Timothy J. Wengert skillfully sheds light on Luther’s popular treatise. As controversy concerning his writings grew, Luther wrote a reconciliation-minded letter to Pope Leo X (1475–1521). To this letter he appended a nonpolemical tract describing the heart of his beliefs, The Freedom of a Christian.
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Reformation Resources for Class and Study
Whether for personal study or classroom use, explore our primary texts from Luther and other reformers, a bibliography of key texts in Reformation studies, additional lecture resources, and more!
Want to get new Reformation information every day? Follow Road to the Reformation on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest to get little-known insights into Luther's everyday life and to track where Luther was day-by-day 500 years ago!
Robert Kolb and Will Bergkamp discuss the role of publishing during the Reformation, Martin Luther the pastor and the academic, and Luther's key writings while at the Landesmuseum in Mainz, Germany.
Re-engaging Martin Luther's Texts
The Key Biographies and Writings of Martin Luther
First Publishing Martin Luther's Works: The Sixteenth Century and Printing
Histories of the Reformation
Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Gritsch, Eric W. A History of Lutheranism, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
Janz, Denis R. A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. 2nd ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Scribner, R.W. and Dixon, C. Scott. The German Reformation, 2nd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
The Writings of Martin Luther
The Annotated Luther. 6 vols. Edited by Hans Hillerbrand, Kirsi Stjerna and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015-2017.
Luther’s Works. [American Edition.] Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmuth Lehmann and Christopher Brown. 55+ vols. St. Louis: Concordia & Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955- .
Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Edited by Timothy Lull and William Russell. 3rd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.
Three Treatises. Translated by Charles M. Jacobs and revised by James Atkinson. 2nd revised ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1970.
Biographies of Martin Luther
Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York & Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950.
Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. 3 vols. Translated by James Schaaf. Philadelphia and Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985-1993.
Hendrix, Scott. Luther. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
. Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. 3rd ed. revised by Hans Wiersma. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, forthcoming.
Lull, Timothy F. and Nelson, Derek R. Resilient Reformer: The Life and Thought of Martin Luther. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
The Theology of Martin Luther
Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Translated by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.
Althaus, Paul. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Translated by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.
Bagchi, David and Steinmetz, David, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Barth, Hans-Martin. The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012.
Ebeling, Gerhard. Luther: An Introduction to His Thought. Translated by R. A. Wilson. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
Forde, Gerhard. Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-To-Earth Approach to the Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972.
Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Translated by Roy A. Harrisville. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Kolb, Robert and Charles Arand. The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.
McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Schwarz, Hans. True Faith in God: An Introduction to Luther’s Life and Thought, Revised and Expanded Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
Wengert, Timothy J., ed. Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
, ed. The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
. Reading the Bible with Martin Luther. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013.
Explore the writings of key figures of the Reformation on the vital debates of their day using our Point-Counterpoint slides below! Topics include baptism, free will, indulgences, and the Eucharist.
That the Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ is sufficiently proved from His own work, namely, that God sanctifies many of them who have been thus baptized, and has given them the Holy Ghost; and that there are yet many even to-day in whom we perceive that they have the Holy Ghost both because of their doctrine and life; as it is also given to us by the grace of God that we can explain the Scriptures and come to the knowledge of Christ, which is impossible without the Holy Ghost. But if God did not accept the baptism of infants, He would not give the Holy Ghost nor any of His gifts to any of them; in short, during this long time unto this day no man upon earth could have been a Christian. Now, since God confirms Baptism by the gifts of His Holy Ghost as is plainly perceptible in some of the church fathers, as St. Bernard, Gerson, John Hus, and others, who were baptized in infancy, and since the holy Christian Church cannot perish until the end of the world, they must acknowledge that such infant baptism is pleasing to God. For He can never be opposed to Himself, or support falsehood and wickedness, or for its promotion impart His grace and Spirit. This is indeed the best and strongest proof for the simple-minded and unlearned. For they shall not take from us or overthrow this article: I believe a holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.
In regard to infant baptism we hold and confess, first, that it is a self-begotten rite and human righteousness; for in all the New Testament there is not a word said or commanded about baptizing infants, by Christ nor by the apostles.
Secondly, that it is a breaking and tearing to pieces of the ordinance of Christ; for he has commanded that the gospel should be preached and that those should be baptized who believe, Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15. But here they baptize without divine command, without the preaching of the word, without knowledge, faith, repentance, new life, and without all consciousness and knowledge, yet it is called by the learned a holy, glorious work and a Christian baptism and sacrament.
Thirdly, that it is a vain consolation and boasting of all the unrighteous; for, although they do not understand the word of God, do not know the truth and lead a licentious, carnal life, yet they boast themselves to be baptized Christians.
We confess and teach that holy baptism, when given and received according to the Lord's command, is in the case of adults and little children truly a baptism of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, whereby those who are baptized have all their sins washed away, are buried into the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, are incorporated into him and put him on for the death of their sins, for a new and godly life and the blessed resurrection, and through him become children and heirs of God.
Free Will: Erasmus
Here belong the words of John the Baptist "No one can receive anything unless it is given to him from heaven" (John 3,27). Hence it does not follow that we lack the faculty or use of free will. The fact that fire warms us, comes from heaven; the fact that we seek by a natural impulse the useful and avoid the harmful, comes from heaven; the fact that after sin the will is excited to better efforts comes from heaven; the fact that we can obtain grace pleasing to God through our tears, almsgiving and prayers, comes from heaven. In the meantime our will is not inactive, even if man can reach the goal of his striving only with the final assistance of grace. But since it is a minimum which we contribute, the entire affair is attributed to God. . . . We oppose those who conclude like this: "Man is unable to accomplish anything unless God’s grace helps him. Therefore there are no good works of man." We propose the rather more acceptable conclusion: "Man is able to accomplish all things, if God's grace aids him. Therefore it is possible that all works of man be good."
Free Will: Luther
Here, then, is something fundamentally necessary and salutary for a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that God foresees and purposes and does all things by God’s own immutable, eternal, and infallible will. Here is a thunderbolt by which free choice is completely prostrated and shattered, so that those who want free choice asserted must either deny or explain away this thunderbolt, or get rid of it by some other means. . . . It follows irrefutably that everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God. For the will of God is effectual and cannot be hindered, since it is the power of the divine nature itself; moreover it is wise, so that it cannot be deceived. Now, if God’s will is not hindered, there is nothing to prevent the work itself from being done, in the place, time, manner, and measure that God both foresees and wills. . . . A man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he realizes that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsels, efforts, will and works, and depends absolutely on the will, counsel, pleasure and work of Another—God alone . . . these truths are published for the sake of the elect, that they may be humbled and brought down to nothing, and so saved.
This is what I say: No one can defend the position with any passage from Scripture that God’s righteousness desires or demands any punishment or satisfaction from sinners except for their heartfelt and true contrition or conversion alone—with the condition that from that moment on they bear the cross of Christ and practice the aforementioned works (but not as imposed by anyone). . . . I say that even if this very day the Christian church decided and decreed that indulgences took away more than the works of satisfaction did, nevertheless it would still be a thousand times better that no Christian buy or desire indulgences but instead that they would rather do works and suffer punishment. For indulgences are and may continue to be nothing other than the neglect of good works and salutary suffering, which a person should rather choose than omit— even though some of the new preachers have invented two kinds of sufferings: Medicativae, Satisfactoriae, that is, some suffering is for satisfaction and some for improvement. But, praise God, we have more freedom to disdain this kind of prattle than they have freedom to dream it up. For all suffering, indeed, everything God lays upon Christians is for their betterment and benefit.
The plenary indulgence remits the works of satisfaction to this extent: whoever is granted complete remission of pain is freed through papal power so that he is no longer obligated to do those works of satisfaction noted in article three, which had been imposed upon him for repented and confessed sins. Yet after the complete forgiveness of sins and pain, a person is no less tempted by the devil, his own flesh, and the world than he was before forgiveness. And evil habits and the possibility of falling quickly into sin again remain after forgiveness of sins and suffering. Therefore, in order to resist the devil, the flesh and the world and to subdue evil, sinful habit, inclination, and the possibility of falling quickly into sin again, a man, after complete forgiveness of sins and suffering, dare not refrain from penitential works that are salvific for him and a medicine for his spiritual weakness and also helpful toward gaining eternal life. . . . The plenary indulgence remits also the suffering that divine justice requires for sins, when they have been repented of and confessed and the penance imposed by the priest is insufficient. For the Papal Holiness follows St. Peter to the throne and papal office and also possesses, like St. Peter himself, the authority and the power to remit all sin. And it possesses this power from the words of the Lord, “All that you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, etc.” [Matthew 16:19] Now because the pope can forgive all sins, he can also remit, through indulgence, all the suffering due sin. For all the pain that people deserve to suffer for their sin is imposed and conferred on them as just punishment, first and foremost by God, against whom all mortal sin is directed.
We believe that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper; yea, that there is no communion without such presence. . . . We believe that the true body of Christ is eaten in the communion, not in a gross and carnal manner, but in a sacramental and spiritual manner by the religious, believing and pious heart.
The remembrance here should be of the shed blood for the forgiveness of sins and not of the blood which you can remember in the body proclaiming the death of the Lord, etc. The learned papists must, after all, confess with us that the true body and the true blood of Christ are in the sacrament, but not in a natural or comprehensible manner. What do the people fantasize against the command of Christ with rational thoughts? Just do not make a remembrance here of the living body. Christ wants a remembrance here of His offered body and of His blood that was shed for our sin. This is a sacrament of faith. Reason cannot comprehend it. Therefore, only Christ’s word must be valid here so that what He says may be. We must do what He commands with the sacrament and nothing else, in spite of the devil who wants to change it. I let everything happen in this sacrament that you can remember, but only the devil wants that the word and command of Christ should be lost for the sake of human thoughts. Christians should listen to Christ.
The sum is, that the flesh and blood of Christ feed our souls just as bread and wine maintain and support our corporal life. For there would be no aptitude in the sign, did not our souls find their nourishment in Christ. This could not be, did not Christ truly form one with us, and refresh us by the eating of his flesh, and the drinking of his blood. But though it seems an incredible thing that the flesh of Christ, while at such a distance from us in respect of place, should be food to us, let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive; viz., that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space. That sacred communion of flesh and blood by which Christ transfuses his life into us, just as if it penetrated our bones and marrow, he testifies and seals in the Supper, and that not by presenting a vain or empty sign, but by there exerting an efficacy of the Spirit by which he fulfils what he promises. And truly the thing there signified he exhibits and offers to all who sit down at that spiritual feast, although it is beneficially received by believers only who receive this great benefit with true faith and heartfelt gratitude.
Articles and Websites
The work of Lucas Cranach the Elder was crucial to the spirituality of the Reformation era. For students interested in viewing an array of his works, this website is useful.
Luther’s treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, despite being written early in his career, is a useful summary of his theology of justification as it relates to good works. The full text is online from Fordham University here.
For students interested in the Radical Reformation, this brief list of key bibliographies from Baylor is a useful starting point for research.
Near the end of his life, in 1543, Luther wrote a lengthy screed titled, Against the Jews and Their Lies. In light of what happened to Europe’s Jews four centuries later, Luther’s recommendation to “…set fire to their synagogues…” gives a terrible but accurate picture of the Reformer’s problematic anti-Jewish sentiments. In 1994, however, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially repudiated Luther’s anti-Jewish writings in a formal statement apologizing to the Jewish community. More information can be found here.
Students interested in the fate of the doctrine of justification (the key sticking point theologically between the Protestant magisterial Reformers and the Roman Catholic church) might be interested in reading the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran World Federation.
Dr. Timothy J. Wengert addresses Martin Luther's famous tract, The Freedom of a Christian from 1520, which provides one of the most succinct summaries of Luther's theology.
An analysis of the Lutheran Confessions contained in the documents of the Book of Concord by Dr. Robert Kolb and Dr. Charles Arand at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri.
A video from the ELCA looking at the life of the woman Katharina Luther, the woman who helped sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther change the course of history.
Carl Trueman lectures on Martin Luther, the great reformer. This 45 minute lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary is entitled "Martin Luther, Troubled Prophet."
A series of lectures by Dr. Joel Biermann for his Christian Doctrine course at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri. This course is designed to assist the student (or any Christian person) in gaining the basic understanding of Christian Doctrine in the Lutheran Tradition.
For students considering additional academic study of the Reformation era, these professional associations can provide additional resources.
With great detail, Kirsi I. Stjerna introduces and annotates Luther’s Large Catechism, in which the reformer set out to offer a new compass for religious life. He believed all Christian people—laity and clergy—needed a guide to comprehend the basic biblical, creedal, and sacramental teachings.
With great clarity and insight, James M. Estes illuminates Luther’s call to secular authorities to help with the reform of the church in this important 1520 treatise. To combat Rome’s intransigent opposition to reform of any sort, Luther appealed to secular rulers to intervene and clear the way for ecclesiastical reform.
Luther Refracted speaks to the currency that Luther’s life and thought continue to enjoy in today’s Christian reflection. The contributors, representing a variety of Christian denominations, demonstrate Luther’s impact on their own traditions and, together with the Lutheran respondents, encourage a fresh understanding of the Reformer.
It is easy to forget how often Luther’s concerns turned toward helping the common person understand and take comfort from God’s word. In this volume, Dennis Ngien helps contemporary readers engage Luther’s commentary on the lament psalms.