Lutheran Christians look to Martin Luther not as the founder of a new church, but as a reformer and teacher whose work may help to serve Christ’s whole church.
Luther was of German Saxon peasant stock, destined to become a lawyer. Following a powerful conversion experience, however, he went on to be a monk, priest, and teacher. He was a model of medieval spirituality, doing exceedingly well what the church required, ranging from private confession to tough spiritual and academic formation as a biblical theologian.
Luther began teaching in 1513 at the small University of Wittenberg, southeast from Berlin in the Saxon countryside. Through his study and teaching of the Bible, he arrived at a decisive insight: Faith in Christ, not one’s own ambitious moral or devotional efforts, promised salvation from sin, leading to a life with God. Luther felt born again when he read “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17).
This insight changed Luther’s attitude towards the church, which had stressed human merit rather than trust in God as the means to salvation. This was vividly illustrated by the sale of “indulgences” –printed permits or coupons listing the monetary value of a personal confession of sin. The Pope and bishops had authorized the sale of indulgences to assist in building St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Luther issued a call for a public debate regarding the issue of indulgences by publishing ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517. Soon his opponents called his reform movement “Lutheran”.
Luther was condemned in 1521 by the Pope and the emperor as a dangerous heretic. But the reform movement continued. Powerful political supporters of the movement summarized their faith in The Augsburg Confession of 1530, drafted by Luther’s friend Philip Melanchthon. The Confession was based on the traditional creeds of the church (i.e., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed), the Bible and the early Christian teachings. Luther directed everyone to the gospel, the good news of salvation through Christ. This gospel becomes alive as the Word of God, through the hearing of scripture and sermons and through the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
Luther wrote more than 30 hymns, enjoyed married life and six children, and was known for his good humor. His basic teachings were published in about 450 treatises, 3000 sermons, 2600 letters and 5000 “table talks”. His works have been collected in more than 100 oversized volumes since 1883 in the Weimar Edition. His translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German was so popular that the basic structure of the modern German language is derived from it.
Luther has been rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church which no longer calls him a heretic. His legacy is well established around the world through more than 60 million Lutherans on all continents, but especially in Germany and Scandinavia. Zion Church is one among many congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America whose more than 5 million members represent a part of this legacy.