In the year 1483, Europe was just beginning to claw its way out from under the rubble, chaos, and ignorance which had resulted from the destruction of the Roman Empire a thousand years earlier. For when the Visigoths and other barbaric tribes from the north invaded Italy in 476 and attacked and all but destroyed the capital of the empire, Rome itself, western culture itself took a severe hit! Priceless art and splendid architecture was destroyed, centers of learning were wiped out, libraries were burned to the ground, Rome’s thriving economy lay in shambles, and the education of the people ground to a halt. There was no longer a centralized government to preserve law and order and to protect the people with its police powers; the court system had all but disappeared; and the “glory” that once characterized the seemingly invincible Roman Empire had vanished. And, even though the once heathen empire had become officially “Christianized” through the efforts of the Emperor Constantine the Great in about the year 300 A. D., and Christianity had begun to flourish once the organized persecutions which began under Nero (who executed Paul and Peter, as well as hundreds of others in the ‘60s) and continued for another two hundred years under even more cruel emperors finally ceased, the Roman Empire was scarcely what could be called a “Christian nation.”
The only power and stability left in the empire was manifested by the Christian church, which by 476 had already begun to consolidate itself under the leadership of a head other than Christ, namely, under the bishop of Rome, who had his own private army, who had dared to engage the Goths in battle and to chase them out of Rome, and who eventually succeeded in brokering an uneasy peace with them at the conference table. Thus, what had been the Roman Empire now soon became the Holy Roman Empire with the church as its administrator, legislator, judge, and ultimate authority. The church flourished, consolidated power, amassed wealth, and expanded its influence even over the kings and princes within its borders; and in the process it developed its hierarchical system into a political machine without equal in the annals of history which soon became the Roman Papacy. During those “dark ages” in Europe, the laity became poorer while the clergy became richer; the secular leaders ceded much of their control to the church, and the Papacy sought to seize ultimate power for itself. The ordinary lay people, trapped in a feudal system of domination by “lords” (who were in many cases, also bishops and archbishops of the church) — a system in which most were no better off than slaves, received no education and were basically illiterate, while the clergy preserved within the walls of their monasteries all the learning of western civilization. It was not only socially, economically, and intellectually “dark” from 500 to approximately 1500 A. D., but it was spiritually “dark” as well, with the church systematically and deliberately keeping its people “sit[ting] in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). They were bound, as with a chain, to an increasing burden of “the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), struggling to justify themselves by the Law (Galatians 2:16; 3:11) in the performance of satisfactions, penances, pilgrimages and crusades, and were completely isolated from the sweet Gospel (Ephesians 2:12) of justification by grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. Thus they were not only victims of the church establishment, but they were victims “having no hope” (Ephesians 2:12), having nothing better ever to expect, barring the intervention of God Himself!
It was into this world that Martin Luther was born in the year 1483. Light was just beginning to dawn in the secular world with the invention of moveable type and the mass produced printing of words (Johann Gutenberg, 1450), with voyages of exploration to new and strange “worlds” (Columbus and others, 1492), with the onset of scientific investigation and cunning inventions (Da Vinci and many more), and with a renaissance or new birth of learning, including the widespread education of the young. And, by God’s grace, light was also beginning to dawn upon the ecclesiastical world, as the dark and dank spiritual dungeon of the Papacy was forced to open its doors to the freedom enjoyed by Christians called by the Lord of His Church “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).
Yes, it was into this more hopeful world that the Lord caused Martin Luther to be born to his parents, Hans and Margarethe, on November 10, 1483, in the little Saxon village of Eisleben, destined by God’s grace to become a torchbearer of the light of the Gospel and a trumpeting Gideon for his people in the face of the Midianite scourge of Rome!
Baptized on the day after his birth — on November 11th, celebrated as St. Martin’s Day — the baby was named after that famous missionary; and when the family moved to the town of Mansfeld when he was still a baby, little Martin actually had the advantage of going to school there beginning at the age of five. Not all children received an education in those days; but his father, Hans, was very concerned about his children and even carried Martin to school when he was little. School was not fun in those days but was very rigorous and austere; and children were often whipped when they did not know their lessons. But little Martin worked hard, even learned Latin (in preparation for other academic studies later on), and became a good student. When he was fourteen, he was sent to a boarding school in Magdeburg some sixty miles from home where poorer children had to work to earn their keep. When he became sick, his father brought him home, but then sent him the next year to continue his studies at a high school in Eisenach, where Luther had some relatives who, it was hoped, would take him in and care for him. But when this did not occur, a kind lady named Ursula Cotta took Martin into her home and provided for him as though he were her own son.
After another three years, Martin was ready to attend college and began to study law at the university in Erfurt; and it was while a student there that, plagued by his sin and guilt before God and terrified of God’s justice, he sought to find comfort for his soul in the study of the Bible; but its teachings had been so perverted by the church of Rome that God’s grace in Christ Jesus was hidden from him. One day, after having almost been killed by a lightning strike, he vowed to become a monk and to sacrifice his life to the “the church” if St. Anna would only spare his life; and it was during the ensuing years in the Augustinian monastery that, in his study of the Scriptures, he learned to know of God’s gracious forgiveness for the sake of Christ’s merits, and that salvation by grace was his very own property and peace with God was its fruit and result by faith alone in God’s mercy — totally apart from the works of the Law (Romans 3:28). Thus, by the operation of the Holy Ghost through the precious Gospel, Luther’s real life began when he was restored to the saving faith that had been worked in him so many years earlier by the washing of Holy Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27).
As we commemorate Luther’s birth, let us give thanks to the God of all grace for giving us this champion of His truth to restore to souls benighted under the shroud of the Papacy “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).
Soli Deo gloria!
— D. T. M.