Martin Luther has been called, along with the Apostle Paul and Augustine, one of the three greatest theologians of the Christian church. Luther, however, never meant to be a great theologian. He certainly never meant to shake the foundations of Europe as he did. Martin Luther was originally concerned only with the salvation of his soul. As a result of his inward struggle and the study of God’s Word which that struggle spurred, Luther discovered and embraced the doctrines of the Reformation, particularly that of justification by faith alone. These doctrines were not formed in the dry contemplation of the scholar (although Luther was unquestionably a scholar) but in the forge of human experience.
Luther, therefore, was not simply the instigator of the Reformation; he was in many ways an embodiment of it. He was a German peasant born near the end of the fifteenth century. He was to be used of God to lead an unintended revolution away from the ecclesiastical system of the late Middle Ages. He was to be attacked by his enemies for having gone too far and by his friends for not having gone far enough. And he was to pioneer the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which was to become the pioneer modern movement toward the diversity of Christian denominations owning the absolute authority of the Old and the New Testament Scriptures, toward political liberty, and toward the social, economic, and intellectual enfranchisement of the common man.
In some respects, Martin Luther was like the Apostle Peter. He was often blunt and bombastic, speaking first and considering afterward. But like the Apostle, also, he was graciously empowered to stand on a “day of Pentecost” and proclaim the authority of God’s Word, to the confusion of earthly powers, to the convicting and converting of those who would become God’s. That day for Luther was in April 1521. Assembled in the city of Worms for the meeting of the imperial assembly (the diet) were representatives of all levels of the German “church and state.” Presiding was the newly elected, twenty-one-year-old emperor, Charles V. After long preliminaries on the second day of questioning, having acknowledged the writings displayed on a table as his own and having been instructed by his accusers to retract their contents, Luther replied in words which have been variously translated: “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 cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience.”
Expecting full well to be burned at the stake as the Bohemian John Huss had been a century earlier and having been warned before by his friends and reminded of the impotence of the “letter of safe-conduct” should the emperor who had granted it choose to ignore it, the German had nonetheless asserted, with a boldness born of absolute confidence in the living God, his irrevocable stand upon the written Word of that omnipotent God. Who was this man, this reformer? Born in 1483, reared in Saxony in a typically pious home of the times, trained in the grammar schools of the Brethren of Common Life, and having received a liberal arts education at the famed University of Erfurt, Martin Luther was confronted with the need to find answers to fundamental questions: How can I have peace of heart? How can I be saved from my sin? What shall I do with my life?
His search for the answers to these questions became the preparation of the spark which was to ignite a conflagration felt throughout the Christian world—and beyond. From law to grace—the schoolmaster to Christ—was his experience, in several ways. He first prepared to study law, but finding it no comfort for his need, Luther forsook the potentially lucrative vocation for a supposedly higher calling, the service of the Church of Rome, the only way he knew to Christ. Here again the law, the keeping of vows, the ritual of ceremony and sacrament, of duties and hours, of confession and self-humiliation, brought comfort for only fleeting moments. Then a monastic superior, Johann Staupitz (while Luther was a monk in the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt), suggested that he simply believe the Word of God. Luther was thus cast upon the Bible, the message of God’s love and redeeming grace, and he forsook the law of meritorious works. Having been driven to the Bible, the reformer-to-be began to make it his daily meat.
He was soon appointed, again by Staupitz’s suggestion, to the faculty of a newly established university, a project of the Elector Frederick of Saxony, at the town of Wittenberg, which—both town and university—Luther was to write indelibly on the pages of sixteenth-century history. It was here that he soon came to study and lecture on books of the Bible, going back to the Greek texts of the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Old Testament, taking their meaning literally and historically. There is a powerful lesson here: while the young teacher was about his assigned business, God gave him illumination of truth which was to shatter the exclusive monopoly of the ecclesiastical structure of Rome. He was not off on a tangent; he was doing what his hands found to do as unto the Lord, and God saw to it that that work was God’s. He was used of God to do a great work when, in his faithfulness in daily duties, he least expected greatness.
It was the events of the second decade of the 1500s which catapulted the Wittenberg professor to prominence. The broad papal dispensation of certificates of indulgence in the German states became the occasion for conflict. Indulgences were presumed cancellations of some of the purgatorial sufferings of the soul after death of the body, according to medieval Romanist teaching (unchanged even today). While never technically “sold,” they were nevertheless being practically exchanged for money “gifts” for the building of a new cathedral in honor of Peter in Rome. So effective was the streamlined “sales pitch” of some peddlers such as Tetzel that the average man came to understand indulgences as virtual “licenses” to sin.
This traffic in souls so incensed the spiritually liberated Luther that he responded dramatically with an action which has been commemorated for more than four and half centuries since as Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saint’s Day on which the Duke’s incredible (but popularly credulous) collection of sacred relics was annually displayed for the benefit of the faithful, Luther posted 95 Theses questioning the whole Romish doctrine of indulgences. Although immediately ignored by Rome, the theses, translated and distributed throughout the Germanies through the medium of the recently developed movable-type printing, soon caused a decline in indulgence revenues. Then, her most responsive nerve having been touched, Rome responded. Pope Leo X, Medici son of the Renaissance, lover of the arts “who would have been an excellent pope if only he were also religious”—alternately threatened, counseled, commanded, and cajoled the author of the theses.
The pope demanded retraction and silence; the professor promised neither. Instead, Luther wrote more elaborately on the un-Scriptural nature of Rome’s teaching and practice. He rejected the assumption that only the Roman church can properly interpret the Scriptures; he rejected most of the seven sacraments as special means of receiving Christ’s grace; and he rejected the exclusive authority of the pope to convene potentially reformatory church councils. A debate with the pope’s champion, Johann Eck, at the Univeristy of Leipzig in 1519, in which Eck informed Luther that Huss had been burned by an earlier church council for holding views on Biblical authority very similar to his own, destroyed Luther’s remaining hope for reformation through a church council. He was driven to absolute dependence on the absolute authority of the written Word of God.
Three fundamental doctrinal truths, upon which all Christian believers are agreed, emerge from the work and emphases of this German: the absolute authority of the Old and New Testaments, justification by faith only, and the universal priesthood of believers. The last of those three is illustrated by the paragraph quoted earlier from the speech at Worms. It became a veritable declaration of ecclesiastical independence from priestly tradition at the same time that it was a declaration of voluntary bondage to Jesus Christ and His Word. This was the Reformation rediscovery of the gospel.
After the Diet of Worms, Luther’s great work was to “make Paul [and the Evangelists and Peter and the others] speak German” to the Germans. His translation of the New Testament into the vernacular of his people was to set the literary language of Germany. A few years later he married a former nun and with her established the modern married minister’s home, reviving and ennobling the married state of the Christian clergy as a “school” for the counseling of married saints.
Some twenty years later, the pioneer work having been done and the work of organizing and consolidating having been undertaken by more fitted hands, the father of the German Reformation died and was received into glory. Far from flawless, a man of like passions with all men, he was a man God used for His own good purpose. He was an imperfect saint, but he was perfected with the saints in the paths of God’s choosing. And that phrase “Here I stand” in the conclusion of his words at Worms may well echo in our ears as we, too, in this day, stand poised to do battles on the authority of—and with the sword of the Spirit, which is—the Word of God.
By Dr. Edward M. Panosian. Copied with permission from Faith of Our Fathers by Mark Sidwell. © 1989, BJU Press. Unauthorized duplication prohibited. Faith of Our Fathers is available at journeyforth.com.