The spark that ignited that great movement in the history of the Church of God which is known as the Reformation was Luther’s nailing of the ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg. And the incident which led to this act of the German Reformer was the shameless sale of indulgences as practiced by Tetzel, an eloquent Dominican Friar who peddled indulgences in an unusually scandalous and shameless manner near the Saxony border in the neighborhood of Wittenberg. Luther’s nailing of the ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg was the reformer’s way or method making known his views to the public about indulgences and inviting public debate on them. This was a customary practice in those times. And it was also an effective way for Luther to publish his views. In fact, he published these theses on the eve of All Saints’ Day, a holiday of the Church when the relics were solemnly and prominently displayed in the Castle Church of the city of Wittenberg. Naturally, many people read these theses as they came to the church that morning, went home after having read and thought about them, and told their neighbors about this action of the intrepid German Reformer. However, behind the posting of these theses lay a tremendous struggle which had raged in the soul of Martin Luther. And it is this struggle and Luther’s victorious emergence from the same which constitutes the material principle of the Reformation. And we think of interest to our readers of this rubric that we give, in brief, a resume of Luther’s life which led to what he did on the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517.
Martin Luther and the Reformation are inseparably connected. It is the law of God that He effects great things by the smallest means; the things that are base, small, ignoble and despised. It appears that the Lord selected; sovereignly, His reformers of the Church from the same class whence He had also taken the apostles. He chose them from the lower ranks. Everything was thus intended to manifest unto the world that the work about to be unfolded was not the work of man but of God. The reformer Zwingli emerged from an Alpine shepherd’s hut; Melanchthon came from an armourer’s shop; Luther was born in the cottage of a poor miner. God has chosen, not the rich and mighty, but the poor, the ignoble of this world.
Luther did not know and enjoy the joy and peace of salvation until the blessed gospel message resounded in his heart and soul: “The just shall live by faith.” Luther was born in 1483, on St. Martin’s eve, Nov. 10. On the morrow his father carried his infant son to the St. Peter’s church, where the sacrament of baptism was administered to him, and the child received the name Martin in commemoration of the day. Martin Luther was a child of the Roman Catholic Church, the only church (at least in the West, inasmuch as the eastern section of the Church had broken with the western section of it in the eleventh century) of that day, and his parents were sincere and upright people. From earliest years there was present in Martin Luther an attentive and serious disposition, a desire to serve the Lord. And already in his early years he was conscious of his sin and of the holiness and righteousness of God. Christ did not loom before him as a gracious Savior, but as a fearfully stern and righteous, judge. Study came easy to him. The Lord had endowed him richly with intellectual gifts, which, incidentally, was also true of John Calvin. He made full use of the gifts the Lord had given him and advanced rapidly in his studies.
In his eighteenth year Luther entered the university of Erfurth. His father, John Luther, was a poor miner but was gifted with a more cultivated mind than most men of his class, and he loved to read and study. He was fully determined that his son, Martin, should make a name for himself in the midst of the world, become a doctor of law and of philosophy. While at the university of Erfurth Luther found a Bible. This book fascinated him. He did not know that there were so many books in the Bible, inasmuch as the parts of the Bible which the Church had selected to be read to the people were only a very few. The Bible was a rare book, unknown in those days. It was particularly the story of Hannah and Samuel that fascinated Luther, and also the Scriptural account of the evil and wickedness of the sons of Eli. What fascinated young Martin was perhaps the striking similarity between the wickedness of the sons of Eli and the corruption as exercised within the Roman Catholic Church of his day. This book he read again and again while at the university of Erfurth.
While studying at the University of Erfurth he became dangerously ill. Recovering from this sickness, a great change had occurred in Martin Luther. But as yet there was nothing decided in his mind. Shortly afterwards another circumstance awakened serious thoughts within him. It was the time of the festival of Easter, probably in the year 1503. Luther was going to pass a short time with his family, and wore a sword according to the custom of his age. He struck his foot against this sword, the blade fell out, and cut one of his principal arteries. Finding himself alone, and seeing the blood flow copiously from the wound without being able to check it, he lay down on his back, and put his finger on the wound. But the blood escaped despite his exertions, and feeling the approach of death, he cried out, “O Mary, help!” At last a surgeon came and bound up the cut. Later, when recalling this incident, Luther made the remark: “I should have died relying upon Mary.” In 1505 he was admitted a doctor of philosophy. The University of Erfurth was then the most celebrated school in all of Germany. Luther was well on his way to becoming a man of distinction and renown in the midst of the world, and his father was envisioning the realization of his dreams.
It was during the summer of 1505 that an incident occurred which completely changed the entire course of Luther’s career. While at liberty during the summer vacations he resolved to go to Mansfeldt to revisit the dear scenes of his childhood and to embrace his parents. It may be that he was considering already at this time the possibility of his becoming a priest. And he knew what the violent reaction would be of his father inasmuch as the priestly profession was not very lucrative in those days. What happened during Luther’s stay at Mansfeldt we do not know, has not been recorded. Luther was returning to Erfurth and was within a short distance of that city when a violent thunderstorm overtook him. Such violent thunderstorms were common in those mountains. The lightning flashed and a bolt fell at his feet. Luther threw himself upon his knees. Again the thought of a righteous God and of impending judgment terrified him. He thought that his hour had probably come. Death, judgment and eternity summoned him with all their terrors, and he hears a voice that he can no longer resist. “Encompassed with the anguish and terror of death,” as he says of himself, he makes a vow, if the Lord delivers him from this danger, to abandon the world, and devote himself entirely to the Lord. After rising from the ground, having still present with him that death which one day must overtake him, he examines himself seriously, and asks himself what he ought to do. He has tried, it is true, to fulfill all his duties, but what is the state of his soul? Can he appear before the tribunal of the righteous God with an impure heart? He must become holy. He has now as great a thirst for holiness as he had for knowledge. But where can he find it, how can he attain unto it? The university cannot satisfy his desires. To what school of holiness shall he now direct his steps? His decision is taken. He will enter a cloister: the monastic life will save him. There he will become holy. And so he leaves everything behind, and enters an Augustinian convent. His friends are amazed and dumbfounded. His father is furious when Luther later writes him out of his cell, having gone thither before discussing the matter with his parents. But his decision cannot be changed.
And now he applies himself to become holy and render himself righteous and just before God. If ever a true and obedient son of the Roman Catholic Church could have attained unto righteousness in the way of good works Luther was that man. When Luther entered this Augustinian convent he changed his name, and assumed that of Augustine. The monks received him with joy. They were not slightly gratified to see one of the most esteemed doctors of the age abandon the university for a house belonging to their order. Nevertheless they treated him harshly and imposed upon him the meanest occupations. They wished to humiliate him, and teach him that his learning did not raise him above his brethren. Besides, they also wished to keep him from his studies, from which the convent could reap no advantage. The former master of arts and doctor of philosophy had to perform the offices of porter, open and shut the gates, wind up the clock, sweep the church, and to clean out the cells. And when he had finished all his chores he was bidden to go through the tower, and beg from house to house. And he put up with it all. All these tasks he took cheerfully upon himself. Nothing was too much for him. He had become a monk with all his heart and soul. He was determined to become holy and to render himself righteous before God. He was determined to make himself worthy of God and to be able to appear before the Judge of all the earth with peace in his heart and soul. Later he was relieved of all these duties and permitted the liberty to study once more with all the desire of his heart and mind.
However, all this availed him nothing. Luther’s sin continued to plague and torment him. Even his fellow monks began to deride him because of his seriousness and dejection. He regarded the slightest fault as a great sin and endeavored to expiate it by the severest mortifications. But all this only served to emphasize the utter futility of all human remedies. It was toward the end of the year 1512. Luther was sitting in his cell in the tower of the Black Cloister in Wittenberg. He had come into possession of a Bible, and had begun to study Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Coming to verse 17 he read: “The just shall live by faith.” He paused and meditated. Suddenly the light flashed into his soul. The just shall live by faith. Then an unspeakable joy flooded his heart. The burden of all his sins rolled away. Until now he had been trying to make himself righteous before God by his own good works. Never did he feel as if he had done enough. Now God had spoken to him. He was righteous before God without his works, only through faith, solely because of the merits of Christ Jesus. The Reformation had been born and ignited in his soul by the word of the Almighty God. Nothing would change that. Later Tetzel came with his shameless indulgences. He attacked Tetzel with his ninety-five theses. Still later he came into conflict with Rome. As a true son of his church he still attempted to purify that church. But it was all to no avail. Luther was excommunicated. But, he held his ground. Because, materially, the fundamental principle, as within the soul of the German reformer, was this: Justification by faith and completely without works.