Martin Luther, the reformer

Martin Luther, the reformer: Lessons on innovation

/ 02:06 AM March 22, 2024

Martin Luther


Growing up in the Protestant faith, my postgraduate studies led me to a Catholic theology school. Professors acknowledged the flaws of some of the early Popes that paved the way for the 15th-century Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther. This article isn’t about religion; references to religion are merely contextual.

Luther, a bold Catholic priest, defied conventions, facing excommunication and heretic status. In 1517, he penned “95 Theses,” attaching them to the church door (the community bulletin board of old). The advent of the printing press rapidly disseminated Luther’s work. Through a sampling strategy, his innovative ideas gained swift and widespread support, turning Luther into a celebrity and inaugural “bestselling author” of the printing press era. His radical perspectives reshaped Christendom, giving birth to a new category, Protestantism.


Pioneering practices

Here is a partial list of what Luther urged his followers to “start doing,” akin to pioneering practices within the industry:

  • Embrace the belief that “faith alone” (sola fide) is essential for salvation. Express love by assisting others.
  • Initiate the democratization of religion. Instead of having masses and the Bible solely in Latin (then the language of the nobility), use simple local language understood by the people. This ultimately enabled parents to teach their children about the Bible.
  • Allow priests to marry and have families.
  • Enable priesthood for every believer, including women. This contrasted with the perspective of St. Thomas Aquinas, who considered women as an “imperfect male,” reflective of prevailing Aristotelian cultural and philosophical beliefs.
  • Put ordinary people like farmers on godly footing equal to the Pope in matters of faith and spirituality.

‘Stop doing’

For a balanced perspective, Luther’s “faith alone” was refuted as “unbiblical” by ex-Presbyterian pastor Professor Scott Hahn, who backed the historical continuity of Christian beliefs and practices even without Luther. In addition to “start doing,” here is a partial list of what Luther advocated people to “stop doing,” akin to challenging conventional wisdom:

  • Cease relying on deeds or works to attain salvation, as righteousness is a gift from God. It is not about what we did for God but what God did for us.
  • Discontinue the “sale” of forgiveness and merit through indulgences, then practiced as a revenue model to fund church renovation or the extravagant lifestyle of Pope Leo X.
  • End the practice of considering the Pope and traditions as the ultimate authority in matters of the faith, as it should instead be the Bible (leading to different views on Mother Mary or seeking intercession from saints).
  • Abandon the concept of having seven sacraments. Only two are in the Bible: baptism and communion.
  • Eliminate the role of a priest as a “middleman” for confession, which can be direct to God.

Seeds of innovation

  • It is noteworthy that, akin to Protestantism, many new ideas, whether in religious or business contexts, share 10 common patterns crucial for successful innovation:
  • The challenge of existing practices such as “selling” indulgences on behalf of souls in purgatory or in exchange for the “remission of sins.”
  • The discovery of insights or new truths (e.g., Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the New Testament argued that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith, not by works of the law).
  • The introduction of something radically different to address pain points, emphasizing not just “doing more” or “doing less” but initiating industry-first practices and abandoning conventional wisdom (as illustrated by the five examples earlier provided).
  • The introduction of a market-driving new category, especially when the idea faces rejection from incumbent market players (as seen in the case of Protestantism).
  • The role of technology in hastening the introduction of a new category (as exemplified by the printing press).
  • The strategic timing of a launch during peak dissatisfaction (e.g., “selling” indulgences to fund the 15th-century restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica).
  • The broad acceptance of the novelty by a specific market segment (such as those dissatisfied with their Catholic experience).
  • The attraction of noncustomers, beyond brand switchers, to the new category (e.g., the unchurched).
  • The response by the incumbent leader to either reaffirm existing beliefs as strengths or undergo partial reform for the better (like the launch of the Council of Trent, Pope Pius V’s abolition of abusive indulgences and creation of the Jesuit order during the Catholic Counter-Reformation).
  • The continuous improvement of the novelty. Protestant spinoff groups like Baptist, Adventist, Anglican, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. demonstrate innovation from the original idea. However, this doctrinal fragmentation is perceived as a notable weakness in religious spinoffs.

Commercial success

Despite Catholicism remaining the dominant Christian religion, close to 40 percent of over 2 billion Christians worldwide today have embraced the Protestant faith. Luther, while intending a reformation of ideas and practices, inadvertently taught us how to innovate. This underscores the two elements crucial for innovation: novelty and wide acceptance (or in business terms, commercial success).

READ: Innovation: What it is, what it’s not

Luther’s unconventional and inspiring ideas highlighted that while common sense is essential to run an organization, breakthrough innovation necessitates uncommon sense. Vision requires such skills—sensemaking, execution of new idea, demand influencing and discovery to link everything together—the critical skills of master strategists and innovators. Integrating the grand design of innovation with the skills required to be innovators becomes paramount.

Luther also emphasized the centrality of the Bible in any discussion, highlighting this central theme: love God and your neighbors.

Allow me to conclude this article by sharing two interrelated insights on love for our reflections, not only during Holy Week but in our daily lives.


The decision to love is most profound when it’s challenging to do so. Love, even when it may not seem advantageous for you, can foster spiritual growth of your loved ones.

I wonder how Luther would respond to my concept of love. —CONTRIBUTED 

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

Josiah Go is chair and chief innovation strategist at Mansmith and Fielders Inc., and cofounder of Mansmith Innovation Awards. He chairs the 15th Mansmith Market Masters Conference, where an all-CEO panel will discuss innovation skill as part of the “5 Skills of Master Strategists” on May 8at The Fifth at Rockwell. Details at

TAGS: innovation

© Copyright 1997-2024 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.