Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Martin Luther and the Beginning of the Reformation

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
LutherÕs Early Life
Martin Luther was born in 1483, the son of a miner who, through hard work, became part owner of six copper mines and, in time, became fairly wealthy. His parents sought a good education for their bright son; he earned the equivalent of BachelorÕs and MasterÕs degrees from the university at Erfurt (the latter in 1505 at age 22; he was second in a class of seventeen). His father persuaded him to enter law school, which he did with misgivings. In July of that year, in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, he was thrown to the ground by a flash of lightning. In great fear he cried out ÒSt. Anne, help me!Ó and he promised to enter a monastery if his life would be spared. He survived and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.

There was another reason for doing this: having become aware of his sins, he sought inner peace. By following vigorously all the rules of monastic life, he tried to win GodÕs favour. He fasted (Òuntil his belly button touched his backboneÓ) and punished himself physically, but all to no avail--he found no peace. Johan von Staupitz, the head of his order, pointed him to Christ but Luther feared Christ. He saw Christ only as the stern judge.

Luther entered the priesthood and through further study received the doctor of divinity degree. He was sent to Rome. Instead of the holiness, which he hoped to find, he found only corruption. Through much study of the Bible (he was a professor of theology!) he discovered the great truth of Justification by Faith. Sometime in 1515 or 1516, when he was editing The German Theology of the German Mystics while, at the same time lecturing on the Psalms and on Romans, the breakthrough came.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the
justice of God and the statement that Òthe just shall live by his
faith.Ó 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 reborn and to
have gone through the open doors into paradise. The whole of
Scripture took on new meaning, and whereas before the Òjustice of
GodÓ 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.Ó

The Reformation had taken place in LutherÕs soul.

The private reformation in LutherÕs soul was forced into the open by the issue of indulgences and the further evils surrounding their sale. Originally, indulgences were said to provide for the remission of punishment imposed by the Romish church on someone who had broken a religious law. Earlier, such an indulgence could be earned by risking your life on a crusade. Gradually, however, payment of money was accepted instead of physical acts. Then, in time, the priests began to forgive not only the penalty, but also the guilt of sin. It went even further--indulgences were said to buy the forgiveness of future sins as well of those of people in purgatory, even though they had not repented.

The Pope needed money to build St. PeterÕs church at Rome. The archbishop of Mainz who had purchased his office (at age 23!) needed money to pay off his bankers who had loaned him the funds to purchase his office. Between them, the pope and the archbishop set up an indulgences sales campaign and agreed to split the profits. The main salesman was one Johan Tetzel. Although forbidden to sell in LutherÕs area by Frederic the Wise, the Prince of Saxony, many people went from Wittenberg to the salesman. Luther soon saw the negative effect on their morals. He then posted his famous 95 theses on the chapel door of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. These were written in Latin--it was not a cry for revolt but an invitation for theologians and other learned men to debate. Also, Luther never wanted to break with Rome. He thought the Pope could really not be aware of what was happening and would not have approved if he had known.

The Reform Words Spread
LutherÕs theses or points of debate were really words calling the church to reform. What happened next is amazing and can only be explained as GodÕs work. In no time, the 95 theses were translated into the common German language and, by means of printed (!) pamphlets, spread all over Germany. People, ready to criticize the church for its many abuses, were quick to find in Luther a rallying point for their concerns. Word also reached the pope (Leo X) who, on August 8, 1518, ordered Luther to recant. Luther refused. Frederic the Wise arranged a meeting between Luther and representatives of the Pope; he was the first prince to choose for the Reformation side.

Various debates followed, the most important of which was at Leipzig, June 27 till July 15, 1519. Although Luther was reluctant to challenge the authority of the Pope, he was forced into this position. This made him study the early Church Fathers (especially Augustine). The result was that he denied the authority of the pope and of the church counsels; he denied the tradition of apostolic confession and he was forced to stand on Scripture alone. This, in turn, led him to rediscover the idea of the priesthood of all believers. This debate, which at first seemed to have been won by the Romish debater, John Eck, was of great importance in LutherÕs further development.

Diet of Worms 1521 - The Background
In point form, we can give the various pertinent facts which played a role in shaping the events at this ÒDietÓ--a parliament of the empire. The empire was made up of various semi-independent states, ruled by princes or dukes. A small group of the leading rulers (called ÒelectorsÓ) chose one of their number to be emperor.

1. Frederic the Wise, a man of deep principles, protected Luther. Frederic was prince of Saxony, a powerful member state in the federation.

2. A new emperor had to be chosen from among the Òelectors.Ó Leading candidates were Francis of France and Charles of Spain (no love lost between these two!). The Pope wanted neither and really was too much involved in politics to pay proper attention to Luther, let alone study his views. He did realize he needed political strength in Germany to stop Luther.

3. Luther was joined by Philip Melanchthon, Òthe teacher of Germany.Ó

4. Luther continued to study and write. He proved that the popeÕs claims to large areas of Italian lands were false, based on a forgery. Ultimately, he declared the pope to be the Anti-Christ.

5. In reaction to all this and especially alarmed at the drop in sales of indulgences, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther in 1520. The declaration of excommunication was by way of a papal Òbull,Ó an official proclamation, dated June 15, 1520. When he received this official document, Luther burned the papal bull in the presence of a large crowd, including students and fellow professors. The break with Rome was now complete.

Diet of Worms 1521 - The Events
This was a meeting of the Reichstag (ÒparliamentÓ) where the princes of the semi-independent states came together for consultation. Although other items were on the agenda, the main issue was the ÒGerman ProblemÓ-- i.e. Luther. Present were 206 noblemen, princes, dukes, archbishops, etc.

Charles V, the new emperor, was under pressure from the pope to settle the issue. Luther had been warned by friends not to go. They remembered all too well what had happened to John Huss one hundred years earlier. As he entered Worms, LutherÕs progress to the meeting hall was held up for several hours by the thousands of people on the streets and rooftops who wanted to see Òthis devil in the flesh.Ó On April 17, 1521, he was asked, ÒAre these your writings? Will you retract those which disagree with the teachings of the church?Ó

Luther asked for time to consider. After a night of prayer, he returned and spoke these memorable words: ÒUnless I am convinced by the testimonies of Scripture or by clear arguments that I am in error, for popes and councils have often erred, I cannot withdraw... My conscience is captive to the Word... Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.Ó Pandemonium broke loose, everyone talking and shouting at once. The Emperor walked out in disgust.

Although Luther had earlier received a safe conduct from the Emperor, the papal authorities tried to arrest him and wanted to execute him. Luther was declared a heretic and placed under the ban. This meant anyone could kill him without fear of reprisal and Luther was consigned to hell. On his way from Worms, friendly Germans princes ÒkidnappedÓ him and kept him in safe seclusion in the castle of Wartburg. Here, in the space of six weeks, he translated the entire New Testament into the German language. Later, he also translated the Old Testament and wrote several hymns, including the world famous ÒA Mighty Fortress is our God.Ó He stayed at Wartburg for about a year.

Significance of Worms
Although Luther never thought it was all that important, Worms was the turning point in his life. Here he took his stand on Scripture alone--Sola Scriptura. Rome maintained that if you question the authority of the pope, you lose the unity of the church. But what is unity? Is it imposed from the top down or is it a matter of faith and is the Body of Christ present wherever there are believers? This view, first expressed by Wycliffe, was more and more accepted. But does this not lead to chaos with every man thinking for himself what is right? The Reformers said this would not be the case. Out of this came the following principles:

1. Scripture is the objective standard of truth because it is infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit;

2. Not the individual, but Scripture, interpreted by Scripture, must govern manÕs mind and actions;

3. This can be done only when menÕs minds are enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

From this grew the notion that all of Scripture is to be the rule of life and faith. This, in turn, is expressed in our Confessions by which the church confesses her faith to the world. All this is possible because the Lord has given His Spirit to the Church and the Spirit has promised to lead into all truth.

One further result of this stand taken by Luther was that the princes were starting to oppose the emperor and the pope. Because of the Turkish threat (remember, Islam was on the march and huge armies were threatening south-eastern Europe) nothing could be done by Charles against Luther, even though the pope wanted him to take action. Also, the support of Frederic for Luther meant that one of the most powerful German states was aligned with the new reform movement.

1. Quoted by Frank C. Roberts, To All Generations, A Study of Church History (Grand Rapids, CCRC Board of Publications, 1981) p.137.

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