Martin Luther — The Man Who Started the Reformation

Sam Horn

Bring … the Books

FrontLine • September/October 2006

Since your Imperial Majesty requires a plain answer, I will give one without horns or hoof! It is this: that I must be convinced either by the testimony of Scripture or by clear arguments. I cannot trust the Pope or Councils by themselves, since it is as clear as daylight that they have not only erred but contradicted themselves. I am bound by the Scriptures which I have quoted; my conscience is thirled [bound] to the Word of God. I may not and will not recant, because to act against conscience is neither honest nor safe. I can do nothing else; here I stand; so help me God! — Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, August 18, 1521

These are arguably the most famous lines Luther ever uttered, marking the climax of his battle against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church begun almost a decade earlier when he nailed his famous ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

The outcome was the Protestant Reformation. While some argue our Baptist heritage must be separated from that of the Reformers, none would fail to appreciate what God chose to do through the Reformers to recover for the true Church at large the doctrines of Sola Scriptura and “Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” Therefore, there is great profit for all Baptists to study the lives of the Reformers and appreciate their service to Christ. Such a man who stood boldly and effectively for truth was Martin Luther.

Of the many biographies available on Luther’s life, one of the less familiar is Thomas Lindsay’s Martin Luther — The Man Who Started the Reformation. Lindsay’s biography was published in 1900. Professor of Church History at Free Church College in Glasgow, Lindsay was a highly regarded student of the Reformation who also published the two-volume History of the Reformation in Europe. Lindsay had access to many sources from Luther’s time that are now less readily available to modern writers. Consequently, Lindsay’s account includes details about Luther’s life and ministry not commonly known through other biographies. Lindsay wanted to do more than add one more biography to the list. He attempted to set Luther’s life and contribution in the larger context of Luther’s day. Luther’s Reformation, he reminds the reader, was more than a religious revolution. It was also a political, intellectual, social, and economic revolution. The Reformation affected everything!

In discussing Luther’s birth and upbringing, Lindsay gives a detailed look at sixteenth-century family life for the peasant class (a window worth the price of the book). He recounts the familiar story of Luther’s conversion in the context of monastic life, as well as his early ministry at Wittenberg. All of this helps a contemporary reader understand how the famous indulgence controversy affected both Luther and the people to whom he preached. Luther perceived that the real motive driving the indulgence movement was financial: “I saw that it was money and not doctrine that they cared for at Rome.”

Lindsay’s description of the famous five-day debate between Luther and Eck is unmatched in any modern biography of which I am aware. He devotes a significant amount of space to the political and social revolts that ripped through Germany during the Reformation period. While we would certainly grieve over the atrocities of this period of Protestant history, familiarity with this information helps us better understand Luther and his times.

One final segment merits attention. Lindsay provides a helpful and concise understanding of how Luther’s Reformation laid the foundation for the Evangelical Church, at least as it existed in 1900. Luther and other Reformers were greatly disturbed by the gross spiritual ignorance of their congregations. After one particularly depressing visit among parishioners of some of his student pastors, he wrote his well-known Small Catechism and introduced it with these words:

In setting forth this Catechism or Christian doctrine in such a simple, concise, and easy form, I have been compelled and driven by the wretched and lamentable state of affairs which I have discovered lately when I acted as a visitor. Merciful God, what misery have I seen, the common people knowing nothing at all of Christian doctrine, especially in the villages! And unfortunately many pastors are well-nigh unskilled and incapable of teaching; and although all are called Christians … they know neither the Lord’s Prayer, nor the Creed, nor the Ten Commandments, but live like poor cattle and senseless swine, though, now that the gospel is come, they have learnt well enough how they may abuse their liberty!

As a Baptist pastor in a predominantly Lutheran area, I wonder what Luther would say were he to visit with most members of the churches that bear his name and claim his theological heritage. May we appreciate Luther’s commitment to the authority of Scripture and emulate Luther’s attempt to bring that authority to bear in the daily life of those to whom he ministered.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)