Did Martin Luther lead the Protestant reformers to recapture the “faith once delivered”? The answers are shocking! You need to understand the beginnings of modern Protestantism.
Millions of Protestant books, pamphlets and tracts boldly proclaim as the Protestant foundation: “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants.”
In the first three articles of this series, we learned from the Bible and the record of history that a remarkable change took place in nominal Christianity soon after the death of the original apostles. Pagan ceremonies, traditions and ideas were introduced into the professing Christian church. Later, we found that during the “Dark” ages that followed, the corruption and worldliness of the ruling Catholic Church led professing Christians of that era to superstitious beliefs and observances that would have shocked Peter or Paul!
We have asked: Was the Protestant movement a reformation of God’s true Church gone wrong? Did the Protestant reformers restore “the faith once delivered unto the saints”? Was this movement inspired and guided by God’s Holy Spirit? Do the “fruits” prove this?
Now we will come directly to the beginning of the actual Reformation under Martin Luther.
As we have seen, on the eve of the Reformation there were many complaints and abuses that called for reform. Those who were responsible for the spiritual and material welfare of the people were content to preserve the status quo because it served to their own enrichment and religious or political advantage.
Yet the people cried out for financial relief – for at least some measure of political freedom. And the yoke of religious oppression laid heavily on the populace of Europe.
Some outstanding personality was needed to sound the cry of alarm which would inevitably set off a universal explosion which had long been smoldering. Yet no ordinary leader, no matter what his ideals or personal brilliance, could fulfill this role. It would take someone who could identify himself with the unspoken cravings of the local princes, the middle classes, the peasants – who could uniquely identify himself with their long-suffered grievances and so become a symbol of the universal urge for a complete revolution in the religious , social, and political life of that day.
Such a man was Martin Luther. The complete identification of Luther with the Protestant Reformation, the uniqueness of his personality as its center and rallying point, is attested to by all historians. Fisher describes this circumstance: “Unquestionably the hero of the Reformation was Luther. Without him and his powerful influence, other reformatory movements, even such as had an independent beginning, like that of Zwingli, might have failed. Luther, apart from the Reformation would cease to be Luther” (The Reformation, p. 87).
An understanding of the basic facts concerning Luther’s childhood and youthful life is important as a background to an adequate comprehension of his later beliefs and doctrines.
Martin Luther was born at Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, the son of a peasant. The family moved to Mansfield six months after Luther’s birth, and he was brought up there in an atmosphere of austerity and disciplined virtue.
An intimate glimpse is given into Luther’s early home and school life in a work by Roland Bainton: “Luther is reported to have said, ‘My mother caned me for stealing a nut, until the blood came. Such strict discipline drove me to the monastery, although she meant it well.’ This saying is reinforced by two others: ‘My father once whipped me so that I ran away and felt ugly toward him until he was at pains to win me back.’ (At school) ‘I was caned in a single morning fifteen times for nothing at all. I was required to decline and conjugate and hadn’t learned my lesson.’” (Here I Stand, p. 17).
Even in these early glimpses, we can see a pattern of incidents that eventually led Luther to want to escape authority and any need for obedience. We need to understand his background of medieval superstition and fear in order to fully understand his emphasis on faith alone in later years.
The atmosphere of Luther’s family was decidedly that of rugged peasantry. But there was a strong religious feeling in the family, and his father, Hans, prayed at the bedside of his son and his mother was known in the community as a very devout person.
Yet many elements of old German paganism were blended with Christian mythology in the beliefs of the peasants. The woods, they thought, were peopled be elves, gnomes, fairies, witches and other spirits. Luther’s own mother believed them capable of stealing eggs, milk, and butter. Luther himself retained many of these beliefs until his death. He once said: “In my native country on the top of a high mountain called the Pubelsberg is a lake into which if a stone be thrown a tempest will arise over the whole region because the waters are the abode of captive demons” (Bainton, p. 19). His early Catholic religious life was filled with scenes of steeples, spires, cloisters, priests, monks of various orders, and collections of relics, ringing of bells, proclaiming of indulgences, religious processions, and supposed cures at shrines. In all these things, he had a normal religious upbringing for those days.
At 15, Luther was sent to school at Eisenach, where his mother had relatives. As did many of the other poor students there, he was obliged to sing in the streets begging for bread. In 1501, Luther went to the University of Erfurt, having agreed with his father to study for a legal career. While still a student there, a number of spiritual crises upset Luther’s course, and eventually redirected his entire life.
Before relating the specific events that led Luther to depart from the ordinary life that his father had planned for him, it will be helpful to notice the effect that the normal religious training of that age had on youths in general, and on Luther in particular. “There is just one respect in which Luther appears to have been different from other youths of his time, namely, in that he was extraordinarily sensitive and subject to recurrent period of exaltation and depression of spirit. This oscillation of mood plagued him throughout his life. He testified that it began in his youth and that the depressions had been acute in the six months prior to his entry into the monastery” (Bainton, p. 20).
We can see that Luther had a very troubled mind indeed. This problem of moodiness – aggravated by a feeling of perpetual guilt which the Catholic doctrines engendered-- made Luther seek a type of emotional release from these inner conflicts.
Bainton states: “The explanation lies rather in the tensions which medieval religion deliberately induced, playing alternately upon fear and hope. Hell was stoked, not because men lived in perpetual dread, but precisely because they did not, and in order to instill enough fear to drive them to the sacraments of the Church. If they were petrified with terror, purgatory was introduced by way of mitigation as an intermediate place where those not bad enough for hell nor good enough for heaven might make further expiation. If this alleviation inspired complacency the temperature was advanced in purgatory, and then the pressure was again relaxed through indulgences’ (Here I Stand, p. 21). Thus, we can see that Luther’s sensitivity was easily played upon by religious fears that had been inculcated since childhood. These fears were an integral part of the system which Luther eventually came to abhor.
Perhaps the first in a series of events, that led Luther gradually to his eventual role as a reformer, was a discovery he made when he was 20 years old and had already taken his Bachelor’s degree. It happened that while he was looking one day at the books in the Erfurt library that he casually picked up a copy of the Latin Bible. This was the first time that he had ever held a copy of the Bible in his hands, and he was surprised at the richness of its contents and studied it eagerly (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 88). Although he had been for some time now engrossed in humanistic studies, on reading the Scriptures for the first time on this and subsequent occasions the deep religious anxieties that had affected him from a child returned and began to occupy his thoughts.
Later, returning to Erfurt from a visit with his parents, a storm arose and a thunderbolt struck down Luther and his companion. Luther quickly regained his feet, but was deeply moved when he discovered that his friend Alexia had been killed. Then and there, Luther determined to make his peace with God, and he soon entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt to become a priest.
In 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood, but his studies and spiritual exercises failed to bring him the inward peace he so desperately sought. He was encouraged to study passages from the Scriptures and the church fathers, by Staupitz, the vicar of the order. But this study, although helpful, did not quiet the restlessness and inward torment of Luther.
During this time, many were struck by the remarkable appearance of Luther. In 1518, a contemporary said of him, “I could hardly look the man in the face, such a diabolical fire darted out of his eyes” (Hausser, The Period of the Reformation, p. 8).
Feeling a deep sense of personal inadequacy and sin, he set out to perform whatever good works were prescribed for the saving of his soul. And there were many such exercises recommended by the Catholicism of that day. “He fasted, sometimes three days on end without a crumb. The seasons of fasting were more consoling to him than those of feasting. Lent was more comforting than Easter. He laid upon himself vigils and prayers in excess of those stipulated by the rule. He cast off the blankets permitted him and well-nigh froze himself to death. At times he was proud of his sanctity and would say, ‘I have done nothing wrong today.’ Then misgivings would arise. ‘Have you fasted enough? Are you poor enough?’ He would then strip himself of all save that which decency required. He believed in later life that his austerities had done permanent damage to his digestion” (Bainton, p. 234).
All Luther knew of Christ at this time was that He was a “stern judge” from whom he would like to flee. Under a feeling of utter condemnation, Luther persisted in afflicting his body and mind with the various religious exercises practiced by the monks of his day. “If a monk ever won heaven by monkery,” he said, ‘I would have found my way there also; all my convent comrades will bear witness to that’” (Lindsay, History, p. 427).
Notice that these things all indicated Luther’s strong attachment to the Roman church. He was part and parcel with it, had been reared in it, steeped in its doctrines. And as is often the case in similar instances, when the break did come it was to be a violent one.
The trouble was that he could not satisfy God at any point. Commenting in later life on the Sermon on the Mount, Luther gave searching expression to his disillusionment. Referring to the precepts of Jesus he said: “The word is too high and too hard that anyone should fulfill it. This is proved, not merely by our Lord’s word, but by our own experience and feeling. Take any upright man or woman. He will get along very nicely with those who do not provoke him, but let someone proffer only the slightest irritation and he will flare up in anger . . . . . . if not against friends, then against enemies. Flesh and blood cannot rise above it’” (Bainton, p. 34).
Determining in his own mind that it is impossible for man to perform what God requires, Luther continued his search for an answer to his guilt complex. Having been made a professor in the University of Wittenberg, which was operated in connection with the Augustinian monastery there, he began to lecture on the epistles of Paul.
He had hardly begun his exposition of the epistle to the Romans when his eyes fastened on the passage, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). These words made a profound impression on Luther, and he pondered their meaning at great length.
When Luther visited Rome at some time during this period, he ran about the city full of devotional ardor, attempting to secure for himself the spiritual blessings that were offered by viewing various holy relics and doing penance at sacred shrines .While he did penance upon the stairs of the so-called judgment seat of Pilate, the haunting area of Scripture again entered his mind – “the just shall live by faith.”
Throughout Luther’s stay in Rome, disillusionments began to multiply in his mind as to the character of the Roman church. He began to see what a corrupt and abominable system it had become. While officiating at several masses in Rome, he tried to maintain the dignity and reverence which he felt this action required. But he was very disturbed at the frivolous and totally irreverent manner in which the Roman priest celebrated the sacrament of the altar.
D’ Aubigne relates: “One day when he was officiating he found that the priests at an adjoining altar had already repeated seven masses before he had finished one. ‘Quick, quick!’ cried one of them, ‘send our Lady back her Son,’ making an impious allusion so the transubstantiation of the bread into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. At another time Luther had only just reached the Gospel, when the priest at his side had already terminated the mass. ‘Passa, passa!’ cried the latter to him, ‘make haste! Have done with it at once.’”
“His astonishment was still greater, when he found in the dignitaries of the papacy what he had already observed in the inferior clergy. He has hoped better things of them” (History of the Reformation. 68).
Returning home, he pondered over the scenes of the pious pilgrims in Rome seeking salvation through various endeavors. And he shuddered as he recalled the frivolity, the moral wretchedness, and the lack of real spiritual knowledge in that city – supposedly, “the capital of Christendom.” The words of Paul returned to him again – “the just shall live by faith.” At last he felt that he could understand them.
Fisher relates Luther’s feelings: “Through the Gospel that righteousness is revealed which avails before God - by which He, out of grace and mere compassion, justifies us through faith. ‘Here I felt at once,’ he says, ‘that I was wholly born again and that I had entered through open doors into Paradise itself. That passage of Paul was truly to me the gate of Paradise.’ He saw that Christ is not come as a lawgiver, but as a Savior; that love, not wrath or justice, is the motive in his mission and work; that the forgiveness of sins through Him is a free gift; that the relationship of the soul to Him, and through Him to the Father, which is expressed by the term faith, the responsive act of the soul to the divine mercy, is all that is required. This method of reconciliation is without the works of the law” (The Reformation, p. 91).
Now we see the central point of all Luther’s theology. This doctrine of justification became the cornerstone of all of Luther’s subsequent religious efforts. It alone had provided him with a sense of release from his haunting sense of guilt and fear of damnation. And, we may truly add, it gave him a way around the requirements of God’s spiritual law – which Luther felt he could not keep.
It is evident that in all this thinking about law, Luther was substituting the Catholic idea of ritualistic “works” and penances for the Ten Commandments of God. Obsessed with the idea of getting round a need for any obedience, he began to feel that faith alone is sufficient for salvation.
The logical consequence of Luther’s new position demanded a clash with Rome. It was on the question of the sale of indulgences that his direct opposition to orthodox Catholic doctrine was first made known.
After his return from Rome, Luther had resumed his teaching career in the University of Wittenberg, and continued in his study of the Scripture and in the development of his theory of justification and salvation. Through the encouragement of his superior, Staupitz, he completed his work for his doctor’s degree so that he might replace Staupitz by assuming the chair of Bible at the university. In 1512, he took the degree of Doctor of Divinity, and continued his teaching career.
All the while, his ideas on justification were growing and developing. He wrote: “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant” (Bainton, p. 49).
Notice that Luther confessed that he hated God in the form of Lawgiver and Judge. True enough, his false Catholic concept of obedience confused him as to the real spiritual issues at stake. He was like a man spiritually drunk seeking his way out of an abyss. But in his mental torment from Catholic teaching, he was also desperately determined to find a way around obedience, law and justice.
Luther wrote: “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and where as before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven” (Bainton, p. 49).
Thus, we can see that with the increasing stress Luther was putting on justification by faith alone, the Romish practice of selling indulgences for sin would be particular distasteful to him and an abuse he would naturally want to attack. Since the matter of indulgences was the immediate cause of Luther’s break with Rome, it will be particularly helpful at this point to quote a scholarly description of this practice, and the exact wording of the indulgences.
Wharey states: “Indulgences, in the Romish church, are a remission of the punishment due to sin, granted by the church, and supposed to save the sinner from purgatory. According to the doctrine of the Romish church, all the good works of the saints, over and above those that were necessary for their own justification , are deposited, together with the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, in an inexhaustible treasury. The keys of this were committed to St. Peter, and to his successors, the popes, who may open it at pleasure; and, by transferring a portion of this superabundant merit to any particular person for a sum of money, may convey to him either the pardon of his own sins, or a release of any one for whom he is interested, from the pains of purgatory.
“Such indulgences were first invented in the 11th century, by Urban II, as recompense to those who went in person upon the glorious enterprise of conquering the Holy Land. They were afterwards granted to any one who hired a soldier for that purpose; and, in process of time, were bestowed on such as gave money for accomplishing any pious work enjoined by the pope. The power of granting indulgences has been greatly abused in the church of Rome. Pope Leo X., in order to carry on the magnificent structure of St. Peter’s at Rome, published indulgences, and a plenary permission to all such as should contribute money towards it. Finding the project take, he grated to Albert, elector of Mentz, and archbishop of Magdeburg, the benefit of the indulgences of Saxony, and the neighboring parts, and farmed out those of other countries to the highest bidders, who, to make the best of their bargain, procured the ablest preachers to cry up the values of the ware. The form of these indulgences was as follows:
“‘May our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon thee, and absolve thee by the merits of his most holy passion. And I, by his authority, that of his blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and of the most holy pope, grated and committed to me in these parts, do absolve thee, first from all ecclesiastical censures, in whatever manner they have been incurred; then from all thy sins, transgressions, and excesses, how enormous soever they may be; even from such as are reserved for the cognizance of the holy see, and as far as the keys of the holy church extend. I remit to you all punishment which you deserve in purgatory on this account; and I restore you to the holy sacraments of the church, to the union of the faithful, and to the innocence of purity which you possessed at baptism; so that when you die, the gates of punishment shall be shut, and the gates of paradise of delights shall be opened: and if you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’” (Church History, p. 224-25).
The glowing descriptions which the hawkers of indulgences gave of their benefit were sometimes almost incredible. If a man, they said, should purchase letters of indulgence, his soul may rest assured of its salvation. “Lo,” they said, “the heavens are open, if you enter not now, when will you enter?”
It was the great abuse of this already abominable practice which led Martin Luther to take a definite stand against Rome. He was, of course, correct in opposing this practice. Taking the stand he did, took courage. But the question we wish to consider is whether this led him to return to the “faith once delivered,” or simply to reject that part of the Catholic teaching which he could not agree with and to set up in its place another purely human inspired ecclesiastical system which suited him.
In Luther’s vicinity, the proclamation of the indulgence to help rebuild St. Peter’s in Rome was entrusted to a Dominican, Tetzel, an experienced vendor. The indulgence was not actually offered in Luther’s parish because the church could not introduce an indulgence without the permission of the local authorities. In this case, the elector, Frederick the Wise, would not give his consent because he did not wish the indulgence of St. Peter’s to encroach upon the indulgences of all Saints’ Church at Wittenberg (Bainton, p. 57).
But Tetzel came so close that Luther’s parishioners could go over the border and return with some amazing concessions as a result of the high pressure sales campaign Tetzel and his fellow hawkers were conducting.
Luther was righteously indignant at this shameless imposition of the Pope, and his reformers’ blood was roused. As the practice of the time, he drew up ninety-five theses for debate and nailed them to the door of the Catholic Church at Wittenberg. This was on October 31, 1517.
Many of Luther’s theses appealed to the desperate financial straits of the German peasants, and indirectly appealed to the papacy to stop exacting more money from them. In his fiftieth proposition, Luther maintained: “Christians must be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the preachers of indulgences he would rather have St. Peter’s basilica reduced to ashes than built with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep” (Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 267).
In the heated discussion that followed, Luther declared: “The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. The Germans laugh at calling this the common treasure of Christendom. Before long all the churches, palaces, walls, and bridges of Rome will be built out of our money. First of all we should rear living temples, not local churches, and only last of all St. Peter’s, which is not necessary for us. We Germans cannot attend St. Peter’s. Better that is should never be built than that our parochial churches should be despoiled” (Bainton, p. 61).
Luther’s political appeal to his fellow Germans is evident in all the early writings on this subject. He does not argue from the spiritual principle of what is right or wrong before God, but primarily from the nationalistic attitude that the money from indulgences should be spent on German religious causes.
Luther’s attack on the papal financial policy brought a ready agreement among the Germans who had long suffered from a sense of grievance against the Italian hierarchy – as they often regarded it. Luther’s other point, that indulgences were spiritually harmful to the recipient, and that the pope has no absolute power over purgatory or the forgiveness of sins, also stirred up controversy.
Luther took no steps to spread his theses among the people. But others quietly translated them into German and had them printed. They soon became the talk of all Germany, and Luther’s career as a reformer had been launched (Bainton, p. 62-63).
When Luther first posted his theses, he did not intend them for general dissemination. But now that they had been distributed, he stood by them in subsequent discussions and in tracts which he wrote in their defense. Although new, these developments travelled slowly, however it was not long before the authorities in Rome knew that the greater part of Germany was taking sides with Luther.
An accusation was brought against Luther at Rome, and the pope commissioned Cardinal Cajetan to represent him in talks with Luther. He was told to try to persuade Luther to give up any radical ideas and to handle the affair with as little disturbance as possible (Hausser, p. 20). This he could not do, and Luther appealed from the pope ill-informed to the same when better informed. Thereupon a second attempt was made to keep Luther within the Roman fold.
Carl Von Militz, a papal nuncio, was able to win Luther’s confidence and make an agreement for him to maintain silence, provided his enemies would also, until papal representatives had been able to look into Luther’s new doctrines. “And then,” Luther said, “If I am convinced of error, I shall willingly retract it, and not weaken the power and glory of the holy Roman Church” (Hausser, p. 22).
Notice that Luther still regarded the Roman church as “holy”! It is important to realize how thoroughly steeped in her philosophies and doctrines Luther actually was. True, he eventually came to sharply disagree on several points. Martin Luther, born and reared a Roman Catholic, and Catholic priest by profession, was literally saturated with the concepts, dogmas and traditions which this church had accumulated through the Middle Ages.
As late as March 3, 1519, Luther wrote the Pope: “Now, Most Holy Father, I protest before God and his creatures that it has never been my purposes, nor is it now, to do ought that might weaken or overthrow the authority of the Roman Church or that of your Holiness; nay, more, I confess that the power of this church is above all things; and that nothing in heaven or on earth is to be act before it, Jesus alone, the Lord of all, excepted “ (Alzog’s Universal History, p. 195).
Unless he was lying in this letter, Martin Luther even at this late date felt that the Roman Catholic religion was the true Church of God on earth!
But his truce with Rome not to speak out was to be short-lived. Dr. John Eck, a theologian from Leipzig, publicly challenged Luther to debate on his new doctrines (Hausser, p. 22). So the battle of words and pamphlets revived.
In the debates, Luther, as he always did, confused justification and salvation. He maintained that faith alone – without any works suffices for salvation. When confronted with conflicting statements from the Epistle of James, he called in question the authenticity of the epistle (Alzog, p. 196).
It is important to realize that not once, but many times, Luther would challenge the authority of any book in the Bible which seemed to disagree with his ideas on justification. We will discuss Luther’s contradictory statements on Scripture in a later article.
After the Leipzig debates, Dr. Eck set out for Rome to warn Pope Leo X of the danger Luther was becoming to the Catholic Church in Germany. A papal bull was issued in 1520 condemning Luther and 41 of his propositions. He himself was to be excommunicated if he did not retract within 60 days (Alzog, p. 203).
Because of Luther’s popularity with both the common people and the nobility, the papal bull was received with open repugnance in Germany. Many declared that it was not necessary to obey it and Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise, openly disclaimed obedience to the bull. So Luther then took the unheard step of publicly burning the papal bull in the presence of his fellow monks, the students, and the citizens of Wittenberg (Hausser, p. 27).
This bold step of making a complete break with Rome drew the attention of the entire German nation to Luther’s cause. He quickly found political support in the friendly disposition of the elector and of the jurists who had a long standing grievance over the interference of ecclesiastical courts in civil affairs. He also found ready allies in the humanist scholars who were filled with nationalistic fervor and were ready to avenge the indignities suffered by Germany under Italian and papal rule. They were ready to write with invective and satire and also to use their swords (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 102).
Soon after these events, Luther made a political appeal to the German nobility for their backing. His challenge to the “glorious Teutonic people” who were “born to be masters” had an electrifying effect on many of the German nobles and princes. But it was purely political, and this same type of appeal has been used with success by German generals and dictators!
Luther urged: “Poor Germans that we are – we have been deceived! We were born to be masters, and we have been compelled to bow the head beneath the yoke of our tyrants, and to become slaves. Name, title, outward signs of royalty, we possess all these; force, power, right, liberty, all these have gone over to the popes, who have robbed us of them. They get the kernel, we get the husk. It is time the glorious Teutonic people should cease to be the puppet of the Roman pontiff” (Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 278).
From here on, it remained for Luther and his adherents to attempt to found a new religious system, embracing the doctrines flowing from Luther’s active pen. In further articles, we will see if Luther’s system constituted a return to the faith, doctrine and practice of Christ and the apostolic Church.