About the Commemoration
Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony. He was baptized the following day, St. Martin’s feast day, and was given the name of that saint. His intellectual abilities were evident early, and his father, who was a miner, planned a career for him in law. After attending schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach, Luther at the age of eighteen entered the University of Erfurt, where he completed his master’s examination in 1505 and began the study of law. His real interest, however, lay elsewhere, and on July 17, 1505, he entered the local Augustinian friary. He was ordained priest April 3, 1507, and a month later celebrated his first mass in the presence of friends and his father, who had disapproved of his son’s entrance into the friary.
Luther had seen his first Latin Bible in the school at Magdeburg, and at the monastery, with the encouragement of his superiors, he continued his study of the Scriptures. He helped with the instruction of novices in the order and served as a teaching assistant in moral philosophy at the new University of Wittenberg. In 1510 he made a trip to Rome for the Augustinian order. There, like St. Francis and others before him, he was shocked by the laxity and worldliness of many of the clergy.
In October 1512 Luther received his doctorate in theology, and shortly afterward, he was installed as a professor of biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg. His lectures on the Bible were popular, and within a few years, he had made the university a center of biblical humanism. (When Luther died, Wittenberg was the largest university in Germany.) As a result of his theological and biblical studies he called into question the practice of selling indulgences (remissions of the punishment to be undergone in purgatory). On the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, he posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, as was the custom, the notice of an academic debate on indulgences, listing ninety-five theses for discussion. Luther’s theses spread rapidly throughout Germany and other parts of Europe. As the effects of the theses became evident, the pope called upon the Augustinian order to discipline their member. After a series of meetings, political maneuvers, and attempts at reconciliation, Luther, at a meeting with the papal legate in 1518, refused to recant, and in debate with John Eck, he was forced to admit that some of his views were not in accord with the official doctrines of the Church.
Up to this time Luther had attempted to reform the Church from within, but it was now clear that a break was inevitable, and on June 15, 1520, the pope issued a bull that gave Luther sixty days to recant. Many schools burned Luther’s books, and he retaliated by burning a copy of the papal bull and books of canon law. He was excommunicated on January 3, 1521, and Emperor Charles V summoned him to the meeting of the Imperial Diet at Worms. There Luther resisted all efforts to make him recant, insisting that he had to be proved in error on the basis of Scripture. The Diet was divided in its judgment, but it finally passed an edict calling for the arrest of Luther. Luther’s own prince, the Elector Frederick of Saxony, had him spirited away and placed for safekeeping in his castle, the Wartburg.
Here Luther translated the New Testament into German and began the translation of the Old Testament. In March 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg against the wishes of the prince in order to settle the disturbed situation of the churches there, which were under the disruptive leadership of Andreas von Karlstadt. Luther preached a series of eight famous sermons in which he restored order to the community and set the lines of the Reformation.
He then turned his attention to the organization of worship and education. He introduced the congregational singing of hymns, composing many himself, and he issued model orders of worship in Latin (Formula Missae 1523) and, for more general use, in German (Deutsche Messe 1526). In 1529 he published his large and small catechisms for instruction in the faith and also a series of sermons. During the years from 1522 to his death, Luther wrote a prodigious quantity of books, letters, sermons, and pamphlets. The American Edition of his works is fifty-five large volumes, and that does not include everything extant that he wrote.
On June 13, 1525, when he was forty-two, Luther married Katherine von Bora, one of a number of nuns rescued from the cloister of Nimbschen in 1523 because of their evangelical persuasion (see December 20). The couple had six children.
In 1546 Luther was called to Eisleben to mediate a family quarrel among the princes of Mansfeld, and after resolving the quarrel, Luther died there in the town of his birth on February 18. Thousands of people came to the service for the great reformer, and his body was interred in the Castle Church in Wittenberg on February 22.
Lutherans have named many churches, colleges, and societies after Luther. There are monuments to Luther in many cities; the most famous is the one a Worms in which Luther rests his hand on the Bible and is surrounded by likenesses of earlier reformers and his protectors and friends.
Events in Luther’s life have been commemorated on various dates. The anniversary of the posting of the ninety-five theses has become on Lutheran calendars the Festival of the Reformation, and it is also observed by other Christian churches. Many Lutheran communities have remembered Luther on the day of his death; on the centennial in 1646 the day was observed particularly in Wittenberg and Erfurt, and later the observance became more widespread.
The commemoration of Martin Luther is included on the calendar in the Methodist For All the Saints (1995) and was added to the Episcopal (Anglican) calendar in Fesser Feasts and Fasts 1997. He is remembered on the 1997 calendar of the Church of England, the Christian Year, on October 31.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Martin Luther
From Luther’s Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings (Wittenberg, 1545)
I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary” ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in chapter 1 [:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punished the unrighteous sinner.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, I hated the righteousness of God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly muttering greatly, I was angry with God and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely, by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
And I extolled my sweet word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly that gate to Paradise.
Luther’s Works 34, Career of the Reformer IV, ed. Lewis W. Spitz, trans. Lewis W. Spitz, Sr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 336-37.
Almighty God, through the preaching of your servants, the blessed Reformers, you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine forth: Grant, we pray, that, knowing its saving power, we may faithfully guard and defend it against all enemies, and joyfully proclaim it, to the salvation of souls and the glory of your holy Name; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
CSB, SBH, Reformation Day
God, our refuge and our strength: You raised up your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew your Church in the light of your Word. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that, through faith, we may boldly proclaim the riches of your grace which you have made known in Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and forever.
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-11; Psalm 16 or 46; Revelation 14:6-7 or Galatians 2:16-21; John 2:13-17 or 15:1-11
Hymn of the Day: “Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word” (LBW 230, LSB 655, ELW 517)
Prayers: For the continual cleansing of the church; For an ever-new discovery of the good news of God; For the unity of the church.
Preface: Trinity Sunday (BCP)