Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Convictions of Martin Luther

Written by Rev. L. Roth
On November 10 it will be 520 years ago that Martin Luther was born on St. MartinÕs Eve of lower class parents, John Luther and Margaret Lindemann. The first thought of these pious parents was to dedicate their son to the Lord. They called him after the patron saint and had him baptized one day after his birth at St. PeterÕs Church. Apparently young Luther did not experience any extra-ordinary religious experiences in his early youth except that whenever anyone spoke about Jesus Christ, he turned pale with fright, for the Saviour had only been presented to him as an offended Judge, a conception Luther carried with him into adult life. Whenever he read about the righteousness of God and of Christ, he regarded this as the LordÕs condemnation of sinners. The Lord is holy, righteous and just and therefore has the power and mandate to punish manÕs sin. However, through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, the scales were removed from LutherÕs eyes and his understanding was enlightened to see that the righteousness of God in Christ was that righteousness by which the Lord could forgive sinners and cleanse them from all unrighteousness.
The 95 Theses
Now, it is 486 years ago that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door of Wittenberg. Initially, he performed this work as an academic exercise--although he was convinced of the truth of his assertions. Apparently it was customary for the University of Wittenberg to participate in ecclesiastical festivities on the Eve of All Saints Day. Usually this was in the form of a public disputation on a scientific subject. In 1517 it was LutherÕs turn to lead the disputation and he used this opportunity to protest the sale of indulgences by the church. The 95 Theses centered on three main points: 1) the denial of the PopeÕs power over purgatory; 2) the use of the money collected from indulgences to supposedly shelter the bones of St. Peter underneath a shrine of Christendom; and 3) the sale of indulgences showed a lack of consideration for the welfare of sinners. That Luther intended his 95 Theses to be debated by theologians and were not intended for the laity is supported by the fact that he wrote them in Latin. However, within two weeks LutherÕs views on indulgences had been disseminated throughout Germany and six weeks later they had spread through most of Europe.

It is our intention to highlight a few aspects of LutherÕs life while seeking to understand some of the LordÕs personal dealings with him. By 1520, the Pope had written a papal bull in which Luther was called to recant his position and stop attacking the teachings of Òmother church.Ó Luther, however, was not prepared to depart from his fundamental doctrinal principles and soon another bull was issued which excommunicated Luther from the Church of Rome. His writings were condemned and were ordered burned. In response, the German reformer formally renounced the papacy by publicly burning a copy of the papal bull in the presence of a large crowd, including students and professors. As he cast the bull into the flames, Luther is reported to have said, ÒAs thou [that is the Pope] hast vexed the holy One of the Lord [Christ], may eternal fire vex thee.Ó

Apparently, the day after publicly burning the papal bull, Luther continued his lectures on the Psalms. At the end of the lecture, in a room filled to overflowing, he is reported to have declared, ÒBe on your guard against the laws and the statutes of the Pope. I have burned his decretals, but this is merely childÕs play. It is time, and more than time that the Pope is burned, that is, the see of Rome, with all its doctrines and abominations. If you reject it, then you must expect to incur every kind of danger, and even to lose your lives. But it is far better to be exposed to such perils in this world than to keep silence. So long as I live, I will denounce to my brethren the sore and the plague of Babylon, for the fear that many who are with us should fall back like the rest into the bottomless pit.Ó A short time later, Luther, in his writings, denounced the Pope as the Antichrist.

Luther at the Diet of Worms
Luther had not only raised the wrath of the ecclesiastical powers with the Pope as their head, but Emperor Charles V was not supportive of LutherÕs reform either. His only support came from Elector Frederick, governor of Saxony. During these perilous times Luther is said to have stated the following while he looked to heaven, ÒWhat will happen? I know not and I care not to know, feeling sure that He Who sitteth in heaven hath foreseen from all eternity the beginning, the continuation, and the end of this affair. Wherever the blow may reach me, I fear not. The leaf of a tree does not fall to the ground without the will of our Father, how much less we ourselves. It is a little matter to die for the Word, since this Word, which was made flesh for us, died itself, at first. We shall arise with it, if we die with it, and passing where it has gone before, we shall arrive where it has arrived, and abide with it through all eternity.Ó

Luther was called to attend the Diet of Worms to defend his position. Many of his friends tried to dissuade him from going, reminding him that a century earlier, John Huss had not been given the safe passage which had been promised him. But Luther replied, ÒIf there are as many devils in Worms as tiles on the housetops, I will still go there.Ó He was filled with determination and the purpose to carry out what he considered to be his holy calling and duty. On his way to Worms he preached at Erfurt to an overflowing congregation on John 20:19-20: ÒPeace be unto you. And when He had so said, He showed unto them His hands and His side.Ó On this occasion, Luther emphasized the one and only way of salvation, through the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Luther continued on his way to the Diet of Worms accompanied by many followers, his supporters warned him of the dangers he would meet. But nothing frightened the pious monk. He said, ÒThough they should kindle a fire all the way from Worms to Wittenberg, the flames of which reached up to heaven, I would walk through it in the name of the Lord. I would appear before them; I would enter into the jaws of this behemoth and break his teeth, confessing the Lord Jesus Christ.Ó

On April 17, 1521 Luther entered the conference hall of Worms where the Diet was to be held. It was only with great difficulty that the reformer could find his way into the room where the worldly powers, 6 electors of the empire, 24 dukes and 8 margraves, were gathered as allies of the church. Besides these political dignitaries, 30 archbishops, bishops and abbots, 7 ambassadors, papal nuncios and deputies of free cities were gathered, totaling 206 people of rank. You can imagine the importance that these dignitaries attached to this Diet, called by Emperor Charles V, who for the first time presided over his great empire. The appearance of these dignitaries already was a victory over the papacy, for the Pope had condemned the man who was standing before this august assembly, which by its very presence set itself above the head of the church. The Pope had placed an interdict on Luther to cut him off from human society. The Pope had condemned Luther to perpetual silence and now he was about to speak before thousands of hearers drawn together from many regions of Christendom. An immense revolution had been effected by the instrumentality of Luther. As Scripture states, weak means fulfill GodÕs will. We also see this here.

LutherÕs Stand
The presiding dignitary at this assembly was Johann von Eck. The examination of LutherÕs position centered upon two main points. Was he the author of the writings displayed on a table before them? Secondly, was he willing to retract the doctrines contained in the books of which the church disapproved? After he examined the books, Luther acknowledged that he indeed was their author. But as for the second question, he replied, ÒSeeing that it is a question which concerns faith and the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God, the greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or earth is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection. I might affirm less than the circumstance demands, or more than the truth requires, and so sin against this saying of Christ, ÔWhosoever shall deny me before men, him shall I deny before My Father which is in heaven.Õ For this reason I entreat you, Imperial Majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may answer without offending against the Word of God.Ó This request was granted and Chancellor von Eck, in the EmperorÕs name, adjourned the meeting until the following day.

Replying to the question whether he would defend his books as a whole or whether he was ready to disavow part of it, Luther is said to have made the following statement, which is quoted in part. ÒMost serene emperor, illustrious princes, gracious lords, I appear before you on this day, in conformity with the order given me yesterday, and by GodÕs mercies I beseech your majesty and august highnesses to listen graciously to the defense of a cause which I am assured is just and true. If, through ignorance, I should transgress the usages and proprieties of the courts, I entreat you to pardon me; for I was not brought up in the palaces of kings, but in the seclusion of a convent. Yesterday, two questions were put to me on behalf of his imperial majesty, the first, if I was the author of the books whose titles were enumerated. The second, if I would retract or defend the doctrine I taught in them. To the first I gave an answer and I persevere in that reply. As for the second, I have written works on many subjects. There are some in which I have treated of faith and good works, in a manner at once so pure, so simple, and so Scriptural that even my adversaries, far from finding anything to censure in them, allow that these works are useful and worthy of being read by all pious men. The papal bull, however violent it may be, acknowledges this. If therefore I were to retract these, what should I do?É Wretched man! Among all men, I alone should abandon truths that friends and enemies approve, and I should oppose what the whole world glories in confessingÉ Lastly, I have written books against individuals who desired to defend the Roman tyranny and to destroy the faith. I frankly confess that I may have attacked them with more acrimony than is becoming my ecclesiastical profession. I do not consider myself a saint; but I cannot disavow my adversaries, and they would seize the opportunity of oppressing the people of God with still greater cruelty. Yet I am but a mere man, and not God. I shall therefore defend myself as Christ did. ÔIf I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, said HeÕ (John 18:23). How much more should I, who am but dust and ashes, and who may so easily go astray, desire every man to state his objections to my doctrine? For this reason, but for the mercy of God, I beseech you, most serene emperor, and you, most illustrious princes and all men of every degree, to prove from the writings of the Prophets and the Apostles that I have erred. As soon as I am convinced of this, I will retract every error and be the first to lay hold of my books and throw them into the fire.Ó

After this lengthy answer in his defense, Luther was charged with not having answered the question that was put to him. You are called to give a clear and precise answer, was the charge. Will you, or will you not retract? Upon this Luther replied without hesitation, ÒSince your serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one and it is this, I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as the day, that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract [cursive mine, LR], for it is not safe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.Ó Then, turning to the assembly, which humanly speaking held his life in its hands, he spoke the words for which he is famous, ÒHere I stand; I can do no other; may God help me. Amen.Ó

The DietÕs Response
The assembly was thunderstruck. Many of the princes could not conceal their admiration at the courage displayed by Luther. The Emperor is supposed to have exclaimed, ÒThis monk speaks with an intrepid heart and unshaken courage.Ó On further reflection, however, on the following day he told his courtiers, ÒI cannot see how a single monk could be right and the testimony of a thousand years of Christendom be wrong.Ó The Chancellor of the Diet was unmoved by LutherÕs speech and threatened Luther. ÒIf you do not retract, the Emperor and the states of the empire will consort what course to adopt against an incorrigible heretic.Ó While LutherÕs supporters began to tremble, LutherÕs response was: ÒMay God be my helper; for I can retract nothing.Ó

According to his promise, Charles V ensured Luther safe passage from Worms. Obviously there were opponents who would have liked nothing better than to take Luther prisoner right then and there. However, on his way back to Wittenberg, a contingent of armed knights sent by Frederick the Wise literally kidnapped Luther and smuggled him to a remote castle at Wartburg where he remained in hiding for almost a year. This place became LutherÕs Patmos. While there, in a period of just eleven weeks, the indefatigable monk compiled a first draft of the New Testament into German, using the Greek New Testament of Erasmus. With the aid of Melancthon a thorough revision was made and printed. By September 1522, 3,000 copies were for sale in German shops for a sum equivalent to a weekÕs wages of a carpenter. They sold at lightening speed. The Old Testament was published in German in segments and was completed by 1534.

LutherÕs Heritage
Luther died in 1546 at the age of 63 in Eisleben, the city where he was born. He was buried in the church of Wittenberg, where 29 years earlier he had nailed the 95 Theses on its door. A year later, Emperor Charles V stood at LutherÕs grave and one of his captains inquired whether it would not be fitting that the bones of this arch-heretic be burned. But Charles is said to have replied, ÒI make war upon the living, and not upon the dead. Let this man rest until the day of resurrection and of judgment.Ó

Thus LutherÕs remains lie where his life began, to remain there until ChristÕs return on the clouds of heaven. This reformer was a man of profound insight, great courage, and firm convictions. By the grace of God he was enabled to stand unmoved for the truth of GodÕs Word. That Word had permeated his life. With the apostle Paul, he could say, ÒFor me to live is Christ and to die is gain.Ó He was not called to lay down his life as a martyr as many others were. But his life was consumed for his Master. As a result of his labours, Luther, with the other reformers, has given us a rich heritage so that we have unrestricted access to the Scriptures. May we prayerfully use these means of grace with diligence in order that a true work of transformation may also take place in our hearts. To whom much has been given, much shall also be required. When we, by the grace of the Spirit, may with Luther take our stand upon the Word of God, we will not be put to shame.

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