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Martin Luther and His Role in the Protestant Reformation

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Freedom of religion in America is something we take for granted today, but centuries ago people fought long and hard and even died horrible deaths for the right to believe what they wanted. During the sixteenth century, the most powerful authority in western Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. There was no separation of the church and state so the popes, monks, and clergymen were immoral, dishonest, and corrupt. Eventually, people became dissatisfied and angry and started to protest against the Church. One person who was most influential and successful in expressing his grievances and challenging many of Roman Catholic Church’s beliefs was Martin Luther. Although there were others before him that had laid the groundwork, it was Martin Luther’s writings and actions that triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther). The reasons why Martin Luther’s approach worked while others had not is because of his excellent writing skills, his fierce devotion, and determination to his cause, along with the economic, social, and political conditions of the time period.

To fully understand Martin Luther’s role in the events that led up to the Protestant Reformation, it is helpful to look at some characteristics of the man he was. Martin Luther grew up in a plain and ordinary middle-class family in Mansfield, Germany. His parents, Hans and Margaret Luther were both strict and loving. Daily life consisted of hard work, prayer, and total devotion to the beliefs of the church. Although he was a bright student, nothing in Martin Luther’s early life demonstrated he was likely to accomplish anything very remarkable. Discipline in Luther’s early school days was very strict and punishment for disobedience or falling behind could be harsh (Metaxas 14). Nevertheless, Martin Luther works hard, is a good student, and completes his schooling at Mansfield. Religion and prayer are also a big part of everyday life and even at an early age, Martin Luther is concerned about his salvation and agonizes over the fact he is a sinner and what he can do to make up for his sinful nature (Gregory 33).

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Martin Luther’s parents know the importance of a good education, but encourage him to continue with his studies, and are happy they are able to pay for advanced education. His father’s wish is for Martin to become a lawyer, not only because it is a good occupation, but also because it would be to his benefit to have a lawyer to help in his mining business. At the age of seventeen, he is off to the study law at the University of Erfurt. Unfortunately for his father, Luther has a change of heart, and after attending Law school for only a few weeks decides to become a Monk. What leads up to his decision to become a Monk occurs one night when Martin Luther is returning to Erfurt on foot and is caught in the middle of a violent storm (Martin Luther). He is terrified by the fact that he may not survive and calls out to St. Anne and makes a promise that if his life is spared he will go into the monastery and work to become a Monk. Religious life was suited very well for Luther, and he is eager and excited to start a new life in the monastery. He dedicates himself to his new endeavor, and in fact, does exceedingly well in all his studies. At this point, Luther starts to develop the skills and knowledge to become an excellent writer, speaker, and the charismatic person that will eventually change the world. Luther is ordained as a priest in 1507 and in addition to conducting mass and other responsibilities of the church, he is selected and sent by his order to lecture and teach at the new Wittenberg University. During this course of time, Luther also acquires additional higher level degrees and his doctorate. Nevertheless, he is continuously deeply troubled and anxious about how to make things right with himself and God. This is the essence of who Martin Luther is. He does not feel forgiven even though the Church assures him that he is forgiven once he confesses his sins to the “sacrament of penance” (Gregory 34). His constant struggle in searching for answers to forgiveness, the Bible, and man’s sinful nature is one the reasons that eventually lead him to question the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and the writing of his 95 Theses.

Martin Luther never intended for the writing of the 95 Theses to be anything more than a list of grievances against the Roman Catholic Church in the hopes that they would seriously consider his complaints, while consequently deciding that some important changes would need to be made. Additionally, it was never Luther’s desire to start a new religion or divide the Church. When Martin Luther is ordered to go to Rome in 1511, he expects to find a sacred city full of faithful and devout Christians where he will experience a great spiritual encounter. Instead, he is disillusioned to discover the entire city and members of the Roman Catholic Church have a total disregard for the church and disobedience to God’s word. Furthermore, he is shocked by the most atrocious misconduct of the Popes, priests, and clergymen. He anticipates Rome will be the city that represents everything the Roman Catholic Church stands for but instead finds it to be a place of corruption, immoral behavior, and lack of Christian values. This is an experience he is unlikely to ever forget.

A few years later when Luther hears about a Dominican priest by the name of Johannes Tetzel is selling indulgences in Germany, he is furious (Metaxas 100). This incident is what persuades Luther to write his 95 Theses. Luther becomes aware that Pope Leo X plans to build a very expensive and elaborate church, the St Peter’s Church in Rome. Pope Leo does not have the funds to build the church so he sends Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences and raise money (Martin Luther). Tetzel is a good salesman, although somewhat devious and not entirely honest, is able to persuade the people in Germany, the majority who are very poor, to buy indulgences for the salvation of their loved ones who are suffering in purgatory and want to move on (Metaxas 99).

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