the Great Reformation
FOREMOST among those who were called to
lead the church from the darkness of popery into the light of a purer faith, stood Martin
Luther. Zealous, ardent, and devoted, knowing no fear but the fear of God, and
acknowledging no foundation for religious faith but the Holy Scriptures, Luther was the
man for his time; through him, God accomplished a great work for the reformation of the
church and the enlightenment of the world.
While one day examining the
books in the library of the university, Luther discovered a Latin Bible. He had before
heard fragments of the Gospels and Epistles at public worship, and he thought that they
were the whole of God's Word. Now, for the first time, he looked upon the whole Bible.
With mingled awe and wonder he turned the sacred pages; with quickened pulse and throbbing
heart he read for himself the words of life, pausing now and then to exclaim, "Oh, if
God would give me such a book for my own!" Angels of heaven were by his side, and
rays of light from the throne of God revealed the treasures of truth to his understanding.
He had ever feared to offend God, but now the deep conviction of his condition as a sinner
took hold upon him as never before. An earnest desire to be free from sin and to find
with God led him at last to enter a cloister and devote himself to a monastic life.
Every moment that could be
spared from his daily duties, he employed in study, robbing himself of sleep, and grudging
even the moments spent at his humble meals. Above everything else he delighted in the
study of God's Word. He had found a Bible chained to the convent wall, and to this he
Luther was ordained a priest,
and was called from the cloister to a professorship in the University of Wittenberg. Here
he applied himself to the study of the Scriptures in the original tongues. He began to
lecture upon the Bible; and the book of Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles were opened
to the understanding of crowds of delighted listeners. He was mighty in the Scriptures,
and the grace of God rested upon him. His eloquence captivated his hearers, the clearness
and power with which he presented the truth convinced their understanding, and his deep
fervor touched their hearts.
Leader in Reforms
In the providence of God he
decided to visit Rome. An indulgence had been promised by the pope to all who should
ascend on their knees what was known as Pilate's staircase. Luther was one day performing
this act, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to say to him, "The just shall
live by faith!" He sprang upon his feet in shame and horror, and fled from the scene
of his folly. That text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time he saw more
clearly than ever before the fallacy of trusting to human works for salvation, and the
necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ. His eyes had been opened, and were
never again to be closed, to the Satanic delusions
of the Papacy. When he turned his face
from Rome he had turned away also in heart, and from that time the separation grew wider,
until he severed all connection with the papal church.
After his return from Rome,
Luther received at the University of Wittenberg the degree of doctor of divinity. Now he
was at liberty to devote himself, as never before, to the Scriptures that he loved. He had
taken a solemn vow to study carefully and to preach with fidelity the Word of God, not the
sayings and doctrines of the popes, all the days of his life. He was no longer the mere
monk or professor, but the authorized herald of the Bible. He had been called as a
shepherd to feed the flock of God, that were hungering and thirsting for the truth. He
firmly declared that Christians should receive no other doctrines than those which rest on
the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. These words struck at the very foundation of papal
supremacy. They contained the vital principle of the Reformation.
Luther now entered boldly
upon his work as a champion of the truth. His voice was heard from the pulpit in earnest,
solemn warning. He set before the people the offensive character of sin, and taught them
that it is impossible for man, by his own works, to lessen its guilt or evade its
punishment. Nothing but repentance toward God and faith in Christ can save the sinner. The
grace of Christ cannot be purchased; it is a free gift. He counseled the people not to buy
indulgences, but to look in faith to a crucified Redeemer. He related his own painful
experience in vainly seeking by humiliation and penance to secure salvation, and assured
his hearers that it was by looking away from himself and believing in Christ that he found
peace and joy.
Luther's teachings attracted
the attention of thoughtful minds throughout all Germany. From his sermons and writings
issued beams of light which awakened and illuminated thousands. A living faith was taking
the place of the dead formalism in which the church had so long been held. The people were
daily losing confidence in the superstitions of Romanism. The barriers of prejudice were
giving way. The Word of God, by which Luther tested every doctrine and every claim, was
like a two-edged sword, cutting its way to the hearts of the people. Everywhere there was
awakening a desire for spiritual progress. Everywhere was such a hungering and thirsting
after righteousness as had not been known for ages. The eyes of the people, so long
directed to human rites and human mediators, were now turning, in penitence and faith, to
Christ and Him crucified.
The Reformer's writings and
his doctrine were extending to every nation in Christendom. The work spread to Switzerland
and Holland. Copies of his writings found their way to France and Spain. In England his
teachings were received as the word of life. To Belgium and Italy also the truth had
extended. Thousands were awakening from their deathlike stupor to the joy and hope of a
life of faith.
Breaks With Rome
Rome was bent upon the
destruction of Luther, but God was his defense. His doctrines were heard everywhere--in
convents, in cottages, in the castles of the nobles, in the universities, in the palaces
of kings; and noble men were rising on every hand to sustain his efforts.
In an appeal to the emperor
and nobility of Germany in behalf of the Reformation of Christianity,
concerning the pope: "It is a horrible thing to behold the man who styles himself
Christ's vicegerent, displaying a magnificence that no emperor can equal. Is this being
like the poor Jesus, or the humble Peter? He is, say they, the lord of the world! But
Christ, whose vicar he boasts of being, has said, 'My kingdom is not of this world.' Can
the dominions of a vicar extend beyond those of his superior?"
He wrote thus of the
universities: "I am much afraid that the universities will prove to be the great
gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures, and
engraving them in the hearts of youth. I advise no one to place his child where the
Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not unceasingly
occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt."
This appeal was rapidly
circulated throughout Germany, and exerted a powerful influence upon the people. The whole
nation was roused to rally around the standard of reform. Luther's opponents, burning with
a desire for revenge, urged the pope to take decisive measures against him. It was decreed
that his doctrines should be condemned immediately. Sixty days were granted the Reformer
and his adherents, after which, if they did not recant, they were all to be
When the papal bull reached
Luther, he said: "I despise and attack it, as impious, false. . . . It is Christ
Himself who is condemned therein. . . . I rejoice in having to bear such ills for the best
of causes. Already I feel greater liberty in my heart; for at last I know that the pope is
antichrist, and that his throne is that of Satan himself."
Yet the word of the pontiff
of Rome still had power. Prison, torture, and sword were weapons
potent to enforce
submission. Everything seemed to indicate that the Reformer's work was about to close. The
weak and superstitious trembled before the decree of the pope, and while there was general
sympathy for Luther, many felt that life was too dear to be risked in the cause of reform.
Copyright © 1974
The Ellen G. White Estate, Inc.
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