A church in need of reform

Long before Luther's birth, in the latter part of the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church was in need of thorough reform. There were many abuses and problems:

The Church no longer based its beliefs on the Bible alone. It invented doctrines and practices that Jesus and his apostles never taught.

  • Popes involved in secular affairs, less concerned with spiritual matters.

  • Doctrine of purgatory, a mythical place where souls resided until purified to enter heaven.

  • Devotion to Mary (Cult of Mary; Mariology).

  • Intercession of and devotion to saints.

  • Mandatory celibacy of the clergy (including monasticism).

  • Absolute authority of the Pope; he alone could interpret the Bible.

  • Insatiable desire of popes, archbishops and bishops for money to finance wars and their expensive lifestyles.

Church leaders liked things the way they were and held the people in ignorance and superstition. They tried to stop Luther. But, he stood his ground. He marveled that his stand of conscience turned him into one of the most-talked-about people of his time.
Yet his tireless work led not only to church reform, it changed the course of Western history.

I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. - Martin Luther at his second hearing before the Diet of Worms

Not the first to attempt reform

Martin Luther was not the first to see a need for reform. Others before him Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus struck the spark and fanned the coals. Luther ignited a wildfire that could not be doused.

1184 (299 years before Martin Luther’s birth) - The Waldensians, followers of Peter Waldo or Valdo or Pierre de Vaux (died 1218), were itinerant preachers. They adopted the rule of true poverty, public preaching and literal interpretation of scripture, translated the Bible into the people’s language and took a stand against worship of images, pilgrimages and indulgences.

Statue of Peter Waldo

Declared heretical, the Waldensians were brutally persecuted and almost destroyed. In 1211, more than eighty were burned as heretics in Strasbourg.

The Waldensian church survives to this day in Italy, United States, South America and Germany and is a member of the World Council of Churches.

1384 (99 years before Martin Luther’s birth) - Wycliffe Bible appeared, the first translation of scripture into English. It was translated from Jerome’s Latin “Vulgate,” not from the original Hebrew and Greek, and wasn’t totally accurate. But, John Wycliffe (1329-84) was determined that everyone should read the Bible in their own language.

John Wycliffe

1415 (68 years before Martin Luther’s birth) - Jan Hus or Huss (1369-1415), a priest in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), denounced abuses in the Catholic Church. Influenced by John Wycliffe, he spoke against withholding the cup from the people at communion and preached against indulgences, particularly the sale of indulgences issued by John XXIII (in Avignon) to finance his campaign against his rival Gregory XII (in Rome). Hus was provided an opportunity to present his ideas at the Council of Constance. Despite a promise of safe conduct from the kings of Hungary and Bohemia. he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.

Jan Hus

In Czech, Hus means “goose.”  As Hus burned at the sake, the idiom “Hus is cooked” (or, the “goose is cooked”) was coined. Among Hus’ alleged last words: “in a hundred years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.”

Luther's Early years>>