The Lutheran World Federation reports that there were more than 77 million Lutherans in the world, and 3.6 million in North America in 2019 (lutheranworld.org). However, it should be kept in mind that the Lutheran church is greatly divided. Not all Lutheran churches are members of the Lutheran World Federation. For example: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is the largest branch of the Lutheran church in America, is a member. Other churches, such as – The Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), are not. These two groups, if counted, would add between two and three millions. The country with the greatest numbers of Lutherans is Germany, almost 11 million (lutheranworld.org). “Lutheranism is the largest religious group in Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, and Namibia. Lutheranism is also a state religion in Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands” (The Lutheran Church -15 Facts to Know About Martin Luther, Lutheran History and Beliefs, christianity.com). In the U.S. the greatest concentration of Lutherans are in northern states. The states with the greatest percentage of Evangelical Lutherans are: North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin (thearda.com, 2010). Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod members find their greatest percentage in these states: Nebraska, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota (thearda.com, 2010). The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Top States by Percentage of Concentration are: Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska (thearda.com, 2010).
1. Sale of Indulgences What is an indulgence? Philip Schaff explains, “In the legal language of Rome, indulgentia is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment. In ecclesiastical Latin, an indulgence means the remission of the temporal (not the eternal) punishment of sin (not of sin itself) on condition of penitence and the payment of money to the church or to some charitable act… God forgives only the eternal punishment of sin, and he alone can do that; but the sinner has to bear the temporal punishments, either in this life or in purgatory; and these punishments are under control of the church or the priesthood, especially the Pope as its legitimate head. There are also works of supererogation performed by Christ and by the saints, with corresponding extra-merits and extra-rewards; and these constitute a rich treasury from which the Pope, as the treasurer, can dispense indulgences for money” (Philip Schaff, History of The Christian Church, Vol. 7, pp. 147-148). F.W. Mattox explains the theory this way, “The purchasing of an indulgence for a specific sum of money by one who had sinned enabled the Pope to draw on the ‘treasury of merits’ in heaven and apply the goodness of departed saints stored in this treasury to the sins of the penitent individual. One might even shorten the time of a departed friend in purgatory by purchasing an indulgence in his name” (F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, p. 220). This is the theory. It is based on works of merit. Some have laid up an excess of merit. The Pope can draw on this excess of merit for a price. The whole thing is foreign to scripture.
What is the origin of this? “The practice of indulgences grew out of a custom of the northern and western barbarians to substitute pecuniary compensation for punishment of an offense” (Schaff, vol. 7, p. 147).
When did the Roman Catholic Church begin to sell indulgences? “The first instance of such pecuniary compensations occurred in England under Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (d. 690). The practice rapidly spread on the Continent, and was used by the Popes during and after the crusades” (Schaff, vol. 7, p. 147).
The practice evolved over time. “The practice arose in connection with the crusades as enticement to enlist. The Pope granted full indulgences guaranteeing the remission of sins to anyone who would go on a crusade. During Martin Luther’s day the practice was revived and greatly exaggerated in an attempt to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. It was commonly stated by indulgence sellers that ‘as soon as a coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs’ (a slogan credited to Johann Tetzel, cf. Indulgence, britannica.com) …overly enthusiastic salesmen finally offered the forgiveness of sins not yet committed to those who would purchase an indulgence” (F.W. Mattox, pp. 220-221). There is an humorous story of a man who bought an indulgence from Johann Tetzel for a sin he had on his mind to commit. The man then robbed Tetzel. This was the sin that he had on his mind to commit (Philip Schaff, History of The Christian Church, vol. 6, p. 766).
2. Martin Luther (b. 1483-d. 1546). Martin Luther was a devoted Catholic for many years before becoming a reformer. In 1505, he became a monk, entering the monastery in Erfurt of the order of Hermit of St. Augustine. He had just completed a Master’s degree in (liberal) arts from the University of Erfurt. His father had expected him to enter law school. Instead, he decided to enter the monastery. His explanation for his decision was that he had made a vow to St. Anne (the patron saint of miners; note: his father was a copper miner) in the midst of a violent storm that if he survive he would become a monk. In 1507, he was ordained a priest. In 1510-1511, he traveled to Rome representing his monastery. In 1511, he began to preach in his monastery. In 1512, he earned his Doctor of Theology degree from the University of Wittenberg. He became a professor of Theology in this university soon after this. In 1514, he added the work of preaching in a local parish church in Wittenberg. In 1517, Luther was holding three jobs. He was teaching in the university. He was preaching in the parish church. He was an official in the Augustinian order, an inspector of monasteries.
However, concerns and inter-conflict was growing. “By the year 1508 he had come to the conclusion that the Catholic Church and its system of ‘work righteousness’ was contrary to the teaching of the New Testament” (F.W. Mattox, p. 244). In 1510, while visiting Rome, he “was shocked by the levity of the Roman clergy and by the worldliness so evident in high places” (Encyclopedia Britannica, © 1979, vol. 11, p. 189). Some of his parishioners began to purchase indulgences at a booth set up by Tetzel. This troubled him greatly.
On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the church building in Wittenberg (Note: the door served as a bulletin board). He offered to debate the issues with any who differed with him. On the same day, he preached a sermon against indulgences. He also sent a copy of the 95 Theses to Archbishop Albert Albrecht of Mainz, who was secretly profiting from indulgence sales. “Aided by the printing press, copies of the 95 Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe in two months” (Martin Luther, biography.com).
Here is a sampling on the 95 Theses: 21. Those who preach indulgences are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the Pope’s indulgences. 27. There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately the money clings at the bottom of the chest. 52. It is vain to rely on salvation by letters of Indulgence, even if the commissary, or indeed the Pope himself, were to pledge his own soul for their validity. 66. The treasures of the indulgences are the nets today which they use to fish for the wealth of men. 72. Let him be blessed who is on his guard against wantonness and license of the pardon – merchants words.
Luther was summoned to meet with Cardinal Thomas Cajetan in Augsburg. He did so in October, 1518. Luther was asked to retract his words and submit to the Pope. He refused.
A debate occurred in Leipzig in June – July 1519. Andreas Kalstadt and Martin Luther faced Johann Eck, a professor of Theology at the University of Ingolstadt. “Here for the first time he denied the divine right and origin of papacy, and the infallibility of a general council” (Schaff, vol. 7, p. 182).
In 1520, the Pope issued an ultimatum threatening excommunication. Luther publicly burned it on December 10, 1520. In January, 1521. Pope Leo X issued a bull of excommunication. It was issued against Luther and his supporters.
Luther was summoned by the Emperor, Charles V, to appear at the Diet of Worms. He was assured safe passage (Jan Hus or John Huss received such a promise but was burned at the stake). Luther appeared in April 1521. He declared, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by the testimony of scriptures or by clear arguments… I cannot and will not recant anything” (Schaff, vol. 7, p. 305). On May 8, 1521, the council released the Edict of Worms, banning Luther’s writing and convicting him as a heretic, which meant death.
Friends hid him in a castle at Wartburg. He grew a beard and dressed in disguise. He went by the name Junker Georg or Knight George. He did much writing, and began his work on a German translation of the Bible.
In 1525, he married Katharina Von Bora. She was a former nun (bio info, biography.com; history.com, britannica.com, Encyclopedia Britannica © 1979; Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian church, vol. 6 and 7; F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, Ryan Reeves’ YouTube channel Historical Theology For Everyone. He is an associate professor of historical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary).
3. Diet of Speier
In 1526, the Diet of Speier took place. “Most of the nobles were Lutheran, and they were able to decree that each German prince had the right to decide which religion would be supported in his principalities. Many princes immediately legalized the Reformation” (F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, p. 249). The Edict of Worms was temporarily suspended.
There would be continued struggles. For instance: In 1529, there was a second Diet of Speier. This time the Catholic nobility was in the majority. The decision of the first Diet of Speier was reversed. A formal Protestatic (Letter of Protestation) was submitted to the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (who had presided over the Diet for his brother Charles V) by the Lutheran minority. Those who protested were called “Protestants” (John Patrick Fogarty, Count Down To Unity, p. 55; F.W. Mattox, p. 250; The Lutheran Church, christianity.com).
The Emperor, Charles V, wanted to crush the Reformation. However, his attention was turned to other matters. The Turks were trying to invade through the Balkans. The Spanish were in rebellion. The French were in rebellion. He twice waged war against German Lutheran princes (Schmalkaldic League). In 1547, he was victorious. Allowances were given to Protestants temporarily pending the Council of Trent. In 1552-1555, the Lutherans princes were victorious being supported by French (Charles the Fifth, museeprotestant.org; Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, holyromanempireasscociation.com).
4. Peace terms
“In 1555 peace terms were drawn up in the Peace of Augsburg. This document stated that Lutheranism and Catholicism could both be tolerated in the Empire and that each Prince could decide which religion would be legal in his territory. It was further stated that if a citizen did not like the decision of his Prince he would move without loss of property and take up residence under the Prince he desired” (F.W. Mattox, p. 251). This was a great victory for freedom of religion.