But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of Godthrough faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26, ESV).
There it was, bigger than life—a Texas-sized poster hanging on an ancient church in Germany. Our Mission Team had driven up to check on the local pastor recovering from knee replacement. We’d crossed a brook and admired works of local artists when we came face-to-face with this gigantic banner celebrating 500 years since Martin Luther stepped from the confines of his cloister to begin one of the most pivotal events in church history—the Reformation.
I knew who Martin Luther was. I’d studied about him in Womenary’s class on Church History. My 1753 Martin Luther Bible (purchased for $25 in a garage sale) had also helped me engage with history. Through the years I’ve marveled at what God accomplished through a scholarly monk, the son of a peasant miner—a man willing to speak forth truth during a time when doing so put his life in jeopardy. The concept of “salvation by faith and faith alone for all who believe” rattled conventional church doctrine of the day.
Martin Luther also shared strong feelings about the restrictions of celibacy among the priesthood. He spoke sharply against it, influencing numerous nuns to actually escape the celibate life of the nunnery. At this point Katharina von Bora steps into Martin’s controversial life.
A recently released book, Katie Luther, First lady of the Reformation by Ruth Tucker, intrigued me. I learned how very little we actually know about Martin Luther’s wife, and their twenty-year marriage. For two days I mulled through the sobering realities of medieval life—hardships difficult to imagine today. I tried to think, along with the author, about the role Katie played in Martin’s teaching, and in the speaking ministry that ensued after his excommunication and “outlaw” status. Martin had not initially married for love, but out of obligation. Three years earlier Katharina had fled the convent along with nine other nuns, and remained the only one without a husband. Fortunately, deep love and devotion developed between Katie and Martin during their marriage. They had six children, two of whom died, and helped raise seven orphans. She served as the breadwinner of the family, allowing Martin to continue teaching and preaching while seldom receiving pay for his services. He’d ask, “How can I receive pay for sharing the gospel?”
Katie ran the former monastery, “Black Cloister”, now a three story inn with forty rooms on just the first floor. She typically fed forty or more people a day using wood-burning stoves and well-drawn water. She grew the crops and raised the meat: ducks, chickens, pigs, goats, and cattle. She butchered the animals and brewed her famous 4% alcohol ale—of which Luther was very fond. Her extensive herbal garden provided natural remedies for Luther, lodgers, children, and the muddy hamlet of Wittenberg. Evenings found both Luther and Katie enjoying the laughter of games and songs with their deeply loved children. Even during his frequent periods of deep depression, Luther was comforted best by lying in bed skin-to-skin with his beloved Katie.
I love seeing the bigger-than-life personality of Luther in the context of marriage and family. I also wonder, along with others, about Katie’s faith. She was clearly a Martha, not a Mary. She attended to the requirements for medieval survival, freeing Martin to continue his calling of writing and teaching, undistracted by day-to-day worries of financial provision. She literally was a Proverbs 31 woman as she bought and sold and negotiated in the village markets for the best prices for her corn and barley harvests. We have no records, though, of her own faith, religious teaching of the children, or prayers—only her servant’s heart and sold-out devotion to Martin. She had been dropped off at the convent as an orphan at the young age of five, so we don’t necessarily know her devotion to that calling. We do know she escaped the convent into an unknown future, and was jilted by the one true love she found before marrying Martin.
Katie faced war, hunger, plague, filth, mud, poor sanitation, bawdy beer-drinking medieval lodgers, and the ever-present prospect of death. Even though men typically lived until their 40s and women into their 30s, Luther, wracked with multiple ailments, died on a teaching trip at age 63. Katie lived seven more years after his death, dying at 53 from injuries sustained after a wagon accident. Ruth Tucker says, “She could not have comprehended that one day, far in the future, there might be a grand, yearlong commemoration….As it was, her husband’s contemporaries and his followers in the next generation essentially branded her into obscurity. Take her out of the equation, however, and we would be looking at a very different Reformation. Take away her profound influence on her husband, and Luther (as we knew him) would have been seriously diminished.”*
I have a new appreciation of this powerful duo of Martin and Katie, and how God used them both in His Kingdom to accomplish what He’d created for them to do before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 2:10).Martin produced lasting waves in the church, but he died having little idea of the long-term impact of his bold Pauline proclamation of “salvation by faith and faith alone”. We have our own assignments. We too will never truly know the impact of our proclamations of God’s grace for sinners. May neither the ease of life in the twenty-first century, nor the unpopularity of our message, dampen our commitment to continue what Luther began—proclaiming the free gift of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, CSB).
*Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation by Ruth Tucker, p.187.