Luther’s letter to his senior, Johann von Staupitz, on why he wrote the 95 Theses

Tranformation (metanoia), in Luther’s own words, was at the heart of what was wrong with indulgences. As we know, he made repentance the basis for the Christian life, that is, the Christian’s daily conversion, in the 1st thesis: 

Dominus et magister noster Iesus Christus dicendo, ‘Penitentiam agite etc.’ omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit                                                                                                                  (When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance).

Since indulgences led to an improper understanding of repentance, Luther said they had absolutely no value.

Luther’s letter to von Staupitz on why he wrote the 95 Theses:

“Poenitentia (or metanoia), therefore, means coming to one’s right mind and a comprehension of one’s own evil after one has accepted the damage and recognized the error. This is impossible without a change in one’s disposition and [the object of one’s] love. All these definitions agree so well with Pauline theology that, at least in my opinion, almost nothing could illustrate Paul’s theology better than the way they do.
Then I progressed further and saw that metanoia could be understood as a composite not only of “afterward” and “mind,” but also of the [prefix] “trans” and “mind” (although this may of course be a forced interpretation), so that metanoia could mean the transformation of one’s mind and disposition. Yet it seemed to express not only the actual change of disposition but also the way by which this change is accomplished, that is, the grace of God. Such transition of the mind, that is, the most true poenitentia, is found very frequently in Holy Scripture: the old Passover foreshadowed it, and Christ made it a reality…
Continuing this line of reasoning, I became so bold as to believe that they were wrong who attributed so much to penitential works that they left us hardly anything of poenitentia, except some trivial satisfactions on the one hand and a most laborious confession on the other. It is evident that they were misled by the Latin term, because the expression poenitentiam agere suggests more an action than a change in disposition; and in no way does this do justice to the Greek metanoein.
While this thought was still agitating me, behold, suddenly around us the new war trumpets of indulgences and the bugles of pardon started to sound, even to blast, but they failed to evoke in us any prompt zeal for the battle. In short, while the doctrine of the true poenitentia was neglected, they even dared to magnify not poenitentia—not even its least important part, which is called satisfaction —but only the remission of this least important part, so that one has never heard of a similar “glorification” of poenitentia. Finally they taught impious, false, and heretical things with so much authority—temerity, I wanted to say—that if anyone muttered anything in protest he was immediately a heretic destined for the stake and guilty of eternal damnation.
Since I was not able to counteract the furor of these men, I determined modestly to take issue with them and to pronounce their teachings as open to doubt. I relied on the judgment of all the doctors and of the whole church that it is better to perform the satisfactions than to have them remitted by buying indulgences. There is no one who has ever taught differently. This is why I entered the disputation; that is, I have provoked all the people, the great, the average, the mediocre, to hate me thoroughly, at least as much as could be engineered and accomplished by these men who have such great zeal for money (oh, no, I should have said for souls!). Since these “lovely” people cannot refute what I have said, they arm themselves with the greatest cunning and pretend that I violated papal authority by my theses.
This is the reason, Reverend Father, why I now, unfortunately, step out into public view. I have always loved privacy and would much prefer to watch the splendid performance of the gifted people of our age than become a part of the show and be ridiculed…
And so I am asking you to receive this poor writing of mine and to forward it with whatever speed is available to you to our excellent Pope Leo X, so that it may serve me there as an advocate, so to speak, in the face of the contrivings of the evilminded. I ask this not because I want to get you involved in my danger; I prefer to take all the risk myself. Christ will know whether my words are his or my own. Without Christ’s command not even a pope can speak, nor is the heart of a king in his own hand. This Christ is the judge whose verdict I am awaiting through the Roman See…It is enough for me to have the dear Savior and Redeemer, my Lord Jesus Christ. I shall sing praise to him as long as I live. What do I care if someone does not want to join me in this hymn of praise? He may howl, even all by himself, if he wishes to do so.

“Then look to Christ”: Johann Von Staupitz and Martin Luther



staupitz and luther


The Vicar of the Augustinian order to which Martin Luther belonged, Johann von Staupitz, acted as Luther’s confessor. Luther said that had it not been for von Staupitz, “I should have sunk to hell.”  Indeed, had it not been for the intervention of his confessor, von Staupitz, we would perhaps not have known the spirituality of Martin Luther at all.  He would not have been a famous reformer, but instead an embittered monk with a completely unremarkable life. 


“You know, in two years I’ve never heard you confess anything remotely interesting.”          

“I live in terror of judgment.”

“And you think self-hatred will save you?”  

“Have you ever dared to think that God is not just? He has us born tainted by sin, then He’s angry with us all our lives for our faults, this righteous Judge…who damns us…threatening us with the fires of hell. I know, I know. I’m evil to think it.”      

“You’re not evil. You just don’t see it. God isn’t angry with you, Martin. It’s you that is angry. You are angry with God.”          

“I wish there were no God!”                

“Martin, what is it you seek?”             

“A merciful God. A God whom I can love. A God who loves.”         

“Then look to Christ. Bind yourself to Christ, and you will know God’s love. Say to Him, ‘I am yours. Save me.”              

“I am yours? Save me?”

“I am yours. Save me.”             

“I am yours. Save me.”


The above is for educational purposes only.

Martin Luther’s ‘Tower Experience’

I saw the whole

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

Martin Luther, an excerpt from the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545), his explanation of his ‘discovery’ of justification by grace through faith (which is referred to as his “Tower Experience”).

Concerning Christian Liberty by Martin Luther


“Thus from faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbour voluntarily, without taking any account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss. Its object is not to lay men under obligations, nor does it distinguish between friends and enemies, or look to gratitude or ingratitude, but most freely and willingly spends itself and its goods, whether it loses them through ingratitude, or gains goodwill. For thus did its Father, distributing all things to all men abundantly and freely, making His sun to rise upon the just and the unjust. Thus, too, the child does and endures nothing except from the free joy with which it delights through Christ in God, the Giver of such great gifts.”

-Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty

What is True Prayer? Pray on Purpose!

Lutherrose746What is True Prayer? Pray on Purpose!

Martin Luther wrote instructions on prayer in general in his Large Catechism concerning the Lord’s Prayer. It is good to take a moment to reflect on this wisdom when it comes time to pray. His word’s are true no matter where you are or whatever you are doing.

When reading Luther we notice that Jesus is always there and so is the Father.  This is true whether we are reading Luther’s commentaries, letters, apologetics or catechisms.

Luther holds up the Lord’s Prayer as a model prayer containing the range of our needs. We commend this whole section of the Large Catechism to you, especially if you haven’t read it recently, and we take this opportunity to highlight one thing: Real prayer is really praying for what we really need.

Luther notes that God wishes to draw us to Himself so we can humble ourselves before Him, lament our misery and pray for grace and help. God does not regard prayer on account of the person who is praying, but rather on account of His own Word. Therefore God hears all of our prayers the same as if St. Paul himself is praying. What matters is that we trust God’s Word that commands us to pray for what we truly need and also that we trust He is listening. When we trust God for our needs, we begin to humbly share with our families and the world what we know they need.

Luther gives an example: He asks us would we would think if the Emperor told a beggar he would give him whatever he asked for and the beggar answered by merely asking for a bowl of broth. Not only would we think the beggar to be a fool, but we would come to the conclusion that he was actually showing disrespect to his lord. Luther goes on to say the following about how we should pray:  “Where there is true prayer there must be earnestness, we must feel our need, the distress that impels and drives us to cry out. Then prayer will come spontaneously, as it should, and we will not need to be taught how to prepare for it or how to generate devotion.”

Luther reminds us that just as Jesus came to forgive real sin, so we should also offer real prayer. Give your laments to God – all of them – and give Him all your praise.  Our need has often been great, but so has been our Lord’s supply.  In our prayers we thank God for people like you who not only listen to God’s Word, but who also share your blessings with us and with others.

Preach Christ as one who will reject nobody, however weak they may be, but will gladly receive and comfort and strengthen everybody. -Martin Luther


Therefore, we should so preach Christ as one who will reject nobody, however weak he may be, but will gladly receive and comfort and strengthen everybody; that we may always picture him to ourselves as a good shepherd. Then hearts will turn to him of their own accord, and need not be forced and driven. The Gospel graciously invites and makes men willing, so that they desire to go, and do go, to him with all confidence. And it begets a love for Christ in their hearts, so that they willingly do what they should, whereas formerly they had to be driven and forced. When we are driven, we do a thing with displeasure and against our will. That is not what God desires; therefore it is done in vain. But when I see that God deals with me graciously, he wins my heart, so that I am constrained to fly to him; consequently, my heart is filled with happiness and joy.
-Martin Luther, sermon on John 10, Church Postils, 1523.

He sends forth the Word publicly so that all may hear it, that the heart experiences it, that through faith is wrought by Christ in secret

LutherGimbrett_EgliseProt_24 (2)


“Hence, all that we preachers can do is to become the mouthpieces and instruments of Christ our Lord, through whom he proclaims the Word bodily. He sends forth the Word publicly so that all may hear it, but that the heart inwardly experiences it, that is effected through faith and is wrought by Christ in secret where he perceives that it can be done according to his divine knowledge and pleasure. That is why he says: “I am the good shepherd.” And what is a good shepherd? “The good shepherd,” says Christ, “layeth down his life for the sheep; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In this one virtue the Lord comprehends and exemplifies all others in the beautiful parable of the sheep. Sheep, you know, are most foolish and stupid animals. When we want to speak of anybody’s stupidity we say, “He is a sheep.” Nevertheless, it has this trait above all other animals, that it soon learns to heed its shepherd’s voice and will follow no one but its shepherd, and though it cannot help and keep and heal itself, nor guard itself against the wolf, but is dependent upon others, yet it always knows enough to keep close to its shepherd and look to him for help.”
-Martin Luther, sermon on John 10, Church Postils, 1523.

Martin Luther and the Mission of God: Why All Christians Are Missionaries


Missio Dei (The Mission of God), Martin Luther, and Why All Believers Are Missionaries
by Rev. Eric Jonas Swensson

“Even those who are sent do not know themselves how they got there.”
Martin Luther (WA 24:262)

Very early in my graduate studies in theology the professor teaching the class on methodology told me to read  a certain book by Gustav Warnecke. Seems that since I was a Lutheran I needed to be put wise to the fact that Martin Luther was totally confused about mission. Naive church-historian-to-be that I was, I took this for fact. Only later did I learn that the professor and Warnecke did not understand Luther and his methodology of mission. Those who think Luther was not in the business of making missionaries are wrong.

If Lutherans follow the lead of their namesake they understand world mission not as a separate category of church work. Mission comes out of every church that has been planted. It is not so much that certain individuals have the gift of evangelism or an inner call to become a missionary (they do), rather  we should all understand mission is always pre-eminently the work of the triune God (missio Dei) and all believers are supposed to share the Gospel. Luther was misunderstood by scholars to have said that the Gospel had already gone out to all the world and so was not terribly interested in “foreign missions”. Such was not the case. In fact, this misunderstanding perhaps sheds light on another: Luther probably would not have foreseen a special order of missionaries because he in fact assumes that all believers are at the disposal of God to convey the word of salvation. All of us.

When we rightly understand what Luther said and kept saying, we also see how simple it is to be involved. Believers are to participate in the missio Dei. The Word evangelizes. God does the mission. We have opportunities to participate. God arranges and God performs. It is always God’s own mission that dominates Luther’s thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God is what is always on his horizon. We are drawn into it.

Therefore, Martin Luther was hands down the most effective missionary of the 16th century. How could Luther be greater than his contemporary, Francis Xavier? Luther never drew up a missions plan; Vavier founded a missionary order. Luther never set foot outside of his native land (besides that one trip to Rome he made as a monk); Xavier journeyed to India, Japan and Borneo. Stated simply, Luther was one of the greatest missionaries of all time because, as he said, “I let the word do the work.” What Martin Luther was able to do was to get out of the way so that believers could see that it is God that does mission.

I did not come to this discovery on my own. There have been a number of Lutheran theologians and  missiologists who have been pointing this out in recent years. Richard Bliese wrote a chapter that appears in a report from Aarhus University ten years ago that names Holl, Holsten, Gensichen, Elert, Scherer, Bunkowske and others as having identified “the missionary thrust of the Reformers’ theology.”  Eugene Bunkowske has two articles that make a convincing argument, therefore it should be understood that everything said from here on is based on his work. It is self-evident that no matter how well a thing is said, one judges a tree by the fruit. Let’s look at Luther and his contribution to missiology using the eight points Bunkowske lays out as “Luther’s Methods” in an article already referenced.

  • Spontaneous

  • Biblically Based

  • Prayer: A Priority

  • Sacramental

  • People Oriented

  • Student Centered

  • Teaching Focused

  • Indigenously Directed

Let us now consider each briefly and then draw some conclusions about the benefits.

Spontaneity We, of course, like being spontaneous (as long as we don’t make fools of ourselves). However, we are not the starting point; God is. We want to get out of the way and let God be God. Instead of trying to put God in a box, we need God to get us out of being boxed in! Luther said that faith was a lively thing, therefore our approach to mission is exegetical. We turn to Scripture for our first steps and then use the Word to keep us in step. We start with the Word of God, rather than human need or church growth or any other thing. God said “Go” and Abram went, and so on and so on. However, the key here is proclamation. We learn about God and the missio Dei from the Word proclaimed. Mission therefore is nothing but the Word embodied by the believers. We hear and are sent. We learn and we enact.

Biblically Based Luther’s goal should be ours: to understand the Word as clear as possible. We therefore rely on Scripture. We practice sola Scriptura. Luther’s break from Late Medieval Roman Catholic methodology was successfully handed on, i.e., sola Scriptura is a well-known slogan. However, like much that we Lutherans have had passed onto us, we wonder how well it is understood and practiced. If we took it seriously, we would be an evangelistic people.

The Priority of Prayer Luther said, “Next to the preaching of the Gospel (whereby God speaks to us and offers to give us all His grace and blessings) the highest and foremost work is prayer.” Luther taught that prayer was about imploring God to be merciful, and it was also to establish a relationship with the One to whom we are praying. Prayer is also about having certainty that our prayers are heard. In prayer we realize that being in conversation and unity with the One who said “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” has the implicit meaning that all who pray are assuming the same mission, i.e. there is no escaping the fact that all true believers are missionaries the rest of their days wherever it is that they find themselves.

Sacramental The Word of God is the key to mission. it is the power of God unto salvation. The Word of God is expressed in oral and written form as well as in a special form that can be seen and touched in Holy Baptism and even tasted in Holy Communion. As already said, Luther did not separate the church and its mission, and he did not think of a separate missionary order. Luther expected that the church would do mission, and so as the Word went out into the world, salvation would come to some and they would be gathered into churches and the Word would be preached and the Sacraments would be celebrated rightly. A missionary church would be a sacramental church.

People Oriented We can agree with Bunkowske that the Catechisms are an example that Luther gives us an example of how we missionaries are to express ourselves: using common words, addressing the common needs and aspirations of the common man and woman. Think of his words from the First Article that God has given me my body and soul, eyes and ears, my reason and senses and that he still preserves them, God gave me clothes and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children and so on. ‘He daily and richly provides me with all that I need to support this body and life; defends me from all danger, guards and protects me from all evil. And all of this out of pure fatherly and divine goodness.

When we rightly understand what Luther kept saying we also see how simple it is to be involved. Believers are to participate in the missio Dei. That’s all. That’s it. The Word evangelizes. God does the mission. We have opportunities to participate. God arranges and God performs. It is always God’s own mission that dominates Luther’s thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God is what is always on his horizon.

Student Centered No fewer than 16,000 students enrolled in Wittenberg University between 1520-1560. No fewer that one-third came from outside of Germany. Surely one of the reasons the evangelische spread as it did was Luther’s method. Sixteen thousand students sat under Luther’s preaching and teaching and heard again and again how this spontaneous Word made clear in biblically based proclamation, geared to the common man. Students are an effective channel for mission, one that we can utilize again once education is wrestled away from other approaches.

Teaching Focused As Dr Bunkowske said, “Luther was a teacher with a mission.” He was a teacher of teachers. He believed all people were entitled to a Christian education, something radical for his time. He thought each town should have a school for girls. Children were to be taught first about spiritual things and then secular. He used many means and media to teach. The Small Catechism was placed on posters. Luther played the lute and used hymns as another catechism. he wrote 35 hymns and encouraged his co-workers to do the same. Four different printing presses published hymnbook after hymnbook. By the end of his life 47 collections were published. Luther wrote letters, commentaries, sermons and collections of sermons (postils), he wrote for academic audience and for lay people. Luther modeled how all types of oral and written communication can be used to educate for the purpose of spreading the Gospel.

Indigenously Directed Luther did to need to go to England, Finland or Denmark. He taught his Wittenberg students and helped them to take the Word to their own countries. Luther encourage William Tyndale to translate the New Testament which was printed in Worms and smuggled into England in barrels of German wheat. When Luther saw the abilities of student Michael Agricola he wrote the King of Sweden and recommended he commission him to translate the Scriptures into the Finnish language. Peder Palladius came to Wittenberg from Denmark and later became known as the Father of the Danish Reformation. And so on and so on. This is the kind of work Lutherans have been doing since and we would be wise to do more of it.  Members of a culture can witness to their community far more effectively than an outsider.

Literature on missiology is vast and growing, but it is rare to find the methodology of Martin Luther even mentioned. Clearly he is not seen as having their answers. We are waiting for a Lutheran missiology based on systematic Lutheran theology. It would be of immense benefit to our congregations and mission agencies. Until more of our  theologians get excited by the possibility of missional theology that is centered on the gospel as Luther explained it, we can make do with Bunkowske’s categories. Of course there is a need for specialization in the work and let no one denigrate the need to be appropriately grounded in one’s context. That is necessary whether your context is Kansas or Kenya. It is to say though that  the genius of Luther is that the Holy Spirit uses the Word and brings unbelievers into the Kingdom of God. Effective mission comes not from technique but belief. It sounds naive, but it works. Let’s tell the believers that their prayer partner Jesus wants the Gospel proclaimed from the housetop and that of course means  housetops in Kansas and Kenya and every other place on earth.

This article originally appeared in the Institute of Lutheran Theology’s Word at Work magazine.
For your reading:

Richard H. Bliese, “Lutheran Missiology: Struggling to Move from Reactive Reform to Innovative Initiative”, The Role of Mission in The Future of Lutheran Theology, Viggo Mortensen, ed. (Centre for Multireligious Studies: University of Aarhus, 2003).

Dr. Eugene Bunkowske, “Luther and the Growth of the Church” in Church Growth: A Biblical Perspective, 70-93; “Luther the Missionary,” in God’s Mission in Action, 54-89.



“Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning.”

“Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning. The fewer the words, the better the prayer; the more words, the poorer the prayer. Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan. Therefore Christ says that the disciples should ‘not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.’ And in John 4 [:24] he tells the Samaritan woman, ‘Those who worship God must pray to him in spirit and in truth.’ The Father desires such worshipers.”
Martin Luther, LW, 42, 19-20.
Photo: "Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning. The fewer the words, the better the prayer; the more words, the poorer the prayer. Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan. Therefore Christ says that the disciples should 'not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.' And in John 4 [:24] he tells the Samaritan woman, 'Those who worship God must pray to him in spirit and in truth.' The Father desires such worshipers."
Martin Luther, LW, 42, 19-20.