Luther's Separation From
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.
Like the first heralds of the
gospel, Luther sprang from the ranks of poverty. His early years were spent in the humble
home of a German peasant. By daily toil as a miner his father earned the means for his
education. He intended him for a lawyer; but God purposed to make him a builder in the
great temple that was rising so slowly through the centuries. Hardship, privation, and
severe discipline were the school in which Infinite Wisdom prepared Luther for the
important mission of his life.
Luther's father was a man of
strong and active mind and great force of character, honest, resolute, and
straightforward. He was true to his convictions of duty, let the consequences be what they
might. His sterling good sense led him to regard the monastic system with distrust. He was
highly displeased when Luther, without his consent, entered a monastery; and it was two
years before the father was reconciled to his son, and even then his opinions remained the
Luther's parents bestowed
great care upon the education and training of their children. They endeavored to instruct
them in the knowledge of God and the practice of Christian virtues. The father's prayer
often ascended in the hearing of his son that the child might remember the name of the
Lord and one day aid in the advancement of His truth. Every advantage for moral or
intellectual culture which their life of toil permitted them to enjoy was eagerly improved
by these parents. Their efforts were earnest and persevering to prepare their children for
a life of piety and usefulness. With their firmness and strength of character they
sometimes exercised too great severity; but the Reformer himself, though conscious that in
some respects they had erred, found in their discipline more to approve than to condemn.
At school, where he was sent
at an early age, Luther was treated with harshness and even violence. So great was the
poverty of his parents that upon going from home to school in another town he was for a
time obliged to obtain his food by singing from door to door, and he often suffered from
hunger. The gloomy, superstitious ideas of religion then prevailing filled him with fear.
He would lie down at night with a sorrowful heart, looking forward with trembling to the
dark future and in constant terror at the thought of God as a stern, unrelenting judge, a
cruel tyrant, rather than a kind heavenly Father.
Yet under so many and so
great discouragements Luther pressed resolutely forward toward the high standard of moral
and intellectual excellence which attracted his soul. He thirsted for knowledge, and the
earnest and practical character of his mind led him to desire the solid and useful rather
than the showy and superficial.
When, at the age of eighteen,
he entered the University of Erfurt, his situation was more favorable and his prospects
were brighter than in his earlier years. His parents having by thrift and industry
acquired a competence, they were able to render him all needed assistance. And the
judicious friends had somewhat lessened the gloomy effects of his former
training. He applied himself to the study of the best authors, diligently treasuring their
most weighty thoughts and making the wisdom of the wise his own. Even under the harsh
discipline of his former instructors he had early given promise of distinction, and with
favorable influences his mind rapidly developed. A retentive memory, a lively imagination,
strong reasoning powers, and untiring application soon placed him in the foremost rank
among his associates. Intellectual discipline ripened his understanding and aroused an
activity of mind and a keenness of perception that were preparing him for the conflicts of
The fear of the Lord dwelt in
the heart of Luther, enabling him to maintain his steadfastness of purpose and leading him
to deep humility before God. He had an abiding sense of his dependence upon divine aid,
and he did not fail to begin each day with prayer, while his heart was continually
breathing a petition for guidance and support. "To pray well," he often said,
"is the better half of study."-- D'Aubigne, b. 2, ch. 2.
While one day examining the
books in the library of the university, Luther discovered a Latin Bible. Such a book he
had never before seen. He was ignorant even of its existence. He had heard portions of the
Gospels and Epistles, which were read to the people at public worship, and he supposed
that these were the entire Bible. Now, for the first time, he looked upon the whole of
God's word. 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: "O that God would give me such a book for myself!"-- Ibid., b. 2, ch.
2. 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 peace with God led him at last to enter a cloister and devote himself
to a monastic life. Here he was required to perform the lowest drudgery and to beg from
house to house. He was at an age when respect and appreciation are most eagerly craved,
and these menial offices were deeply mortifying to his natural feelings; but he patiently
endured this humiliation, believing that it was necessary because of his sins.
Every moment that could be
spared from his daily duties he employed in study, robbing himself of sleep and grudging
even the time spent at his scanty 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 often
repaired. As his convictions of sin deepened, he sought by his own works to obtain pardon
and peace. He led a most rigorous life, endeavoring by fasting, vigils, and scourgings to
subdue the evils of his nature, from which the monastic life had brought no release. He
shrank from no sacrifice by which he might attain to that purity of heart which would
enable him to stand approved before God. "I was indeed a pious monk," he
afterward said, "and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express.
If ever monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been
entitled to it. . . . If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my
mortifications even to death."-- Ibid., b. 2, ch. 3. As the result of this painful
discipline he lost strength and suffered from fainting spasms, from the effects of which
he never fully recovered. But with all his efforts his burdened soul found no relief. He
was at last driven to the verge of despair.
When it appeared to Luther
that all was lost, God raised up a friend and helper for him. The pious Staupitz opened
the word of God to Luther's mind and bade him look away from himself, cease the
contemplation of infinite punishment for the violation of God's law, and look to Jesus,
his sin-pardoning Saviour. "Instead of torturing yourself on
account of your sins,
throw yourself into the Redeemer's arms. Trust in Him, in the righteousness of His life,
in the atonement of His death. . . . Listen to the Son of God. He became man to give you
the assurance of divine favor." "Love Him who first loved you."-- Ibid., b.
2, ch. 4. Thus spoke this messenger of mercy. His words made a deep impression upon
Luther's mind. After many a struggle with long-cherished errors, he was enabled to grasp
the truth, and peace came to his troubled soul.
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. Staupitz, his friend and superior,
urged him to ascend the pulpit and preach the word of God. Luther hesitated, feeling
himself unworthy to speak to the people in Christ's stead. It was only after a long
struggle that he yielded to the solicitations of his friends. Already 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 fervor touched their hearts.
Luther was still a true son
of the papal church and had no thought that he would ever be anything else. In the
providence of God he was led to visit Rome. He pursued his journey on foot, lodging at the
monasteries on the way. At a convent in Italy he was filled with wonder at the wealth,
magnificence, and luxury that he witnessed. Endowed with a princely revenue, the monks
dwelt in splendid apartments, attired themselves in the richest and most costly robes, and
feasted at a sumptuous table. With painful misgivings Luther contrasted this scene with
the self-denial and hardship of his own life. His mind was becoming perplexed.
At last he beheld in the
distance the seven-hilled city.
With deep emotion he prostrated himself upon the earth,
exclaiming: "Holy Rome, I salute thee!"-- Ibid., b. 2, ch. 6. He entered the
city, visited the churches, listened to the marvelous tales repeated by priests and monks,
and performed all the ceremonies required. Everywhere he looked upon scenes that filled
him with astonishment and horror. He saw that iniquity existed among all classes of the
clergy. He heard indecent jokes from prelates, and was filled with horror at their awful
profanity, even during mass. As he mingled with the monks and citizens he met dissipation,
debauchery. Turn where he would, in the place of sanctity he found profanation. "No
one can imagine," he wrote, "what sins and infamous actions are committed in
Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. Thus they are in the habit of saying,
'If there is a hell, Rome is built over it: it is an abyss whence issues every kind of
sin.'"-- Ibid., b. 2, ch. 6.
By a recent decretal an
indulgence had been promised by the pope to all who should ascend upon their knees
"Pilate's staircase," said to have been descended by our Saviour on leaving the
Roman judgment hall and to have been miraculously conveyed from Jerusalem to Rome. Luther
was one day devoutly climbing these steps, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to
say to him: "The just shall live by faith." Romans 1:17. He sprang to his feet
and hastened from the place in shame and horror. 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 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 saw the danger of
exalting human theories above the word of God. He fearlessly attacked the speculative
infidelity of the schoolmen and opposed the philosophy and theology which had so long held
a controlling influence upon the people. He denounced such studies as not only worthless
but pernicious, and sought to turn the minds of his hearers from the sophistries of
philosophers and theologians to the eternal truths set forth by prophets and apostles.
Precious was the message
which he bore to the eager crowds that hung upon his words. Never before had such
teachings fallen upon their ears. The glad tidings of a Saviour's love, the assurance of
pardon and peace through His atoning blood, rejoiced their hearts and inspired within them
an immortal hope. At Wittenberg a light was kindled whose rays should extend to the
uttermost parts of the earth, and which was to increase in brightness to the close of
But light and darkness cannot
harmonize. Between truth and error there is an irrepressible conflict. To uphold and
defend the one is to attack and overthrow the other. Our Saviour Himself declared: "I
came not to send peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34. Said Luther, a few years after
the opening of the Reformation: "God does not guide me, He pushes me forward. He
carries me away. I am not master of myself. I desire to live in repose; but I am thrown
the midst of tumults and revolutions."--D'Aubigne, b. 5, ch. 2. He was now about
to be urged into the contest.
The Roman Church had made
merchandise of the grace of God. The tables of the money-changers (Matthew 21:12) were set
up beside her altars, and the air resounded with the shouts of buyers and sellers. Under
the plea of raising funds for the erection of St. Peter's Church at Rome, indulgences for
sin were publicly offered for sale by the authority of the pope. By the price of crime a
temple was to be built up for God's worship--the cornerstone laid with the wages of
iniquity! But the very means adopted for Rome's aggrandizement provoked the deadliest blow
to her power and greatness. It was this that aroused the most determined and successful of
the enemies of popery, and led to the battle which shook the papal throne and jostled the
triple crown upon the pontiff's head.
The official appointed to
conduct the sale of indulgences in Germany--Tetzel by name--had been convicted of the
basest offenses against society and against the law of God; but having escaped the
punishment due for his crimes, he was employed to further the mercenary and unscrupulous
projects of the pope. With great effrontery he repeated the most glaring falsehoods and
related marvelous tales to deceive an ignorant, credulous, and superstitious people. Had
they possessed the word of God they would not have been thus deceived. It was to keep them
under the control of the papacy, in order to swell the power and wealth of her ambitious
leaders, that the Bible had been withheld from them. (See John C. L. Gieseler, A
Compendium of Ecclesiastical History, per. 4, sec. 1, par. 5.)
As Tetzel entered a town, a
messenger went before him, announcing: "The grace of God and of the holy father is at
your gates."--D'Aubigne, b. 3, ch. 1. And the people welcomed the blasphemous
pretender as if he were God Himself come down from heaven to them. The infamous traffic
was set up in the church, and Tetzel, ascending the
pulpit, extolled the indulgences as
the most precious gift of God. He declared that by virtue of his certificates of pardon
all the sins which the purchaser should afterward desire to commit would be forgiven him,
and that "not even repentance is necessary."-- Ibid., b. 3, ch. 1. More than
this, he assured his hearers that the indulgences had power to save not only the living
but the dead; that the very moment the money should clink against the bottom of his chest,
the soul in whose behalf it had been paid would escape from purgatory and make its way to
heaven. (See K. R. Hagenbach, History of the Reformation, vol. 1, p. 96.)
When Simon Magus offered to
purchase of the apostles the power to work miracles, Peter answered him: "Thy money
perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with
money." Acts 8:20. But Tetzel's offer was grasped by eager thousands. Gold and silver
flowed into his treasury. A salvation that could be bought with money was more easily
obtained than that which requires repentance, faith, and diligent effort to resist and
The doctrine of indulgences
had been opposed by men of learning and piety in the Roman Church, and there were many who
had no faith in pretensions so contrary to both reason and revelation. No prelate dared
lift his voice against this iniquitous traffic; but the minds of men were becoming
disturbed and uneasy, and many eagerly inquired if God would not work through some
instrumentality for the purification of His church.
Luther, though still a papist
of the straitest sort, was filled with horror at the blasphemous assumptions of the
indulgence mongers. Many of his own congregation had purchased certificates of pardon, and
they soon began to come to their pastor, confessing their various sins, and expecting
absolution, not because they were penitent and wished to reform, but on the ground of the
indulgence. Luther refused them absolution, and warned them that unless they should
and reform their lives, they must perish in their sins. In great perplexity they repaired
to Tetzel with the complaint that their confessor had refused his certificates; and some
boldly demanded that their money be returned to them. The friar was filled with rage. He
uttered the most terrible curses, caused fires to be lighted in the public squares, and
declared that he "had received an order from the pope to burn all heretics who
presumed to oppose his most holy indulgences."--D'Aubigne, b. 3, ch. 4.
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.
As Tetzel continued his
traffic and his impious pretensions, Luther determined upon a more effectual protest
against these crying abuses. An occasion soon offered. The castle church of Wittenberg
possessed many relics, which on certain holy days were exhibited to the people, and full
remission of sins was granted to all who then visited the church and made confession.
Accordingly on these days the people in great numbers resorted thither. One of the most
important of these occasions, the festival of All Saints, was approaching. On the
preceding day, Luther, joining the crowds that were already making their way to the
church, posted on its door a paper containing ninety-five propositions against the
doctrine of indulgences. He declared his willingness
to defend these theses next day at
the university, against all who should see fit to attack them.
His propositions attracted
universal attention. They were read and reread, and repeated in every direction. Great
excitement was created in the university and in the whole city. By these theses it was
shown that the power to grant the pardon of sin, and to remit its penalty, had never been
committed to the pope or to any other man. The whole scheme was a farce,--an artifice to
extort money by playing upon the superstitions of the people,--a device of Satan to
destroy the souls of all who should trust to its lying pretensions. It was also clearly
shown that the gospel of Christ is the most valuable treasure of the church, and that the
grace of God, therein revealed, is freely bestowed upon all who seek it by repentance and
Luther's theses challenged
discussion; but no one dared accept the challenge. The questions which he proposed had in
a few days spread through all Germany, and in a few weeks they had sounded throughout
Christendom. Many devoted Romanists, who had seen and lamented the terrible iniquity
prevailing in the church, but had not known how to arrest its progress, read the
propositions with great joy, recognizing in them the voice of God. They felt that the Lord
had graciously set His hand to arrest the rapidly swelling tide of corruption that was
issuing from the see of Rome. Princes and magistrates secretly rejoiced that a check was
to be put upon the arrogant power which denied the right of appeal from its decisions.
But the sin-loving and
superstitious multitudes were terrified as the sophistries that had soothed their fears
were swept away. Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and
seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions. The
Reformer had bitter accusers to meet. Some charged him with acting hastily and from
impulse. Others accused him of presumption, declaring that he was not directed of God, but
was acting from pride and forwardness. "Who does not
know," he responded,
"that a man rarely puts forth any new idea without having some appearance of pride,
and without being accused of exciting quarrels? . . . Why were Christ and all the martyrs
put to death? Because they seemed to be proud contemners of the wisdom of the time, and
because they advanced novelties without having first humbly taken counsel of the oracles
of the ancient opinions."
Again he declared:
"Whatever I do will be done, not by the prudence of men, but by the counsel of God.
If the work be of God, who shall stop it? if it be not, who can forward it? Not my will,
nor theirs, nor ours; but Thy will, O holy Father, which art in heaven."-- Ibid., b.
3, ch. 6.
Though Luther had been moved
by the Spirit of God to begin his work, he was not to carry it forward without severe
conflicts. The reproaches of his enemies, their misrepresentation of his purposes, and
their unjust and malicious reflections upon his character and motives, came in upon him
like an overwhelming flood; and they were not without effect. He had felt confident that
the leaders of the people, both in the church and in the schools, would gladly unite with
him in efforts for reform. Words of encouragement from those in high position had inspired
him with joy and hope. Already in anticipation he had seen a brighter day dawning for the
church. But encouragement had changed to reproach and condemnation. Many dignitaries, of
both church and state, were convicted of the truthfulness of his theses; but they soon saw
that the acceptance of these truths would involve great changes. To enlighten and reform
the people would be virtually to undermine the authority of Rome, to stop thousands of
streams now flowing into her treasury, and thus greatly to curtail the extravagance and
luxury of the papal leaders. Furthermore, to teach the people to think and act as
responsible beings, looking to Christ alone for salvation, would overthrow the pontiff's
throne and eventually destroy their own authority. For this reason they refused the
knowledge tendered them of God and arrayed
themselves against Christ and the truth by
their opposition to the man whom He had sent to enlighten them.
Luther trembled as he looked
upon himself--one man opposed to the mightiest powers of earth. He sometimes doubted
whether he had indeed been led of God to set himself against the authority of the church.
"Who was I," he writes, "to oppose the majesty of the pope, before whom ...
the kings of the earth and the whole world trembled? ... No one can know what my heart
suffered during these first two years, and into what despondency, I may say into what
despair, I was sunk."-- Ibid., b. 3, ch. 6. But he was not left to become utterly
disheartened. When human support failed, he looked to God alone and learned that he could
lean in perfect safety upon that all-powerful arm.
To a friend of the
Reformation Luther wrote: "We cannot attain to the understanding of Scripture either
by study or by the intellect. Your first duty is to begin by prayer. Entreat the Lord to
grant you, of His great mercy, the true understanding of His word. There is no other
interpreter of the word of God than the Author of this word, as He Himself has said, 'They
shall be all taught of God.' Hope for nothing from your own labors, from your own
understanding: trust solely in God, and in the influence of His Spirit. Believe this on
the word of a man who has had experience."-- Ibid., b. 3, ch. 7. Here is a lesson of
vital importance to those who feel that God has called them to present to others the
solemn truths for this time. These truths will stir the enmity of Satan and of men who
love the fables that he has devised. In the conflict with the powers of evil there is need
of something more than strength of intellect and human wisdom.
When enemies appealed to
custom and tradition, or to the assertions and authority of the pope, Luther met them with
the Bible and the Bible only. Here were arguments which they could not answer; therefore
the slaves of formalism and superstition clamored for his blood, as the Jews had clamored
for the blood of Christ. "He is a heretic,"
cried the Roman zealots. "It is
high treason against the church to allow so horrible a heretic to live one hour longer.
Let the scaffold be instantly erected for him!"-- Ibid., b. 3, ch. 9. But Luther did
not fall a prey to their fury. God had a work for him to do, and angels of heaven were
sent to protect him. Many, however, who had received from Luther the precious light were
made the objects of Satan's wrath and for the truth's sake fearlessly suffered torture and
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 earthly mediators, were now turning in penitence and faith to
Christ and Him crucified.
This widespread interest
aroused still further the fears of the papal authorities. Luther received a summons to
appear at Rome to answer to the charge of heresy. The command filled his friends with
terror. They knew full well the danger that threatened him in that corrupt city, already
drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. They protested against his going to Rome and
requested that he receive his examination in Germany.
This arrangement was finally
effected, and the pope's legate was appointed to hear the case. In the instructions
communicated by the pontiff to this official, it was stated that Luther had already been
declared a heretic. The legate was therefore charged "to prosecute and constrain
any delay." If he should remain steadfast, and the legate should fail to gain
possession of his person, he was empowered "to proscribe him in every part of
Germany; to banish, curse, and excommunicate all those who are attached to him."--
Ibid., b. 4, ch. 2. And, further, the pope directed his legate, in order entirely to root
out the pestilent heresy, to excommunicate all, of whatever dignity in church or state,
except the emperor, who should neglect to seize Luther and his adherents, and deliver them
up to the vengeance of Rome.
Here is displayed the true
spirit of popery. Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be
seen in the whole document. Luther was at a great distance from Rome; he had had no
opportunity to explain or defend his position; yet before his case had been investigated,
he was summarily pronounced a heretic, and in the same day, exhorted, accused, judged, and
condemned; and all this by the self-styled holy father, the only supreme, infallible
authority in church or state!
At this time, when Luther so
much needed the sympathy and counsel of a true friend, God's providence sent Melanchthon
to Wittenberg. Young in years, modest and diffident in his manners, Melanchthon's sound
judgment, extensive knowledge, and winning eloquence, combined with the purity and
uprightness of his character, won universal admiration and esteem. The brilliancy of his
talents was not more marked than his gentleness of disposition. He soon became an earnest
disciple of the gospel, and Luther's most trusted friend and valued supporter; his
gentleness, caution, and exactness serving as a complement to Luther's courage and energy.
Their union in the work added strength to the Reformation and was a source of great
encouragement to Luther.
Augsburg had been fixed upon
as the place of trial, and the Reformer set out on foot to perform the journey thither.
Serious fears were entertained in his behalf. Threats had been made openly that he would
be seized and murdered on the way, and his friends begged him not to venture. They
entreated him to leave Wittenberg for a time and find safety with those who would gladly
protect him. But he would not leave the position where God had placed him. He must
continue faithfully to maintain the truth, notwithstanding the storms that were beating
upon him. His language was: "I am like Jeremiah, a man of strife and contention; but
the more their threats increase, the more my joy is multiplied. . . . They have already
destroyed my honor and my reputation. One single thing remains; it is my wretched body:
let them take it; they will thus shorten my life by a few hours. But as for my soul, they
cannot take that. He who desires to proclaim the word of Christ to the world, must expect
death at every moment."-- Ibid., b. 4, ch. 4.
The tidings of Luther's
arrival at Augsburg gave great satisfaction to the papal legate. The troublesome heretic
who was exciting the attention of the whole world seemed now in the power of Rome, and the
legate determined that he should not escape. The Reformer had failed to provide himself
with a safe-conduct. His friends urged him not to appear before the legate without one,
and they themselves undertook to procure it from the emperor. The legate intended to force
Luther, if possible, to retract, or, failing in this, to cause him to be conveyed to Rome,
to share the fate of Huss and Jerome. Therefore through his agents he endeavored to induce
Luther to appear without a safe-conduct, trusting himself to his mercy. This the Reformer
firmly declined to do. Not until he had received the document pledging him the emperor's
protection, did he appear in the presence of the papal ambassador.
As a matter of policy, the
Romanists had decided to attempt to win Luther by an appearance of gentleness. The legate,
in his interviews with him, professed great friendliness; but he demanded that Luther
submit implicitly to the authority of the church, and yield every point without argument
or question. He had not rightly estimated the character of the man with whom he had to
deal. Luther, in reply, expressed his regard for the church, his desire for
the truth, his
readiness to answer all objections to what he had taught, and to submit his doctrines to
the decision of certain leading universities. But at the same time he protested against
the cardinal's course in requiring him to retract without having proved him in error.
The only response was:
"Retract, retract!" The Reformer showed that his position was sustained by the
Scriptures and firmly declared that he could not renounce the truth. The legate, unable to
reply to Luther's arguments, overwhelmed him with a storm of reproaches, gibes, and
flattery, interspersed with quotations from tradition and the sayings of the Fathers,
granting the Reformer no opportunity to speak. Seeing that the conference, thus continued,
would be utterly futile, Luther finally obtained a reluctant permission to present his
answer in writing.
"In so doing," said
he, writing to a friend, "the oppressed find double gain; first, what is written may
be submitted to the judgment of others; and second, one has a better chance of working on
the fears, if not on the conscience, of an arrogant and babbling despot, who would
otherwise overpower by his imperious language."--Martyn, The Life and Times of
Luther, pages 271, 272.
At the next interview, Luther
presented a clear, concise, and forcible exposition of his views, fully supported by many
quotations from Scripture. This paper, after reading aloud, he handed to the cardinal,
who, however, cast it contemptuously aside, declaring it to be a mass of idle words and
irrelevant quotations. Luther, fully aroused, now met the haughty prelate on his own
ground--the traditions and teachings of the church--and utterly overthrew his assumptions.
When the prelate saw that
Luther's reasoning was unanswerable, he lost all self-control, and in a rage cried out:
"Retract! or I will send you to Rome, there to appear before the judges commissioned
to take cognizance of your cause. I will excommunicate you and all your partisans, and all
who shall at any time countenance you, and will cast them out of the church." And he
finally declared, in a haughty and angry tone: "Retract, or return no
more."--D'Aubigne, London ed., b. 4, ch. 8.
The Reformer promptly
withdrew with his friends, thus declaring plainly that no retraction was to be expected
from him. This was not what the cardinal had purposed. He had flattered himself that by
violence he could awe Luther to submission. Now, left alone with his supporters, he looked
from one to another in utter chagrin at the unexpected failure of his schemes.
Luther's efforts on this
occasion were not without good results. The large assembly present had opportunity to
compare the two men, and to judge for themselves of the spirit manifested by them, as well
as of the strength and truthfulness of their positions. How marked the contrast! The
Reformer, simple, humble, firm, stood up in the strength of God, having truth on his side;
the pope's representative, self-important, overbearing, haughty, and unreasonable, was
without a single argument from the Scriptures, yet vehemently crying: "Retract, or be
sent to Rome for punishment."
Notwithstanding Luther had
secured a safe-conduct, the Romanists were plotting to seize and imprison him. His friends
urged that as it was useless for him to prolong his stay, he should return to Wittenberg
without delay, and that the utmost caution should be observed in order to conceal his
intentions. He accordingly left Augsburg before day-break, on horseback, accompanied only
by a guide furnished him by the magistrate. With many forebodings he secretly made his way
through the dark and silent streets of the city. Enemies, vigilant and cruel, were
plotting his destruction. Would he escape the snares prepared for him? Those were moments
of anxiety and earnest prayer. He reached a small gate in the wall of the city. It was
opened for him, and with his guide he passed through without hindrance. Once safely
outside, the fugitives hastened their flight, and before
the legate learned of Luther's
departure, he was beyond the reach of his persecutors. Satan and his emissaries were
defeated. The man whom they had thought in their power was gone, escaped as a bird from
the snare of the fowler.
At the news of Luther's
escape the legate was overwhelmed with surprise and anger. He had expected to receive
great honor for his wisdom and firmness in dealing with this disturber of the church; but
his hope was disappointed. He gave expression to his wrath in a letter to Frederick, the
elector of Saxony, bitterly denouncing Luther and demanding that Frederick send the
Reformer to Rome or banish him from Saxony.
In defense, Luther urged that
the legate or the pope show him his errors from the Scriptures, and pledged himself in the
most solemn manner to renounce his doctrines if they could be shown to contradict the word
of God. And he expressed his gratitude to God that he had been counted worthy to suffer in
so holy a cause.
The elector had, as yet,
little knowledge of the reformed doctrines, but he was deeply impressed by the candor,
force, and clearness of Luther's words; and until the Reformer should be proved to be in
error, Frederick resolved to stand as his protector. In reply to the legate's demand he
wrote: "Since Dr. Martin has appeared before you at Augsburg, you should be
satisfied. We did not expect that you would endeavor to make him retract without having
convinced him of his errors. None of the learned men in our principality have informed me
that Martin's doctrine is impious, anti-christian, or heretical.' The prince refused,
moreover, to send Luther to Rome, or to expel him from his states."-- D'Aubigne, b.
4, ch. 10.
The elector saw that there
was a general breaking down of the moral restraints of society. A great work of reform was
needed. The complicated and expensive arrangements to restrain and punish crime would be
unnecessary if men but acknowledged and obeyed the requirements of God and the dictates of
an enlightened conscience. He saw that
Luther was laboring to secure this object, and he
secretly rejoiced that a better influence was making itself felt in the church.
He saw also that as a
professor in the university Luther was eminently successful. Only a year had passed since
the Reformer posted his theses on the castle church, yet there was already a great falling
off in the number of pilgrims that visited the church at the festival of All Saints. Rome
had been deprived of worshipers and offerings, but their place was filled by another
class, who now came to Wittenberg, not pilgrims to adore her relics, but students to fill
her halls of learning. The writings of Luther had kindled everywhere a new interest in the
Holy Scriptures, and not only from all parts of Germany, but from other lands, students
flocked to the university. Young men, coming in sight of Wittenberg for the first time,
"raised their hands to heaven, and praised God for having caused the light of truth
to shine forth from this city, as from Zion in times of old, and whence it spread even to
the most distant countries."-- Ibid., b. 4, ch. 10.
Luther was as yet but
partially converted from the errors of Romanism. But as he compared the Holy Oracles with
the papal decrees and constitutions, he was filled with wonder. "I am reading,"
he wrote, "the decrees of the pontiffs, and . . . I do not know whether the pope is
antichrist himself, or his apostle, so greatly is Christ misrepresented and crucified in
them."-- Ibid., b. 5, ch. 1. Yet at this time Luther was still a supporter of the
Roman Church, and had no thought that he would ever separate from her communion.
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.
Rome became more and more
exasperated by the attacks of Luther, and it was declared by some of his fanatical
opponents, even by doctors in Catholic universities, that he who should kill the
rebellious monk would be without sin. One day a stranger, with a pistol hidden under his
cloak, approached the Reformer and inquired why he went thus alone. "I am in God's
hands," answered Luther. "He is my strength and my shield. What can man do unto
me?"-- Ibid., b. 6, ch. 2. Upon hearing these words, the stranger turned pale and
fled away as from the presence of the angels of heaven.
Rome was bent upon the
destruction of Luther; but God was his defense. His doctrines were heard
everywhere--"in cottages and convents, . . . in the castles of the nobles, in the
universities, and in the palaces of kings;" and noble men were rising on every hand
to sustain his efforts.-- Ibid., b. 6, ch. 2.
It was about this time that
Luther, reading the works of Huss, found that the great truth of justification by faith,
which he himself was seeking to uphold and teach, had been held by the Bohemian Reformer.
"We have all," said Luther, "Paul, Augustine, and myself, been Hussites
without knowing it!" "God will surely visit it upon the world," he
continued, "that the truth was preached to it a century ago, and
burned!"--Wylie, b. 6. ch. 1
In an appeal to the emperor
and nobility of Germany in behalf of the reformation of Christianity, Luther wrote
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?"-- D'Aubigne, b. 6, ch.
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."-- Ibid., b. 6, ch. 3.
This appeal was rapidly
circulated throughout Germany and exerted a powerful influence upon the people. The whole
nation was stirred, and multitudes were 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 immediately condemned.
Sixty days were granted the Reformer and his adherents, after which, if they did not
recant, they were all to be excommunicated.
That was a terrible crisis
for the Reformation. For centuries Rome's sentence of excommunication had struck terror to
powerful monarchs; it had filled mighty empires with woe and desolation. Those upon whom
its condemnation fell were universally regarded with dread and horror; they were cut off
from intercourse with their fellows and treated as outlaws, to be hunted to extermination.
Luther was not blind to the tempest about to burst upon him; but he stood firm, trusting
in Christ to be his support and shield. With a martyr's faith and courage he wrote:
"What is about to happen I know not, nor do I care to know. . . . Let the blow light
where it may, I am without fear. Not so much as a leaf falls, without the will of our
Father. How much rather will He care for us! It is a light thing to die for the Word,
since the Word which was made flesh hath Himself died. If we die with Him, we shall live
with Him; and passing through that which He has passed through before us, we shall be
where He is and dwell with Him forever."-- Ibid., 3d London ed., Walther, 1840, b. 6,
When the papal bull reached
Luther, he said: "I despise and attack it, as impious, false. . . . It is Christ
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."--D'Aubigne, b. 6, ch. 9.
Yet the mandate of Rome was
not without effect. Prison, torture, and sword were weapons potent to enforce obedience.
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. Everything seemed to indicate that the Reformer's work was about to close.
But Luther was fearless
still. Rome had hurled her anathemas against him, and the world looked on, nothing
doubting that he would perish or be forced to yield. But with terrible power he flung back
upon herself the sentence of condemnation and publicly declared his determination to
abandon her forever. In the presence of a crowd of students, doctors, and citizens of all
ranks Luther burned the pope's bull, with the canon laws, the decretals, and certain
writings sustaining the papal power. "My enemies have been able, by burning my
books," he said, "to injure the cause of truth in the minds of the common
people, and destroy their souls; for this reason I consumed their books in return. A
serious struggle has just begun. Hitherto I have been only playing with the pope. I began
this work in God's name; it will be ended without me, and by His might." -- Ibid., b.
6, ch. 10.
To the reproaches of his
enemies who taunted him with the weakness of his cause, Luther answered: "Who knows
if God has not chosen and called me, and if they ought not to fear that, by despising me,
they despise God Himself? Moses was alone at the departure from Egypt; Elijah was alone in
the reign of King Ahab; Isaiah alone in Jerusalem; Ezekiel alone in Babylon. . . . God
never selected as a prophet either the high priest or any other great personage; but
ordinarily He chose low and despised men, once even
the shepherd Amos. In every age, the
saints have had to reprove the great, kings, princes, priests, and wise men, at the peril
of their lives. . . . I do not say that I am a prophet; but I say that they ought to fear
precisely because I am alone and that they are many. I am sure of this, that the word of
God is with me, and that it is not with them."-- Ibid., b. 6, ch. 10.
Yet it was not without a
terrible struggle with himself that Luther decided upon a final separation from the
church. It was about this time that he wrote: "I feel more and more every day how
difficult it is to lay aside the scruples which one has imbibed in childhood. Oh, how much
pain it has caused me, though I had the Scriptures on my side, to justify it to myself
that I should dare to make a stand alone against the pope, and hold him forth as
antichrist! What have the tribulations of my heart not been! How many times have I not
asked myself with bitterness that question which was so frequent on the lips of the
papists: 'Art thou alone wise? Can everyone else be mistaken? How will it be, if, after
all, it is thyself who art wrong, and who art involving in thy error so many souls, who
will then be eternally damned?' 'Twas so I fought with myself and with Satan, till Christ,
by His own infallible word, fortified my heart against these doubts."--Martyn, pages
The pope had threatened
Luther with excommunication if he did not recant, and the threat was now fulfilled. A new
bull appeared, declaring the Reformer's final separation from the Roman Church, denouncing
him as accursed of Heaven, and including in the same condemnation all who should receive
his doctrines. The great contest had been fully entered upon.
Opposition is the lot of all
whom God employs to present truths specially applicable to their time. There was a present
truth in the days of Luther,--a truth at that time of special importance; there is a
present truth for the church today.
He who does all things according to the counsel of
His will has been pleased to place men under various circumstances and to enjoin upon them
duties peculiar to the times in which they live and the conditions under which they are
placed. If they would prize the light given them, broader views of truth would be opened
before them. But truth is no more desired by the majority today than it was by the papists
who opposed Luther. There is the same disposition to accept the theories and traditions of
men instead of the word of God as in former ages. Those who present the truth for this
time should not expect to be received with greater favor than were earlier reformers. The
great controversy between truth and error, between Christ and Satan, is to increase in
intensity to the close of this world's history.
Said Jesus to His disciples:
"If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the
world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember
the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have
persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep
yours also." John 15:19, 20. And on the other hand our Lord declared plainly:
"Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the
false prophets." Luke 6:26. The spirit of the world is no more in harmony with the
spirit of Christ today than in earlier times, and those who preach the word of God in its
purity will be received with no greater favor now than then. The forms of opposition to
the truth may change, the enmity may be less open because it is more subtle; but the same
antagonism still exists and will be manifested to the end of time.