August 22, 2009

Martin Luther on Authority & Salvation

I have been working on essays for my Church History II class at Asbury Theological Seminary and was asked by a friend to post my essay on Martin Luther's understanding of authority and salvation and how it differs from the Roman Catholic Church of his day. I have written a synopsis of my essay here, if you would like to read the entire 2+ page essay just shoot me an email at or and let me know.


Martin Luther understood authority and salvation much differently than the Roman Catholic Church of his day. For Luther, both of these hinged on the Person and Word of Christ. In his writing entitled An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility, he describes "Three Roman Walls" that the Catholic Church had erected to protect their authority.

The 1st wall was the distinction the Catholic Church made between the religious class (popes, bishops, priests, nuns) and the secular class (everyone else) believing that somehow the religious class was more holy and pious. Luther's argument which said, "For all Christians whatsoever really and truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except in so far as they do different work." (An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility), was based on I Peter 2:9.

The 2nd wall was the claim by the Catholic Church that they were the only interpreters of Scripture because only the religious class had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and that the pope could not err on issues of faith, regardless of his personal integrity or character. To this Luther asks what the point of Scripture is then if only a certain few could interpret it. He believed that God could speak to any man through His Word, regardless of social class.

The 3rd wall was the claim that only a summoned council could challenge the pope but that only the pope had the power to summon such a council. This setup left the pope in a position of unquestioning power which led to an abuse of authority that Luther believed was harmful to all of Christianity and contrary to Scripture. He sites a passage from Matthew 18:15-17 and then writes it "commands each member to exercise concern for his fellow, much more it is our duty when the wrongdoer is one who rules over us all alike, and who causes much harm and offense to the rest by his conduct" (An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility).

In regards to salvation, Luther believed that the sinner was justified not by any past or future merit but through the person and work of Jesus alone. The Catholic Church believed that the pope had the authority and ability to grant the remission of sins to which Luther wrote in his 95 Theses, "76. We say, on the contrary, that papal pardons cannot take away the least of venial sins, as regards to guilt."