God had preserved His church throughout the dark and dreary Middle Ages when apostate Rome controlled the life and consciences of men. He had preserved His church through the Waldensians hiding in the valleys and caves of the Alps to escape the brutality of the Inquisition. He had preserved His church through faithful followers of the two Johns: John Wycliffe and John Hus.
But the institute of the church was corrupt and the saints of God had no place to go with their children to be nourished by the Bread of Life. And gradually, under Rome's terrible pressures, the church became more difficut to find.
God has His own way and His own time of doing that which needs to be done to preserve His church. Applicable to the church as well as to creation is the old adage: "It is always darkest just before dawn." Darkness grew deeper in Europe under Rome's heavy hand; the dawn was about to break. It broke with the coming of an insignificant monk out of Saxony in Germany when hope for reformation was gone. It broke from an unexpected source and in a surprising place. It is the story of one of the greatest works of God in the church since the time of the apostles. It is doubtful whether such a story shall again unfold until Christ returns at the end of time.
The Reformation In Luther's Soul
From our earthly and human perspective it seems as if God is never in a hurry. He seems to take His time about things which appear to us to be so crucial that any delay is disastrous. So it was with Luther.
In the latter part of the 15th century, the situation in Europe seemed to be so bad that if God did not do something very shortly, it would be too late and the church would be forever gone from the earth. Reformation had to take place or reformation would never take place.
But, although when the reformation did came, it came as the mighty surge of a tidal wave which engulfed Europe, it after all came very slowly and scarcely noticed. It came as a still small voice in the soul of Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Prussia, in Saxony of Germany. His parents were rather poor, but honest and industrious, pious members of the Romish Church. And Luther was brought up under the strict discipline and superstition of the church. He received his early education in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach. Because his parents were unable to support him, he sang to earn a bit of money and was helped by Ursula Cotta, wife of one of the wealthy merchants in Eisenach. His upbringing was the rough training of the peasantry and he bore the indelible marks of his upbringing all his life. It made him a man of the people.
At 18, in 1501, he entered the university of Erfurt to study scholastic thought, logic, metaphysics, rhetoric and physics -- the traditional studies of his time. Because the Renaissance had entered German universities too, he also studied the Latin classics and developed in poetry and music. At 20 years of age he probably saw a complete Bible for the first time at which time began also a struggle in Luther's soul which, created by God, was the burden of his own personal salvation. In 1502 he graduated from the university with an A.B. degree and three years later obtained an A.M., roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. Law was his main concern because it was his father's wish that he devote himself to what was one of the most promising careers in Roman Catholic Europe.
But God had other plans. Two events brought Luther into a monastery: one was the sudden death of a friend either killed in a duel or struck by lightning; the other was a terrible thunderstorm in which he thought he would die and pleaded with St. Anne to spare him, promising, if spared, to become a monk. He was spared and a monk he became -- on July 16, 1505.
He wanted to be a monk because he thought of the convent as the way to bring some peace to his fear-filled soul -- peace which came from the assurance of God's love. God put him in a monastery so that he could learn the utter uselessness of every prescription Rome offered to attain this peace. But Rome's prescriptions were no prescriptions at all because they were based on what man had to do.
And indeed, in the monastery he tried it all. As he himself put it, he out-monked all the monks. He mistreated himself so badly with various works of penance that he harmed his health. He confessed sins to his superior so often and in such detail that he was told finally either to commit some sin worth confessing or to quit bothering a busy man with silly little things.
God sent him some help in the monastery, perhaps sufficient to keep Luther sane, although not sufficient as yet to bring Luther peace. The help came from Johann von Staupitz, the Vicar-general of the monastery, one who because of his mystical leanings, knew more about salvation than the whole Romish Church, but who never left Rome for all that. von Staupitz directed Luther to Scripture, turned Luther's thoughts to the forgiveness of sins in the cross, and planted the seeds of the priesthood in Luther's soul. In 1511, in one of Luther's periods of black despair, von Staupitze, while sitting with Luther under a pear tree in the garden of the monastery, told Luther to prepare himself for preaching by becoming a Doctor of Theology. Luther's response was: "Your honor, Mr. Staupitz, you will deprive me of my life." Only half in jest, Staupitz replied: "Quite all right. God has plenty of work for clever men to do in heaven."
The time spent in the monastery was necessary for Luther to realize that the theology of the Romish Church was wrong because it taught salvation by works. And the works which God required could never be performed by man. Luther himself was plagued with the thought that one either did not do enough good works or the works which he did were not sufficiently good to earn his salvation. And because no works could earn salvation, the peace and joy of salvation could not be found in Romish prescriptions. Luther needed to learn this lesson in the school of the Holy Spirit because no reformation would ever be possible without learning it.
Luther entered the priesthood and said his first mass on May 2, 1507. But he continued his studies towards a doctorate in theology which, when completed, opened the door for him to become professor in the University of Wittenberg. In the winter of 1512, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther began his teaching with lecturing on the Psalms, on Romans, on Galatians, on Hebrews, and again on the Psalms. He saw these studies as crucial and later said: "In the course of this teaching, the papacy slipped away from me."
The breakthrough in understanding came with new insights into the phrase, "The righteousness of God," as it appears in Rom. 1:17: "For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith." Luther had always thought of God's righteousness as God's essential perfection and His consequent hatred of sin. He looked at God's righteousness as God's burning wrath against any one who did not keep God's ways perfectly.
But in what later has become known as Luther's "tower experience" he suddenly came to understand that the phrase, "the righteousness of God" did not refer to God's hatred of sin rooted in His own perfection, but meant that God imputed righteousness to the sinner without works and only because of the merits of Christ. It was a righteousness freely given to undeserving sinners by faith.
It seemed to him, Luther later said in describing this event, that the gates of heaven themselves were opened before him. Suddenly his awful sense of guilt and unworthiness fell away; his desperate attempts to achieve peace with God through his labors seemed stupid and useless; all his monkish rituals were exercises in futility. He was without any sin, not because he did not sin, but because Christ's righteousness was freely given. He was, as he described it, righteous and a sinner at the same time. This brought peace, even in the struggle with sin.
The full implications of this theological "breakthrough" did not dawn immediately on Luther. Once having seen this great light, he now had to re-read and re-study the Psalms and Paul, for understanding that salvation through imputed righteousness lay at the heart of Scripture, he had to look again at it all from the viewpoint of this "heart."
The reformation had been, by God's grace, completed in Luther's soul. It was now time for the work to begin in the church at large. God had readied the man He was to use, and even if Luther did not know it, the people of God were now to be led out of the Egypt of Rome's church into the Canaan of the gospel. And Luther was appointed the Moses.
The work began when the monk Tetzel decided to hawk his indulgences in Saxony of Germany where the news of it came to Luther's attention. Luther, convinced in his own soul of the evil of indulgences, decided to open the subject to debate among the monks of the Augustinian Order of which he was a part. To invite others to the debate, he attached 95 theses to the chapel door of the church of Wittenburg as notice to anyone wishing to participate what the subject of the debate would be.
It became evident from this time on that the reformation was indeed the work of God, not the work of Luther. It was God's work in Luther's soul, but it continued to be God's work as well. Luther himself, in describing the progress of the Reformation, was later to say:
The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call
themselves Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor
was I crucified for anyone . . . . How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am,
come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?
Or a bit later, in a sermon:
I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while
I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly
weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did
nothing. The Word did it all.
This conviction of Luther that what happened was God's work was apparent at the time of the theses. Luther, rather innocently, wanted a general discussion. God took the theses and through the marvel of the printing press, caused them to be distributed through the whole of Europe where they shook Europe to its foundations. The theses were the germ of the gospel of salvation in Christ alone, a truth for which Europe hungered.
The Progress of the Reformation
We cannot, in this brief biographical sketch, give a detailed account of Luther's work. It is possible to mention, and then only in passing, some of the outstanding events.
Although the upheavals in Europe over Luther's theses soon came to the attention of the pope, Rome was not immediately perturbed by these events and dismissed the whole matter as "a monks' quarrel." But it was far more than that, and even Luther did not know the extent of it. But when the seriousness of it all became evident, some important events took place.
The Heidelberg Disputation
The Heidelberg Disputation, held in April of 1518, less than a half year after the theses came to public attention, was a conference and debate within the Augustinian Order over Luther's views. The Roman Catholic prelates appealed to papal authority and thought that would end the matter. Luther took the opportunity to get behind the indulgence question to expose various theological errors: the merit of good works and the free will of man. Nothing much came of it all except that Luther gained many for his views, including Martin Bucer, later reformer of Strassburg.
The Leipsig Disputation
Rome now began to take some interest in the matter and appointed Prierio, responsible for all that was taught in Christendom, to investigate. He wrote a tract attempting to refute the theses of Luther, but his chief appeal was to papal authority:
Whoever does not rely on the teaching of the Roman Church and of the Roman Pontiff,
as the infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures themselves derive their
strength and their authority, is a heretic.
Luther was ordered to appear in Rome to have his views examined, and Frederick, Elector of Saxony, was ordered to turn him over. Frederick refused and became Luther's protector throughout the Reformation.
The Leipzig Disputation, held from June 27 to July 15, 1519, was one of the great debates of all time. The main debaters were Martin Luther and John Eck, the latter a skilled orator and debater and a man devoted heart and soul to Romish orthodoxy. From a purely formal point of view, Luther lost the debate. He was charged with Hussitism and was forced to admit it. Eck proved to be the more skilled in debating techniques and drove Luther to positions he had not originally held.
But these positions were the positions where God wanted Luther to stand. Under the pressures of Eck's skillful attack, Luther was, step by step, forced to deny the infallibility of church councils, the supreme authority of the papacy, the idea of priestly mediation, and the silly notion that the morality of monks in monasteries was superior to the morality of God's people. And so, finally, he stood where God wanted him to stand: The sole authority of Scripture; the truth that only that which is of faith is good in God's sight; the principle of the priesthood of all believers. Luther was forced to see the consequences, stark and naked, of the position he had taken.
The Diet of Worms
In June of 1520 the bull of excommunication was issued in Rome at Eck's instigation. Because the German people were behind Luther, it was difficult to deliver the bull to Luther personally. When finally it was done, Luther publicly burned the bull in the street of Wittenberg in December of the same year. It was the complete break between Luther and an apostate church.
The Diet itself was really a meeting of the Reichstag, a convocation of all the princes which ruled the different provinces of Germany. Present were also high and mighty officials from the Romish Church decked in all their splendid robes and mitres, determined to force the will of the pope of the Reichstag. Charles V, chosen by the princes to be ruler of the Holy Roman Empire which included Germany was there with his court. The meeting was to settle, if possible, "the German problem."
At crucial times God arranges affairs in his church in such a way that just one man alone, among the multitudes, is called upon to stand for the cause of God and truth. So it was at Worms. Luther against the entire Romish Church. Luther threatened by the cruelties of the Inquisition. Luther against the might of the Empire. Luther alone.
He went, it is true, under a safe conduct issued by the emperor himself. But Luther and his friends remembered well that a safe conduct meant exactly nothing to Rome's charlatans even though it was a sacred promise before God. When urged by his friends not to go, Luther responded that the cause of Christ required it and if every roof tile in Worms were a devil, he would still need to go. Shortly before his death, reflecting on those perilous days, he said: "I was fearless, I was afraid of nothing; God can make one so desperately bold, I know not whether I could be so cheerful now."
He was not given opportunity to defend his position, but was asked whether the books lying before him on the table were his. When he acknowledged that they were, he was asked whether he would recant what he taught.
It was a solemn moment. Luther was awed by the assembly, nervous and excited, unprepared to be confronted with a question which could mean his life without any opportunity to defend himself. And so he asked for a day to consider his answer. After a brief consultation, the emperor granted it. Some thought he was about to collapse. His enemies were filled with glee.
But the respite of a day brought him renewed strength and vigor. He wrote that night to a friend: "I shall not retract one iota, so Christ help me."
The next day had to be the most important day of his life.
On the way to the hall, an old warrior is said to have clapped him on the shoulder and said: "My poor monk, my poor monk, thou art going to make such a stand as neither I nor any of my companions in arms have ever done in our hottest battles. If thou art sure of the justice of thy cause, then forward in God's name, and be of good courage: God will not forsake thee."
After some preliminary discussion, and when finally instructed to make clear his position without equivocation, he uttered those words which have so many times moved the souls of the heirs of the Reformation, though they filled the enemies with consternation and dismay:
Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear
arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that
they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy
Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and
will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the
conscience. Here I stand. I can not do otherwise. God help me! Amen.
The Roman Catholics put a lot of pressure on Charles to break his safe conduct promise and arrest Luther, but Charles refused. It has been said that Charles' refusal was because of a memory of the blush on the face of Sigismund when John Hus, as he was led away to be burned, reminded him of the safe conduct he had issued. In any case, Luther was put under the ban of the empire.
Stay In Wartburg
Frederick, fearful that Luther would be captured after all, arranged for his "kidnapping" by friends who carried him to the castle at Wartburg. Here Luther stayed for 11 months writing constantly. His chief work, however, was his translation of the New Testament Scriptures into the German language. (The Old Testament was done later and completed 1534 by a group of men.) It was an amazing accomplishment, for by it Luther not only gave the Bible to God's people, but he also determined the course of the German language for centuries following him.
Luther returned to Wittenburg only when he heard that the radical Zwickau prophets with their awful mysticism were disturbing the peace and tranquility of his city. If one wonders how important a role preaching played in the reformation, one need only be reminded of the fact that Luther stopped the radicals in their tracks and sent them scurrying out of the city by means of a series of 8 sermons which he preached from Wittenberg's pulpit.
From the time Luther returned to Wittenburg to the end of his life, Germany tottered on the brink of war between the armies of the Protestant princes and the armies of those princes determined to keep Germany Roman Catholic. It was a time of danger and struggle, but only after Luther death did the Thirty Years War break out, a war which left Germany devastated.
Luther The Preacher
Above all else, Luther was a preacher. This ought not to surprise us for preaching is the one and only power of the church. And no reformation can be brought about in any other way than through preaching.
Luther's preaching is characterized by exposition of Scripture, but extremely down-to-earth imagery by which Luther made God's truth come alive in the minds and hearts of the simplest of God's people. The sermons reflected Luther's rapport with his own countrymen.
Yet the one characteristic which is most striking is the fact that Luther always brought the congregation to the cross. It is hard to find a sermon in which Luther did not do this. He himself had found the peace that passes understanding at the foot of the cross, and to that suffering and dying Savior Luther was intent on bringing God's people.
Luther's sermons are extant. They ought to be read. Nothing tells us of the struggles of the Reformation more clearly than these sermons, and nothing shows us the power of the Spirit in Christ-centered preaching more vividly than to read what Luther preached.
Luther The Writer
Luther's writings are voluminous. In the edition in our library his writings take 54 volumes. Several are outstanding and sooner or later ought to be read by God's people -- as they were read by God's people in Luther's day. In his Bondage of the Will, Luther refuted the heresy of the freedom of the will taught by the "Prince of the Humanists," Desiderius Erasmus. It was Luther's break with Humanism and is one of the great books of the Reformation.
Luther's three great pamphlets defined the basic truths of the Lutheran reformation: "Address to the German Nobility," in which the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was developed; "Babylonian Captivity of the Church," in which Luther made his case against Rome's sacramental system; and "Freedom of the Christian Man," a clear view of Christian freedom.
If any one wishes to know Luther at his most down-to-earth and rugged character, he need only to pick up and read the "Table Talks." Here is Luther commenting on almost everything in life with simple expressions, Biblical insights, humorous comments, and talk that would delight the soul of the rough-hewn peasant.
Luther the Husband and Father
One could write a book on this aspect of the Lutheran Reformation alone. Luther not only laid aside his monastic vows; he married Catherine von Bora, a former nun with a mind of her own and a force in her own right in the home. He married her, he said, "to please his father, tease the pope and vex the devil." She was affectionately called by her husband, Katie, my rib. She managed, sometimes with exasperation, the tumultuous household which always had visitors and never had enough money. To them were born six children, three daughters, two of whom died young, and three sons. Especially the death of Lena (Magdalen) touched Luther with great sorrow. Schaff describes the scene at her bedside:
"I love her very much," he prayed; "but, dear God, if it is thy holy will to take her hence,
I would gladly leave her with Thee." And to her he said, "Lena dear, my little daughter,
thou wouldst love to remain here with thy father: art thou willing to go to that other
Father?" -- "Yes, dear father," she replied, "just as God wills." And when she was
dying, he fell on his knees beside her bed, wept bitterly, and prayed for her redemption.
As she lay in her coffin, he exclaimed, "Ah! my darling Lena, thou wilt rise again, and
shine like a star, -- yea, as a sun. I am happy in the spirit, but very sorrowful in the
Luther wrote extensively on education because the education of the children of the church was crucial to him. And, in writing on this important subject, from which we can learn today, Luther was far ahead of his times.
But instruction in the home occupied a crucial part of Luther's life. The home of Martin and Katie was filled with prayer, Bible study, theological discussion, and the example of Godly people. One prayer of Luther lives in my memory in a special way because it shows his intimate life of fellowship with God, his dependence upon divine grace, and his love for the church. It was a prayer at the end of a busy day.
My dear God, now I lie down and turn your affairs back to you; you may do better with
them. If you can do no better than I, you will ruin them entirely. When I awake, I will
gladly try again. Amen.
By his home life, Luther brought true reformation into home and family, something sorely needed after the corruption of Rome. The effects of Luther's own example linger to the present in covenant homes.
Luther the Warrior
Luther fought courageously and unflinchingly in the battles for the truth. Whatever was necessary in his mighty blasts against Rome to show her evils, he did. By his work he threw the entire church into confusion.
And yet it must be remembered that he had to fight on two fronts: Rome on the one side, but on the other front, the miserable Anabaptist radicals -- the so-called "right wing" of the Reformation. That he could maintain his balance between these two extremes is evidence in itself of the power of grace in Luther's life.
By means of his theology, he battered and destroyed the imposing and seemingly indestructible walls of the Roman citadel of heresy. While Calvin was the one to rebuild Jerusalem's walls, Calvin could not have done his work without Luther's fierce cannonades against Rome. But Luther also laid the foundations of the doctrines of sovereign grace so that the truths of salvation by grace alone could be more beautifully and fully set forth by those who were to follow.
It is always reason for sorrow that, on the doctrine of the sacraments, Luther should also have felt it necessary to do battle with his fellow reformers.
Far from Katy, in Eisleben where he had gone for some difficult negotiations and in the city of his birth and baptism, at the age of 63 Luther went to be with his Lord Whom he loved and served. The date was February 17, 1546. He had for a long time not been well and suffered severely from various ailments. As death neared, in characteristic fashion he committed his soul to God with the words of Ps. 31:5 and with the request to those at his bedside that they would pray "for our Lord God and his gospel, that all might be well with him, because the Council of Trent and the accursed pope are very angry with him." He died with the words of Simeon on his lips: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. Amen."
The reformer had gone to join the church triumphant. His work lives on.