margarethe in Eisleben, Germany, which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire ( By the time Luther was eighteen years of age, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt where he studied law (jurisprudence), philosophy, and classical writers. In 1505, at the age of 22, Luther received his M.A. degree from Erfurt and was well prepared for a legal career, something of which his father was very supportive. To his father’s dismay, however, Luther would soon have other plans. During the summer of 1505, Luther was famously caught in a thunderstorm. It was here that he vowed to St. Anne (Mother of the Virgin Mary) to become a monk if his life was spared from the storm’s violent lightning (Weisner-Hanks, 153). Luther took his vow very seriously afterward, in which he renounced his legal career, joined the Augustinian Order at Erfurt, and switched his studies from law to theology.

“By 1512, Luther had obtained a doctorate in theology at the University of Wittenberg, where he remained for the rest of his life” (Weisner-Hanks, 154). It was here in Wittenberg that Luther began to understand many Christian doctrines that greatly differed from the teachings of the Catholic Church. Thus it was here that the great German leader of the Reformation was essentially “born.” Because Luther was willing to speak out and stand up for what he believed in, Luther in turn would bring great change to the world that would be felt even centuries later after his death. His speaking out against the selling of indulgences, sacraments, the papacy not being infallible, and the idea that people are saved by faith alone rather than by a combination of faith and good works would be a major challenge to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Luther would later become known as the “Father of the Reformation” (

Portrait of Luther's Parents

Portrait of Luther's Parents

Background History

Before looking at Luther’s views of mainstream Catholicism beliefs, it’s important to first understand why people were so willing to accept his ideas during the Reformation. Not only will this provide insight into the culture and norms of this time period, but it will also demonstrate why Martin Luther, as well as other reformers, decided to take a stand against the church. To begin with, “western Christianity in the middle of the fifteenth century was a very powerful political, intellectual, and economic institution.” “By about the twelfth century, a large number of groups and individuals were already attacking many aspects of the Catholic Church, including doctrines/beliefs they judged to have no Biblical basis, institutions such as the papacy, the tax collection methods and monetary policies of the Church, the ways in which priests and higher church officials were chosen, and the worldliness and morals of priests, monks, nuns, bishops, and the pope” (Weisner-Hanks, 152). It was also during this time that corruption throughout the Church was very widespread. Many high church officials were only concerned about money and used their church offices as opportunities to advance both their careers and wealth. Many priests seemed to be ignorant of their spiritual duties.

While the leaders of the church were failing to meet their responsibilities, ordinary people were desperately searching for meaningful religious expression and certainty of their salvation. As a result, for some, the process of salvation became almost “mechanical” (Duiker and Spieluogel, 395). Large collections of relics began growing as more and more people sought certainty of salvation through religious icons. Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, and Martin Luther’s prince, had amassed over five thousand relics, in his lifetime, which were attached to indulgences to reduce his time in purgatory by about 1,443 years. Therefore, it is my opinion, that it is not difficult to see why people would be willing to accept ideas presented throughout the Reformation. People were clearly unsatisfied with religion by the sixteenth century and were willing to accept change readily. With these issues occurring, it is also easy to understand why Luther was so angered by what he viewed as “false teachings” of the Catholic Church and to understand why he took such an interest in wanting to bring about reform to the Church.

The sale of indulgences.

The sale of indulgences.

Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses

Luther’s most famous stand against the Catholic Church can be seen with his Ninety-five Theses that he nailed to the church door of Wittenberg in response to John Tetzel and his selling of indulgences (remission of penalty due to sin). Tetzel’s primary focus in the selling of these indulgences was to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica for Pope Leo X. Making his way around the many different towns, Tetzel is credited with stating to the crowds that gathered around him, “as soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul in purgatory springs” (Bainton, 60). Tetzel even went as far as to create a chart that listed the price for each type of sin committed. Upon hearing Tetzel’s statements, they in turn only infuriated Luther, who viewed the selling of these indulgences as a major abuse of power by the Church (Brecht, 182). Greatly angered, on October 31st, 1517, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Church door in Wittenberg (Duiker and Spieluogel, 396). Some of his key statements in his theses included:

  • 5. “The Pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those he has imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law.
  • 21. “Hence those preachers of Indulgences are wrong when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the Pope’s Indulgences
  • 27. “It is merely human talk to preach that the soul flies out [of purgatory] immediately [when] the money clinks in the collection box.
  • 82. “Why doesn’t the Pope empty purgatory for the sake of most holy love and the supreme need of souls? This would be the most righteous of reasons, if he can redeem innumerable souls for sordid money with which to build a basilica, the most trivial of reasons.”
  • 86. Again: “Since the Pope’s wealth is larger than that of the crassest Crassi of our time, why does he not build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with that of the faithful poor?”
  • 94. “Christians should be exhorted to seek earnestly to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.”
  • 95. “And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace" (Dillenberger, 490–500)

Thus, it is very clear what Luther’s position was on the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church. Luther realized that indulgences were not in accordance with scripture, therefore, Luther wanted to bring forth “truth” to the matter. While it is important to point out that Luther’s theses were never a direct attack on the Church, but instead were an attack on Tetzel and indulgences (although Church officials during that time would have probably disagreed with that notion), it should be said that these theses were still, nevertheless, a major challenge to both the papal authority and the pope as well (Bainton, 63). Luther took no steps in trying to spread his message to the people. In fact, Luther never intended for anyone outside of the church to even read his theses.

His theses were merely topics of debate, in which he was “inviting scholars to dispute and for dignitaries to define.” Unbeknownst to Luther, however, his theses were quickly translated from their original Latin form into the German language and were distributed amongst the people by the press, where they spread like wildfire. Luther’s theses became so popular that when he tried to withdraw them, it was too late! These theses, in turn, would be considered by many historians as the beginning of the Reformation, and the beginning of Luther’s clear break with the teachings of the Catholic Church (Brecht, 190).

Later portrait of Luther (completed later in the 1800s).

Later portrait of Luther (completed later in the 1800s).


After posting his Ninety-Five theses, Luther’s opposition to the Church didn’t end there. Sacraments were another topic of heated debate between Martin Luther, and the teachings of Catholicism. According to Catholic teachings during that time, there were seven total sacraments that were necessary for Christians to uphold, those being confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, extreme unction, baptism, and lastly the Eucharist. Luther, however, believed much differently. Luther, in turn, reduced the number of sacraments from seven to only two. This confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction were eliminated, and only the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), and baptism alone remained (Brecht, 358-362). Luther understood that these sacraments were signs of God’s promise of the forgiveness of sins, and regarded both baptism and the Eucharist as the only true sacraments that were of any real importance for Christians. The principle in which Luther dictated this reduction was that “a sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and must be distinctively Christian,” in order to be deemed necessary (Bainton, 106).

While Luther’s removal of confirmation and extreme unction were not of tremendous importance, except that it only diminished the control of the Church over the young and dead, the elimination of penance, however, was far more serious since penance is the rite of forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church. It is important to note that Luther did not eliminate this sacrament entirely, however. Luther did recognize the need for contrition and looked upon confession as useful, only if it wasn’t “institutionalized” (Bainton, 106–108).

The removal of ordination as a sacrament was very serious as well. With its removal, it literally demolished the caste system of clericalism and provided a sound basis for his theology on the “priesthood of all believers,” (Weisner-Hanks, 255) in which Luther believed all baptized Christians were both “priests” and “spiritual” in the sight of God ( This doctrine would prove to be a major challenge to the authority of church officials, which will be discussed in detail later. Luther’s rejection of the five sacraments might have been tolerated by the Church, if it had not been for his radical transformation for the two that remained, especially with that of the Eucharist. The mass was of utmost importance for the entire Roman Catholic system because it was believed to be a repetition of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion of Christ. According to Catholics, when the bread and wine are transubstantiated, God once again becomes flesh and Christ again dies upon the altar. This wonder could only be performed by Catholic priests that were empowered through ordination (Bainton, 107–108). The doctrine of transubstantiation was introduced by the Catholic Church around 1215. The 4th Lateran Council of that year proclaimed:

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“The Body and Blood are truly contained in the Sacrament... under the appearance of bread and wine, after the bread has been changed into the Body, and the wine into the Blood, through the power of God.”

Luther, along with other sixteenth-century reformers, ultimately rejected this notion. Luther declared that the bread and wine benefited those who accepted them in faith, but that they did not change into the actual body and blood of Christ. Luther believed that the process was not mechanical” (

This insistence on faith by Luther, further diminished the role of the priests in the Church, since Luther proclaimed that ordinary people could now perform the Eucharist. Even today, many Protestant churches maintain the same general belief about the celebration of communion (Bainton, 107).

“For I have received of the Lord that which also I passed on to you, That the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, "Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me." After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, "This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he comes.” —1 Corinthians 11:23-26 KJV

Portrait of Luther during his time as a monk.

Portrait of Luther during his time as a monk.

Papal Authority

Aside from Luther’s views on indulgences, and sacraments, perhaps another conflicting view between Luther and the Church can be seen in his questioning of the authority of the papacy, as well as his statements concerning the infallibility of church officials and councils. Ultimately, it is understood that followers of the Catholic faith during that time, believed the pope was infallible in matters of faith and morality ( In contrast to this way of thinking, however, Luther’s theology challenged the authority of Catholic officials by holding that the Bible was the only infallible source of religious authority in the world (sola Scriptura) (Fearon, 106–107).

According to Luther, salvation was a free gift of God, received only by true repentance and by faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, a faith given by God and unmediated by the Church ( In other words, Luther believed that individuals could seek salvation on their own, without having to rely on priests. This would be seen as a major challenge to the papal authority (Fearon, 76). Following the Ninety-Five Theses, it was relatively uncertain what Luther’s position was towards the papacy. Luther eventually revealed his true feelings concerning the authority of the papacy, however, during an eighteen-day debate with the theologian Johann Eck at Leipzig, in which Eck lured Luther into making the following statement:

“I assert that a council has sometimes erred and may sometimes err. Nor has a council authority to establish new articles of faith. A council cannot make divine right out of that which by nature is not divine right. Councils have contradicted each other, for the recent Lateran Council has reversed the claim of the councils of Constance and Basel that a council is above the pope. A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it. As for the pope’s decretal on indulgences I say that neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils” (Bainton, 89–90).

By asserting that both popes and church councils could err, Luther had clearly defined his true feelings towards the papacy, church officials, and the pope. Luther’s belief was that the sole criterion for the theology and practice of the Church should be the Bible and not human customs and traditions as stated previously. By making this statement, Luther had unknowingly put himself on the same level of ideas and beliefs as Johann Hus (a heretic who had been burned at the stake nearly a hundred years earlier). Luther confessed that he was surprised at how closely Hus’s views agreed with his own. In doing so, he was now identifying himself with a theological position the church had long regarded as proven heresy, further showing his clear break with Catholic beliefs (Fearon, 107). Luther further developed his feelings toward the infallibility of the papacy with his three pamphlets that he wrote right after the Leipzig debates:

  1. Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation: Throughout this pamphlet, Luther demanded that German rulers reform the Church.
  2. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church: In this pamphlet, “Luther condemned the papacy for holding Christians in “captivity” for centuries by distorting the meaning of sacraments.”
  3. The Freedom of a Christian: In this pamphlet, “Luther wrote that Christians were freed through Christ, not through their own actions” (Weisner-Hanks, 155).

Martin Luther Quote

“I may be wrong on indulgences, but as to the need for faith in the sacraments I will die before I will recant.”

— Martin Luther

"Sola Fide" and "Sola Scriptura"

Finally, perhaps Luther’s most profound idea that went against Catholic beliefs was the idea that human beings are saved through faith alone, rather than what Catholicism teaches in which a human is saved through a combination of both faith and good works. This idea of “faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone,” that Luther developed (sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura), can actually be seen as the primary doctrine of the Protestant Reformation (Weisner-Hanks, 154). To Luther, faith was a free gift from God, not anything resulting from human effort as Catholics taught. Having faith that Jesus Christ died for your sins was all that was needed to become saved, according to the teachings of Luther and other Protestant believers.

Catholic theologians, on the other hand, believed that without good works, individuals could not call upon God’s saving power (Duiker and Spieluogel, 395). “Order, piety, and morality to Catholics, were all marks of divine favor” (Weisner-Hanks, 151). Contrary to Catholic ideas on the matter, however, Luther was able to back much of his reasoning with that of his studies in the book of Romans. By looking over the letters written by the apostle Paul, Luther discovered the following:

“The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17) KJV

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe: For there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24). KJV

“Therefore, being justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in wherein we now stand” (Romans 5:1-2) KJV

Because Luther had arrived at this doctrine of faith alone from his study of the Bible, the Bible became for Luther, as for all other Protestants, the chief guide to religious truth (sola Scriptura) (Duiker and Spieluogel, 396-397). Luther came to believe that God’s word was only revealed in scripture, not in the traditions of the Church (Weisner-Hanks, 155).

Martin Luther's Legacy

In closing, whether you believe, Martin Luther, to be a rebel…genius…or liberator during his time, one thing is for certain, Luther’s ideas and theology that went against the teachings of Catholicism would have tremendous effects on the world around him (Weisner-Hanks, 149). Even centuries after his death in 1546, Luther’s ideas and beliefs are still prominent throughout Protestantism even today, and have ultimately, helped in the shaping of western civilization. Like many of the reformers during the Reformation, Luther was interested only in the pursuit of truth.

While Luther did, in fact, speak out against the selling of indulgences, sacraments, infallibility of church officials, and the notion of being saved by faith alone (which were all major challenges to Church doctrines/beliefs), I believe it is important to note that Luther never intended on causing a break within the Church, as he was merely wanting to reform it. Luther (and all the other reformers) saw themselves as returning Christianity to its roots; in reality, however, their ideas irreparably changed the world. They divided Christianity into two separate churches and that second division, Protestantism, would divide over the next four centuries into a near infinity of separate churches ( If it had not been for people like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Johann Hus, and John Wyclif, to name a few, the world would probably be much different than what it currently is today.

Works Cited


Ken Anderson, comment on “The Lord’s Supper”

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1981).

Martin Luther, Ninety-Five Theses in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger New York: Anchor Books, 1961)/

Merry E. Weisner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Mike Fearon, Men of Faith: Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1986).

New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Martin Luther,” New World Encyclopedia,

"Papal infallibility." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 18 Nov. 2008

Roland H. Bainton, Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Penguin Books, 1977).

Washington State University, “Reformation: Martin Luther,” Washington State University,

West Chester University of Pennsylvania, “Background to: Against the Sale of Indulgences,” West Chester University of Pennsylvania,

William Duiker and Jackson Spieluogel, World History, Volume II: Since 1500 (Belmont: Thomas Wadsworth, 2007).


Wikipedia contributors, "Martin Luther," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 26, 2019).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why are there few reformed churches now?

Answer: Reformed churches tend to focus on ideas concerning predestination and election; ideas that were discussed at great length during the Reformation Era. While many of these doctrines persisted into the Nineteenth Century (with the help of the Puritan movement in North America), changes in beliefs (particularly, the desire to move away from Puritan-based concepts of God and the Bible) were soon implemented in many churches as individuals sought a greater sense of control over their own destiny and afterlife (something that the concept of predestination and election did not allow for, many believed). For this reason, there are few reformed churches in the world today as the doctrines are seen as both erroneous and outdated by many modern-day preachers and scholars. It should be stated, however, that a recent resurgence of reformed theology has been sweeping parts of the United States in more recent years as scholars and individuals, alike, are beginning to interpret/view the Bible in the same light as many early reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.

© 2019 Larry Slawson


Carolyn Fields from South Dakota, USA on October 25, 2019:

You make many excellent points in this fine article. Two stand out for me:

1. Luther had no intention of starting the reformation. He just wanted to clean house within his own church.

2. We are saved by faith alone. This is such an important point. I still have discussions with other Christians about the significance of "good work" - we should do it because we want to, not because it will earn us a path to salvation. That is already done. It makes so much sense to me on so many levels. How could we - mere mortals - ever do enough "good" to earn our way?

Thank you for such a well-researched and well-written article.

what was martin luthers controbution to the ref on March 31, 2019:

what was martin luhter's contribution to the Reformation

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 28, 2019:

Larry, It absolutely made sense and gave us a wealth of information. I wish I had a couple of papers I wrote in college. :)