Part 6: Reformation to Now. Lesson 1 of 7
Lesson 34. Luther

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will center your life and message on the Biblical truth that we are accepted by God through faith, not by works, and in this way bring joy and freedom to others.

1.Why lasting influence. In 1517, Martin Luther began the Reformation movement, and this time the reforms did not fade away.  Protestant, churches were established, and continue to this day.  Here are some reasons why the Reformation of the 1500’s was successful:

2.Comfort. The theological points of the reformation gave great comfort to people.  Some people in Luther’s time were worried that they had not done enough  good works.¹  Luther rediscovered the New Testament’s emphasis on God’s grace and faith. Paul writes in Galatians 2:16 that we are justified by faith and not by the works of the law.  “Justified” means that even though we are guilty, God has decided to call us innocent.³  Thus “justification by faith” equals “justification by Christ Himself.”  The truth of “righteousness by faith” took away peoples’ doubts and gave them the assurance that God loved them.  This point is so important that the church founded by the followers of Luther is translated into the Chinese language as the “faith-righteousness” church. 6  In the German language, this church was called the “good-news” ²  church.  In the English language, the sound of Martin Luther’s name is used as the name of the church: “Lutheran church.” 6  We can ask ourselves, “Am I careful to keep faith in the center, and not let people have doubts by looking at their own works?”

3.Communication. The printing press had been developed about 60 years before, so Luther’s ideas could be printed and quickly spread throughout Europe.  In this way many people in many countries became part of the Protestant Reformation.

4.Music. Luther spread his teachings through music.  Luther and his co-workers put the great teachings about grace and faith into poems, and then wrote music for them.  These songs were well-liked, because they were in the new style of the day.  They had a strong beat and lively rhythms, unlike the chanting done by the monks, which did not have a beat. Because the thoughts of justification by faith were imprinted on people’s hearts through the songs,  they were able to maintain that faith despite wars and persecution.  We must ask ourselves, “Am I selecting songs that help people learn and remember the basic truths of faith?”

5.Instruction. Luther wrote instructional materials for the common people.  He wrote a manual called the “small catechism” for fathers to teach to their children.  Luther took the well-known documents that were recited by common people, (such as the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and Lord’s prayer) and wrote short explanations of each part that would help people see the connection to the gospel and to everyday life.  Because people’s faith was strengthened in the family, they were able to withstand difficulties and persecution.  We must ask ourselves “Am I finding ways to bring Christian growth into the home?”  Luther gave impetus to the idea of education for all.  Since Luther realized that people could  be strong in faith only if they read their Bibles, he promoted the idea of teaching both boys and girls to read.

6.Translation. Luther translated the Bible into the language of the people.  At that time, the Bible that was available in Europe was written in Latin.  Therefore it was not available to the common person, because the common person could not understand Latin.  Luther had studied both Greek and Hebrew, so he was able to translate the Bible from the original languages into German.  Just as the original Greek of the Bible was a Greek used by the common people, Luther translated into a German that was used by the common people.  Thus although there were 16 German translations before Luther, his turned out to have lasting influence both on the continued development of the German language and on the spread of Christian teachings. Translations into other languages are listed in Footnote 5.

7.Response to Complaints. The people of Europe were already disgusted with the monks and the priests, because some of them were immoral and loved money.  They did not like the idea of sending money to Italy for the building projects and the expensive life style of the pope and his court.  They were therefore glad to accept an alternative to the Catholic Church.

8.Political Situation. Germany at that time was divided into many independent kingdoms, under the control of one emperor.  The emperor was Roman Catholic and wanted to stop Luther, but the local princes agreed with Luther.  They resisted the emperor and used their military power to protect Luther.  The emperor could not use all of his armies against them, because at the same time he was being attacked by Turkish Muslim armies.

9.Luther’s Dilemma. The next sections provide highlights of the life of Luther.  In order to understand Luther’s zeal for justification by faith, we need to understand his background.  Luther was studying to be a lawyer when he feared he might die during a storm and promised to become a monk if he survived.  He joined a monastic organization that followed the teachings and standards of St. Augustine.  That group did stress God’s grace, but not enough for Luther.  He knew that God could forgive his sins, but he realized that his love for God was not pure enough to be sure that God would forgive him.  Since he did not know the gospel promises, he felt he had to do many good works and combat his bodily desires with self-torture and fasting in order to deserve mercy from God.  But he never felt that he had done enough to be sure of God’s mercy.

10.Breakthrough. His superiors assigned him to learn the biblical languages and he received a doctorate in Bible.  In 1512 Luther became a Bible teacher at the university in his city.  It was through Bible study that the truth of God’s grace became clear to him, as he prepared for his classes.  He read in Romans 1:17 that “the just will live by faith.”  Formerly Luther did not like this verse, because of the word “just.”  (also translated “righteous.”) When he heard that word, he thought of God as a judge.  He knew that he was not righteous, so he felt he had no hope.  But he found a new way to understand it in Romans  3:23-26.  Here, righteousness is clearly explained as a free gift.  When Luther realized that God’s righteousness was not only about God’s judgment, but also included God’s merciful nature, the truth of justification by faith became clear to him.  He received assurance of God’s mercy, and sensed freedom, peace and joy.  He realized that salvation did not depend on how many good works we do. Good work do happen, but it is as a result of being saved,.

11.Confrontation. A monk came to his city and told people that they could receive freedom from punishment for sin by buying the papers 7 he had, called “indulgences.”  4  Luther realized this approach was in conflict with the teaching about “righteousness by faith” that he had rediscovered in the Bible. In 1517 Luther wrote a set of debating points (the “95 Theses”) against indulgences.  Many supported his viewpoint, but the pope sent experts to debate him.  The pope regarded Luther’s views as a threat to his authority, 8 so  Luther was told to take back his writings.   Luther said he would not change unless he could be convinced by scripture and reason. Instead of trying to convince him, the pope’s in 1521 removed Luther from the Catholic Church. 9  Since Luther felt the pope had not taken the opportunity to allow justification by faith to be taught more clearly in the church, he concluded that the pope was not the true leader of all Christians.  Luther realized that the only dependable source of authority would have to be the Bible, not either popes or ecumenical councils.

12.Bible as basis. As Luther looked at Catholic beliefs from the standpoint of the Bible, he realized that the Catholic Church had departed from many of the teachings of the Bible.  One basic idea was the idea of grace.  When Catholics say that people are saved by grace, they mean that God pours grace upon them so that they are able to believe and grow, and changes the person into a righteous person, someone who can then be saved.  Luther realized that according to the Bible, God does not make us righteous; rather, God pronounces that He will look upon us as righteous, for the sake of Jesus.   Because God accepts us by grace, there is no need to prayer to Mary or the saints, no need to have priests as mediators, and no need for a system of indulgences.  Here is a list of other Catholic teachings that Luther felt were not Biblical:

Catholic teaching Luther’s teaching
Saved by faith and works¹ Saved only by faith
Pope has authority (see chapter 26) only Bible has authority
Ask saints and Mary for merit Rely only on Jesus
Only clergy can forgive sins Receive forgiveness direct from Jesus
Clergy changes bread into body at communion Bread is body because Jesus says it is.
After death people must finish the works they have not yet done to show they were truly repentant.¹¹ Jesus took the punishment for all sins so believers will not be punished


13.Writings. Luther’s thoughts are known to us by many lectures and books that he wrote.  He depended on the power of the princes to take over and improve the situations in their kingdoms’ churches, because the Catholic bishops did not agree with him and would not make the changes.  He gave advice to pastors and rulers up to his death in 1546.

14.Luther’s Approach Here are some characteristics of Luther’s approach. Luther not only quoted they Bible, but also quoted Christian authors from the early church, to show that he was not creating a new teaching, but restoring the views of the early Christians.  In particular, Luther reminded people that Augustine had stressed the importance of grace. Luther was sensitive to people’s needs.  Luther did not want to confuse people by making unnecessary changes.  He retained the customs of the church that did not conflict with the Bible.

15.Sense of Mission. The followers of Luther have the mission to remind the entire church of the central nature of justification by faith.  On the question of faith and reason, they model a child-like faith by accepting Bible teachings without feeling that they have to prove them by reason.  Examples are the presence of Christ in communion and the regenerative power of infant baptism.  At the same time, Luther emphasized that the only authority about God and God’s teachings is the Bible; Luther was suspicious of people who said they had received messages from the Holy Spirit outside of the Bible.

16.Role of Law. Luther emphasized differentiating the law parts of the Bible from the gospel parts. By “law,” he meant those parts of the Bible that give us commands and threats; by gospel, he meant the parts that give us promises and comfort.  Luther warns us to beware of sharing the gospel in a way that sounds like the law: while God’s law shows us the need for forgiveness, the gospel should be shared totally as promise, without any “conditions” mixed in with it.  After one is born again through the gospel, then a person has new life, and we can recognize the new life because it will not do anything in violation of the law. When we do catch ourselves sinning, it is a reminder that the old nature is still with us.  We repent and submit to God again whenever we notice that we have done something against God’s law.  As we repent and submit as a way of life, Christian growth will take place.  Luther identified daily repenting as the way that the effect of baptism plays itself out in our daily life.

17.Role of Government. Although Luther asked the government to help him reform the church in Germany, it was clear to Luther that the church and government had completely different methods.  In reaction against the European tradition of the Catholic Church, which used governmental power and military power against those it disagreed with, Luther stressed that the church should not use that kind of power.  Luther said the church has no power except the forgiveness of sins.  At the same time, even though the Bible tells us to respect government, yet the government must not use the methods of the church.  Both government and church come from God, but both have different purposes and use different methods.  The government is supposed to keep order, and uses the method of punishment against those who break the law.  We do not expect the government to show forgiveness: that is the role of the church.  Luther called these two approaches the “kingdom of the left hand” (government) and the “kingdom of the right hand” (church).

18.Sunday worship. Luther put the Sunday morning worship into the language of the people.  Although in the early centuries everyone participated in the church service, as time went by,  because the level of education was low, eventually the service was sung largely by clergy and trained choirs.  In the early centuries of the Western Roman Empire, most people could speak Latin, but as time went by, and Latin gradually transformed into the modern languages of Europe such as Italian and French, the church service remained in Latin.  The common people could no longer understand the words of the church service, so as they sat in church they used the prayer beads to say the Lord’s prayer and prayers to Mary while the clergy and choir sang the service in Latin.  Luther translated the parts of the church service from Latin into the language of the people. He also provided new music for each part, so the people all could sing together.  Luther kept the traditional parts and sequence of the service, because he did not want to confuse people by writing a completely new service.  Luther also allowed additional hymns to be inserted in between the traditional parts of the service.  Luther did remove the prayers about communion, because he wanted to guard against the misunderstanding that communion was a way of sacrificing Christ again. 11  For Luther, communion is God’s gift to us, based on the sacrifice of Christ that was completed at the cross.  Luther made the sermon longer, so there would be time to educate the people about living by faith.  He brought back a prayer that had been used in the early church. It included a variety of topics, such as good weather, good government, and freedom from enemies, but people stopped saying this prayer during the Middle ages (because it was moved to the beginning of the service, and then gradually shortened until only the response, “Lord have Mercy, was left.)  Luther put this prayer back into the church service. In some worship books this prayer is called the ”general prayer,” and in others the “prayers of the people.” For the next few centuries, one difference between Protestants and Catholics was that in the Protestant services, the people participated in a service in their own language, but the Catholic service remained in Latin.  Finally in 1965 the Catholic Church changed that policy, so now the Catholic services also are in the language of the people, and the people take part in the singing.  We should ask ourselves, “am I making sure that the language and music of the service is appropriate to gain the participation and understanding of all the people?”

19.Suffering. Luther reminded us that suffering is normal for Christians.  Peter write that if we suffer, we should not be surprised11  To those who promised that Jesus would bring prosperity and good luck, Luther responded that their view is a mistaken “theology of glory.”  The truth lies in a “theology of the cross..” This means that just as God’s love was hidden in the sufferings of Jesus, in the same way, your faith may bring suffering, but God will carry out His purposes even in your suffering.


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1.The Roman Catholic teaching about  James 2:17 and 24  “Faith without works is dead,”  means that salvation is reached by “faith working through love.”  Catholics are urged to do the good works that must accompany faith; these works are listed in God’s law.  Luther’s approach to James would be to strengthen faith through the gospel, so that the works come about by themselves. (See Marshall The Catholic Perspective on Paul. page  54, which quotes Galatians 5:6, “Faith working through love.”)

2.The German word is  Evangelische (same meaning as English evangelical, which means the gospel church or “good-news” church. )

3) The Roman Catholic teaching is that the word “justified” means “made righteous,” while Luther took it to mean “declared righteous.” See Marshall op. cit. page 55 ) The terms used are: for catholics, “infused grace,”(page 11) and for Protestants, “imputed righteousness”  In Catholic teaching, “the sinner is transformed by Christ progressively until he becomes fully righteous (Marshall op. cit page 57) Whatever righteousness is lacking when we die is then taken care of during purgatory, until we have arrived at “the holiness without which no one can see the Lord.”  ( Hebrews 12:14 ).  Another way to explain this is the works we do are seen by Catholics as part of our justification, while Luther would class them as part of our sanctification, that is, the growth toward maturity by those who have already been justified.

4) Here is the reasoning behind the Catholic view of suffering after death:  Acts 26:20 speaks of repentance, and adds that people are to “bring forth works worthy of repentance.”  Those acts that prove the repentance was genuine might typically include making restitution,  giving gifts to the offended person, or an act of self-discipline, such as  saying a certain number of prayers. The term for these acts is “penance.” If the person dies before completing the penance, then it is to be completed after death, before entering heaven for Hebrews 12:23 speaks of the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  The idea of refinement after death is hinted at in 1 Corinthians 3:15, which speaks of people being saved, but only as through fire. This place after death where refining, and purging takes place appropriately is called purgatory. After the penances are completed, the person proceeds to eternal life with God. Inulgences are said to shorten the amount of time someone spends in purgatory.

5)  In 1380,  Wycliffe [wei kè lî fu] 威克里夫organized translating the Bible into English. Again, Starting in 1525, William Tyndale  丁道尔 (丁到爾)translated the Bible into English, and later English Bibles built on his work. Starting in 1807, Robert Morrisson马礼逊   馬礼遜translated the Bible into Chinese. The standard Chinese translation used today was made in 1919. To see hundreds of translations, go to

6)   信义 会  (信義會) xin yi hui.  Lutheran Church is also translated based on Luthers name: lu de hui  路德会  (路德會)

7) Selling these papers was not Catholic teaching, but was a common belief at the time, and was condemned by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (545-1563)

8) The Catholic Church believed that God had given it “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” and so it had the authority to provide indulgences, and it has the authority to let the good works of Jesus and all the saints be applied to people. (Treasury of Merits)

9)Hans Kung in a book on the papacy wonders whether the reformation could have been avoided if the pope had been as patient with Luther as pope Innocent III had been with Francis of Assisi, and simply allowed Luther to express his views.

10) Catholics today do not say that Christ is sacrificed again, but rahter that in communion Christ’s sacrifice is presented to God.

11) 1 Peter 4:12-14.