A biography of the German Reformer, Martin Luther
It is claimed that apart from Jesus Christ, his Master, there has been more books written about Martin Luther than about any other person in the history of the world. His influence is far-reaching; whether our sympathy is with him or not, Luther undoubtedly must be placed in the foremost ranks of the world’s heroes.
Many religious men had endeavoured to reform Christendom, which apart from the Waldensians and other minority groups, had sunk in the worst kind of doctrinal aberrations and immoral practices. The abuses were sickening and nobody seemed to have the nerve to speak up. Those who did were harassed to no end, and even violently killed by the order of the apostate hierarchy, on the excuse that their doctrine was not in accordance with that of “holy Mother Church.”
Even zealots who aimed at direct moral reformation, without impinging upon Romanist doctrine, such as was Girolamo Savanarola, met with the bitter end of being burnt at the stake. Arnold of Brescia, John Huss, Jerome of Prague, and others attacked the false doctrine that had encroached upon Christendom: they were denounced as heretics and silenced by sword or fire.
Wycliffe, in the fourteenth century, had the happiness of dying peacefully on a deathbed, but his whole life was a struggle against a monolithic Church that hardly budged at his worthy attempts at reformation. He was the first Reformer worth his salt, and the Reformation might have been ignited by him all over Europe, but he did not enjoy enough support from his own countrymen. His doctrine was evangelical but the movement he left behind him was confined to the British Isles, and bitterly persecuted.
Luther a schismatic?
In God’s wise providence, whose it is to build and even restore His church, it was left for the German Luther to give the jewel of the gospel to Christendom which had virtually lost it, or rather which was pleased to play with beads of glass and disregard the worthiest of all things, the upholding of sound doctrine.
The Roman church of his time had quite everything: political power, prestige, riches, art treasures, armies, cultural influence, and was even establishing posts in the New World. But she was deteriorating morally and distancing itself from the Truth in the same proportion as she was expanding.
For the honour of Christ, Luther spoke up...and the result was something he did not even imagine at that time. Romanist apologists today mock his work by decrying the fragmentation of Christendom. “The Reformation,” they say, “brought division, religious and political trouble, and left numberless sects in its wake.”
That may be partially true, though divisions within Christendom had been from the very beginning, and became glaringly apparent in the rift between East and West in 1050. The Eastern part of Christendom, from the days of Constantine (when the papacy began to strike its roots), had never acknowledged the primacy of the pope, and still does not.
So if Luther created division, it certainly was not the first. And then, it is certainly positive that the Reformation brought many more lasting blessings than disadvantages to every country where the Gospel was received. The Reformation, in a word, is a rediscovery of the Gospel with all the blessings attendant upon it. And wherever the Gospel enters, it brings division, not directly but as a side effect, for it clearly marks who belongs to Christ and who merely claims to be His. It could be said that the Reformation was nothing else but a mighty revival of the Spirit. But naturally enough, with every move of the Holy Spirit, men are wont to express their carnality too.
Martin Luther was born on November 10th, 1483, in Eisleben, a small town in Saxony. His parents were poor but honest, who never dreamt that their child would one day become a famous figure in world history.
He received his primary education from some monks who were known as “The Brethren of the Common Life.” From them he learnt his first Latin lessons and pious precepts, for the brethren strove to inculcate principles of godliness along with sound education and teaching.
When he was fifteen, Luther went to Eisenach and there Frau Cotta showed liberality to the lad and offered him hospitality and helped him in a splendid manner.
Thus at the age of eighteen young Martin was enabled to enter the University of Erfurt where he took his B.A. degree with marked success and later, in 1505, his M.A. His intention at this stage in his career was to become a lawyer. But a remarkable providential occurrence, at length determined him to change his profession. The sudden death, whether by violence or accident is disputed, of an intimate friend and companion, made a deep impression upon his mind, and seems to have thrown him for a time into a state of melancholy.
In the summer of this year he went to visit his parents and on the return journey to Erfurt he was caught in a thunderstorm. Lightning struck the ground very near to him; terrified, he vowed that if his life was spared he would devote his life to God.
On the 17th of August, 1505, he kept his word and joined the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt. This was not in accordance with his Father’s wishes, for the latter always hoped that Martin would practice a secular career in law; but the man who is destined to do an exceptional work in the gospel field is always a called man.
As such, Martin had to experience the corruption of his own heart before turning his attention to the state of the church around him. While in the monastery he became increasingly concerned and anxious about his soul’s welfare for eternity. Despite the hardships, the menial tasks and the penances he underwent as a monk, he still felt the burden of guilt because of sin. He had hoped that in the tranquil cloisters of the monastic life, he would find lasting peace with God. Such a peace eluded him. Later he was to confess: “If ever a man could be saved by monkery, it would have been I.”
John Staupitz, Vicar-General of the Augustinian Order, counselled him that Luther, for all his earnestness, was not moving along gospel lines. It speaks volumes to the credit of Staupitz that he was instrumental in setting the future Reformer on the right path.
Together with the vast numbers enmeshed in Romanism, Luther too was attempting to obtain credit before God by good works. He was trying to win salvation, something quite impossible with men. The fact that salvation is the free gift of grace, procured fully and once-for-all by Christ on account of His death and resurrection, was (and still is) largely hid from Romanists.
“It is not in vain that God exercises you in so many conflicts,” Staupitz counselled the misguided monk “You will see that he will employ you as His servant for great purposes. Let the study of the Scriptures be your favourite occupation.” By hindsight, how ironic his words sound. Little did he realise to what purposes God was moving young Luther.
Knowing about the truth yet not experiencing it
In 1507 Luther was ordained. So highly was his learning appreciated that he was invited to the professorship of philosophy at Wittemberg. Here he became distinguished, both as a teacher of philosophy and a popular preacher. His fame spread far and wide.
While resident in the monastery, he had learned from an old monk the doctrine of justification by free grace. This vital and fundamental truth he proclaimed with a boldness which attracted peculiar attention.
“This monk,” exclaimed Martin Polichius, a doctor of law and medicine, “will confound all the doctors, will exhibit new doctrines, and reform the whole Roman Church; for he is intent on reading the writings of the prophets and apostles, and he depends on the Word of Jesus Christ; this, neither the philosophers nor the sophists can subvert.”
Such a declaration, more especially from the mouth of a man who was himself accounted a wonder of his age, clearly showed how Luther had made an open profession of his views in regard to the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel. He knew all about justification by faith alone, the point of doctrine he later termed “articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae,” the article of a standing or falling church.
The theme which chiefly occupied his attention at this period, both in his private mediations and in his pulpit hours, may be learned from the following extract of a letter which he wrote to a friend: “I desire to know what your soul is doing; whether, wearied at length of its own righteousness, it learns to refresh itself and to rest in the righteousness of Christ. The temptation of presumption in our age is strong in many, and specially in those who labour to be just and good with all their might, and, at the same time, are ignorant of the righteousness of God, which, in Christ, is conferred upon us with a rich exuberance of gratuitous liberality. They seek in themselves to work that which is good, in order that they may have a confidence of standing before God adorned with virtues and merits; which is an impossible attempt. You, my friend, used to be of this opinion, or rather this mistake; so was I: but now I am fighting against the error, but have not yet prevailed.”
It is impressive how Luther admits that even at this stage he was not yet in the kingdom of God.
In the course of the second year after his admission into the monastery at Erfurt, he happily chanced upon a copy of the Latin Bible in the library. This was to him like the opening of the eyes to the blind. He perused the Word for himself; and while poring, with earnest assiduity, over the sacred page, he frequently lifted up his heart in prayer to the Father of lights, that he might be enabled to understand the contents. The Lord was preparing him just as He prepared Moses and Paul in the desert.
The Reformation hinged entirely upon this question: “How can a man be just in the sight of God?” A question as old as man, for which there is no correct answer apart from God’s own revelation. It was assumed that man naturally wins salvation by performing good works, by dedicating one’s life to God and doing His will. Such was the answer of the church.
Luther showed the fallacy in this cardinal error by which Roman Catholicism is exposed to be outside of biblical Christianity. He had the courage to correct the view of salvation by works. He placed faith alone in Christ alone as the instrumental means of being reckoned right with God. Good works are the fruits of such a saving union with Christ, “whose we are and whom we serve.”
All this, fundamental as it is to a healthy Christian life, Luther came to experience for himself. A dispute happened to arise between seven of the local convents and their Vicar-General. Before long Luther was sent to Rome to get the quarrel decided. Luther, in obedience, went eagerly, having, as he thought, the opportunity to be at “the very gate of heaven,” as Rome was called.
But he was shocked to discover the disreputable state of the church there, the very headquarters of Romanism. He managed to see the corruption at the fountainhead. God was leading him “by a way that he knew not,” to fit him for a post of unrivalled honour and responsibility.
In his sincerity he climbed the Holy Stairs, said to have been miraculously transported from Jerusalem by angels, and which, if climbed on one’s knees, a fifteen year indulgence from purgatory was gained.
It was during this penitential act that the biblical principle came to his mind as a strong reminder, “The just shall live by his faith.” The words came with such power that he felt it was God’s voice speaking to him. He rose on his feet; at once he realised that whereas the church administered a limited indulgence, Christ procured full and free forgiveness at Calvary for all believers.
This was the initial burning of the truth of justifications by faith alone within his heart. It was a doctrine the Roman Church had lost or disregarded for centuries and had proposed and relied on salvation by one’s own merits.
Still, it cannot be said that Luther had experienced the lasting peace he desired. He returned to Germany greatly saddened; the thought struck him that “the Church had lost the key to the kingdom,” but that was largely all. Later he said: “Like a fool, I took onions to Rome and brought back garlic.”
The stern judgement of God: under conviction of sin, Luther was fast becoming obsessed with guilt. Once again, at the university his mentor Staupitz, with a philosophic turn of mind, approached to soothe his mind and reminded Luther of God’s forgiving mercy. But how was this mercy to be obtained? Sad to say, Staupitz pointed out to him that it was also necessary to work hard to deserve God’s salvation. Cold comfort!
The matter reached its climax in 1513 when Luther was preparing his lectures on the Psalms. He read the familiar phrase, “Deliver me in thy righteousness” (Psalms 31:1).
To his mind righteousness was the punishment of a holy God towards sinful men. This idea caused him considerable unease. But then he was reminded of Romans 1:17. In speaking of the gospel Paul had declared that it is God’s power unto salvation to every believer: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” It began to dawn upon him that in the New Testament the idea of righteousness is not one of punishment, but that it was God’s nature to show mercy and extend true forgiveness. Later he wrote: “When I realised this, I felt myself absolutely born again. The gates of paradise had been flung open and I had entered. There and then the whole of Scripture took on another look to me.”
The gospel had reached him personally. And this same balsam he was to offer initially to the professing church which for hundreds of years had exchanged this message to a philosophy that cannot save. Luther had re-discovered a Gospel truth that had lain dormant and hidden by all the paraphernalia of Catholicism.
No longer was Luther under the withering threat of eternal damnation. He knew he was forgiven: not on his merits, but on the sole and all-sufficient merits of Jesus Christ imputed to his account. God had declared him, as a believer, to be righteous - in Christ.
Forgiveness for a fee
Leo X, the pope of the period, was eager to proceed with the erection of the great church of St. Peter’s in the Vatican which his predecessor, Julius II, had left unfinished. For this purpose he invited his subjects to purchase forgiveness for themselves by donating money to this worthy cause. No scruple was harboured in the management of this venture.
The Dominican Tetzel was commissioned to sell indulgences in the neighbourhood of Luther’s monastery. He harangued folk to induce them to purchase his pardons. “I would not exchange my privileges,” he said, “with Saint Peter in heaven: for I have saved more souls with my indulgences that he with his sermons...The very moment that the money clinks against the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory and flies into heaven.”
This kind of “holy trade” aroused two classes of opponents, at least. First, the scoffers who pointedly asked why if the pope had the power to release souls from purgatory, did he not do so as a matter of charity.
But there was a stronger and deeper opposition which examined the whole business in the light of the honour of God and the scriptural doctrine of forgiveness. Is forgiveness purchased or is it freely granted?
Luther’s perspective on his life
Progressively Luther became more and more outspoken. He wrote to his own diocesan and to his vicar-general. In the letter to the former he expresses himself with that undaunted confidence which might be expected to characterise a person who was conscious of being engaged in a righteous cause.
“I fear not,” he says, “bulls and menaces; it is the audaciousness and the ignorance of men that induce me to stand forth, though with much reluctance; were there not a weighty cause for it, no one out of my own little sphere should ever hear of me. If the cause I defend be not the work of God, I would have nothing to do with it; let it perish. Let Him alone have glory to whom alone glory belongs.”
The position he now occupied was one which harassed and distressed his mind. It was with the utmost reluctance that he felt himself compelled to oppose the Church with which he was connected, and more especially as the ground of his opposition was of such vital importance. He requested his friend and patron, Staupitz, to transmit his sentiments in writing to Rome.
“Not that I would involve you in my dangers,” he explains. “I desire alone to stand the shock of it. Let Christ see to it, whether the cause be mine or His. To the kind admonition of my friends, who would warn me of danger, my answer is, The poor man has no fears. I protest that property, reputation, and honours shall be of no estimation with me, compared with the defence of the truth. I have only a frail body to lose, and that weighed down with constant fatigue. If, in obedience to God, I lose it through violence or fraud, what is the loss of a few hours of life? Sufficient for me is the lovely Redeemer and Advocate, my Lord Jesus Christ, to whose praise I will sing as long as I live.”
His conduct was not rash. Even at this advanced stage, he found place to write personally to the pope, explanatory of his conduct, and couched in such language that shows unmistakably that, at this period, he had no intention of separating from the Roman communion.
Even at this early period of his history, his views of divine truth were quite lucid. The Bible had been for years his constant study; prayer had been his unceasing exercise; and in the habitual use of these two means of grace, his knowledge of the gospel had become at once extensive and accurate.
In the doctrines of free grace Luther was in his element. “A Christian may glory that in Christ he has all things; that all the righteousness and merits of Christ are his own, by virtue of that spiritual union with him which he has by faith; and, on the other hand, that all his sins are no longer his, but Christ, through the same union, bears the burden of them. And this is the confidence of Christians, this is the refreshment of their consciences, that by faith our sins cease to be ours judicially, because they are laid on him, ‘the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.’”
Luther viewed the righteousness of Christ as the all-sufficient and sole ground for believers that they may entertain a hope that cannot disappoint. He unceasingly urged it, with proper earnestness, upon all who came within reach of his influence.
At this early stage in his career Luther grasped the fact that sin and righteousness can exist together in the Christian believer, so that he may be described as a sinner as well as a saint.
The following quotation is from his Lectures on Romans (1515-16).
“Since the saints are always conscious of their sin, and seek righteousness from God in accordance with his mercy, they are always reckoned as righteous by God (semper quoque iusti a deo reputantur). Thus in their own eyes, and as a matter of fact, they are unrighteous. But God reckons them as righteous on account of their confession of their sin. In fact, they are sinners; however, they are righteous by the reckoning of a merciful God (Re vera peccatores, sed reputatione miserentis Dei iusti). Without knowing it, they are righteous; knowing it, they are unrighteous. They are sinners in fact, but righteous in hope (peccatores in re, iusti autem in spe)...
It is like the case of a man who is ill, who trusts the doctor who promises him a certain recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor’s instructions, abstaining from what has been forbidden to him, in the hope of the promised recovery (in spe promissae sanitatis), so that he does not do anything to hinder this promised recovery...Now this man who is ill, is he healthy? The fact is that he is a man who is both ill and healthy at the same time (immo aegrotus simul et sanus). As a matter of fact, he is ill; but he is healthy on account of the certain promise of the doctor, who he trusts and who reckons him as healthy already, because he is sure that he will cure him. Indeed he has already begun to cure him, and no longer regards him as having a terminal illness. In the same way, our Samaritan, Christ, has brought this ill man to the inn to be cared for, and has begun to cure him, having promised him the most certain cure leading to eternal life...Now is this man perfectly righteous? No. But he is at one and the same time a sinner and a righteous person (simul iustus et peccator). He is a sinner in fact, but a righteous person by the sure reckoning and promise of God that he will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And so he is totally healthy in hope, but a sinner in fact (sanus perfecte est in spe, in re autem peccator). He has the beginning of righteousness, and so always continues more and more to seek it, while realising that he is always unrighteous.”
Besides the all-foundational doctrine, Luther reduced the number of sacraments to two, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He maintained the mass to be no sacrifice; exploded the adoration of the host, auricular confession, meritorious and supererogatory works, indulgences, purgatory, the worship of images, and other superstitious practices prevalent in Romanism.
He also opposed the doctrine of free will (as if salvation is dependent on man’s will rather than God’s), maintained predestination (in this he was a strict Calvinist), and asserted our justification to be solely by the imputation of the merits and satisfaction of Christ.
He also opposed the fastings of the Romish church, manastical vows, the celibacy of the clergy, and other points of doctrine and conduct.
Burning the bridges
In the face of the blatant abuses of the professing church, Luther sent a detailed protest to the Archbishop and the local bishops, hoping they will take action. Nothing of the sort came about. In the midst of this ferment Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” against the castle church in Wittenberg. A few extracts shows what they contained, even though the protest, at this stage, still smacked of Catholicism.
VI. The Pope cannot remit any condemnation but can only declare and confirm the remission that God Himself has given...
XXI. The sellers of indulgences are in error when they say that by the papal indulgence a man is delivered from every punishment and is saved.
XXXVII. Every true Christian, dead or living, is a partaker of all the blessings of Christ or of the Church, by the gift of God and without any letter of indulgence.
LII. To hope to be saved by indulgence is a lying and an empty hope, although even the seller of indulgences, nay even the pope himself, should pledge their souls to guarantee it.
LXII. The true and precious treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
As Wylie points out, Luther had taken the mightiest of all the powers of the Church, the power of pardoning sin and so saving men’s souls, and given it back to God. Luther desired to have his statements discussed and debated by all those concerned.
Into the arena
The response was almost instantaneous, proving quite clearly that there had been a keen desire, even though repressed, for reform among all classes of the people. In a fortnight Luther’s Theses were distributed all over Germany. They were translated into Dutch and Spanish and circulated in those countries. In a month they were all round Europe. In four weeks Luther’s name was a household word in Europe.
Luther had dared to speak his mind freely. From now on his life was endangered: he had entered the arena without consciously knowing about the repercussions. He was cited to appear in Rome, but he was advised not to do so. His friends pointed out the instance of John Huss a century earlier, who, though promised safe conduct, was foully murdered at the Council of Constance.
Debates and disputations
The Reformer appeared at Augsburg before the Italian Cardinal Cajetan. During this confrontation, Luther enunciated that:
1. Holy Scripture is an authority superior to the pope’s.
2. Faith in Christ alone for salvation is a necessary doctrine.
In a debate that was arranged between the Catholic theologian John Eck and the Wittenberg school, Luther caused an uproar when he declared that the pope’s supremacy was based on false decretals and was not known in Scripture. The idea had only grown in the previous four centuries. Furthermore, the Eastern half of the church had nothing to do with the pope or his councils that had expressed the faith of Catholicism. “A single layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above the pope or a council without it.”
From 1520 to 1522 the battle raged unceasingly. The pope played his trump-card by issuing a “Bull,” which contained forty criticisms of Luther’s writings, and condemned them. In a public ceremony Luther consigned the Bull to the flames. The pope’s last resort was to excommunicate the now-committed Reformer, who had begun to speak his heart more bravely than ever before.
Luther wrote profusely: tracts, commentaries on books of the Bible and books addressing specific issues. Among the latter may be mentioned:
1. To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, respecting the Reformation of the Christian estate (a defence of the Protestant position).
2. On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (a trenchant attack on Romanism with its unlawful claims).
3. Concerning Christian Liberty (explaining the nature of Christian freedom; non-controversial. His thesis is stated in two introductory sentences: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none,” and, “A Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to every one”).
Besides we must mention his two most influential books:
1. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians.
2. On the bondage of the will (in Luther’s opinion his most important work, written in answer to Erasmus’ Diatribe).
From an early stage Luther insisted on a good religious grounding for all education. He exhorted his fellow-labourers to teach the parents who in turn would teach their children, starting from the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. To help towards this goal, he published a larger and a smaller catechism. His aim was to teach children, while still of tender years, the rudiments of the Faith.
On a more official level, he published a statement of doctrine commonly known today as “The Augsburg Confession of Faith.” This he did with the help of his right-hand man, Philip Melanchton. It was an immense piece of work and well-performed.
A good confession
On January 6th, 1521, the emperor Charles V assembled his first Diet, a convention of Germanic states, in the city of Worms. One of the chief items on the programme was the question of ecclesiastical reform. The pope’s legates demanded the immediate condemnation of Luther without a hearing.
But Luther had his supporters, among them the good Elector Frederick of Saxony who had himself but recently refused the Imperial Crown. Luther was thus ordered to appear before the Diet and make his defence.
Luther was accused of being a rebel in speaking against Holy Mother Church. The Romanists asserted that its authority was above question. Luther replied: “I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or the Councils, because it is clear as day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or on plain and clear grounds of reason, so that conscience shall bind me to make acknowledgement of error, I cannot and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything contrary to conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”
Refusing to budge, Luther was commanded to depart and not to disturb the peace by his preaching or writing. His friends hid him in the forest of Thuringen and while in seclusion he managed to translate the Bible into German. This achievement by itself is a great blessing. He gave the Bible to the German nation, a silent missionary and reformer wherever it found entrance.
From here onwards his life was one of constant ministry to the people, in preaching, writing, giving advice to budding evangelical ministers and organising the churches and their liturgy according to a scriptural pattern.
Protestantism: like an ever-widening circle
The story broadens so much that it is impossible in a limited space to even allude to the bare facts. But one thing should be interesting. A the second Diet of Speyer in 1529, the evangelical princes drew up a protest demanding in courteous, Christian language, the “rights of minorities,” and the “rights of conscience,” something quite unheard of in those days. Their appeal was made on the ninth of April, 1529, a memorable day for all lovers of religious and civil liberty. This quotation concluded their plea:
“For these reasons, most dear Lords and friends, we earnestly entreat you to weigh carefully our grievances and our motives. If you do not yield to our request, we protest, by these presents before God, our Creator, Redeemer and Judge...that we, for us and for our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to His Holy Word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our souls and to the last decree of Speyer.”
Upon its negative reception, the Reformers drew up another statement, from which we may surmise what these men of faith meant when they spoke of themselves as “Protestant.” Within this term they included “Anyone who receives or shall hereafter receive, the Word of God.” A Protestant then is not merely synonymous with Anti-Catholic. The term carries with it the hearty confession of a definite Faith as to God and His Word; it really means “a witness for,” in their case, “witnesses for Gospel truth; and only consequently against Roman error.
Even at the expense of disturbing the peace, or even creating schism, the faithful Christian must be ready to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Every child of God is called to be a witness for the truth against error, whenever error subverts or hides the truth. We conclude, therefore, that the Protestant principle goes back to the apostolic age itself. It is an ancient rule that, admittedly, had been largely laid aside, but with the sixteenth century and with the initiative of Luther, the German princes were moved to appeal to it and thankfully became known as “Protestants.”
Besides having a continual flow of literature being printed and disseminated all over Europe, and above all the German Bible to his fellow-countrymen, Luther kept himself busy in giving addresses on the Epistles and Gospels. These “house postills,” as they became known, were delivered in his home which always welcomed students and friends. His sermons and addresses express, in poetic and strong language, his child-like faith in God.
To obtain a balanced view of Luther, we must not only study his polemical and controversial writings, but also his devotional ones.
Luther was also gifted in music and hymn-writing. In 1524 there was the German hymn-book, where the poet had opportunity to express his sentiments. Among them was his now renowned hymn Ein feste burg ist unser Gott:
A hymn that truly exposes Luther’s simple faith in God and His Christ, of dependence on Him against innumerable foes.
Contact with other Reformers
Contemporary with Luther, the Swiss cantons were also being swept by evangelical preaching. Foremost among the Swiss reformers was the intelligent and gifted clergyman by the name of Huldreich Zwingli, a scholar of high stature.
The two men of God met at Marburg in the autumn of 1529, in the company of other scholars. A list of fifteen doctrinal propositions was drawn up for discussion, and an amicable agreement was reached for all except the point about the Lord’s Supper. The Communion Service, and the nature of Christ’s presence in it, became the centre of debate.
From the beginning Luther was uncompromising; as it turned out, he stood fast on a doctrine that can in no way be aligned with biblical truth. As his understanding was expressed later, it became known as consubstantiation, that is, he held that in, with, and under the species of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ was present. It differed from the Romanist error of transubstantiation, and yet it still was not a correct interpretation.
The story goes that Luther took a piece of chalk and wrote on the table around which the great scholars were assembled, “Hoc est corpus meum,” the Latin for “This is my body.”
Zwingli proposed his figurative interpretation, observing that Christ frequently spoke thus, “I am the door,” and, “I am the true vine,” and, “I am the good shepherd.” He certainly did not mean to be taken literally.
Notwithstanding Zwingli’s lucid argument, the German Reformer would not be moved. Sad to say, the conference came to an end...without the much-desired unity which the evangelical leaders urgently needed in that hour. It is said that Luther even refused to shake hands with Zwingli who on his part left in tears. He loved Luther and held him in high esteem.
This incident is a telling lesson on human nature. Noble, dauntless and illuminated as we might be, there still remains in us all an Achilles’ heel...Luther included. A reminder that our faith must ultimately be in the Lord Jesus: all others are servants for His sake, and fallible servants too.
Despite all impressions Luther was a kind-hearted and genial man. This is borne out by his vast correspondence with friends and relatives, with all those who sought his counsel. We are perhaps moved to consider the stalwart reformer as a warrior exclusively. But he was after all a married man with several children which he loved are cared for. His heart was tender and forgiving to the same proportion as his mind was keen and his language withering towards all those who resisted the truth and perverted the gospel.
One case may illustrate what a man Luther was. When the pardon-monger, Tetzel, was abandoned by his very people who had flocked to him in the hour of prosperity, who would bother to visit him, but Luther? Yes, Luther, who had been his opponent, entered his sick chamber and ministered to him. He gave him words of comfort which none but a great and spiritual mind could have poured into the heart of a fallen foe.
Luther’s promotion to the heavenly home
Ill-health dogged Luther’s life during his last years. On February 18th, 1546, he breathed his last with the words borrowed from the Master he so dearly loved and faithfully served. “Lord, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.”
He was only 63, exhausted by the labours that were demanded of him. His life, from his conversion on, was a sacrifice on the altar of Truth, for Christ’s sake, who claimed to be Truth Himself.
To the end Luther did not desire to separate from Catholicism. This he did when all other means were out of the question. The Roman hierarchy proved to be fossilised in error, and expressed no remorse for its abuses. It was an unrepentant church.
But Luther regretted it deeply that the disciples of his generation were being nicknamed “Lutherans.” He wanted Christ to have the pre-eminence; and held Christ alone to be the true head of the church. He did not desire to be placed as the head of a new movement. His only ambition was to see the truth of God, especially as it related to the gospel of salvation, rescued from the bondage in which it was incarcerated for ages.
To his understanding, and rightly so, Christ and the grace of God in Him are all we need for salvation. He wrote: “Man needs only Jesus Christ,” “He who believes in Christ must find riches in poverty, honour in dishonour, joy in sorrow, life in death,” “ Without Christ there is no help or remedy, no matter how pious men may be.” Again: “One can dispense with all the saints, but Christ...no man can dispense with.” “Before God, no works are acceptable but Christ’s own works. Let these plead for you before God.”
Luther substituted the superstitions of the Roman church for the gospel of Christ in all its efficacy and glory.
In his will he bequeathed his detestation of popery to his friends and brethren; agreeably to what he used to say: Pestis eram vivus, moriens ero mors tua, papa, that is, “I was the plague of popery in my life, and shall continue to be so in my death.”
Reflecting on Luther, one author said; “It was a great miracle that a poor monk should be able to stand against the Papacy; it was a greater miracle that he should prevail; and the greatest miracle of all, that he should die in peace, when surrounded by so many enemies.”
One man and God form a majority. And so it proved to be. Thus passed away from the scene “the monk that shook the world.” And yet by faith he still speaks.