MARTIN LUTHER – CAPTIVE TO THE WORD OF GOD
The Reformation was one of the most momentous turning points in world history. It was led by men of strong faith, deep convictions, great intelligence, high moral standards and tremendous courage. Towering above all these great Reformers, Martin Luther stands out as the most courageous, controversial and influential Reformer of all time.
Luther has been alternatively described as the brilliant scholar who rediscovered the central message of the Bible, a prophet like Elijah and John the Baptist to reform God’s people, the liberator who arose to free his people from the oppression of Rome, the last medieval man, and the first modern man. Zwingli described him as: “the Hercules who defeated the tyranny of Rome.” Pope Leo X called Luther: “A wild boar, ravaging his vineyard.” Emperor Charles V described him as: “A demon in the habit of a monk!”
Martin Luther was born 10 November 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. His father, Hans Luder had worked hard to climb the “social ladder” from his humble peasant origins to become a successful copper mining entrepeneur. Hans married Margaretha Lindemann, the daughter of a prosperous and gifted family that included doctors, lawyers, university professors and politicians. Hans Luder owned several mines and smelters and he became a member of the City Council in Mansfield, where Martin was raised, under the strict discipline typical of that time.
From age 7, Martin began studying Latin at school. Hans intended his son to become a lawyer, so he was sent on to the University of Erfurt before his 14th birthday. Martin proved to be extraordinarily intelligent and he earned his BA and MA degrees in the shortest time allowed by the statutes of the University. Martin proved so effective in debating, that he earned the nickname: “the philosopher.”
As Martin excelled in his studies, he began to be concerned about the state of his soul and the suitability of the career his father had set before him. While travelling on foot, near the town of Stotternhein, a violent thunder storm brought Martin to his knees. With lightening striking all around him, Luther cried out for protection to the patron saint of miners: “St. Anne, help me, I will become a monk!” The storm around him matched the conflict raging within his soul.
Although his parents were pious people, they were shocked when he abandoned his legal studies at Erfurt and entered the Augustinian monastery. Martin was 21 years old when, in July 1505, he gave away all his possessions – including his lute, his many books and clothing – and entering the Black Cloister of the Augustinians.
Luther quickly adapted to monastic life, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the manual labour, spiritual disciplines and studies required. He went way beyond the fasts, prayers and ascetic practices required and forced himself to sleep on the cold stone floor without a blanket, whipped himself, and seriously damaged his health. He was described as: “devout, earnest, relentlessly self-disciplined, unsparingly self-critical, intelligent…” and “impeccable.” Luther rigorously pursued the monastic ideal and devoted himself to study, prayer and the sacraments. He wearied his priest with his confessions and with his punishments of himself with fasting, sleepless nights, and flagellation.
Luther’s wise and godly superior, Johannes von Staupitz recognised Martin’s great intellectual talents and to channel his energies away from excessive introspection ordered him to undertake further studies, including Hebrew, Greek and the Scriptures to become a university lecturer for the order.
Luther was ordained a priest in 1507 and studied and taught at the Universities of Wittenberg and Erfurt (1508 – 1511). In 1512, Martin Luther received his doctoral degree and took the traditional vow on becoming a professor at Wittenberg University to faithfully teach and defend the Scriptures. This vow would be a tremendous source of encouragement to him later. Luther never viewed himself as a rebel, but rather as a theologian seeking to be faithful to the vow required of him to teach and defend Holy Scripture. Luther committed most of the New Testament, much of the Old Testament and all of the Psalms to memory.
The University of Wittenberg had been founded by Prince Frederick of Saxony in 1502. Luther’s friend from his university days in Erfurt, George Spalatin, was now chaplain and secretary to the Prince, and closely involved in the Prince’s pet project of his new university. Wittenberg at this time was a small little river town with only about 2,000 residents. Prince Frederick wanted to build it up into his new capital of Saxony.
STUDIES THAT SHOOK THE WORLD
From 1513 to 1517, Luther lectured at the University on the Psalms, Romans and Galatians. Being a university professor would have been a full-time job, however Luther had other responsibilities as well. He was the supervisor for 11 Augustinian monasteries, including the one at Wittenberg. Luther was also responsible for preaching regularly at the monastery chapel, the town church and the castle church. It was a combination of Luther’s theological and pastoral concerns that led him to take the actions that sparked the Reformation.
Luther had long been troubled spiritually with the righteousness of God. God demanded absolute righteousness “be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” “Be holy, as I am Holy.” We are obligated to love God whole heartedly, and our neighbours as ourselves.
It was because of his great concern for his eternal salvation that Luther had sought to flee the world. In spite of the bitter grief and anger of his father, he had buried himself in the cloister and devoted himself to a life of the strictest asceticism. Yet, despite devoting himself to earning salvation by good works, cheerfully performing the humblest tasks, praying, fasting, chastising himself even beyond the strictest monastic rules, he was still oppressed with a terrible sense of his utter sinfulness and lost condition.
“THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH”
Then Luther found some comfort in the devotional writings of Bernard of Clairvoux, who stressed the free grace of Christ for salvation. The writings of Augustine provided further light. Then, as he begun to study the Scriptures, in the original Hebrew and Greek, joy unspeakable flooded his heart. It was 1512, as he began to study Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, that the verse “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: the righteous will live by faith” Romans 1:17.
Luther later testified that as he began to understand that this righteousness of God is a free gift by God’s grace through which we may live by faith, “I felt entirely born again and was led through open gates into Paradise itself. Suddenly the whole of Scripture had a different appearance for me. I recounted the passages which I had memorized and realized that other passages, too, showed that the work of God is what God works in us… thus St. Paul’s words that the just shall live by faith, did indeed become to me the gateway to Paradise.” The burden of his sin rolled away. Up until then, Luther had tried to earn salvation by his good works, although he never felt that he had been able to do enough. Now, God had spoken to him through the Scripture. Man is not saved by works, but by faith alone.
A TURNING POINT
As a doctor, Luther had taken an oath to faithfully serve the Church by the study and teaching of Holy Scripture. At the university, he was responsible to prepare pastors. Now, having experienced God’s grace in Christ, studying God’s Word, Luther began to see the emptiness, self-absorption, the pious pretence and superstitious unbelief of his previous religious devotion. Nor could Luther fail to recognise the same pious fraud and pharisaical futility all around him.
In 1510, before being made a professor at Wittenberg, Luther had been sent to Rome for his monastic order. What he had seen there had shocked and disillusioned him. Rome was the pre-immanent symbol of ancient civilisation and “the residence of Christ’s Vicar on earth” the Pope. Luther was horrified by the blatant immorality and degeneracy prevalent In Rome at that time.
The centre of medieval Roman Catholic Church life was the Mass, the Sacrament of the altar. The Roman Catholic institution placed much emphasis on the punishment of sin in Purgatory, as a place of cleansing by fire before the faithful were deemed fit to enter Heaven. They taught that there were four sacraments that dealt with the forgiveness, and the removal of sin, and the cancellation of its punishment: Baptism, The Mass, Penance and Extreme Unction. The heart of Penance was the priestly act of Absolution whereby the priest pardoned the sins and released the penitent from eternal punishment. Upon the words of Absolution, pronounced by the priest, the penitent sinner received the forgiveness of sins, release from eternal punishment and restoration to a state of grace. This would required the sinner making some satisfaction, by saying a prescribed number of prayers, by fasting, by giving alms, by going on a pilgrimage, or by taking part in a crusade.
In time, the medieval church had come to allow the penitent to substitute the payment of a sum of money for other forms of penalty or satisfaction. The priest could then issue an official statement, an indulgence, declaring the release from other penalties through the payment of money. In time, the Catholic church came to allow indulgences to be bought, not only for oneself, but also for relatives and friends who had died and passed into Purgatory. They claimed that these indulgences would shorten the time that would otherwise had to be spent suffering in Purgatory.
This practice of granting indulgences was based upon the Catholic doctrine of Works of Supererogation. This unBiblical doctrine claimed that works done beyond the demands of God’s Law earned a reward. As Christ and the saints had perfected Holiness and laid up a rich treasury of merits in Heaven, the Roman Church claimed that it could draw upon this treasury of “extra merits” to provide satisfaction for those who paid a specified sum to the church.
THE INDULGENCE INDUSTRY
This system of indulgences was very popular with the masses of people who preferred to pay a sum of money to saying many prayers and partaking in many masses to shorten the suffering in Purgatory of either themselves, or a loved one. The industry of indulgences had also become a tremendous source of income for the Papacy.
In order to fund the building of the magnificent St. Peters Cathedral in Rome, Pope Leo X had authorised a plenary, or total indulgence. And so it was on this papal fundraising campaign to complete the construction of St. Peters Basilica, that Dominican monk and indulgence salesman extraordinary, John Tetzel arrived in Saxony. The shameless and scandalosous manner in which Tetzel hawked the indulgences outraged Martin Luther. Sales jingles such as: “As soon as the coin clinks in the chest, a soul flies up to Heavenly rest” were deceiving gullible people about their eternal souls.
Luther’s study of the Scripture had convinced him that salvation came by the grace of God alone, based upon the atonement of Christ on the cross alone, received by faith alone. Indulgences could not remove any guilt, and could only induce a false sense of security. People were being deceived for eternity.
THE 95 THESES
Concerns that had been growing since his visit to Rome in 1510, led Luther to now make a formal objection to the abuses of indulgences. On All Saint Day (1 November), people would be coming from far and wide in order to view the more than 5,000 relics exhibited in the Schlosskirche, which had been built specifically for the purpose of housing this massive collection. So, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses against indulgences onto the door of the castle church. He also posted a copy to the Archbishop of Mainz.
These Theses created such as sensation that within 2 weeks, they had been printed and read throughout Germany. Within the month, translations were being printed and sold all over Europe.
The 95 Theses begins with the words: “Since our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ says: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near’(Matthew 4:17), He wants the whole life of a believer to be a life of Repentance.”
Luther maintained that no sacrament can take away our responsibility to respond to Christ’s command by an inner repentance evidenced by an outward change, a transformation and renewal of our entire life. Luther emphised that it is God alone who can forgive sins, and that indulgences are a fraud. It would be far better to give to the poor, than to waste one’s money on indulgences. If the Pope really had power over the souls suffering in Purgatory, why would he not release them out of pure Christian charity?
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Luther’s 95 Theses radically undermined Tetzel’s business, almost bringing the sale of indulgences to a standstill. Tetzel, Mazzolini, and John Eck published attacks on Luther, defending the sale of indulgences. When none of Luther’s friends rose to his defense, Luther felt deserted. Many of his closest friends believed that he had been too rash in his criticism of this established church practice. With the pope’s power challenged and papal profits eroded, church officials mobilised their forces to bring this rebellious monk into line. First the Augustinians at their regular meeting in Heidelberg sought to silence Luther. Then he underwent three excruciating interviews with Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. Then in June 1519, John Eck debated Luther in Leipzig.
Some close friends of Luther tried to persuade him to settle things peacefully by giving in, but to Luther this was now a matter of principle. Scriptural truth and eternal souls were at stake.
In preparation of the Leipzig debate, Luther had plunged into the study of church history and canon law. His studies convinced Luther that many of the decretals, such as the donation of Constantine, were forgeries.
THE LEIPZIG DEBATE
On 4 July 1519, Eck and Luther faced one another in Leipzig. The issue being debated was the supremacy of the Pope. Luther pointed out that the Eastern Greek Church was part of the Church of Christ, even though it had never acknowledged the supremacy of the Bishop in Rome. The great Church Councils of Nicea, Chalcedon and Ephesus knew nothing of papal supremacy. But Eck maneuvered Luther into a corner and provoked him to defend some of the teachings of (condemned heretic) John Hus. By making Luther openly take a stand on the side of a man official condemned by the church as a heretic, Eck was convinced that he had won the debate. However, Luther greatly strengthened his cause amongst his followers, winning new many new supporters, including Martin Bucer, (who became a crucial leader of the Reformation, even helping to disciple John Calvin).
Luther published an account of the Leipzig debate and followed this up with an abundance of teaching pamphlets. “On Good Works” had a far reaching effect teaching that man is saved by faith alone. “The noblest of all good works is to believe in Jesus Christ;” Luther maintained: shoemakers, housekeepers, farmers and businessmen, if they do their work to the glory of God, are more pleasing to God than monks and nuns.
Dr. Peter Hammond
The Reformation Society
P.O. Box 74
Cape Town, South Africa
2ProphetU is an online magazine/website, started by Warren Wiersbe and Michael Catt, to build up the church, seek revival, and encourage pastors.