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Book 2 - The Youth, Conversion and Early Labors of Luther (1488-1517)

A History of the Reformation in the 16th Century

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Book 2 – The Youth, Conversion and Early Labors of Luther (1488-1517)

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 1

Martin Luther was born in 1483, the son of a poor woodcutter and miner. His parents (John and Margaret) named him Martin since he was born on November 10th, the eve of St. Martin’s Day. As soon as Martin was old enough, his parents desired to raise him up in the fear of the Lord and in the admonition of Christian virtue. This entailed beating him occasionally to the point of blood believing they were helping him, though later, we find this reflected in God as cruel and unloving to the cloister monk. His father had not been trained in school, and so desired this for his son, ultimately sending him off to become a lawyer.

At school Martin met with flogging as at home, but he also met with learning. He was taught the Catechism, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, hymns, and a Latin grammar. However, these did not help him to find the loving Christ, but seared the brand of a God of judgment upon his mind and heart. Since John Luther desired Martin to become a scholar, after his basic schooling he sent him to the Franciscan school at Magdeberg. He had to beg for his food, and sat timidly before his master-teachers each day for instruction. He was only fourteen years old.

A kind family in Magdeberg took him in, the Cottas, where he secured a place to stay and eat while in the midst of his studies. It was a relief to him in many ways, different from the Franciscan convent and different than his own home in many ways. His mind was more at rest. Here he made rapid progress in Latin, in eloquence and in poetry, and attached himself to one professor in particular names John Trebonius.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 2

Luther arrived at the Erfurth University in 1501 because of his zeal for learning, which was evident to all. He studied the works of Ockham, Scotus, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. He was blessed with a retentive memory and was admired by the students of the university for this. In this university he earned his BA, his first degree.

Luther began to study portions of the Bible in his early university days. He had only certain epistles and the Gospels to read, and these were given to all the students respectively for study. At that time, he thought the Bible was that composed of only those books he had been given of Holy Scripture. He became very sick and thought he would die, but was encouraged by an aged priest who said that God still had a use for him.

He visited his home in Mansfeldt, but upon his return he was overcome by a violent thunder and lightening storm that nearly took his life, or so he thought. With the bolt of lightning crashing to the ground, he threw himself to his knees believing God was coming to claim his life, and decided to enter into the monastic order knowing full well he was not right with God and could not stand on the Day of Judgment before Him.

Luther told his father that he was leaving law school to become a monk. Needless to say his father was furious at the thought. Luther’s resolve was set, and he had vowed to God that he would enter the monastery. On the 17th of August, 1505 Luther entered the Augustinian convent and broke ties with the world.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 3

As Luther entered the monastery there were adverse reactions from his friends and especially his father. His friends thought he was entering a “life” that was “partially dead” in its denial of so much, and that a genius such as Luther ought not to kill himself in this way so early on. His father was furious since he had spent so much hope on him having the schooling and making something of himself that he had not obtained in his own youth.

The monks received him with joy, but they put him to work in order to humble him. He was tried in many small things, and was cast under a sever apprenticeship of monkery. He would fast, beg for money and food with his order, read the Word for days on end, and began to learn the original languages while here. He continued to study Augustine, Biel and Peter d’Ailly. His food consisted mostly of herring and bread, and became one of the most dedicated and “pious monks” of Rome.

He was reminded by the monks to work righteously before God. But what righteous acts would his sinful heart offer up to God to be accepted? In response, he became dejected to the point that the other monks disliked his company. Luther’s “tender conscience” regarded the “slightest fault as a great sin.” The music of his friends sometimes pulled him slowly out of his depressed fits, but it was not enough to clear his conscience completely from the faults he saw looming over him and before the face of God.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 4

John Staupitz was the vicar general over all Germany for the Augustinian order of monks. He had traded learning the sciences and nature for studying divinity and read profusely, turning continually to Augustine. He also made friends with Frederick the Wise, who had employed him in various duties and ultimately founded a small university in the city of Wittenberg under his direction.

Staupitz was grieved at the state of the church and the corruption within the arena of moral and of doctrine. He wrote with passion to correct these things and display articles on the Christian faith and the love of Christ. Like many before him, he was not a reformer and did not desire to go beyond the duties that had been given to him by the church. However, his affections for people made him a helpful overseer of the convents and he took a liking to help Martin Luther, the timid and fearful monk.

Staupitz comforted Luther as much as he could. Staupitz told him that God would use him for great things because of the manner of trials He is laying upon him. Luther though was taken up far too much with the fear of judgment to receive such comfort. Staupitz reminded him of the Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” This Luther used daily in hoping to find relief from his torment, and it seems at this point God truly converted the fearful monk.

To take his mind off his “problems,” Staupitz put him to work in studying Scripture, and counseled him to enter the priesthood. After being ordained, he wavered at his first mass, where his father was present. Staupitz then sent him to Wittenberg to become a Doctor of Theology and to lecture for the University there.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 5

Frederick founded the University at Wittenberg in 1502, and it ultimately was the breeding ground for the Reformation through Luther’s preaching, teaching and writing. A few months after Luther arrived here he obtained the Bachelor of divinity and devoted himself to biblical theology. He began teaching the Penitential Psalms and then the book of Romans. In doing so, he found the shining light in being justified by faith alone. The verse in Habakkuk repeated in Romans by Paul was a divine and supernatural light into the recesses of his heart. He was strengthened by it and his conversion to the “Protestant” faith was complete, though he did not know it yet.

After his usual lecturing, Staupitz pressed him to begin preaching for the Augustinian church that sat in the middle of the town. Luther declined, but Staupitz insisted. Luther was pushed into the position and afterward became comfortable in the office. The chapel was packed with hearers. It became too small to hear him preach since throngs of people came to hear every message he prepared. The council of Wittenberg then desired him to come and preach in the city church as their chaplain. “The impression he produced there was greater still.”

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 6

Though Luther was teaching and preaching regularly as the theologian and chaplain of the city, Staupitz sent him to Rome. There were some problems that he thought Luther was best suited to help and aid in the monastic orders there. He became sick along the way and thought he would die, and was saddened he would perish in a foreign country. He became despondent for a time, but the Gospel rang in his heart and he remembered that the just shall live by faith. The Lord did not take his life and restored him to continue his life-changing journey to Rome.

Luther at first believed all the stories told him and was seduced by the appearance of righteous works. He was a good monk and attended mass and sought out penitent works through the relics that were strewn through the city. However, the more exploitation he witnessed, the more he despised Rome. He saw their abuses and their mockeries in full view and thought they lived in contempt of the vows of the church. In seeing first hand the abuses of relics, indulgences and the clerical immorality, Luther, at this point, had a turn of convictions. Every step closer to these manipulations strengthened his resolve as one who believed justification by faith alone. It culminated in his penitential works up the steps of Pilate’s Staircase, and after feeling as though a voice echoed in his heart, “The just shall live by faith!” he ran from the scene and from the wickedness of those works.

It was in Rome that God gave Luther a real sense of what Christianity was about. He had gone to help a monastic order resolve some difficulties, and yet left with the echoing of salvation in his heart that could not escape the contemplation of his mind.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 7

Luther returned to Wittenberg and he was sorrowful at the state of the “holy” city of Rome. Seeing his despondency Staupitz and Frederick the Wise decided that Luther should take the Doctor of divinity degree. He recoiled at the thought, but was pressed by every side and thought it was his duty to seek the degree.

Andrew Bodenstein was, at this time, teaching at Wittenberg. He had been arch deacon in the city of Carlstadt which is why church historians refer to him as Carlstadt. He was envious of Luther and would not think of Luther but beneath him. Carlstadt, though, conferred on Luther the highest dignity of the university, to be Doctor Luther, on October 18, 1512.

From the point that Luther became a Doctor, he no longer studied doctrine simply for himself, but now, he studied for the church. He corresponded with Erasmus and Reuchlin and took upon himself their enemies with his pen, as well as the schoolmen who praised Aristotle. He deemed these scholastics “Pelagian” and wrote against them for the truth. Here we see some of the fiery sparks of the Reformation beginning to flame.

At this time Frederick the Wise made George Spalatin his secretary, chaplain, the tutor for his nephew. He became Luther’s friend and acted a liaison between Luther and the princes. Luther, on occasion, would console Spalatin because of his melancholy about the difficulties of the day in the Reformation swirling about the country, and his involvement with so many on both sides of the theological stratum.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter8

Luther’s teaching had become solid in the arena of faith, and whether he spoke in the chapel or classroom the people listened. He relied heavily on the Holy Scriptures which obviously gave him his authority. The people saw him not only as a preacher, but as a preacher with a heart for the people and for the Word of God delivered to them. As a result, Wittenberg became a beacon of light for all of Germany – the Gospel of faith had been recovered.
Luther then published a work in 1516 by an anonymous mystic theologian entitled German Theology. He loved the mystics, though he himself did not ascribed to their theological system, because it was a refreshing change from the dry schoolmen of the time. Luther read Erasmus thoroughly, and though he saw some genius in his work, he believed Erasmus catered to men rather than to God. Just because Erasmus was a scholar, that did not make him a Christian.

Luther desired to bring back two important aspects that seemed distant in theology – the helplessness of man and the omnipotence of God. He knew, though that there was an important connection in the free work of man, or in his free moral agency, and the sovereign grace of God. Not only did Luther believe this to be true theologically, but in seeing the distress of poor men, and the monks, around him, it moved him to help them see the truth of the Word of God.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 9

Before the famous 95 Theses emerged, Luther wrote other documents against the abuses of the Roman Church. He published this first thesis as an attack against the sophists and the Roman Church. Though this was not the famous Theses, it cause a stir and is considered by some to be the beginning of the Reformation.

Staupitz was sent to collect some relics for Frederick, and Luther, in commissioning him in the place of Staupitz, was sent to 40 monasteries to make a visitation. In each place he tried to make the truth known and took the most of every opportunity. Luther returned to Wittenberg after six weeks.

After returning to Wittenberg, a plague broke out in the city and many people left for fear of becoming sick. Plagues in these days were of the worst kind with no vaccines and no real medical attention. With great courage and a resolve to trust in God’s providence, Luther stayed in the city to continue his duties, of which was his work on the Galatian Epistle. This is where he would begin working on one of the greatest commentaries on Paul’s letter ever written. He was not sure if he would be able to finish it before the plague struck him, for he knew the plague worked quickly and killed those it attacked.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 10

Staupitz had returned with a serious quantity of relics for Frederick. Frederick was pleased at the abundance of fine relics that he had found in the lower country. Luther, though, confronted him on this and demonstrated his aversion and hatred of that which would replace faith. Frederick respected Luther’s opinion and was not initially troubled by his stance.

In 1517 Luther came into contact with Duke George of Saxony. George requested of Staupitz a preacher to come and preach at the chapel at Dresden. Staupitz offered this opportunity to Luther took up the opportunity quickly knowing that preaching the truth before the assembly there would do much good. The response from the sermon was mixed. Some though he was ignorant, others believed he spoke against some of the women of social stature present, and two in particular believed they were impressed with a sense of helpfulness from the sermon.

Luther was also invited to come and dine with Jerome Emser – one of the two who were deeply affected by the sermon. At first Luther refused but Emser pressed him to enjoy his hospitality. Luther attended dinner and talked about the truth that were now welling up in his heart and consistently overflowing, even to the dismay of some who spied on the dinner, and listen to the conversations taking place behind closed doors.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 2, Chapter 11

Luther returned again to Wittenberg and took up his duties. He was especially excited about a group of seven young students who were ready to take their examinations for a license to teach. At this time he also published certain theses concerning the discrediting of Aristotle’s ideas, which he was happy about since he had a disdain for his works.

Luther also wrote against the Pelagianism of scholastic theology and published a theses that contained ninety-nine propositions against their theological views. Luther ascribes to God all the good that a man can do in this thesis, which is a direct contradiction again the theology of Pelagius. Man is entirely dead in his sin, and there is no use in attempting to fix his heart, rather, he needs a new one. Though Luther displayed the powerlessness of man to come to salvation, he did not fall into fatalism in his fight with the Pelagian schoolmen. The schoolmen had exalted man’s reason and will, and Luther desired to bring them back to the Divine truth that man’s reason and will are wicked and fallen, though functioning.

In writing this these against Pelagianism, Luther desired that it would fall into the hands of John Meyer of Eck. Also known as John Eck, he taught in the University at Ingolstadt and was renown for his theological abilities and learning. Luther did not send the theses directly to him, but to a mutual friend and prompted him to deliver them to Eck. Luther desired to see what Eck thought of his propositions.

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