What was Luther's message?
Luther had many messages. When Luther wrote, he wrote about specific issues or
problems. But he had one over-arching message. And that one message, he put
in his pamphlets, he put in his longer treatises, he put in his hymns. And
that was: Christ died for you. If you can believe and have faith, you are
saved. There's nothing that you can do on your own to be saved. In fact, even
believing is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But if you believe, you are saved.
And all the paraphernalia of the Catholic Church of the time, where you could
help and cooperate in your salvation, made no sense any more. ...
Martin Luther's criticism of the Church initially was that the Church was
sending the wrong message, that the Church was ... giving to people the sense
that they could save themselves by using the various things the Church offered,
including indulgences. And the proper message was: No, you couldn't do that.
In order to be saved, you had to leave it to Christ, and you had to simply
cling to what Christ had done for you. That was his original complaint with
the Church. But when the Church did not listen, he came reluctantly to the
conclusion that the Church, especially the office of the papacy, was the
Antichrist, and that what it was doing was deliberate. It was the devil's
attempt to subvert, to submerge the good news, the gospel. The devil was
working within the Church. And once he was convinced that that was happening,
the papal office was the office of the Antichrist, and he saw the end time
What were indulgences?
Indulgences were a means to spend less time in Purgatory. ... This was a time
when the worry was not you're going to hell, but you're going to spend a long
time in Purgatory. And so if you were able to purchase an indulgence, you
could get out of Purgatory. [Indulgences] also were extraordinarily important
for the papacy, because next to its own lands which it owned (and it was a
large state), its major source of income was indulgences. ... The papacy during
this time was building St. Peter's. ... Indulgences were used really for two
things: major building projects, and to finance wars.
What did Martin Luther think of indulgences? What was his gripe?...
certificate of indulgence
The issue of the indulgence raised the question: How was someone saved? Was
someone saved by what they did, or what the Church did for them? Or were they
saved because of what Christ had done (die on the cross)? And so that was the
issue that was at stake. And for Luther, the most important thing was
to realize that Christ had died for you and you were saved by that death, not
by anything that you did or anything the Church did, but only by what Christ
had done. And you had to accept that gift in faith.
So what did Luther set out to do?
Luther set out to reform the Church, to bring it back to what he saw as its
proper mooring. The Church, as the institutional Church, saw him instead as a
great threat to their income and a heretic teaching things that they had not
taught, and which they saw undermined the Church, both in its spiritual form
but also in its financial and political form.
Coincidentally at this time, the printing press comes into play.
The printing press is discovered and put into action in 1450. ... Luther would
have just been one more reformer in a small area if it had not been for the
printing press. But thanks to the printing press, Martin Luther became the
bestseller throughout the empire. He out-published all of his Catholic
opponents. ... He discovered the power of the press in ways that no one else
had used it up to that point: everything from woodcuts being used in a
polemical way, ditties and rhymes. He mastered this new medium; he used it to
spread and turn what would have been a local affair into an international
Martin Luther first published in Latin, which was the language of the learned.
But then he began publishing in German. And he was extraordinarily successful.
He found his own voice. And the voice was the voice of the people. He later
talked about how he listened to the way the people spoke, so he could use their
language and not the elevated language of princes. He deliberately picked a
German that could be understood by more people than any other form of German.
And he used this German in an extraordinarily effective way. ...
Why does Luther choose to translate the Bible into vernacular German?
Luther chose to translate the Bible into vernacular German because he believed
the common people needed to hear the scripture. The watchword in the early
Reformation, even more important to other Protestants to Luther himself, was
"scripture alone." Scripture was the only source. It was not the Pope making
up his mind. It was not a church council. It was the scripture. And
individual believers needed to read the scripture and see what the truth was
for themselves. ...
What was the effect for Luther of putting the Bible in people's
When Luther translated the New Testament and ultimately the whole Bible into
German, he wanted to make it available first to preachers and to those who
could read, and then secondarily to everyone else. He thought that if the
Bible was made available in the vernacular, with the assistance of his forwards
and his marginal comments, everyone would read it the same way he did. The
irony is, of course, they didn't. Within even a few months, people were
reading it differently. Luther had released a genie. And once the genie was
out of the bottle, Luther, try as he might, couldn't get the genie back in
Where did put the Book of Revelation in his Bible?
When Martin Luther first translated and published the New Testament, he thought
that Revelation should not have the same status or authority as the gospels or
the letters of Paul or Peter. And so he put it at the end, but he didn't
number it. He didn't put a "saint" in front of [John's] name. He thought it was
an edifying book, but not of the same status. But what's interesting, even
though he felt that way, it's the one book that he illustrated, where he put
woodcuts, because Revelation allowed him to make one of his central points,
which was that the papacy was the Antichrist, and the end of the world
was coming. And so there you see the only woodcuts in the New Testament. You
see the whore of Babylon wearing a papal crown. You see the seven-headed beast
wearing a papal crown. The message was clear. You didn't have to read (as
most people didn't). You got the message. The papacy, the papal office--not
the individual popes but the papal Church--was where Satan was working to
undermine Christendom. And the fact that Satan was there meant the world was
coming to an end soon. ...
Was Luther conflicted about Revelation? Was he uncomfortable with the
When Luther began, he was uncomfortable with the Book of Revelation. But as
the Reformation went on and more and more opponents sprang up, he had
difficulty, he became more and more interested in Revelation. And later in his
life, he took it with the utmost seriousness, and even tried to figure out all
the symbolism in it, to determine when the end of the world was going to come.
How much did Luther think he was living in the end times?
Luther thought he was living in the end times. And that belief, that
conviction, was central to almost all that he did. Because his understanding
of scripture and the way he preached from the pulpit and what he wrote was
colored by the notion that the biblical story was also his story, and that what
was happening to him could be used to understand the story in the Bible, but
what was happening in the Bible could be used to explain what was going on in
his own day. And Revelation was the key to this. It was the symbolic story
that tells you how the whole thing is going to end. ...
What was Luther's attitude toward the Jews?
Martin Luther, when he put his whole world into the context of the biblical
story, identified many different enemies. And one of the enemies were the
Jews, the Jews of his own time. Now, the Jews of the Old Testament were
heroes, but the Jews of his time were an example of a people who rejected the
Messiah and therefore suffered under God's wrath. They too had a role to play,
a very unhappy role to play. And Luther's apocalyptic vision and the vision of
their role--it was broadly shared by both Catholics and Protestants--justified
the mistreatment of Jews during this period. ...
How does Luther come to think of the pope as the Antichrist?
Luther came to think of the pope as the Antichrist because, first, of what the
general tradition was about where to find the Antichrist. The Antichrist was
someone subverting the Church from within. That was the expectation popularly.
And when he saw the papal office and read the histories and saw it subverting
the gospel as he understood it, he became convinced that that was the proof
that the papal office was the office of the Antichrist, trying to destroy God's
church from within.
The pope claimed to be Christ's representative on earth. Luther became
convinced that the pope was the devil's representative on earth. And that took
graphic form very early in the Reformation ... with one of the most effective
pieces of propaganda in the early Reformation: a series of 26 woodcuts that
juxtaposed some action in Christ's life with something in the papacy. Christ
carrying his cross to be crucified; the pope being carried in his throne on the
backs of people ... . Christ washing the feet of the disciples; the pope
having his feet kissed. And over and over again, scenes from Christ's life
juxtaposed with scenes from the papacy. ... Christ was always humble and
serving; the papacy, the pope was always lordly and [lording] over others.
Christ is Christ; the pope is Antichrist.
At the end of his life, Martin Luther decided he had to issue his final
testament against all the enemies of the gospel. And he published treatises,
he encouraged people, but words were not sufficient. He also had to use
images. And so he asked his friend, the painter Lucas Cranach, to do a series
of woodcuts, and Luther wrote the verses for them. And these woodcuts were
designed to show as graphically as possible, to those who could read and those
who couldn't, what Luther thought of the papacy. So for example, there's a
woodcut which shows the pope on his throne and peasants with their tongues out,
their trousers down, farting in the pope's face. Another one shows the pope
riding an ass, holding a pile of dung in his hands, saying "The pope is
offering a counsel." And another that shows the German emperor lying on the
ground with the pope with his foot on the emperor's neck, which shows, once
again graphically, Luther's belief that the papacy was trying to control
secular authority throughout the world. These were all actions of the
Antichrist, and Luther wanted to make it clear what he thought of the pope.
woodcuts comparing christ and antichrist
These were the pictures of a very angry man, who saw himself as a soldier in
that final climactic battle at the end of the world. And he had to strike with
every means at his disposal. If he pulled back at all, he was like a soldier
in a battle between light and darkness, who withheld his punches. And so
Luther did not hold back. He went with all that he had, attacking Satan and
the Antichrist before he died. ...
book of revelation ·
primary sources ·
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