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Martin Luther - Captive to God's Word

Martin Luther

by Dennis Pollock

If one were to read the book of Acts, which describes the phenomenal power and growth of the early church, without knowing the future history of the church, he would have to assume that within a few centuries Christianity would surely conquer the whole world. Sadly, the opposite proved true. Within a few generations the power and the life of the early believers had been reduced to formal ceremony and dead liturgy. Biblical knowledge perished, and ignorance and superstition flourished. As the centuries rolled by the church of Jesus Christ became increasingly impotent, corrupt, and irrelevant. Even the knowledge of the most foundational of all Biblical doctrines – "How do we obtain peace with God?" – was lost. 

Such was the state of the church when a baby boy named Martin Luther was born on a November day in 1483. Martin's strict, no-nonsense father soon realized his son was brilliant and began making plans for him to study to become a lawyer. Martin dutifully followed in the path his father had laid out for him, earning a bachelor's degree in a single year and a master's degree after that. His sharp mind enabled him to do well in his studies, but he had far more interest in religion and philosophy than he did in law. Death was a reality impossible to ignore. Plagues would sweep through Europe and decimate entire towns. One fourth of children died before the age of five. Disease was rampant. Luther, always sensitive and often moody, wondered where he stood with God. One day as he was returning to the university after a visit home, a thunderstorm arose. As the lightning and thunder crashed all around him, he feared for his life and called out in desperation to Saint Anna, vowing to become a monk if she would spare his life. When he survived the storm, he was as good as his word and entered a monastery, fully intending to spend the rest of his days there.

Luther went to the monastery not only to fulfill his vow to Saint Anna, but also to save his soul. Like the rest of his generation, including the priests and Bishops, he knew nothing of salvation by grace or the nature of the new birth. But to his thinking, the monks, with their austere lifestyles, vows of poverty and chastity, and constant prayers and church services, represented the apex of holiness. If anyone would be allowed to enter heaven, surely the monks would make it. Luther entered his new vocation with a passion and determined to be the monk of monks. He practiced self-denial by frequent fasting and sleeping outdoors in the winter without a blanket. He prayed constantly and beat himself with a whip to show God how sincere he was in his desire for holiness and salvation. Luther went to confession as all good monks did, but his confessions were far from ordinary. While the average monk would go over a few basic sins and get it over with, Luther would dredge up everything he could think of from the years past to the present day. He would repeat confessions of sins he had already confessed, thinking perhaps he hadn't been sincere enough in the previous confession. Sometimes confessing four times a day, his confessions lasted for hours, until his confessors dreaded the approach of their guilt-ridden brother.

 Luther later wrote, "I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I." But his conscience was never satisfied. He began to see God as a cosmic reflection of his earthly father: stern, cold, and utterly impossible to please. He was growing to hate this God whose condemnation he could never escape. It took a trip to Rome to begin the process of disillusionment. In the Catholic Church, Rome was the holy city, the essence of all that was pristine and godly. When his orders sent him there on a brief assignment, Martin was thrilled beyond words. If ever there should be a suitable place for him to obtain the peace he sought, it would surely be here. 

The end of the beginning

Upon arrival he indulged in all the city had to offer, running from one shrine to another, attending masses, and racking up all kinds of spiritual points by visiting the tombs and viewing the bones of dead saints. But soon his bubble burst as he began to see the prevailing carnality of the priests and church leaders he had assumed would be shining examples of holiness and purity. Sexual immorality was rampant among the priests. Some claimed virtue due to the fact that they only had sex with women. Masses were said hurriedly and without passion or meaning. When Luther had the chance to say a mass, he was told by the impatient priests to hurry up – "Just get on with it!" Nobody seemed to take God seriously. A terrible, disconcerting thought began to form in Luther's mind about the entire Catholic approach to God: "Who knows whether it is so?" 

In 1511 Luther was transferred to a small monastery in Wittenberg. Here he would serve under a priest, Johann von Staupitz, who seemed to understand something about grace, and Martin's quest for peace with God. Discerning that the young monk needed to get his eyes off himself and onto the Scriptures, he assigned Martin the task of serving as professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. Luther became a Bible teacher, which meant he must first become a student of the Scriptures. As he immersed himself in the Bible, his razor sharp mind quickly began to see the vast disparity between what he had been taught and what the early church believed. Martin Luther was on his way to becoming an evangelical.

Just live by faithIn time Luther discovered the simple truth that would forever change history and shake the mighty Catholic Church to its foundations: "The just shall live by faith." He began to see that salvation was not a prize to be earned by long prayers and self-abuse; it is a free gift provided through the cross and resurrection of Jesus and received by faith. Of course the doctrine of justification by faith is not some hidden esoteric teaching requiring genius to see it; it is plainly spelled out in the Scriptures. But because the church in those dark days was so neglectful of the Bible, they had simply gone on century after century believing and preaching the exact opposite of what the Bible actually teaches, insisting upon a complicated formula of salvation through sacraments and various church ordinances. In their attempts to prove Luther wrong, they asked how he could possibly suggest that the church had all been in error for the last thousand years, and he, a solitary little monk, was right! Somehow it never occurred to them to check the Scriptures. 

The Protest 

Luther's historic break from the Catholic Church came as a result of a campaign of the pope to raise revenue for the church through the sale of indulgences. Current church thought was that even the best of Christians must suffer in purgatory after death for perhaps thousands of years while their sins were burned out of them. However, it was thought that the pope had the authority to somehow dispense with centuries or even millennia of such terrible anguish with a simple letter of indulgence. "Time off" was granted for the viewing of sacred relics, such as a dead saint's bones or even a tooth, but especially popular with the Vatican were the indulgences granted for financial donations given toward favorite projects. Johann Tetzel, appointed by the pope as seller of indulgences to Germany had even come up with a jingle to remind the peasants of the power of the indulgence: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs."

 In 1517 Tetzel came near Wittenberg and began to sell indulgences. In this latest sale, the Pope outdid himself, promising not only the "plenary and perfect remission of all sins" for the buyers, but also the ability to purchase complete forgiveness for their dead loved ones. When his own parishioners began to grab up these spiritual bargains, Luther exploded. By now he saw clearly that forgiveness was a matter between the individual and Christ. The church could proclaim forgiveness through Jesus but could not make it happen and certainly could not sell it! Luther responded by writing a blistering article with 95 bullet points, or theses, attacking the sale of indulgences and the church's motives behind this practice. He posted the article, written in Latin, on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, which was a common practice for those wanting scholarly debate over religious points of controversy. Luther had no idea what a storm that little article would unleash.

 Preeminent among Martin Luther's vast array of gifts was his ability to write. He wrote with deep insight, humor, sarcasm, and by now a solid grasp of the Scriptures. His keen mind and ready pen poured forth a torrent of eloquence, exposing the greed and folly of the church. The article was so radioactive that it was soon published and spread all over Germany. Much like the tale of The Emperor's New Clothes, Luther exposed the spiritual nakedness of the church, and Germans by the thousands, who had always resented the church's autocratic ways and financial demands, began nodding in assent. What historians now call The Reformation was on!

 It didn't take long for the Vatican to hear about this new heresy. They responded by a combination of threats and attempts to defend the indefensible. But the proverbial genie was out of the bottle, and there was no way the Pope and all his cohorts could stuff it back. Luther was eventually excommunicated. But by the time the spiritual death-certificate arrived Luther was completely unimpressed, throwing it in the fire. In a written response to being severed from the church he had once loved and served, Luther wrote caustically: "This condemns me from its own word without any proof from Scripture, whereas I back up all my assertions from the Bible. I ask thee, ignorant Antichrist, does thou think that with thy naked words thou canst prevail against the armor of Scripture? If this is all it takes, just to say, 'I dissent, I deny,' what fool, what ass, what mole, what log could not condemn?... and as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand. Amen." 

Measure of the Man 

It took incredible courage for Luther to take the stand he did. The Catholic Church had the power to put heretics to death, and it was more than happy to use that power. In the first years of his protest Luther lived with the thought that he probably would soon be burned at the stake. Somehow this didn't slow him down in the least from writing scathing articles and books denouncing the teachings and hypocrisy of the church. Amazingly, by the providence of God, he was not martyred. Luther lived out his days and finally passed away at the age of 62 from a heart attack. Within ten years of his public attack upon the church, the vast majority of northern Germany had left Catholicism for some form of Protestantism.  Luther left behind two great treasures for the believers. For the body of Christ at large he restored to them the truth Paul had asserted so long ago: "… having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). And to his fellow Germans he gave them another priceless gift – he translated the entire Bible into the language of the people. Until then only the Latin scholars could read the Scriptures, but now farmers and bakers and bankers and housewives could read the doctrines of grace for themselves.

 Without question Martin Luther was a mighty instrument in the hands of God. He certainly had his flaws, and he wore them on his sleeve. He could be harsh, crude, sarcastic, extremist, impatient, and often grumpy. He was disappointed that the Jews failed to join the reformation and became clearly anti-Semitic is his latter years. Yet imperfection has never stopped God from making use of His chosen instruments. Luther was precisely what the times called for. He was fearless in the face of threats, tireless in his proclamation of the truth, and brilliant in his written exposes of the immoral, corrupt, and disingenuous church of his day. Unlike most monks and priests in those dark times, he actually read the Bible and held unflinchingly to the truths he discovered. Above all else, Martin Luther was a man who took God seriously.

 Such a simple thought – who would believe it could start a revolution: "The just shall live by faith."




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