Written by: Ted Vial
Lutheranism began in the early 16th century with the efforts of a Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), to reform certain practices of the Catholic Church.Despite later developments, Luther initially aspired to renew Catholicism, not abandon it. His reformation was perhaps the most conservative of all Protestant reform movements (the other being Catholic streams within the Anglican reformation), retaining when possible many elements of Roman Catholicism.
Luther had entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany in 1505 because he was afraid for his own salvation, and he believed monasteries were the safest places to avoid sin and try to please God.While there the leader of his order, Johan von Staupitz, recognized his intellectual gifts and had him train as a biblical scholar and theologian.
Medieval Roman Catholic theology taught that everyone had to work off the offense caused to God for sin to enter heaven.God was angry about sin, and those who were not pure either were punished in hell, or, if they had made good progress on the path to sanctification but had not yet completed it, could burn away or purge remaining sin in purgatory before facing God's judgment.
Purgatory was thought to be much like hell, except it had an end point.Because finite humans, even if very good, could not perform works that merited the infinite gift of eternal life, human works had to be amplified or augmented by divine grace to merit sanctification.This extra grace was especially present in the sacraments, seven rituals among the many church rituals set aside as special occasions of grace: baptism, confirmation, confession, the Lord's Supper, marriage, ordination into the priesthood, and last rites or extreme unction (now known as anointing the sick).
Luther began to question these teachings on the need to perform meritorious works to get to heaven.After finishing his studies he became a professor at the nearby University of Wittenberg.Preparing a lecture for his students on Paul's Letter to the Romans, Luther had an insight.He realized that the original Greek of Romans 1:17 could mean "The one who is righteous will live by faith," as the Catholic Church taught.In other words, those who are good (meritorious) will have faith.But it could also mean "The one who is righteous by faith will live."In other words, it is the gift of faith from God that makes one righteous.For Luther, frightened about his salvation and never sure he was doing enough, the idea that it was not up to him but up to God came as a great relief.
The immediate cause of Luther's split with the Roman Catholic Church was a controversy over indulgences.Indulgences were legitimate parts of the sacrament of confession, but were subject to abuse.Confession has three parts: 1) contrition (you have to be sorry for your sin); 2) absolution (the priest as mediator distributes Christ's forgiveness); and 3) works of satisfaction (to repay the offense caused by sin).These works vary depending on the nature of the offense, from a few prayers ("Hail Marys" for example) to fasting to a pilgrimage.One possible work is a financial contribution to the church.This is an indulgence.