Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Progress of the Reformation
We cannot, in this brief biographical sketch, give a detailed account of Luther’s work. It is possible to mention, and then only in passing, some of the outstanding events.
Although the upheavals in Europe over Luther’s theses soon came to the attention of the pope, Rome was not immediately perturbed by these events and dismissed the whole matter as “a monks’ quarrel.” But it was far more than that, and even Luther did not know the extent of it. But when the seriousness of it all became evident, some important events took place.
The Heidelberg Disputation
The Heidelberg Disputation, held in April of 1518, less than a half year after the theses came to public attention, was a conference and debate within the Augustinian Order over Luther’s views. The Roman Catholic prelates appealed to papal authority and thought that would end the matter. Luther took the opportunity to get behind the indulgence question to expose various theological errors: the merit of good works and the free will of man. Nothing much came of it all except that Luther gained many for his views, including Martin Bucer, later Reformer of Strassburg.
The Leipsig Disputation
Rome now began to take some interest in the matter and appointed Prierio, responsible for all that was taught in Christendom, to investigate. He wrote a tract attempting to refute the theses of Luther, but his chief appeal was to papal authority:
Whoever does not rely on the teaching of the Roman Church and of the Roman Pontiff, as the infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures themselves derive their strength and their authority, is a heretic.
Luther was ordered to appear in Rome to have his views examined, and Frederick, Elector of Saxony, was ordered to turn him over. Frederick refused and became Luther’s protector throughout the Reformation.
The Leipzig Disputation, held from June 27 to July 15, 1519, was one of the great debates of all time. The main debaters were Martin Luther and John Eck, the latter a skilled orator and debater and a man devoted heart and soul to Romish orthodoxy. From a purely formal point of view, Luther lost the debate. He was charged with Hussitism and was forced to admit it. Eck proved to be the more skilled in debating techniques, and he drove Luther to positions he had not originally held.
But these positions were the positions where God wanted Luther to stand. Under the pressures of Eck’s skillful attack, Luther was, step by step, forced to deny the infallibility of church councils, the supreme authority of the papacy, the idea of priestly mediation, and the silly notion that the morality of monks in monasteries was superior to the morality of God’s people: And so, finally, he stood where God wanted him to, stand: The sole authority of Scripture; the truth that only that which is of faith is good in God’s sight; the principle of the priesthood of all believers. Luther was forced to see the consequences, stark and naked, of the position he had taken.
The Diet of Worms
In June of 1520 the bull of excommunication was issued in Rome at Eck’s instigation. Because the German people were behind Luther, it was difficult to deliver the bull to Luther personally. When finally it was done, Luther publicly burned the bull in the street of Wittenberg in December of the same year. It was the complete break between Luther and an apostate church.
The Diet itself was really a meeting of the Reichstag; a convocation of all the princes which ruled the different provinces of Germany. Present were also high and mighty officials from the Romish Church decked in all their splendid robes and mitres, determined to force the will of the pope on the Reichstag. Charles V, chosen by the princes to be ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, which included Germany, was there with his court. The meeting was to settle, if possible, “the German problem.”
At crucial times God arranges affairs in His church in such a way that just one man alone, among the multitudes, is called upon to stand for the cause of God and truth. So it was at Worms. Luther, against the entire Romish Church. Luther, threatened by the cruelties of the Inquisition. Luther, against the might of the Empire. Luther, alone.
He went, it is true, under a safe conduct issued by the emperor himself; But Luther and his friends remembered well that a safe conduct meant exactly nothing to Rome’s charlatans, even though it was a sacred promise before God. When urged by his friends not to go, Luther responded that the cause of Christ required it, and if every roof tile in Worms were a devil, he would still need to go. Shortly before his death, reflecting on those perilous days, he said: “I was fearless, I was afraid of nothing; God can make one so desperately bold, I know not whether I could be so cheerful now.”
He was not given opportunity to defend his position, but was asked whether the books lying before him on the table were his. When he acknowledged that they were, he was asked whether he would recant what he taught.
It was a solemn moment. Luther was awed by the assembly, nervous and excited, unprepared to be confronted with a question which could mean his life without any opportunity to defend himself. And so he asked for a day to consider his answer. After a brief consultation, the emperor granted it. Some thought he was about to collapse. His enemies were filled with glee.
But the respite of a day brought him renewed strength and vigor. He wrote that night to a friend: “I shall not retract one iota, so Christ help me.”
The next day had to be the most important day of his life.
On the way to the hall, an old warrior is said to have clapped him on the shoulder and said: “My poor monk, my poor monk, thou art going to make such a stand as neither I nor any of my companions in arms have ever done in our hottest battles. If thou art sure of the justice of thy cause, then forward in God’s name, and be of good courage: God will not forsake thee.”
After some preliminary discussion, and when finally instructed to make clear his position without equivocation, he uttered those words which have so many times moved the souls of the heirs of the Reformation, though they filled the enemies with consternation and dismay:
Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the, Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. I can not do otherwise. God help me! Amen.
The Roman Catholics put a lot of pressure on Charles to break his safe conduct promise and arrest Luther, but Charles refused. It has been said that Charles’ refusal was because of a memory of the blush on the face of Sigismund when John Hus, as he was led away to be burned, reminded him of the safe conduct he had issued. In any case, Luther was put under the ban of the empire.
Stay in Wartburg
Frederick, fearful that Luther would be captured after all, arranged for his “kidnapping” by friends who carried him to the castle at Wartburg. Here Luther stayed for 11 months, writing constantly. His chief work was his translation of the New Testament Scriptures into the German language. (The Old Testament was done later, and was completed in 1534 by a group of men.) It was an amazing accomplishment, for by it Luther not only gave the Bible to God’s people, but he also determined the course of the German language for centuries following him.
Luther returned to Wittenberg only when he heard that the radical Zwickau prophets with their awful mysticism were disturbing the peace and tranquility of his city. If one wonders how important a role preaching played in the Reformation, one need only be reminded of the fact that Luther stopped the radicals in their tracks and sent them scurrying out of the city by means of a series of eight sermons which he preached from Wittenberg’s pulpit.
From the time Luther returned to Wittenberg to the end of his life, Germany tottered on the brink of war between the armies of the Protestant princes and the armies of those princes determined to keep Germany Roman Catholic. It was a time of danger and struggle, but only after Luther’s death did the Thirty Years’ War break out, a war which left Germany devastated.
Luther the Preacher
Above all else, Luther was a preacher. This ought not to surprise us, for preaching is the one and only power of the church. And no reformation can be brought about in any other way than through preaching.
Luther’s preaching is characterized by exposition of Scripture, but extremely down-to-earth imagery by which Luther made God’s truth come alive in the minds and hearts of the simplest of God’s people. The sermons reflected Luther’s rapport with his own countrymen.
Yet the one characteristic which is most striking is the fact that Luther always brought the congregation to the cross. It is hard to find a sermon in which Luther did not do this. He himself had found the peace that passes understanding at the foot of the cross, and to that suffering and dying Savior Luther was intent on bringing God’s people.
Luther’s sermons are extant. They ought to be read. Nothing tells us of the struggles of the Reformation more clearly than these sermons, and nothing shows us the power of the Spirit in Christ-centered preaching more vividly than to read what Luther preached.
Luther the Writer
Luther’s writings are voluminous. In the edition in our library his writings take 54 volumes. Several are outstanding and sooner or later ought to be read by God’s people – as they were read by God’s people in Luther’s day. In his Bondage of the Will, Luther refuted the heresy of the freedom of the will taught by the “Prince of the Humanists,” Desiderius Erasmus. It was Luther’s break with Humanism and is one of the great books of the Reformation.
Luther’s three great pamphlets defined the basic truths of the Lutheran Reformation: “Address to the German Nobility,” in which the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was developed; “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” in which Luther made his case against Rome’s sacramental system; and “Freedom of the Christian Man,” a clear view of Christian freedom.
If anyone wishes to know Luther at his most down-to-earth and rugged character, he need only to pick up and read the “Table Talks.” Here is Luther commenting on almost everything in life with simple expressions, biblical insights, humorous comments, and talk that would delight the soul of the rough-hewn peasant.
Luther the Husband and Father
One could write a book on this aspect of the Lutheran Reformation alone. Luther not only laid aside his monastic vows; he married Catherine von Bora, a former nun with a mind of her own and a force in her own right in the home. He married her, he said, “to please his father, tease the pope, and vex the devil.” He affectionately called her Katie, my rib. She managed, sometimes with exasperation, the tumultuous household which always had visitors and never had enough money. To them were born six children: three daughters, two of whom died young, and three sons. Especially the death of Lena (Magdalene) touched Luther with great sorrow. Schaff describes the scene at her bedside:
“I love her very much,” he prayed; “but, dear God, if it is thy holy will to take her hence, I would gladly leave her with Thee.” And to her he said, “Lena dear, my little daughter, thou wouldst love to remain here with thy father: art thou willing to go to that other Father?” – “Yes, dear father,” she replied, “just as God wills.” And when she was dying, he fell on his knees beside her bed, wept bitterly, and prayed for her redemption. As she lay in her coffin, he exclaimed, “Ah! my darling Lena, thou wilt rise again, and shine like a star, – yea, as a sun. I am happy in the spirit, but very sorrowful in the flesh.
Luther wrote extensively on education because the education of the children of the church was crucial to him. And, in writing on this important subject, from which we can learn today, Luther was far ahead of his times.
But instruction in the home occupied a crucial part of Luther’s life. The home of Martin and Katie was filled with prayer, Bible study, theological discussion, and the example of godly people. One prayer of Luther lives in my memory in a special way because it shows his intimate life of fellowship with God, his dependence upon divine grace, and his love for the church. It was a prayer at the end of a busy day.
My dear God, now I lie down and turn your affairs back to you; you may do better with them. If you can do no better than I, you will ruin them entirely. When I awake, I will gladly try again. Amen.
By his home life, Luther brought true reformation into home and family, something sorely needed after the corruption of Rome. The effects of Luther’s own example linger to the present bin covenant homes.
Luther the Warrior
Luther fought courageously and unflinchingly in the battles for the truth. Whatever was necessary in his mighty blasts against Rome to show her evils, he did. By his work he threw the entire church into confusion.
And yet it must be remembered that he had to fight on two fronts: Rome on the one side, but, on the other front, the miserable Anabaptist radicals – the so called “right wing” of the Reformation. That he could maintain his balance between these two extremes is evidence in itself of the power of grace in Luther’s life.
By means of his theology he battered and destroyed the imposing and seemingly indestructible walls of the Roman citadel of heresy. While Calvin was the one to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, Calvin could not have done his work without Luther’s fierce cannonades against Rome. But Luther also laid the foundations of the doctrines of sovereign grace, so that the truths of salvation by grace alone could be more beautifully and fully set forth by those who were to follow.
It is always reason for sorrow that, on the doctrine of the sacraments, Luther should also have felt it necessary to do battle with his fellow Reformers.
Far from Katie, in Eisleben, where he had gone for some difficult negotiations, and in the city of his birth and baptism; at the age of 63, Luther went to be with his Lord, whom he loved and served. The date was February 17, 1546. He had for a long time not been well and suffered severely from various ailments. As death neared, in characteristic fashion he committed his soul to God with the words of Psalm 31:5 and with the request to those at his bedside that they would pray “for our Lord God and his gospel, that all might be well with him, because the Council of Trent and the accursed pope are very angry with him.” He died with the words of Simeon on his lips: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. Amen.”
The Reformer had gone to join the church triumphant. His work lives on.