The Reformation - 500 Years and Still Going500 years and the Importance of the Anniversary of the Magisterial Reformation.
500 Years Since Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation
by C. Matthew McMahon
It’s been 500 years since the time of the magisterial reformation sparked by Martin Luther in 1517. If it weren’t for Dr. Luther, it may be that certain key events would have never transpired, and certain other individuals may never have come upon the scene of
Luther, as a young monk, inaugurated an official stir in Germany that rippled across the planet, and throughout history. Certainly we could mention the beginnings of the reformation by men like Wycliffe, or even as far back as Gottschalk, or Luther’s exposure to the writings of Augustine, (known as the Dr. of Grace), as an Augustinian monk. But the history of the Reformation centers on Martin Luther as he embarks on a journey back to the sufficiency of the word of God.
Luther, as an Augustinian monk, after much study, was persuaded by “Sola Fide” (Faith alone), early in his walk with Christ. It was during his study of Paul’s epistle to the Romans where he was consumed by the divine and supernatural light of conversion, and realized that works could play no part in regeneration. As a monk in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther never read the Bible. He was providentially guided to study theology by his spiritual mentor Johann von Staupitz, which in turn allowed him access to the original documents of the Old and New Testament, and later to become a doctor of theology. In this study and pursuit for the truth of God, the New Testament book of Romans is certainly a fitting place to be converted. His text of “illumination” was, “The just shall live by faith,” (Romans 1:17), where the Apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4.) Luther was a monk who felt the full weight of the Law of God resting on his shoulders. God required perfection (Matthew 5), and Luther, with all other human beings, was a fallen sinner. The Law is not something he could keep as a sinner imputed with Adam’s original sin (See Romans 3 and 5). He, being a sinful man, was under the wrath of a holy God who condemned him for his sin, and aggravated his sinful state by further sinning. Not until Luther’s conversion through Jesus Christ alone was this burdensome weight lifted. He had previously attempted to “work” for his salvation through the vain prayer of the rosary, priestly confession, contrition, penance and many of the same works which Papists teach people to observe today. He would often spend upwards of 6 hours in the confessional trying to account for the “days’ sins,” but the moment he left the booth, he would remember one more, and fall under great guilt and sorrow. Only the atoning blood of Christ had the ability to wash the stains of those sins away (Romans 5:8). This is where Luther found Jesus Christ and His atonement all sufficient to be believed by faith alone. “The just shall live by his faith,” (Hab. 2:4, cf. Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38).
After his conversion, amidst his theological studies and lecturing in the University of Wittemburg (also spelled Wittenberg), he ultimately posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the chapel church in Wittemburg on October 31, 1517. He knew that the next day (All Saint’s Day) would compel people from all over the countryside to come to the church for mass, and there they would see his theses hanging in public view. Little did he know that not only did people see this, but some of his students circulated copies of the theses all over the kingdom. This instigated a great controversy since he attacked the indulgences of the Roman Catholic Church which were the, “bread and butter of the papacy.” Pope Leo instituted a special indulgence by the hand of John Tetzel which allowed, upon a single monetary gift, the release of anyone from purgatory. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” The Papacy was exemplary in their marketing, and used their spiritual power to collect money for the Pope’s church project called “St. Peter’s Basilica.” Poor people were superstitiously thinking that if they bought an indulgence, the Pope would apply the overflowing extra spiritual benefits attained by saints during their life which landed into the fictitious treasury of merit, to souls that were stuck in purgatory. They would be released because someone bought an indulgence. Wasn’t the Pope kind?
In hating and opposing the falsity of indulgences, Luther was branded as a heretic, and was labeled as a conspirator among the “Hussites”, the followers of John Hus (the goose, who had previously preached the Gospel openly, but was later burned at the stake (this is where the slang phrase “your goose is cooked” emerged)). Luther ultimately was forced to defy the pope, and the papacy, though in the beginning he desired to reform the church, not break away from it. However, he found no medium of compromise. When there is money involved, the Pope was not going to back down. Pope Leo’s fictitious indulgence earned him too much monetary compensation for him to back down against “the wild boar loosed in the vineyard of the Lord,” as he so termed Luther.
Luther was summoned by King Charles and the Bishopric to stand trial for his work. They sent him a summons to appear in the city of Worms before the king while under the crown’s safe conduct. Luther was under the impression that he was attending a formal debate to present his views but this was not the case. Luther was to attend the meeting, called the Diet of Worms, and defend his writings. The King and Roman clergy had his books laid out on a table in plain view. Luther was beckoned to come forward, and was asked two questions, 1) Are these your writings? Luther conceded they were. Secondly, 2) Will you retract them? In most of Hollywood’s versions of Martin Luther’s life, at this point he stands his ground and makes a great speech. But this was not the case. Luther’s response was, “Most gracious emperor! Gracious princes and Lords. His majesty asked me two questions. As to the first, I acknowledge as mine the books that have been just named: I cannot deny them. As to the second, seeing that it is a question that concerns faith and the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God, the greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or earth, is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection. I might affirm less than the circumstance demands, or more than truth requires, and so sin against this saying of Christ:–whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father in heaven. For this reason I entreat your imperial majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may answer without offending against the Word of God.” Luther was given one day to reflect on these things. That night he prayed this prayer:
O Almighty and Everlasting God! How terrible is this world! Behold, it openeth its mouth to swallow me up and I have so little trust in Thee! How weak is the flesh and how power is Satan! If it is in the strength of this world only that I must put my trust, all is over! My last hour is come, my condemnation has been pronounced! O God! O God! O God! Do thou help me against all the wisdom of the world! Do this; Thou shouldest do this Thou alone for this is not my work, but Thine. I have nothing to do here, nothing to contend for with these great ones of the world! I should desire to see my days flow on peaceful and happy. But the cause is Thine and it is a righteous and eternal cause. O Lord! Help me! faithful and unchangeable God! In no man do I place my trust. It would be vain! All that is of man is uncertain; all that cometh of man fails O God! My God, hearest Thou me not? My God, art thou dead? No! Thou canst not die! Thou hidest thyself only! Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it well! Act, then, O God stand at my side, for the sake of Thy well beloved Jesus Christ, who is my defense, my shield, and my strong tower.” After a moment of silent struggle, he thus continues: “Lord! Where stayest Thou? O my God! Where art Thou? Come! Come! I am ready! I am ready to lay down my life for Thy truth patient as a lamb. For it is the cause of justice-it is Thine! I will never separate myself from Thee, neither now nor through eternity! And though the world should be filled with devils,-though my body, which is till the work of Thy hands, should be slain, be stretched upon the pavement, be cut in pieces, reduced to ashes, my soul is Thine! Yes! I have the assurance of Thy Word. My soul belongs to Thee! It shall abide forever with Thee! Amen! O God! Help me! Amen!”
This is the real is characteristic of the spirit of the Reformation. Wickliffe, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Beza, and all the Puritans had a disposition which trusted in the power of Jesus Christ alone, and God alone. They were very aware of their inherent weakness and their sinfulness. They looked to God as their Shield and Fortress, their “Mighty Fortress.”
Luther appeared before the Diet once more the next day. He gave a long speech in defense of his works. And in conclusion replied in this way to the question of recantation:
When he had ceased speaking, the Chancellor of Traves, the orator of the Diet, said indignantly: “You have not answered the question put to you. You were not summoned hither to call in question the decision of councils. You are required to give a clear and precise answer. Will you or will you not, retract?” Upon this Luther replied without hesitation: “Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning,- unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted,-and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.” And then looking round on this assembly before which he stood, and which held his life in its hands, he said: “Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!”
Luther spent a great time in hiding after that meeting. As a matter of fact, his colleagues (friends of the Duke) kidnapped him that night in fear of his life, threw a sack over him and “stole” him away. This was unknown to Luther, yet, it most assuredly saved his life. He then spent a great deal of time in hiding. He took this time to teach, catechize, preach, and translate the Scriptures into the German tongue. One of the most prominent works of the Reformation written by Luther is called, “The Bondage of the Will.” Luther believed this was his greatest work. It is easily attainable today and deals with a refutation of Erasmus’ denial of total depravity and a setting forth of the biblical picture of man’s total inability to save himself.
In embracing the Gospel of the Bible, Luther and the Reformers emphasized a return to the original text of the Holy Scripture and the ability to exercise skill in sacred structure, historical development, and relationships of the Bible’s original languages. It was the resurgence of “ad fontes,” “back to the sources” of antiquity that could place the student of the bible in contact with the original intent of the writers of sacred Scripture. This placed an importance on Greek and Hebrew rather than relying on the inaccurate Latin Vulgate which was extensively used by the Roman Catholic Church. Unless the student is able to understand the heart of the Scripture without the use of commentaries or “filters” to confuse the actual text, the truth of theology could never really be obtained. In this way, then, the idea of “Sola Scriptura” places the word of God into the hands of the people. Since the “ploughboy” would not be able to exegete the text based on Hebrew or Greek, the interpretation of Scripture was really limited to a certain scholarly group who had the skills to do this. This gave way to the reformers and their ability to rightly interpret Scripture in the science and art of hermeneutics. The Reformation was built upon a proper understanding of hermeneutics, which gave way to a solid doctrinal stance on “Sola Scriptura,” i.e. Scripture alone. This in turn pressed men like Luther, Tyndale and others, to translate the bible into the common tongue of the people, to place the voice of Christ into the hands of His sheep; which they did.
As much as Martin Luther is important to the Reformation, more importantly, God’s providential guidance is the key to understanding why Luther, and others, went back to the original sources of the bible. The Reformation is rightly attributed to God’s providence, not simply to Luther’s Theses. Luther himself said, “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it…I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. . . . I did nothing; the Word did everything,” (Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, 1522, LW, 51:77. Acht Sermon D.M. Luthers von im geprediget zu Wittemberg in der Fasten; LW, 51:77; WA, 10.3.18-19). Luther knew that God’s sovereign pleasure in His providence (Psalm 115:3), through the Word of God, was the real power and force behind the magisterial Reformation.
Christ said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one,” (John 10:27-30). When conversion occurs, and when the sheep are arrested by the regenerating Spirit of Christ (John 3:1-10), they are given the ability to hear. All others fall by the wayside. Christ said that those that fall by the wayside are “good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men,” (Matt. 5:13), and they are to be cast, “into the fire, and they are burned,” (John 15:6). The Reformers were used by Jesus Christ to awaken the people of God, the sheep, to hear His voice in the word of God, which God successfully placed into the hands of the people through men like Martin Luther. God providentially brought many scholars “back to the sources of the bible” in various countries, simultaneously, to guide his people back to the truth of the Good Shepherd who came to lay His life down for His sheep. God’s providence in giving His people the Word of God is what the Reformation is really about (cf. 2 Kings 22-23). As long as His people have the Word to stand on, and are resolved to hold unswervingly to it, the Reformation begun 500 years ago, will last until Christ returns to gather His people into His heavenly kingdom. It will continue into a revival of Scripture’s true religion.
Here are a number of works that will enable students of Scripture to hear the voice of the Shepherd, Jesus Christ, which teach biblical and reformed doctrine:
Books on the Reformation
Books on Experimental Christianity
Books on Church History
Books on Historical Theology