Johannes Zachariae

When I visited Erfurt Germany, I had the incredible privilege of going inside the chapel of the Augustianian Monastery. There were several reasons I wanted to go there, but one primary reason was to visit the grave of Johannes Zachariae. If the name Johannes Zachariae doesn’t mean anything to you yet, don’t worry!

In the year 1414, the Council of Constance (Konstance) was convened in Constance Germany to solve multiple problems. Those “problems” included three individuals claiming to be pope, the teaching of John Huss, and many other challenges the church was facing. The council lasted over 4 years.

In 1415, the Council requested John Huss (Jan Hus) attend the council, and promised him safe passage. Branded a heretic, they knew the only way that he would come was if they promised him safety. He arrived, and the council promptly sentenced him to be burned at the stake. He died a martyr on July 6, 1415.

According to writings, as his executioners were about to burn Hus at the stake, he wrote in his prison cell, “Today you burn a goose, but in one hundred years a swan will arise which you will prove unable to boil or roast.” I wrote about this before, and you can read it here.

Interestingly enough, the man who offered Hus safe passage if he came to Constance, the man who was one of the main accusers of Hus, was an Augustinian monk by the name of Johannes Zachariae.

13 years later, Zachariae would die in Erfurt, and was buried in the chapel of the Augustinian Monastery in that small village.

In 1505, 90 years after Hus made that proclamation, Martin Luther entered that same Monastery, and announced his desire to spend the rest of his life serving God. Luther would take his final vows, while he lay prostrate on the platform, yes, on the grave of Johanes Zachariae.

Ironic? Perhaps, but God used Luther mightily as a Reformation spread across Germany, and ultimately the world, that was never stopped! Perhaps John Hus was right. 

Martin Luther, The Man Who Changed the World

[This LONG 🙂 article, written by me, was originally published in the August 2017 issue of the God’s Missionary Standard]

One of the many reasons that history intrigues me, is that it produces evidence upon evidence that God takes imperfect men and women, sometimes messy men and women, and he uses them  to accomplish His will.

Martin Luther is one of those imperfect, messy individuals that God used to fan the flames of reformation and revival across Germany and beyond. Luther was a man whom you either loved or hated. His contemporaries called him a renegade, bigamist, anti-semitic, and even insane. But In 1520 and 1521, Luther was the rage in Germany. He was practically a celebrity. Posters of Luther (single-sheet woodcuts) sold out as soon as they went on sale, and many were pinned up in public places.

As I read history, the time period which Luther was born into seems as if the religious world was in one of its darkest times. The intense dedication of serving God was gone. It was replaced by a religious formalism that was without God. It was a dark time. Roman Catholicism was the religion – it was the only religion that was allowed. The Bible was written in Latin which was a language that no one could understand except the priests, and few of them read it.


During this time period, Martin Luther was born. He was born in the little town of Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. His father, Hans, was a copper miner who eventually gained some wealth from a shared interest in mines, smelters, and other business ventures.

His mother was pious but religiously superstitious. When one of her infant children died, Margaretta Luther accused one of her neighbors of witchcraft. Martin was brought up believing that one should wear charms, recite incantations, sprinkle the hearth with holy water, and employ such other resources as the Church provided to ward off their attacks.

Luther’s dad wanted Martin to be a lawyer. So he pursued education at Eisenach and then at the University of Erfurt. But Luther’s life took an unexpected turn in July 1505, when he was twenty-one. He was caught in a severe thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by a nearby lightning strike. Terrified, he cried out to the Catholic patroness of miners, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk.” Luther survived the storm and made good on his dramatic vow. Two weeks later, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. His father was furious over Luther’s apparent wasted education, but Luther was determined to follow through on his vow.

In the Augustinian monastery, Luther was driven to find acceptance with God through works. Here are several quotes that he wrote.

“I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me… .”

“What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? “

“I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ.:

“I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow”

In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. When he celebrated his first Mass, as he held the bread and cup for the first time, he was so awestruck that he nearly fainted. “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken,” he confessed. “I thought to myself, “Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God”

In 1510, Luther went to Rome, where he witnessed the corruption of the Roman church. He climbed the Holy Stairs, supposedly the same stairs Jesus ascended when He appeared before Pilate. According to legend, the steps had been moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and the priests claimed that God forgave sins for those who climbed the stairs on their knees. Luther did so, and paid money to climb the steps while he said the Lord’s Prayer,. But somewhere on the steps, he looked back and thought, “Who knows whether this is true?”

In 1517, a Dominican itinerant named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenberg with the offer of the forgiveness of sins. This practice had been started during the Crusades to raise money for the church. People could purchase from the church a letter that supposedly freed a dead loved one from purgatory. But in this case, the proceeds were intended to help Pope Leo X pay for a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome that he wanted built. The same St. Peter’s Basilica that exists today. This enraged Luther. He determined that there must be a public debate on the matter. So on October 31, 1517, he nailed a list of Ninety-five Theses regarding indulgences to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Here are six samples of Luther’s theses:

Thesis 1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, says “Repent ye,” etc., he means that the entire life of the faithful should be a repentance.

Thesis 2. This statement cannot be understood of the sacrament of penance, i.e., of confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priesthood.

Thesis 27. They preach human folly who pretend that as soon as money in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.

Thesis 32. Those who suppose that on account of their letters of indulgence they are sure of salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers.

Thesis 36. Every Christian who truly repents has plenary [full] forgiveness both of punishment and guilt bestowed on him, even without letters of indulgence.

Thesis 82. Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love … for after all, he does release countless souls for the sake of sordid money contributed for the building of a cathedral?

Nailing such theses to the church door was a common practice in the scholarly debates of the time. Luther hoped to provoke calm discussion among the faculty, not a popular revolution. But a copy fell into the hands of a printer, who saw that the Ninety-five Theses were printed and spread throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. Luther became an overnight hero. With that, the Reformation essentially was born.

In the midst of his spiritual struggles, Luther had become obsessed with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Man is not saved by his good works but by trusting the finished work of Christ. Justification by faith alone became the central tenet of the Reformation.

But, justification by faith alone clashed with Rome’s teaching of justification by faith and works. So the pope denounced Luther for preaching “dangerous doctrines” and summoned him to Rome.

But Luther refused, so he was called to Leipzig in 1519 for a public debate with John Eck, a Catholic theologian. In this dispute, Luther affirmed that a church council could err, a point that had been made by John Wycliffe and John Hus. Luther went on to say that the authority of the pope was a recent creation and that it contradicted Scripture. By taking this stand, Luther took on papal authority.

In the summer of 1520, the pope issued an edict. The document began by saying: “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause. A wild boar has invaded Your vineyard.” With these words, the pope was referring to Luther as an unrestrained animal causing havoc. Over forty of Luther’s teachings were deemed to be heretical and Luther had sixty days to repent or suffer excommunication. He responded by publicly burning the papal bull.

The theses that were nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, gave way to an assembly room in the city of Worms. The year was 1521, and Luther was summoned to appear before the newly crowned king. The young Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms in Worms, Germany. He was flanked by his advisor who was a representative of the Pope. When Luther entered the room, he was faced with a table on which were stacked books and pamphlets. He recognized them. They were his writings.

Then came the question. “Luther, you have written, you have preached, but faced with the gravity of this situation, will you recant? Will you take back everything you have said to have acceptance of the court?” Luther asked for an evening to pray. He was granted it. The next day. the miner’s son, an simple village priest walked back into the assembly room. And in my imagination, the entire world was waiting his reply. John Eck, the spokesman for Rome said, “I ask you Martin Luther, will you recant?”

Martin Luther replied; “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me, Amen.” These defiant words became the Reformation battle cry.

As Luther stood against the wrong that was being taught, so must we stand against evil and wrong. Yes, times are different, it is 500 years since Luther nailed the 95 theses. But God still needs men and women to stand in the face of evil and say, “some things are just not for sale.”

Kate, the wife of the Reformer

Kate’s life was rather dramatic. Katharina was only three when she was sent away to school by her family! Eventually becoming a nun, she escaped in 1523 and was taken in by Lucas Cranach the Elder. and his family in Wittenberg.

Eventually Luther took an interest in Kate and decided to marry her. Why? He decided that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” Great reasons for marriage 🙂 Martin and Katharina were married on June 13, 1525.

Luther admired Kate’s intellect, calling her “Doctora Lutherin.” She had six children, and ran the household effectively. She had her own garden and rented out rooms to paying students in their home to help subsidize their income.

After Luther died in 1546, she wrote: “He gave so much of himself in service not only to one town or to one country, but to the whole world.

While fleeing the plague in Wittenberg in 1552, Katharina died after an accident with her wagon and horses.

Forming the Reformer

The parents of Martin Luther were Hans & Margarethe (Lindemann) Luder. Hans Luder (Luther) was the son of a peasant farmer. They moved to work in Eisleben, where Margarethe gave birth to a son. According to the Catholic tradition, they had the baby baptized the next day, November 11, which also was the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours. They named him Martin.

Later the family moved to Mansfield. Hans was a common laborer in the copper mines but eventually advanced to the owner of his own copper mine. Scholars say that Hans and Margarethe loved their children, but were strict in their parenting.

In 1502 Martin finished a baccalaureate degree at the University of Erfurt, and by January 1505 he completed his master’s degree. He was 22 years old. His parents had plans for him to become a lawyer, but God had other plans for Martin’s life. Years later his parents made peace with the Martin’s decision.

Reformation – the War of Pamphlets

Johannes Gutenberg could not have known that his moveable type would contribute to the spread of the Reformation. His printing presses printed not only Luther’s 95 Theses but also the indulgences that caused the 95 theses to be written.

Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type press made the mass production of books a reality that would change the world. Gutenberg printed a Latin Bible that contained 42 lines of Scripture per page. This “42-line Bible” is known as the Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg got caught up in legal battles and he never really bounced back financially from losing his press. Eventually he set up another printing press and continued to print. In 1465, he was recognized for his invention.

Gutenberg died 15 years before Luther was born, but the stage was set for the coming battle between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. The reformation has often been called the war of pamphlets. And Luther utilized this new technology well and the message of the Reformation was spread around the world.

Luther’s mentor and confessor

Johann von Staupitz was Luther’s mentor and confessor and also the dean of theology at the University of Wittenberg. He is the one who sent Luther and another monk to go to Rome in order to get a resolution to the conflict from church authorities. It was in Rome that Luther began to see some of the corruption in the church.

Staupitz was aware of Luther’s academic gifts, but also of his struggles with seeking to be “holy enough” for God to love him. As his confessor, Staupitz mentored the monk and tried to assure him that God was not out to punish him. Staupitz later assigned Luther to the task of teaching the Bible at the university. Even though the differed, Luther and Staupitz remained friends for quite some time. Staupitz never became a fellow reformer, but remained in the Catholic Church.

Amsdorf, friend and colleague of Luther

Nikolaus von Amsdorf was born to a noble Saxon family. He studied theology in Leipzig and then was one of the first ever students at the University of Wittenberg. He obtained a master’s degree from there and became a professor.

Eventually becoming his colleague, Martin Luther won him over for the Reformation and they became more than colleagues, they became friends. He accompanied Luther to the Leipzig Debate and the Diet of Worms.

After visiting Magdeburg with Luther in 1524, Luther encouraged Amsdorf to pastor there. He did, and he served there for nearly twenty years. While there, he argued with both those who pushed the radical reformation and those who still believed in the Roman Catholic Church. Because of his sermons and pamphlets, while simply worded, yet profound in argument, he was instrumental in turning the city and surrounding areas into a powerhouse for Lutheran theology. He was also instrumental in the founding of the University of Jena. After Luther died, Amsdorf helped the movement move forward and not be swayed by compromise.

Zwingli, the Complicated Reformer

Born in 1484, complicated is the word that comes to mind when mentioning Ulrich Zwingli. Like Luther, he was a reformer, but he believed that Luther did not gone far enough. Zwingli’s theology was somewhat shaped by the Bible and the philosophy of Erasmus.

In his early years, he took the side of the Pope in battles and was a chaplain in the battlefield. Later he began to write regularly with Erasmus and began to take on a rational approach to the Scriptures. He survived the plague in 1520 and began to preach against indulgences and the authority of the pope. Zwingli formally left the Catholic Church in 1521.

He agreed with Luther on many points. He differed with Luther in that he believed that images in the church should be removed and the mass should be stopped. In 1529, a meeting in Marburg was organized in an attempt to unite all Protestants. While Luther and Zwingli agreed with many of the points, they could not agree on mass/Lord’s supper.

Justus Jonas, close friend to Luther

Jonas is not known for his writings, in fact, he didn’t leave behind many writings. He is known as a faithful teacher of God’s Word, and Luther’s closest friend and colleague. He was a master of Greek, Hebrew and Latin. Jonas, Luther and Philipp Melanchthon where the driving theological force in Wittenberg.

Initially, Jonas was a follower of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great philosopher. At the start of the Reformation, the two sides were in agreement that the church needed to be reformed. Erasmus was more interested in a gradual reform while Luther was adamant that the focus be centered on the immediate need to preach the Gospel in its purity.

Jonas was won over by Luther’s theology, much to Erasmus’ consternation at having lost such an able disciple. Jonas literally began to follow Luther as the reformer traveled through Erfurt on his way to the Diet of Worms in 1521. He was at Luther’s side when he stood up to the Emperor at Worms. And he was at Luther’s bedside as the reformer took his last breath in 1546.