Martin Luther: The 500th Anniversary
This year, 2017, marks an important year in the history of God’s providential dealings with man. This is the 500th anniversary of the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Of course, the Reformation cannot be reduced to a single event or to a single man. The Lord used many men over many years to prepare the way. John Wycliffe, John Hus, Girolamo Savonarola and many others were used in their day as witnesses to the truth. But it is not without reason that Martin Luther and the year 1517 are remembered as the dawn of the Reformation.
Centuries of scholasticism, rationalism, and man-made innovation had clouded the waters of truth. Religion had been gradually synthesized with paganism, and the Roman church was nothing like the church of the first century. The Roman pontiff, Leo X, was an ambitious and conniving man who had attained the papacy by a parade of sins. It was said of him that he would have been a wonderful pope “if, in addition to his other virtues, he would have only been religious.”
Rome was becoming more and more glorious outwardly, but more and more corrupt inwardly. Like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, the church appeared beautiful on the outside, but within it was “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Masses, indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, and all such man-made devices could not satisfy a holy God. When “the fullness of time was come,” God raised up a champion to confront the corruption of his day. J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, in his massive 7,000-page history of the Reformation, introduces Martin Luther with these stirring words:
All was ready. God who prepares his work through ages, accomplishes it by the weakest instruments, when his time is come. To effect great results by the smallest means—such is the law of God. God selected the reformers of the Church from the same class whence he had taken the apostles. He chose them from among the lower rank, which, although not the meanest, does not reach the level of the middle classes. Everything was thus intended to manifest to the world that the work was not of man but of God.
Martin Luther was born to a poor miner in the village of Eisleben. Providence directed his parents to send him to Magdeburg to obtain an education. His parents, aware of their own poverty, wanted their son to become a successful man. Young Martin became discontented with the study of law, and in a severe thunder storm, he vowed to St. Anne that he would become a monk if she would save him from the terror of God’s wrath.
Luther labored many years under the chains of guilt and spiritual darkness. He tried every way he knew to obtain pardon and peace. Masses, vigils, penance, flagellation, and vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were devoutly followed—but in vain. D’Aubigne says:
To be able to deliver his age from the miserable superstitions under which it groaned, it was necessary for him first to feel their weight. To drain the cup, he must drink it to the very dregs.
In mercy, God eventually sent the young monk a kind and compassionate friend in the monastery, John Staupitz. Staupitz was used of God to point Martin away from his own guilt to the righteousness and mercy of the Redeemer.
Luther’s heart was not relieved in a single moment. But over the course of several weeks, he began to find comfort and peace in the very Scriptures which had once condemned him. It was in these months that Romans 1:17 became precious to Luther, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
Luther himself described his conversion thus:
Although I was a holy and blameless monk, my conscience was nevertheless full of trouble and anguish. I could not endure these words—the righteousness of God. I had no love for that holy and just God who punishes sinners. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood these words, when I learnt how the justification of the sinner proceeds from the free mercy of our Lord through faith, then I felt born again like a new man. I entered through the open doors into the very paradise of God. Henceforward also, I saw the beloved and Holy Scriptures with other eyes. As previously I had detested with all my heart these words—the righteousness of God—I began from that hour to value them and to love them, as the sweetest and most consoling words in the Bible. In very truth, this language of St. Paul was to me the true gate of paradise.
The simplicity of justification by faith soon became the very theme of Luther’s preaching and writing. Luther was made a professor at the University of Wittenberg and was also consecrated as the priest of the Castle Church.
In 1517, great controversy erupted in Saxony. An ignorant and itinerant monk named Tetzel entered the area, peddling a Roman indulgence. This pompous monk travelled about in a splendid carriage and carried a large red cross with him. He urged people to buy a piece of paper that promised them pardon for all sins—past, present, and future. The proceeds would be used to build St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Of course, Tetzel also got his share. One bold knight, seeing an opportunity for a joke, asked Tetzel if the indulgence covered future sins. Teztel assured him that it did indeed. Several days later, Tetzel was ambushed on the roadside by this same knight—who emptied Tetzel’s chest of money. When Tetzel angrily brought suit in a local court of law, the knight produced his indulgence and reminded the irate monk that he had promised forgiveness for all future sins. The case was thrown out of court, and Tetzel did not recover the money.
Luther attacked Tetzel in a more direct way. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous Ninety Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This event is recognized by many as the official date of the dawn of the Reformation. Here are a few of Luther’s most probing statements:
27. They preach mere human follies who maintain that as soon as the money rattles in the strong box, the soul flies out of purgatory.
43. If the pope knew of the extortions of the preachers of indulgences, he would rather the mother-church of St. Peter were burnt and reduced to ashes, than see it built up with the skin, the flesh, and the bones of his flock.
52. To hope to be saved by indulgences is a lying and empty hope although even the pope himself should pledge his own soul for them.
82. Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?
Martin Luther has sometimes been criticized for not going far enough. But this is a haughty and proud charge for all of us who benefit from Luther’s courageous stand. Rather than criticizing Luther for not going far enough, we should thank God for Luther’s courage to go as far as he did. Here are some of Luther’s famous and lasting achievements:
1. Luther was the first to successfully stand against papal power. Men before him had been burned to death for daring to resist the pope. Luther burned the papal bull, asserting that the pope was merely a man, subject to the authority of the Word of God, which is supreme in home, church, and state. As he said at Worms, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God . . . Here I stand.”
2. Luther translated the Bible into German. His skillful translation wove together the various dialects, creating what would later become the German literary language.
3. Luther restored congregational singing and worship. “Ein’ Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott” – “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is only one of many hymns that he wrote and set to music to edify the people of God.
4. Luther set a pattern for what a pastor’s home ought to be. His marriage to Katherine von Bora in 1525 was a source of joy to Luther. His happy home became a haven of peace, fellowship, and contentment. Other reformers would follow Luther’s example.
By the time that Luther died in 1546, the truth he had championed was triumphant not only in Germany, but also in England, France, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Others would come along and build on Luther’s work, but God had used him to prepare the way. He had shown the world the simple power of these words, “The just shall live by faith.”
The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne