What did Martin Luther want to change in the Catholic Church?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Luther's primary grievance against Rome was theological. His doctrine of justification by faith alone immediately put him at odds with the Church. He held that individual believers could only be justified, or made right with God, through the channel of faith. There was absolutely nothing that a Christian could do to make this happen; it depended entirely on the free gift of divine grace. This was the only way that Christian believers could ever be reconciled with God.

The teaching of the Catholic Church was radically different. It taught that individuals could achieve justification through works; in other words, they could contribute towards their own righteousness through carrying out certain acts, such as doing penance, for example. For Luther, this was a direct contradiction of the relevant scriptural passages, most notably Romans 3:28.

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law (King James Version).

Another bone of contention between Luther and the Catholic Church was the issue of Indulgences. These were certificates issued by the Church that granted remission of sins in the afterlife. Indulgences were sold, and the Church made a substantial amount of money from them. The practice was open to widespread abuse and raised the hackles of Luther and other Protestant reformers. Luther based his opposition on two grounds. The first was theological. There was nothing whatsoever in the Bible to suggest that individuals could effectively buy any reduction in their punishment for sin. This was outright blasphemy. Only a free act of grace by Almighty God himself could do this. Remission of sins was a matter for God and God alone. There was nothing that any sinner could do, no matter how repentant they were.

Luther also objected to the sale of Indulgences on nationalistic grounds. The German territories deeply resented the increased financial burdens imposed upon them by Rome. Luther, as with many Germans, thought it extremely unfair that large sums of money were leaving the German homeland to pay for the extravagant building projects and opulent creature comforts of a corrupt and decadent Papacy.

It is fair to say that Luther never set out to create a rival church to Rome. He was primarily concerned with purging the Catholic Church of its widespread abuses and myriad theological errors. Indeed, it was the next generation of Reformers in Germany who concerned themselves with working out the precise details of constructing a new Lutheran Church. Luther was unlike Calvin in this regard, being largely uninterested in the minutiae of church administration.

Had the Catholic Church compromised, then it is likely that there would have been no split within Western Christendom, at least not as radical as the one that ensued. In truth, there was little chance that the Pope and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church were ever likely to reach any kind of accommodation with someone they regarded as an upstart and a heretic.

Luther's primary role in the Reformation was as its guiding spirit, a bloody-minded genius providing hundreds and thousands of men and woman with the inspiration necessary to challenge the temporal and spiritual dominance of the Church of Rome. It fell to others to shape the contours of the earthshaking revolution he had unleashed, but they still found themselves working in the towering shadow cast over them by the renegade monk of Wittenberg.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Martin Luther, a Catholic priest himself, attacked the penitential system of the Church.  For, he was greatly disturbed by corruption in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church; there were monks such as John Tetzel who became successful by selling indulgences to people, a remission of the temporal punishment still due to sin after it has been forgiven by the Sacrament of Penance.  In other words, an indulgence lessened the time that a soul would have to spend in Purgatory, a place where the souls of those dying penitent are purified from their sins before entering Heaven.

This selling of a "lessened punishment" for sin became a mercantile operation rather than a religious or spiritual activity.  Such corruption Luther disapproved of, as well as the corruption of power with the Pope and other hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.  Luther questioned these points, but was disciplined for his action and his points were not addressed.

In subsequent years, after traveling to Rome and becoming influenced by other forces in Germany, Luther became the revolutionary against the canons of the Catholic Church, among them

  • the concept that man can be saved by performing good works,
  • the idea that the hierarchy and priesthood are Divinely instituted.  
  • the existence of the sacraments of Reconciliation, Confirmation, and Extreme Unction 
  • the belief that there is one visible Church established by God whereby men may work out salvation. 
  • the belief that there are other sources of faith outside the Bible
  • the belief that man possesses free will; what he does, good or bad, is designed by God.