On October 31, 1517 a monk named Martin Luther posted a paper to a church’s door, and transformed the world. Of course, like many world-transforming events, no one at the time could have known this would happen, including Luther himself. He posted his ninety-five theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to start a theological debate, challenging the power of the pope to forgive sins and essentially sell salvation. Yet God used this man and this moment to spark a movement that led to what we now call the Protestant Reformation, the birth of Protestant denominations and churches throughout the world.
Even more significant for Christians today than Luther’s bold stand in Wittenberg were his doctrinal contributions that would soon follow. As the debate with the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church intensified, Luther’s study of Scripture led him to argue for the priority of Scripture over church tradition, the priesthood of all believers, and justification by faith alone. While these truths are all Scriptural and prevailed in the early church, by Luther’s time they had been largely forgotten and obscured by many church leaders. Luther’s insistence on these hallmarks of the biblical faith would lead to his break with Catholicism, the formation of Lutheranism, and numerous other cultural and church reforms that reverberate down to the present day.
Anyone interested in Christianity should become familiar with Martin Luther. While there have been hundreds of biographies published on Luther, Here I Stand, originally published in 1950, continues to be one of the best. Bainton combines a scholar’s accuracy and rigor with a novelist’s readability. The book contains dozens of illustrations, hundreds of direct quotes from Luther, and an extensive bibliography, but avoids footnotes and overly academic prose. Luther and his actions are continually placed in historical and cultural context for clearer understanding. The book offers many theological and historical insights without requiring a seminary degree to understand them.
Bainton begins his book with Luther’s vow to become a monk, emphasizing that the man who would one day reject monasticism and irrevocably change the Roman Catholic Church intended to spend his life as a servant of that Church. From there he works back into Luther’s childhood and then forward into his gospel experience, when he felt his heart “strangely warmed” upon reading Romans 1:16-17. This salvation experience was the decisive moment of Luther’s life. His fidelity to the Word of God and the gospel is what led him to post his ninety-five theses. His convictions led him to declare “here I stand” at the Diet of Worms in 1922, where he was condemned as a heretic for putting the Bible’s authority ahead of the church’s. Luther’s bold stand on the truth of the gospel also led him to translate the Bible into German so the average person could read it, and to write the theology, hymns (including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”), and catechisms that would become the foundation of Protestantism.
The book details the primary years of Luther’s ministry and then broadens to consider Luther’s impact on several areas such as politics, economics, and the church. It ends with a summary of Luther’s later years and an even-handed evaluation of his influence and legacy.
This coming year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and one of the ways we can appreciate what this pivotal moment in history has done for us today is by learning about Luther’s life, theology, and rediscovery of the gospel.