Foremost among those who were called to lead the Church into the Great Reformation was the humble, but unshakable man, Martin Luther. What kind of a man was he? Where did he come from? And why did he do what he did? Martin Luther - the man who opened the Bible to the world
Foremost among those who were called to lead the church from the darkness of popery into the light of a purer faith, stood Martin Luther. Zealous, ardent, and devoted, knowing no fear but the fear of God, and acknowledging no foundation for religious faith but the Holy Scriptures, Luther was the man for his time; through him, God accomplished a great work for the reformation of the church and the enlightenment of the world.
Like the first heralds of the gospel, Luther sprung from the ranks of poverty. His early years were spent in the humble home of a German peasant. By daily toil as a miner, his father earned the means for his education. He intended him for a lawyer; but God designed to make him a builder in the great temple that was rising so slowly through the centuries. Hardship, privation, and severe discipline were the school in which Infinite Wisdom prepared Luther for the important mission of his life.
Luther's father was a man of strong and active mind, and great force of character, honest, resolute, and straightforward. He was true to his convictions of duty, let the consequences be what they might. His sterling good sense led him to regard the monastic system with distrust. He was highly displeased when Luther, without his consent, entered a monastery; and it was two years before the father was reconciled to his son, and even then his opinions remained the same.
Luther's parents bestowed great care upon the education and training of their children. They endeavored to instruct them in the knowledge of God and the practice of Christian virtues. The father's prayer often ascended in the hearing of his son, that the child might remember the name of the Lord, and one day aid in the advancement of his truth. Every advantage for moral or intellectual culture which their life of toil permitted them to enjoy, was eagerly improved by these parents. Their efforts were earnest and persevering to prepare their children for a life of piety and usefulness. With their firmness and strength of character they sometimes exercised too great severity; but the Reformer himself, though conscious that in some respects they had erred, found in their discipline more to approve than to condemn.
At school, where he was sent at an early age, Luther was treated with harshness and even violence. So great was the poverty of his parents, that for a time he was obliged to obtain his food by singing from door to door, and he often suffered from hunger. The gloomy, superstitious ideas of religion then prevailing filled him with fear. He would lie down at night with a sorrowful heart, looking forward with trembling to the dark future, and in constant terror at the thought of God as a stern, unrelenting judge, a cruel tyrant, rather than a kind heavenly Father. Yet under so many and so great discouragements, Luther pressed resolutely forward toward the high standard of moral and intellectual excellence which he had determined to attain.
He thirsted for knowledge, and the earnest and practical character of his mind led him to desire the solid and useful rather than the showy and superficial. When, at the age of eighteen, he entered the University of Erfurth, his situation was more favorable and his prospects brighter than in his earlier years. His parents having by thrift and industry acquired a competence, they were able to render him all needed assistance. And the influence of judicious friends had somewhat lessened the gloomy effects of his former training. He now diligently applied himself to the study of the best authors, enriching his understanding with their most weighty thoughts, and making the wisdom of the wise his own. A retentive memory, a vivid imagination, strong reasoning powers, and energetic application to study, soon won for him the foremost rank among his associates.
The fear of the Lord dwelt in the heart of Luther, enabling him to maintain his steadfastness of purpose, and leading him to deep humility before God. He had an abiding sense of his dependence upon divine aid, and he did not fail to begin each day with prayer, while his heart was continually breathing a petition for guidance and support. "To pray well," he often said, "is the better half of study."
While one day examining the books in the library of the university, Luther discovered a Latin Bible. He had before heard fragments of the Gospels and Epistles at public worship, and he thought that they were the whole of God's word. Now, for the first time, he looked upon the whole Bible. With mingled awe and wonder he turned the sacred pages; with quickened pulse and throbbing heart he read for himself the words of life, pausing now and then to exclaim, "Oh, if God would give me such a book for my own!" Angels of Heaven were by his side, and rays of light from the throne of God revealed the treasures of truth to his understanding. He had ever feared to offend God, but now the deep conviction of his condition as a sinner took hold upon him as never before.
An earnest desire to be free from sin and to find peace with God, led him at last to enter a cloister, and devote himself to a monastic life. Here he was required to perform the lowest drudgery, and to beg from house to house. He was at an age when respect and appreciation are most eagerly craved, and these menial offices were deeply mortifying to his natural feelings; but he patiently endured this humiliation, believing that it was necessary because of his sins.
Every moment that could be spared from his daily duties, he employed in study, robbing himself of sleep, and grudging even the moments spent at his humble meals. Above everything else he delighted in the study of God's word. He had found a Bible chained to the convent wall, and to this he often repaired. As his convictions of sin deepened, he sought by his own works to obtain pardon and peace. He led a most rigorous life, endeavoring to crucify the flesh by fastings, watchings, and scourgings. He shrank from no sacrifice to become holy and gain Heaven. As the result of this painful discipline, he lost strength, and suffered from fainting spasms, from the effects of which he never fully recovered. But with all his efforts, his burdened soul found no relief. He was at last driven to the verge of despair.
When it appeared to Luther that all was lost, God raised up a friend and helper for him. The pious Staupitz opened the word of God to Luther's mind, and bade him look away from himself, cease the contemplation of infinite punishment for the violation of God's law, and look to Jesus, his sin-pardoning Saviour. "Instead of torturing yourself on account of your sins, cast yourself into the arms of your Redeemer. Trust in him, — in the righteousness of his life, — in the atonement of his death. Listen to the Son of God. He became man to give you the assurance of divine favor. Love him who has first loved you." Thus spoke this messenger of mercy. His words made a deep impression upon Luther's mind. After many a struggle with long-cherished errors, he was enabled to grasp the truth, and peace came to his troubled soul.
Luther was ordained a priest, and was called from the cloister to a professorship in the University of Wittemberg. Here he applied himself to the study of the Scriptures in the original tongues. He began to lecture upon the Bible; and the book of Psalm, the Gospels, and the Epistles were opened to the understanding of crowds of delighted listeners. Staupitz, his friend and superior, urged him to ascend the pulpit, and preach the word of God. Luther hesitated, feeling himself unworthy to speak to the people in Christ's stead. It was only after a long struggle that he yielded to the solicitations of his friends. Already he was mighty in the Scriptures, and the grace of God rested upon him. His eloquence captivated his hearers, the clearness and power with which he presented the truth convinced their understanding, and his deep fervor touched their hearts.
Luther was still a true son of the papal church, and had no thought that he would ever be anything else. In the providence of God he decided to visit Rome. He pursued his journey on foot, lodging at the monasteries on the way. At a convent in Italy he was filled with wonder as he saw the splendor of the apartments, the richness of the dresses, the luxury of the table, the extravagance everywhere. With painful misgivings he contrasted this scene with the self-denial and hardship of his own life. His mind was becoming perplexed.
At last he beheld in the distance the seven-hilled city. With deep emotion he prostrated himself upon the earth, exclaiming, "Holy Rome, I salute thee!" He entered the city, visited the churches, listened to the marvelous tales repeated by priests and monks, and performed all the ceremonies required. Everywhere he looked upon scenes that filled him with astonishment and horror. He saw that iniquity existed among all classes of the clergy. He heard indecent jokes from prelates, and was filled with horror at their awful profanity, even during mass. As he mingled with the monks and citizens, he met dissipation, debauchery. Turn where he would, in the place of sanctity he found profanation. "It is incredible," he wrote, "what sins and atrocities are committed in Rome." "If there be a hell, Rome is built above it. It is an abyss whence all sins proceed."
An indulgence had been promised by the pope to all who should ascend on their knees what was known as Pilate's staircase. Luther was one day performing this act, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to say to him, "The just shall live by faith!" He sprung upon his feet in shame and horror, and fled from the scene of his folly. That text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time he saw more clearly than ever before the fallacy of trusting to human works for salvation, and the necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ. His eyes had been opened, and were never again to be closed, to the Satanic delusions of the papacy. When he turned his face from Rome, he had turned away also in heart, and from that time the separation grew wider, until he severed all connection with the papal church.
After his return from Rome, Luther received at the University of Wittemberg the degree of doctor of divinity. Now he was at liberty to devote himself, as never before, to the Scriptures that he loved. He had taken a solemn vow to study carefully and to preach with fidelity the word of God, not the sayings and doctrines of the popes, all the days of his life. He was no longer the mere monk or professor, but the authorized herald of the Bible. He had been called as a shepherd to feed the flock of God, that were hungering and thirsting for the truth. He firmly declared that Christians should receive no other doctrines than those which rest on the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. These words struck at the very foundation of papal supremacy. They contained the vital principle of the Reformation.
Luther saw the danger of exalting human theories above the word of God. He fearlessly attacked the speculative infidelity of the schoolmen, and opposed the philosophy and theology which had so long held a controlling influence upon the people. He denounced such studies as not only worthless but pernicious, and sought to turn the minds of his hearers from the sophistries of philosophers and theologians to the eternal truths set forth by prophets and apostles.
Precious was the message which he bore to the eager crowds that hung upon his words. Never before had such teachings fallen upon their ears. The glad tidings of a Saviour's love, the assurance of pardon and peace through his atoning blood, rejoiced their hearts, and inspired within them an immortal hope. At Wittemberg a light was kindled whose rays should extend to the uttermost parts of the earth, and which was to increase in brightness to the close of time.
But light and darkness cannot harmonize. Between truth and error there is an irrepressible conflict. To uphold and defend the one is to attack and overthrow the other. Our Saviour himself declared, "I came not to send peace, but a sword." [Matthew 10:34.] Said Luther, a few years after the opening of the Reformation, "God does not conduct, but drives me forward. I am not master of my own actions. I would gladly live in repose, but I am thrown into the midst of tumults and revolutions." He was now about to be urged into the contest.
The Roman Church had made merchandise of the grace of God. The tables of the money-changers were set up beside her altars, and the air resounded with the shouts of buyers and sellers. Under the plea of raising funds for the erection of St. Peter's church at Rome, indulgences for sin were publicly offered for sale by the authority of the pope. By the price of crime a temple was to be built up for God's worship, — the corner-stone laid with the wages of iniquity. But the very means of Rome's aggrandizement provoked the deadliest blow to her power and greatness. It was this that aroused the most determined and successful of the enemies of popery, and led to the battle which shook the papal throne to its foundation, and jostled the triple crown upon the pontiff's head.
The official appointed to conduct the sale of indulgences in Germany — Tetzel by name — had been convicted of the basest offenses against society and against the law of God; but having escaped the punishment due to his crimes, he was employed to further the mercenary and unscrupulous projects of the Romish Church. With great effrontery he repeated the most glaring falsehoods, and related marvelous tales to deceive an ignorant, credulous, and superstitious people. Had they possessed the word of God, they would not have been thus deceived. It was to keep them under the control of the papacy, that they might swell the power and wealth of her ambitious leaders, that the Bible had been withheld from them.
As Tetzel entered a town, a messenger went before him, announcing, "The grace of God and of the holy father is at your gates." And the people welcomed the blasphemous pretender as if he were God himself come down from Heaven to them. The infamous traffic was set up in the church, and Tetzel, ascending the pulpit, extolled indulgences as the most precious gift of God. He declared that by virtue of his certificates of pardon, all the sins which the purchaser should afterward desire to commit would be forgiven him, and that even repentance was not indispensable. More than this, he assured his hearers that the indulgences had power to save not only the living but the dead; that the very moment the money should clink against the bottom of his chest, the soul in whose behalf it had been paid would escape from purgatory and make its way to Heaven.
When Simon Magus offered to purchase of the apostles the power to work miracles, Peter answered him, "Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money." [Acts 8:20.]. But Tetzel's offer was grasped by eager thousands. Gold and silver flowed into his treasury. A salvation that could be bought with money was more easily obtained than that which requires repentance, faith, and diligent effort to resist and overcome sin.
The doctrine of indulgences had been opposed by men of learning and piety in the Romish Church, and there were many who had no faith in pretensions so contrary to both reason and revelation. Yet no bishop dared lift his voice against the fraud and corruption of this iniquitous traffic. The minds of men were becoming disturbed and uneasy, and many eagerly inquired if God would not work through some instrumentality for the purification of his church.
Luther, though still a papist of the straitest sort, was filled with horror at the blasphemous assumptions of the indulgence-mongers. Many of his own congregation had purchased certificates of pardon, and they soon began to come to their pastor, confessing their various sins, and expecting absolution, not because they were penitent and wished to reform, but on the ground of the indulgence. Luther refused them absolution, and warned them that unless they should repent, and reform their lives, they must perish in their sins. In great perplexity they sought out Tetzel, and informed him that an Augustine monk had treated his letters with contempt. The friar was filled with rage. He uttered the most terrible curses, caused fires to be lighted in the public square, and declared that he had orders from the pope to burn the heretics who dared oppose his most holy indulgences.
Luther now entered boldly upon his work as a champion of the truth. His voice was heard from the pulpit in earnest, solemn warning. He set before the people the offensive character of sin, and taught them that it is impossible for man, by his own works, to lessen its guilt or evade its punishment. Nothing but repentance toward God and faith in Christ can save the sinner. The grace of Christ cannot be purchased; it is a free gift. He counseled the people not to buy the indulgences, but to look in faith to a crucified Redeemer. He related his own painful experience in vainly seeking by humiliation and penance to secure salvation, and assured his hearers that it was by looking away from himself and believing in Christ that he found peace and joy.
As Tetzel continued his traffic and his impious pretensions, Luther determined upon a more effectual protest against these crying abuses. The festival of All-Saints was an important day for Wittemberg. The costly relics of the church were then displayed, and remission of sin was granted to all who visited the church and made confession. Accordingly on this day the people in great numbers resorted thither. On the day preceding the festival, Luther went boldly to the church, to which crowds of worshipers were already repairing, and affixed to the door ninety-five propositions against the doctrine of indulgences. These theses he declared himself ready to defend against all opposers.
His propositions attracted universal attention. They were read and re-read and repeated in every direction. Great excitement was created in the university and in the whole city. By these theses it was shown that the power to grant the pardon of sin, and to remit its penalty, had never been committed to the pope or to any other man. The whole scheme was a farce, — an artifice to extort money by playing upon the superstitions of the people, — a device of Satan to destroy the souls of all who should trust to its lying pretensions. It was also clearly shown that the gospel of Christ is the most valuable treasure of the church, and that the grace of God, therein revealed, is freely bestowed upon all who seek it by repentance and faith.
Luther's theses challenged discussion; but no one dared accept the challenge. The questions which he proposed had in a few days spread through all Germany, and in a few weeks they had sounded throughout Christendom. Many devoted Romanists, who had seen and lamented the terrible iniquity prevailing in the church, but had not known how to arrest its progress, read the propositions with great joy, recognizing in them the voice of God. They felt that the Lord had graciously set his hand to arrest the rapidly swelling tide of corruption that was issuing from the see of Rome. Princes and magistrates secretly rejoiced that a check was to be upon the arrogant power from which there was no appeal.
But the sin-loving and superstitious multitudes were terrified as the sophistries that had soothed their fears were swept away. Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions. The Reformer had bitter accusers to meet. Some charged him with acting hastily and from impulse. Others accused him of presumption, declaring that he was not directed of God, but was acting from pride and forwardness. "Who does not know," he responded, "that one can seldom advance a new idea without having some appearance of pride, and without being accused of exciting quarrels? Why were Christ and all the martyrs to death? — Because they appeared proud despisers of the wisdom of the times in which they lived, and because they brought forward new truths without having first consulted the oracles of the old opinions."
Again he declared: "What I am doing will not be effected by the prudence of man, but by the counsel of God. If the work be of God, who shall stop it? If it be not, who shall forward it? Not my will, not theirs, not ours, but thy will, holy Father who art in Heaven!"
Though Luther had been moved by the Spirit of God to begin his work, he was not to carry it forward without severe conflicts. The reproaches of his enemies, their misrepresentation of his purposes, and their unjust and malicious reflections upon his character and motives, came in upon him like an overwhelming flood; and they were not without effect. He had felt confident that the leaders in the church and the philosophers of the nation, would gladly unite with him in efforts for reform. Words of encouragement from those in high position had inspired him with joy and hope. Already in anticipation he had seen a brighter day dawning for the church. But encouragement had changed to reproach and condemnation. Many dignitaries, both of Church and State, were convicted of the truthfulness of his theses; but they soon saw that the acceptance of these truths would involve great changes. To enlighten and reform the people would be virtually to undermine the papal authority, to stop thousands of streams now flowing into her treasury, and thus greatly to curtail the extravagance and luxury of the Romish leaders. Furthermore, to teach the people to think and act as responsible beings, looking to Christ alone for salvation, would overthrow the pontiff's throne, and eventually destroy their own authority. For this reason they refused the knowledge tendered them of God, and arrayed themselves against Christ and the truth by their opposition to the man whom he had sent to enlighten them.
Luther trembled as he looked upon himself, — one man opposed to the mightiest powers of earth. He sometimes doubted whether he had indeed been led of God to set himself against the authority of the church. "Who was I," he writes, "to oppose the majesty of the pope, before whom the kings of the earth and the whole world trembled?" "No one can know what I suffered in those first two years, and into what dejection and even despair I was sunk." But he was not left to become utterly disheartened. When human support failed, he looked to God alone, and learned that he could lean in perfect safety upon that all-powerful arm.
To a friend of the Reformation Luther wrote: "We cannot attain to the understanding of Scripture either by study or strength of intellect. Therefore your first duty must be to begin with prayer. Entreat the Lord to deign to grant you, in his rich mercy, rightly to understand his word. There is no other interpreter of the word but the Author of that word himself. Even as he has said, 'They shall be all taught of God.' Hope nothing from your study and strength of intellect; but simply your trust in God, and in the guidance of his Spirit. Believe one who has made trial of this matter." Here is a lesson of vital importance to those who feel that God has called them to present to others the solemn truths for this time. These truths will stir the enmity of Satan, and of men who love the fables that he has devised. In the conflict with the powers of evil, there is need of something more than intellect and human wisdom.
When enemies appealed to custom and tradition, or to the assertions and authority of the pope, Luther met them with the Bible and the Bible alone. Here were arguments which they could not answer; therefore the slaves of formalism and superstition clamored for his blood, as the Jews had clamored for the blood of Christ. "He is a heretic," cried the Roman zealots; "it is a sin to allow him to live an hour longer! Away with him at once to the scaffold!" But Luther did not fall a prey to their fury. God had a work for him to do, and angels of Heaven were sent to protect him. Many, however, who had received from Luther the precious light, were made the objects of Satan's wrath, and for the truth's sake fearlessly suffered torture and death.
Luther's teachings attracted the attention of thoughtful minds throughout all Germany. From his sermons and writings issued beams of light which awakened and illuminated thousands. A living faith was taking the place of the dead formalism in which the church had so long been held. The people were daily losing confidence in the superstitions of Romanism. The barriers of prejudice were giving way. The word of God, by which Luther tested every doctrine and every claim, was like a two-edged sword, cutting its way to the hearts of the people. Everywhere there was awakening a desire for spiritual progress. Everywhere was such a hungering and thirsting after righteousness as had not been known for ages. The eyes of the people, so long directed to human rites and human mediators, were now turning, in penitence and faith, to Christ and him crucified.
This wide-spread interest aroused still further the fears of the papal authorities. Luther received a summons to appear at Rome to answer to the charge of heresy. The command filled his friends with terror. They knew full well the danger that threatened him in that corrupt city, already drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. They protested against his going to Rome, and requested that he receive his examination in Germany.
This arrangement was finally effected, and the pope's legate was appointed to hear the case. In the instructions communicated by the pontiff to this official, it was stated that Luther had already been declared a heretic. The legate was therefore charged to prosecute and reduce him to submission without delay. If he should remain steadfast, and the legate should fail to gain possession of his person, he was empowered to proscribe him in all places in Germany, to away, curse, and excommunicate all who were attached to him. And further, the pope called upon his legate, in order entirely to root out the pestilent heresy, to excommunicate all, of whatever dignity in Church or State, except the emperor, who should neglect to seize Luther and his adherents, and deliver them up to suffer the vengeance of Rome.
Here is displayed the true spirit of popery. Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document. Luther was at a great distance from Rome; he had had no opportunity to explain or defend his position; yet before his case had been investigated, he was summarily pronounced a heretic, and in the same day, exhorted, accused, judged, and condemned; and all this by the self-styled holy father, the only supreme, infallible authority in Church or State!
Augsburg had been fixed upon as the place of trial, and the Reformer set out on foot to perform the journey thither. Serious fears were entertained in his behalf. Threats had been made openly that he would be waylaid and murdered on the way, and his friends begged him not to venture. They even entreated him to leave Wittemberg for a time, and find safety with those who would gladly protect him. But he would not leave the position where God had placed him. He must continue faithfully to maintain the truth, notwithstanding the storms that were beating upon him. His language was: "I am like Jeremiah, a man of strife and contention; but the more they increase their threatenings, the more they multiply my joy.... They have already torn to pieces my honor and my good name. All I have left is my wretched body; let them have it; they will then shorten my life by a few hours. But as to my soul, they shall not have that. He who resolves to bear the word of Christ to the world, must expect death at every hour."
The tidings of Luther's arrival at Augsburg gave great satisfaction to the papal legate. The troublesome heretic who was exciting the attention of the whole world seemed now in the power of Rome, and the legate determined that he should not leave the city as he had entered. The Reformer had failed to provide himself with a safe-conduct. His friends urged him not to appear before the legate without one, and they themselves undertook to procure it from the emperor. The legate intended to force Luther, if possible, to retract, or, failing in this, to cause him to be conveyed to Rome, to share the fate of Huss and Jerome. Therefore through his agents he endeavored to induce Luther to appear without a safe-conduct, trusting himself to his mercy. This the Reformer firmly declined to do. Not until he had received the document pledging him the emperor's protection, did he appear in the presence of the papal ambassador.
As a matter of policy, the Romanists had decided to attempt to win Luther by an appearance of gentleness. The legate, in his interviews with him, professed great friendliness; but he demanded that Luther submit implicitly to the authority of the church, and yield every point without argument or question. He had not rightly estimated the character of the man with whom he had to deal. Luther, in reply, expressed his regard for the church, his desire for the truth, his readiness to answer all objections to what he had taught, and to submit his doctrines to the decision of certain leading universities. But at the same time he protested against the cardinal's course in requiring him to retract without having proved him in error.
The only response was, "Recant, recant." The Reformer showed that his position was sustained by the Scriptures, and firmly declared that he could not renounce the truth.
When the prelate saw that Luther's reasoning was unanswerable, he lost all self-control, and in a rage cried out: "Retract, or I will send you to Rome, there to appear before the judges commissioned to take cognizance of your case. I will excommunicate you and all your partisans, and all who shall at any time countenance you, and will cast them out of the church." And he finally declared, in a haughty and angry tone, "Retract, or return no more."
The Reformer retired with his friends, leaving the cardinal and his supporters to look at one another in utter confusion at the unexpected result of the conference.
Luther's efforts on this occasion were not without good results. The large assembly present had opportunity to compare the two men, and to judge for themselves of the spirit manifested by them, as well as of the strength and truthfulness of their positions. How marked the contrast! The Reformer, simple, humble, firm, stood up in the strength of God, having truth on his side; the pope's representative, self-important, overbearing, haughty, and unreasonable, was without a single argument from the Scriptures yet vehemently crying, "Retract, or be sent to Rome for punishment."
Notwithstanding Luther had secured a safe-conduct, the Romanists were plotting to seize and imprison him. His friends urged that as it was useless for him to prolong his stay, he should return to Wittemberg without delay, and that the utmost caution should be observed in order to conceal his intentions. He accordingly left Augsburg before daybreak, on horseback, accompanied only by a guide furnished him by the magistrate. With many forebodings he secretly made his way through the dark and silent streets of the city. Enemies, vigilant and cruel, were plotting his destruction. Would he escape the snares prepared for him? Those were moments of anxiety and earnest prayer. He reached a small gate in the wall of the city. It was opened for him, and with his guide he passed through without hindrance. Once beyond the limits, he soon left the city far behind. Satan and his emissaries were defeated. The man whom they had thought in their power was gone, escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowler.
At the news of Luther's departure, the legate was overwhelmed with surprise and anger. He had expected to receive great honor for his wisdom and firmness in dealing with this disturber of the church; but his hope was disappointed. He gave expression to his wrath in a letter to Frederick, the elector of Saxony, bitterly denouncing Luther, and demanding that Frederick send the Reformer to Rome or banish him from Saxony.
In defense, Luther urged that the legate or the pope show him his errors from the Scriptures, and pledged himself in the most solemn manner to renounce his doctrines if they could be shown to contradict the word of God. And he expressed his gratitude to God that he had been counted worthy to suffer in so holy a cause. These words made a deep impression upon the elector, and he resolved to stand as Luther's protector. He refused to send him to Rome, or to expel him from his territories.
The elector saw that there was a general breaking down of the moral restraints of society. A great work of reform was needed. The complicated and expensive arrangements to restrain and punish crime would be unnecessary if men but acknowledged and obeyed the requirements of God and the dictates of an enlightened conscience. He saw that Luther was laboring to secure this object, and he secretly rejoiced that a better influence was making itself felt in the church.
He saw also that as a professor in the university, Luther was eminently successful. From all parts of Germany, students crowded to Wittemberg to listen to his teachings. Young men, coming in sight of the city for the first time, would raise their hands toward heaven, and thank God that he had caused the light of his truth to shine forth from that place as in former ages from Jerusalem.
Luther was as yet but partially converted from the errors of Romanism. But as he compared the holy oracles with the papal decrees and constitutions, he was filled with wonder. "I am reading," he wrote, "the decretals of the popes, and ... I know not whether the pope is antichrist himself, or whether he is his apostle, so misrepresented and even crucified does Christ appear in them." Yet at this time Luther was still a supporter of the Roman Church, and had no thought that he would ever separate from her communion.
The Reformer's writings and his doctrine were extending to every nation in Christendom. The work spread to Switzerland and Holland. Copies of his writings found their way to France and Spain. In England his teachings were received as the word of life. To Belgium and Italy also the truth had extended. Thousands were awakening from their deathlike stupor to the joy and hope of a life of faith.
Rome became more and more exasperated by the attacks of Luther, and it was secretly declared by some of his fanatical opponents, that he who should take his life would be without sin. One day a stranger, with a pistol concealed under his cloak, approached the Reformer, and inquired why he went thus alone. "I am in the hands of God," answered Luther. "He is my help and my shield. What can men do unto me?" Upon hearing these words, the stranger turned pale, and fled away, as from the presence of the angels of Heaven.
Rome was bent upon the destruction of Luther; but God was his defense. His doctrines were heard everywhere, — in convents, in cottages, in the castles of the nobles, in the universities, in the palaces of kings; and noble men were rising on every hand to sustain his efforts.
In an appeal to the emperor and nobility of Germany in behalf of the Reformation of Christianity, Luther wrote concerning the pope: "It is monstrous to see him who is called the vicar of Christ, displaying a magnificence unrivaled by that of any emperor. Is this to represent the poor and lowly Jesus or the humble St. Peter? The pope, say they, is the Lord of the world! But Christ, whose vicar he boasts of being, said, 'My kingdom is not of this world.' Can the dominions of a vicar extend beyond those of his superior?"
He wrote thus of the universities: "I fear much that the universities will be found to be great gates leading down to hell, unless they take diligent care to explain the Holy Scriptures, and to engrave them in the hearts of youth. I advise no one to place his child where the Holy Scriptures are not regarded as the rule of life. Every institution where the word of God is not diligently studied, must become corrupt."
This appeal was rapidly circulated throughout Germany, and exerted a powerful influence upon the people. The whole nation was roused to rally around the standard of reform. Luther's opponents, burning with a desire for revenge, urged the pope to take decisive measures against him. It was decreed that his doctrines should be condemned immediately. Sixty days were granted the Reformer and his adherents, after which, if they did not recant, they were all to be excommunicated.
That was a terrible crisis for the Reformation. For centuries Rome's sentence of excommunication had been swiftly followed by the stroke of death. Luther was not blind to the tempest about to burst upon him; but he stood firm, trusting in Christ to be his support and shield. With a martyr's faith and courage he wrote: "What is about to happen I know not, and I care not to know." "Wherever the blow may reach me, I fear not. Not so much as a leaf falls without the will of our Father; how much rather will he care for us! It is a little matter to die for the Word, since his Word, that was made flesh for us, hath himself died. If we die with him, we shall live with him; and, passing through that which he has passed through before us, we shall be where he is, and dwell with him forever."
When the papal bull reached Luther, he said: "I despise it, and resist it, as impious and false. It is Christ himself who is condemned therein." "I glory in the prospect of suffering for the best of causes. Already I feel greater liberty; for I know now that the pope is antichrist, and that his throne is that of Satan himself."
Yet the word of the pontiff of Rome still had power. Prison, torture, and sword were weapons potent to enforce submission. Everything seemed to indicate that the Reformer's work was about to close. The weak and superstitious trembled before the decree of the pope, and while there was general sympathy for Luther, many felt that life was too dear to be risked in the cause of reform.
But Luther proceeded to publicly burn the pope's bull, with the canon laws, the decretals, and certain writings sustaining the papal power. By this action he boldly declared his final separation from the Roman Church. He accepted his excommunication, and proclaimed to the world that between himself and the pope there must hereafter be war. The great contest was now fully entered upon. Soon after, a new bull appeared, and the excommunication which had before been threatened, was finally pronounced against the Reformer and all who should receive his doctrines.
Opposition is the lot of all whom God employs to present truths specially applicable to their time. There was a present truth, — a truth at that time of special importance, — in the days of Luther; there is a present truth for the church today. But truth is no more desired by the majority today than it was by the papists who opposed Luther. There is the same disposition to accept the theories and traditions of men for the word of God as in former ages. Those who present truth for this time should not expect to be received with greater favor than were earlier reformers. The great controversy between truth and error, between Christ and Satan, is to increase in intensity to the close of this world's history.
HISTORICAL DATING OF THIS CHAPTER
Events in this chapter cover the period of time between November 10, 1483 and January 2, 1521 - the first 37 years of Martin Luther's life. He entered Erfurt University in 1501, received his Master's degree in 1505, traveled to Rome in 1510, received his Doctor of Theology in 1512, and began preaching. Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Castle Church door on October 31, 1517. Two years later, Tetzel died. Phillip Melanchton arrived in 1518. Luther's trial at Augsburg occurred in October 1518. Two years later, Pope Leo X's bull condemned Luther.
CHAPTER SUPPLEMENT - WHY DO GOD'S PEOPLE SUFFER?
"For unto you it is given in behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake". Philippians 1:29.
"Ye shall be hated of all men for My name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved". Matthew 10:22.
"He that findeth His life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for My sake shall find it". Matthew 10:39.
"And our hope of you is steadfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation". 2.Corinthians 1:7.
"Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season". Hebrews 11:25.
"For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for My name's sake". Acts 9:16.
"And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together". Romans 8:17.
"If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him". 2.Timothy 2:12.
"And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name". Acts 5:41, (9:16).
"But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you". 1.Peter 5:10.
"Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake". Matthew 5:11.
CHAPTER SUPPLEMENT - DECLARED TO BE DIVINE AND INFALLIBLE
"We hold upon this earth the place of God Almighty". Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter, June 20, 1894.
"The Pope is not only the representative of Jesus Christ, but he is Jesus Christ Himself, hidden under a veil of flesh". The Catholic National, July 1895.
"We define that the Holy Apostolic See [Vatican] and the Roman Pontiff hold the primacy over the whole world". Council of Trent, Decree, quoted in Philippe Labbe and Gabriel Cossart, The Most Holy Councils, VoL 13, col.1167.
"Christ entrusted His office to the chief pontiff... but all power in heaven and in earth has been given to Chnst... therefore the chief pontiff, who is His vicar, will have this power". Corpus Juris Canonici, 1555 ed., Vol.3, Extravagantes Communes, Book 1, chap.1, col.29.
"Hence the Pope is crowned with a triple crown, as king of heaven and of earth and of the lower regions [infernorum; the fiery place]". Lucius Ferraris, Prompta Bibliotheca, "Papa" [the Pope], art.2, 1772-1777 ed., Vol.6, p.29.
"For thou art the shepherd, thou art the physician, thou art the director, thou art the husbandman; finally, thou art another God on Earth". Christopher Marcellus, Oration in the fifth Lateran Council, session IV (1512), in J.D. Mansi (ed.), Sacrorum Conciliorum, Vol.32, col.761.
"The priests are the parents of God". St Bernard [fifth century archbishop].
"O wonderful dignity of the priests! In their hands as in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, the Son of God becomes incarnate!" Augustine.
"The pope himself is the keybearer and the doorkeeper, therefore no one can appeal from the pope to God". Augustinus Triumphus, Summa de Potestate.
"All the names which in the Scriptures are applied to Christ, by virtue of which it is established that He is over the church, all the same names are applied to the Pope". Robert Bellarmine, On the Authority of the Councils.
"Ques. How prove you that the Church hath power to command feasts and holy days?" "Ans. By the very act of changing the Sabbath into Sunday, which Protestants allow of [by observing it], and therefore they fondly contradict themselves, by keeping Sunday strictly, and breaking most other feasts commanded by the same church". Priest Henry Tuberville, An Abridgment of the Christian Doctrine, p.58.
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