On October 31 we shall again celebrate Reformation Day. This remains an important date in the annals of the church, just because our thoughts revert back to that memorable night of October 31, 1517, when Dr. Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses on the doors of the church at Wittenberg. That particular event still stands out in the minds of all Protestant Christendom as the dawn of the Reformation and the beginning of our deliverance from the yoke of Roman Catholic hierarchy. That is what makes this date so important to US.
Yet, you may well wonder why this particular date marking that particular event should be so important. It was not an innovation to nail a public announcement on the church door, since at that time it was a common practice to distribute news and information that way, particularly to those who were attending church. Nor did these ninety-five theses suggest in any way the dawning of a new day for a church that groaned under the oppression of Rome. It is true that Luther did attack many evils within the church, particularly the sale of indulgences. But at this point Luther still acknowledged the authority of the pope, and defended the indulgence as such. That is, he still recognized the right of the church to forgive sins in the name of Christ upon confession of guilt. He did not condemn the indulgence but rather the promiscuous sale of indulgences for the sake of financial gain for the church. And finally, we should note, that at this time Luther had not the slightest intention of breaking with the Roman Catholic Institution. Nor did this break come until almost four years later, on April 18, 1521, at the Diet of Worms, when he defied the authority of the pope and of the church councils.
What, then, makes that simple act of nailing ninety-five theses on the church door so important? Why does October 31 rightfully stand out as a memorable date for us even today?
The answer lies in the fact that God prepared the Reformation in Luther's soul long before this, and the first evidence of this work of God appeared on that night of October 31. Unawares to himself, Luther had reached a point of no return. He could only go on from that moment to carry out the conviction of his soul even though it meant a complete break with the Roman Catholic Church. This was possible because the Reformation was not a work of man but of God. In the providence of God the time had become ripe within the church for the dawning of a new day. Even politically the situation was such in Germany that the reformers could carry on their work unhindered by the civil government. God also prepared the hearts of His people so that when the tocsin rang, through the hammer blows on the church door of Wittenberg, the sound re-echoed through the world and aroused all true Christendom to seek deliverance from its bondage. But likewise, the Lord prepared the Reformation in the soul of the man He had appointed for this work, Martin Luther.
A brief survey of his life history up to this moment must clearly show this. For our convenience, we shall divide the first thirty-four years of Luther's life into five periods to show how the Lord prepared him step by step for this momentous task. They are as follows:
The period of early training and deep-seated fear of God.
The period of wrestling with the problem of his personal salvation.
The period of searching for peace in the convent.
The period in which he attained peace through the Scriptures.
The period in which he became burdened with the evils within the church institute to the point where he was compelled to oppose them openly.
We shall make a few remarks about each of these.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, an hour before midnight, at Eisleben, in the home of very simple yet God fearing parents. At six months, his parents took him to Mansfeld where his father worked in the mines. They were very poor, so that at the age of 14 years Martin had to go out on the streets to sing for a living. At home he was brought up, as he himself later writes, under stern discipline. And in the schools he attended the discipline was equally severe. The result was that during this early period of his life he was filled with a deep-seated fear of God, which never left him. It was while he was attending school at Eisenach that the wife of a wealthy merchant took him into her home and invited him to share the bounties of her table. This pious family by their benevolent interest in his welfare also helped to establish his spirituality and piety.
The second period of which we spoke, in which Luther became aware of a spiritual unrest in his soul, began approximately at 18 years of age. In 1501 he entered the University of Erfurt, one of the best universities of that time in the country. There he studied chiefly scholastic philosophy, including such subjects as logic, rhetoric, physics, and metaphysics. He also studied the ancient classics and acquired knowledge of the Latin. Four years later he received his degree of Master of Arts. But it was during these years that he became deeply concerned about his personal salvation. The burden of the guilt of his sins weighed heavily upon him, frequently bringing him to the verge of despair. The uncertainty of his election and the fear of impending judgment troubled him incessantly. This second phase of Luther's life probably influenced him more than anything else to seek his refuge in a convent.
Martin's earliest intentions were to become a lawyer. But upon his return to Erfurt, after spending a short period of vacation at home, he was overtaken by a heavy thunderstorm and was almost struck by lightning. It is still a question in my mind how much importance should be attached to this incident, as well as many more in the reformer's life which are often blown up beyond all proportion. But it is commonly accepted that this brought him to the third period we mentioned, his search for peace in the convent.
It was on July 17, 1505, that he entered the monastery of the Augustinian order at Erfurt and became a monk. We are told, "He was clothed with a white woolen shirt in honor of the pure Virgin, a black cowl and frock tied by a leathern girdle. He assumed the most menial offices to subdue his pride: he swept the floor, begged bread through the streets, and submitted without a murmur to the ascetic severities. He said twenty-five Paternosters with the Ave Maria in each of the seven appointed hours of prayer. He was devoted to the Holy Virgin and even believed, with the Augustinians and Franciscans, her immaculate conception, or freedom from hereditary sin—a doctrine denied by the Dominicans and not made an article of faith till the year 1854. He regularly confessed his sins to the priest at least once a week."* He himself said afterward, "If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there." But always the same problem loomed large before him, how could he find peace for his soul? He knew how to cry out with the apostle, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?" But he had not learned to add, "I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord."
This phase of Luther's experience was of great importance for his later life. God was using also this experience and turning it for his good by the ever-present operation of the Holy Spirit in his heart. It was in the convent that Luther learned the utter hopelessness of salvation by works. And it was there that he began a systematic study of the Bible. There he realized how much more the Scriptures, contained than had ever been taught him by the church, and how barren the Roman Catholic theology actually was.
This brings us to the period in Luther's life when he found peace through the Scriptures.
Johann von Staupitz, a Doctor of Divinity and Vicar- General of the Augustinian convents in Germany, aided Luther in his study of the Scriptures. Luther himself referred to Staupitz as his spiritual father who "first caused the light of the gospel to shine in the darkness of my heart." He directed him from his sins to the cross of Christ. He pointed him away from dead works to the power of grace which works faith in the heart. He taught him that true repentance consists, not in self-imposed penances, but in love to God and faith in the blood of Golgotha. He encouraged Luther to become a priest in 1507 and brought him to Wittenberg. He induced him to take a degree of Doctor of Divinity and to preach. He stirred him up against popery. But when the Reformation came, Staupitz remained in the Roman Catholic Church and that until his death.
Thus the peace of God gradually filled the soul of the reformer. He experienced in his own heart that only the righteous man can stand in the presence of God and live. He also knew that there is no righteousness apart from Christ Jesus, but that all our righteousness is solely in Him. And he realized, to his own delight, that this righteousness of Christ is ours through the bond of faith that unites us to Him. He knew from experience that ('the just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:18). And he could exclaim with exuberant joy, "Wherefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1).
This brings us to the final period in which Luther was aroused against the evils of the church and felt impelled to oppose them.
As a priest he came into still closer contact with the dead formalism of the church in which he was reared. In 1508 he became professor in Wittenberg. He first taught philosophy but became more and more interested in theology. He applied himself to an even more thorough study of Scriptures, giving lectures on the Psalms and on the epistle to the Romans. In the meantime he was still frequently cast between periods of black despondency and moments of peace and serenity.
In the autumn of 1510, Luther was sent to Rome in the interest of his order and at the suggestion of Staupitz. In company with two others he travelled on foot from convent to convent. He spent four weeks in Rome in an Augustinian convent and returned to Wittenberg in the following spring. This trip served to open his eyes to the corruption that was rampant, not only in the convents, but also in Rome. He was shocked by the unbelief, levity, and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living were their chief ambitions. Even the pope was interested only in worldly grandeur and power. This journey to Rome left a lasting impression upon him and prepared the way for his bitter opposition to the Roman Catholic formalism and corruption.
The climax came when Tetzel arrived in Germany selling indulgences for the building of St. Peter's Church in Rome. Others before him had opposed this same evil, such as Wyclif in England, Huss in Bohemia, John von Wesel in Germany, John Wessel in Holland, but without any lasting effect. But now also Luther was aroused. The result was the nailing of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church of Wittenberg on the eve of All-Saints Day, October 31, 1517.
Here was a monk and priest, living within the church, yet daring to raise his voice against her corruption. From this first act the rest must follow. Having taken the first step, there was no alternative but to go on. God had created all the attending circumstances both religiously and politically, had prepared the man of his choice for the work that had to be accomplished, had appointed the moment for the Reformation, and was now bringing it to pass. Thus, approximately four years later, when he was placed before the Diet of Worms and required to retract all his writings of the past years, he was ready to defy the pope and the councils of the church, and thus make a complete break with the institute of Roman Catholicism. Then and there he made the bold and defiant statement, at least in substance, "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."
Plainly, the Reformation was prepared by God in the soul of Martin Luther.
In conclusion, it may be well to add, that because of this peculiar beginning, the Reformation never found its completion in Luther himself. Luther opened the way, but it took a Calvin to point out the real doctrinal significance of the Reformation. For Luther the break with the Roman Church centered about the truth of justification by faith, but Calvin brought out that this truth rested in the more fundamental truth of the sovereignty of God. Calvin saw and taught that we can never maintain the truth of justification by faith alone without a clear conception of God's sovereignty and eternal predestination.
History has also proved this to be a fact. Although Luther himself remained sound in the truth, his close friend, Melanchthon, weaned away from it and even favored a healing of the breach with Rome, particularly after Luther's death. And in the centuries that followed, Lutheranism often became man-centered rather than God-centered.
Thus Luther's work prepared the way for that other reformer, John Calvin, who with the theological principle of "Soli Deo Gloria" set the Reformation on a sound Reformed path.
Rev. Cornelius Hanko was born to Herman and Jennie (nee Burmania) Hanko on May 19, 1907 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received his heartfelt desire when the Lord in His mercy took him to glory on Monday, March 14, in the year of our Lord 2005.
Rev. Hanko was baptized in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. During the common grace controversy in the 1920s the Hanko family followed Rev. Herman Hoeksema and the majority of the consistory of Eastern Avenue in their polemic against common grace and their advocacy of one, sovereign grace of God for the elect in Christ Jesus. The Hankos thus became charter members of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan when the Eastern Avenue Protesting Christian Reformed Church, her pastor and consistory, were cast out of the CRC in 1926. Rev. Hanko, therefore, was the last of the PRC clergy (and perhaps of the entire membership of the PRC) to have had direct, personal contact with the events of 1924–1926 that led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Already in his teenage years Rev. Hanko had his eye on the ministry. His first inclination was to be a missionary. That never happened, because the Lord called him to the pastoral ministry for his entire career. Rev. Hanko began his studies for the ministry under Revs. H. Danhof, H. Hoeksema, and G. M. Ophoff. He graduated from the seminary in 1929 with five other men (four of whom left the PRC in the split of 1953 and one of whom left the PRC in the early 1960s. All five of these eventually became ministers in the CRC).
After graduation from the seminary Rev. Hanko and his bride Jennie (nee Griffioen) made their way to Hull, Iowa PRC, in which church Rev. Hanko was ordained a minister of the Word and Sacraments in the PRC. God blessed Rev. and Mrs. Hanko with four children, all of whom are members of the PRC: Rev. Herman C. (married to Wilma Knoper), Professor Emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary; Fred (married to Ruth Miersma), who gave his working life to the Protestant Reformed Christian Schools (Adams Street in Grand Rapids, where he was my ninth grade teacher, Northwest Iowa in Doon, where he taught with my wife, and Hope, Walker, Michigan); Elaine, widow of Richard Bos; and Alice, who cared for her father in his later years.
In addition to the Hull PRC, Rev. and Mrs. Hanko served in the following Protestant Reformed Churches: Oaklawn, Illinois (1935); Manhattan, Montana (1945); First, Grand Rapids, Michigan (1948); Hope, Redlands, California (1964); and Hudsonville, Michigan (1971). After becoming emeritus in 1977, Rev. Hanko remained active for a number of years, preaching and teaching in the churches and preaching two services per Sunday in Florida during the winter seasons.
His years in First Church were difficult ones for Rev. Hanko because of the controversy that resulted in the split in First and in the denomination in June of 1953. The controversy involved the doctrine of the covenant. The majority of the congregation of First and of the members and clergy of the denomination embraced the covenant view of Dr. Klaas Schilder (conceiving of the essence of the covenant as consisting of a conditional promise made by God to every baptized child). These left our churches. During these years, while never compromising the truth of an unconditional covenant of grace and friendship established unilaterally by God with His elect in Christ Jesus, Rev. Hanko never lost a certain healthy balance in his preaching and teaching in First Church. He simply did his work by the grace of God, preaching, teaching, and caring for the flock of God as best he was able.
During his years in First Church, which numbered more than five hundred families before the split in 1953 and ca. 200 families after the split, Rev. Hanko had my father as one of his co-laborers in the consistory. They became good friends. The Hankos and the Deckers regularly visited together. It was through this contact that I got to know Rev. Hanko on a personal basis. It was during Rev. Hanko’s years as pastor of First that I was a student at Calvin College, then located on Franklin Street in Grand Rapids just a short block away from the parsonage occupied by the Hankos. Not infrequently, I would walk from class at Calvin to the parsonage with my questions. Rev. Hanko patiently answered these questions from Scripture and the confessions and would then offer prayer. Rev. Hanko was used by God, together with my parents to keep me in the PRC as a member and later as one of the churches’ pastors. I also had the blessed privilege after October 1, 1965, the date of my ordination as pastor of the Doon, Iowa congregation, to labor for a few years with Rev. Hanko as a colleague. We younger pastors in Classis West leaned heavily on our older, experienced, and competent colleague, learning much from his godly example.
During his pastorate in Hudsonville, Michigan the Lord delivered his beloved Jennie from her suffering into glory. I remember sitting with Rev. Hanko in the ICU waiting-room at the hospital, when he remarked, “Part of me is dying in there.” Now Rev. Hanko, having died in the Lord, enjoys God’s fellowship in Jesus in glory as well.
We thank God for giving our churches this gifted and faithful servant and for using him for the edification of the churches for the years of his lengthy ministry among our Protestant Reformed Churches. That in the years to come these churches may follow the example of our beloved brother, Cornelius Hanko, and “…earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints…” is our fervent prayer (Jude : 3b).
Soli Deo Gloria! (Written by Rev.Gise Van Baren)