This continues a short work by Dr. Alan MacRae and edited by Dr. Ed Panosian the ACCC is providing for this year’s Reformation Sunday, October 25 (read Part 1, Part 2). You can order printed copies at our store page.
We have looked at two great emphases of Luther’s life. We have seen his great realization of the terrible nature of sin as something that must be dealt with before any other problem can be successfully handled. We have noticed that to him the Bible was the sole source of authority in religious matters. While looking at these two great emphases, we observed how they were united in the central Biblical teaching of salvation by faith alone. Only through this could sin be removed and man reconciled to God. Only through recognition of the authority of God’s Word could salvation by faith be known.
Luther did not originate the idea of salvation by faith. It has been one of the central features of Christianity from its very inception. During the Middle Ages this doctrine came to be largely hidden behind complicated dogma and involved ceremonials. To a great extent, ideas of salvation by works displaced it. Yet all through the Middle Ages there were little groups of people in every part of Europe who understood this doctrine and enjoyed the blessings of justification by faith in the marvelous grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation by faith was not a new idea, but no one since the time of the Apostles has been able to express it more clearly and effectively than Martin Luther. Luther’s clear understanding of and firm hold on this precious doctrine introduced a ferment into European life that ultimately led to the formation of all our great Protestant denominations.
It was through Luther’s devotion to this vital doctrine that the Reformation began. In 1517 Luther began to hear disquieting news. A monk named Tetzel was traveling through Germany using all the clever devices of the huckster to sell indulgences by which he claimed to provide forgiveness for all sins—past, present, or future—without any requirement of personal faith or repentance. Frederick the Wise, the ruler of the section of Germany where Luther lived, forbade the selling of such indulgences in his territory. The border between Frederick’s territory and that of his cousin, Duke George, had existed for only a few decades, and many families included people on both sides, so they were constantly crossing this minor political division. After working the larger towns of George’s territory, Tetzel went to the villages neighboring the border in order to catch much of the trade from electoral Saxony. Soon Luther began to see the results of Tetzel’s work in his own church in Wittenberg. People whom he had been urging to repent and turn away from their sins, and to seek salvation through simple faith in Christ, showed him certificates that promised them, in the pope’s name, complete forgiveness for all sins—past, present and future.
Filled with righteous indignation, Luther determined that something must be done about this wicked practice. He would not believe that the pope, whom he considered a great spiritual leader, would have a part in such an action. The whole thing must surely be a fraud. Since there were various views regarding the theory of indulgences, Luther felt that careful discussion and debate by scholars would clarify the matter and result in ending such abominations as those involved in Tetzel’s commercial undertaking. Luther said, “If the pope had the power to free people from the results of their sin, why wouldn’t he just give it to everybody? Why should he charge money for it?” He felt that there must be a misunderstanding somewhere, and that the matter should be carefully investigated.
Luther therefore wrote 95 Latin theses in which he presented the principles of salvation by faith as a challenge for scholars to debate. He never dreamed that these theses would cause an upheaval in Europe. Since a great crowd of people would come to Wittenberg on October 31 in preparation for All Saints’ Day, he followed the customary practice of the time and nailed the theses on the door of the church as an invitation to debate the matter.
The next morning, according to tradition, as throngs began to come to the church, people asked what was the meaning of this large notice fastened on the door. Someone said, “It is merely some Latin posted by a professor who wants to have a debate.” Others asked, “What is it about?”
A man who knew Latin, who happened to be standing near, began to translate aloud into German. As he did so, the people asked, “Do you mean that all this money we are spending for indulgences does not really accomplish anything?”
“That’s what it says,” he answered. People became very excited. As more and more people showed interest, someone made a careful translation of the Latin theses into German. Then they were printed and distributed, all without the knowledge of the man who had written them.
In those days there were no telegrams, no trains, no planes, not even decent roads, yet within two weeks copies of these theses had been distributed all over Germany. Within three months they were being distributed in Rome. Soon they were being sold on the streets of Jerusalem.
Let us notice how the theses were received in Rome. Pope Leo X, the Medici pope, was a very fine gentleman. He was not like some of the popes who had immediately preceded him. Shortly before his time Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, had reigned for eleven years. The immoralities and iniquities of the Borgia pope and his family have become proverbial. When one of his sons was murdered, another son was generally considered a member of the gang who plotted it. The very name Borgia has become synonymous with poisoning and murder. Leo X was not at all like Alexander VI. Between Alexander and Leo, Julius II was pope. Though advanced in years, Julius was a man of tremendous energy. He determined to extend the Papal States by military conquest. He directed his armies and engaged personally in the campaigns. Great numbers of people lost their lives through the military activities of this bellicose pope. Leo X was not like Julius II.
Leo X was a very pleasant gentleman. He gave banquets. He spent large sums of money providing beautiful decorations for St. Peter’s church, which he was just starting to build. Some of the finest art treasures of the Vatican today reveal his interest in such matters. He was fond of all aspects of culture. Some of his contemporaries said that he would have been a perfect pope if only he had some interest in religion!
As Leo came in one day from hunting, a man stepped up to him and said excitedly, “Your holiness, look at this!”
The pope asked, “What is it?”
The man said, “It is a paper that a German monk has written.”
Leo glanced at it. In surprise he said, “That German writes pretty good Latin.” He handed it back and walked on. But the members of his court realized that something serious had happened.
Soon the pope himself began to realize that the situation was becoming serious. As Germans stopped buying the indulgences, the funds began to drop off. Leo needed the money to maintain his way of life; so he gave his staff permission to start procedures to stop Luther’s activities.
The next few years display the marvelous courage of Martin Luther. Although he had been a simple man of the people, his heart was fixed upon a great biblical truth and nothing could shake him from it. Facing the tremendous power of the pope and of various earthly potentates who were determined to destroy him, he kept his eyes on God and determined to march straight forward, following biblical teaching unmoved by any thought of personal danger. As a result of the political situation, Luther was not immediately attacked. Various measures were taken to compel him to retract what he had said. Luther would gladly have engaged in debate and discussions at any time, but most of the efforts made against him were simply orders that he submit to the authority of the church. During the months that intervened, Luther studied the sources of church authority and was surprised to see at how many points the medieval church had moved away from scriptural teaching. As his thought was clarified, he became more and more determined to follow as God should lead regardless of the results to himself.
In the fall of 1520 a new emperor came to the throne. By this time the pope had excommunicated Luther and the pope’s representatives asked the emperor to condemn him.
Frederick the Wise, the ruler of electoral Saxony, who had been the administrator of the empire during the period before the election of Charles V, asked the emperor not to move too rapidly. He said, “Surely you will not start your reign by destroying a man without first giving him a hearing.”
Charles agreed to permit Luther to appear before him to answer the charges. Frederick then requested that Luther be given a safe conduct to travel across Germany to Worms, to appear at the great assemblage of rulers of the various portions of the empire, and to return safely to Wittenberg. Charles signed a statement giving an ample period of time in which it was guaranteed that he would not be seized or injured in any way. After this period the emperor would be free, of course, to take such measures as he might desire.
When the messenger arrived in Wittenberg with the safe conduct, Luther’s friends urged him not to go. They said, “A century ago in Prague in Bohemia (which is now a part of the Czech Republic), John Huss taught what you are now teaching, and the Emperor Sigismund gave him a safe conduct to go to the council at Constance. At Constance he was thrust into a dungeon and not allowed to say anything in his defense. He was required merely to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to specific questions as to what he had taught, and after this farce of a trial he was taken out and burned at the stake as a heretic, despite the fact that he had been given a safe conduct by the emperor. This new emperor will treat you in the same way that Sigismund treated John Huss.” Luther replied that he would use the opportunity to witness to God’s truth before the emperor, even if as a result, he also should be burned at the stake.
As Luther proceeded on the way to Worms, traveling across Germany with a herald, they would often see a large sign as they entered a town, proclaiming that the emperor had given orders that all Luther’s books must be gathered together and burned. People said, “Luther, when the emperor has you in his hands, he will treat you the same way that he is now treating your books.” They begged Luther not to go to Worms.
Luther said, “If there are as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the housetops, I am determined to go there and witness before the emperor.”
In many towns people were anxious to see Luther. Sometimes, when they would enter a town, Luther would express a desire to preach, and the herald would permit it. So all along the way Luther preached the Gospel.