Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Martin Luther

Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Martin Luther

Martin Luther is famous for posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg and for attempting to reform the Catholic Church, but what exactly did he believe, and what else did he contribute to Christendom? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther—and why he still matters today.

Who Was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was born in Eisleben, Germany, just as the Middle Ages were coming to an end. His plan was to become a lawyer, but while experiencing the terror of being caught in a thunderstorm, he vowed to become a Catholic monk if St. Anne would rescue him. Serving as an Augustinian friar and priest, Luther was often insecure about whether God would truly forgive him. He wondered whether he could ever be assured of salvation by following the church’s practices of confession, repentance, and performing good works. In order to encourage him, a spiritual advisor counseled him to study Scripture. It was his biblical studies and his discovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith that led him to protest certain medieval Catholic beliefs and practices and subsequently birth the Protestant Reformation. He became the greatest theologian of what would become the third major branch of Christendom—Protestantism. Martin Luther’s words and actions changed Christendom and thus Western civilization forever.

What Did Martin Luther Write?

Luther was a truly prolific author, but perhaps his two most important books are The Bondage of the Will and his Catechism. The first is considered a theological masterpiece in which Luther responds in debate to theologian Desiderius Erasmus on the topic of the freedom of the human will in salvation. The second book, which includes both his Large Catechism and Small Catechism, summarizes the faith and contains specific discussions of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

What Did Martin Luther Believe?

Christians of various traditions continue to defend several of Martin Luther’s beliefs. Martin Luther’s three most important theological ideas reflect the truths of the Protestant Reformation:

  1. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone): Salvation comes solely by the grace (unmerited favor) of the Triune God and not by human works.
  2. Sola Fide (Faith Alone): Salvation comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, apart from human good works.
  3. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone): Scripture is the final authority in justifying belief and practice for the corporate church and for the individual Christian believer.

Why Does Martin Luther Matter Today?

Martin Luther is criticized today for the controversial and condemnatory statements he made about the Jews of his time. Though to provide some context, Luther’s unfortunate words came near the end of his life when he was quite ill and emotionally unsettled. Yet Martin Luther is considered one of the greatest Christian theologians and one of the most influential people in Christian church history. As the father of the Protestant Reformation, he rediscovered and transformed many Christian beliefs and left an enduring mark on the world. He is buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany—the church on which he nailed his 95 Theses, sparking the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Evangelical Christians today are deeply influenced by Luther’s beliefs about salvation by grace and by his conviction that Scripture is the believer’s supreme authority. In fact, to understand the ethos of Protestantism, one must study the life and doctrinal beliefs of Martin Luther.

Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. AugustineC. S. LewisBlaise PascalSt. AnselmSt. AthanasiusSt. Thomas AquinasJonathan EdwardsSøren KierkegaardSt. BonaventureJohn CalvinIrenaeusTertullianSt. BasilSt. JeromeJustin MartyrWalter MartinRonald NashMortimer Adler

Reflections: Your Turn

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  • For an outstanding biography of Luther, read Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton.
  • A defense of some of Martin Luther’s more controversial statements is found in In Defense of Martin Luther by John Warwick Montgomery.
  • I highly recommend the 2003 film Luther in which Martin Luther is portrayed by actor Joseph Fiennes.