On October 31 we shall again celebrate Reformation Day. This remains an important date in the annals of the church, just because our thoughts revert back to that memorable night of October 31, 1517, when Dr. Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses on the doors of the church at Wittenberg. That particular event still stands out in the minds of all Protestant Christendom as the dawn of the Reformation and the beginning of our deliverance from the yoke of Roman Catholic hierarchy. That is what makes this date so important to US.
Yet, you may well wonder why this particular date marking that particular event should be so important. It was not an innovation to nail a public announcement on the church door, since at that time it was a common practice to distribute news and information that way, particularly to those who were attending church. Nor did these ninety-five theses suggest in any way the dawning of a new day for a church that groaned under the oppression of Rome. It is true that Luther did attack many evils within the church, particularly the sale of indulgences. But at this point Luther still acknowledged the authority of the pope, and defended the indulgence as such. That is, he still recognized the right of the church to forgive sins in the name of Christ upon confession of guilt. He did not condemn the indulgence but rather the promiscuous sale of indulgences for the sake of financial gain for the church. And finally, we should note, that at this time Luther had not the slightest intention of breaking with the Roman Catholic Institution. Nor did this break come until almost four years later, on April 18, 1521, at the Diet of Worms, when he defied the authority of the pope and of the church councils.
What, then, makes that simple act of nailing ninety-five theses on the church door so important? Why does October 31 rightfully stand out as a memorable date for us even today?
The answer lies in the fact that God prepared the Reformation in Luther’s soul long before this, and the first evidence of this work of God appeared on that night of October 31. Unawares to himself, Luther had reached a point of no return. He could only go on from that moment to carry out the conviction of his soul even though it meant a complete break with the Roman Catholic Church. This was possible because the Reformation was not a work of man but of God. In the providence of God the time had become ripe within the church for the dawning of a new day. Even politically the situation was such in Germany that the reformers could carry on their work unhindered by the civil government. God also prepared the hearts of His people so that when the tocsin rang, through the hammer blows on the church door of Wittenberg, the sound re-echoed through the world and aroused all true Christendom to seek deliverance from its bondage. But likewise, the Lord prepared the Reformation in the soul of the man He had appointed for this work, Martin Luther.
A brief survey of his life history up to this moment must clearly show this. For our convenience, we shall divide the first thirty-four years of Luther’s life into five periods to show how the Lord prepared him step by step for this momentous task. They are as follows:
The period of early training and deep-seated fear of God.
The period of wrestling with the problem of his personal salvation.
The period of searching for peace in the convent.
The period in which he attained peace through the Scriptures.
The period in which he became burdened with the evils within the church institute to the point where he was compelled to oppose them openly.
We shall make a few remarks about each of these.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, an hour before midnight, at Eisleben, in the home of very simple yet God fearing parents. At six months, his parents took him to Mansfeld where his father worked in the mines. They were very poor, so that at the age of 14 years Martin had to go out on the streets to sing for a living. At home he was brought up, as he himself later writes, under stern discipline. And in the schools he attended the discipline was equally severe. The result was that during this early period of his life he was filled with a deep-seated fear of God, which never left him. It was while he was attending school at Eisenach that the wife of a wealthy merchant took him into her home and invited him to share the bounties of her table. This pious family by their benevolent interest in his welfare also helped to establish his spirituality and piety.
The second period of which we spoke, in which Luther became aware of a spiritual unrest in his soul, began approximately at 18 years of age. In 1501 he entered the University of Erfurt, one of the best universities of that time in the country. There he studied chiefly scholastic philosophy, including such subjects as logic, rhetoric, physics, and metaphysics. He also studied the ancient classics and acquired knowledge of the Latin. Four years later he received his degree of Master of Arts. But it was during these years that he became deeply concerned about his personal salvation. The burden of the guilt of his sins weighed heavily upon him, frequently bringing him to the verge of despair. The uncertainty of his election and the fear of impending judgment troubled him incessantly. This second phase of Luther’s life probably influenced him more than anything else to seek his refuge in a convent.
Martin’s earliest intentions were to become a lawyer. But upon his return to Erfurt, after spending a short period of vacation at home, he was overtaken by a heavy thunderstorm and was almost struck by lightning. It is still a question in my mind how much importance should be attached to this incident, as well as many more in the reformer’s life which are often blown up beyond all proportion. But it is commonly accepted that this brought him to the third period we mentioned, his search for peace in the convent.
It was on July 17, 1505, that he entered the monastery of the Augustinian order at Erfurt and became a monk. We are told, “He was clothed with a white woolen shirt in honor of the pure Virgin, a black cowl and frock tied by a leathern girdle. He assumed the most menial offices to subdue his pride: he swept the floor, begged bread through the streets, and submitted without a murmur to the ascetic severities. He said twenty-five Paternosters with the Ave Maria in each of the seven appointed hours of prayer. He was devoted to the Holy Virgin and even believed, with the Augustinians and Franciscans, her immaculate conception, or freedom from hereditary sin—a doctrine denied by the Dominicans and not made an article of faith till the year 1854. He regularly confessed his sins to the priest at least once a week.”* He himself said afterward, “If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there.” But always the same problem loomed large before him, how could he find peace for his soul? He knew how to cry out with the apostle, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” But he had not learned to add, “I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
This phase of Luther’s experience was of great importance for his later life. God was using also this experience and turning it for his good by the ever-present operation of the Holy Spirit in his heart. It was in the convent that Luther learned the utter hopelessness of salvation by works. And it was there that he began a systematic study of the Bible. There he realized how much more the Scriptures, contained than had ever been taught him by the church, and how barren the Roman Catholic theology actually was.
This brings us to the period in Luther’s life when he found peace through the Scriptures.
Johann von Staupitz, a Doctor of Divinity and Vicar- General of the Augustinian convents in Germany, aided Luther in his study of the Scriptures. Luther himself referred to Staupitz as his spiritual father who “first caused the light of the gospel to shine in the darkness of my heart.” He directed him from his sins to the cross of Christ. He pointed him away from dead works to the power of grace which works faith in the heart. He taught him that true repentance consists, not in self-imposed penances, but in love to God and faith in the blood of Golgotha. He encouraged Luther to become a priest in 1507 and brought him to Wittenberg. He induced him to take a degree of Doctor of Divinity and to preach. He stirred him up against popery. But when the Reformation came, Staupitz remained in the Roman Catholic Church and that until his death.
Thus the peace of God gradually filled the soul of the reformer. He experienced in his own heart that only the righteous man can stand in the presence of God and live. He also knew that there is no righteousness apart from Christ Jesus, but that all our righteousness is solely in Him. And he realized, to his own delight, that this righteousness of Christ is ours through the bond of faith that unites us to Him. He knew from experience that (‘the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:18). And he could exclaim with exuberant joy, “Wherefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
This brings us to the final period in which Luther was aroused against the evils of the church and felt impelled to oppose them.
As a priest he came into still closer contact with the dead formalism of the church in which he was reared. In 1508 he became professor in Wittenberg. He first taught philosophy but became more and more interested in theology. He applied himself to an even more thorough study of Scriptures, giving lectures on the Psalms and on the epistle to the Romans. In the meantime he was still frequently cast between periods of black despondency and moments of peace and serenity.
In the autumn of 1510, Luther was sent to Rome in the interest of his order and at the suggestion of Staupitz. In company with two others he travelled on foot from convent to convent. He spent four weeks in Rome in an Augustinian convent and returned to Wittenberg in the following spring. This trip served to open his eyes to the corruption that was rampant, not only in the convents, but also in Rome. He was shocked by the unbelief, levity, and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living were their chief ambitions. Even the pope was interested only in worldly grandeur and power. This journey to Rome left a lasting impression upon him and prepared the way for his bitter opposition to the Roman Catholic formalism and corruption.
The climax came when Tetzel arrived in Germany selling indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s Church in Rome. Others before him had opposed this same evil, such as Wyclif in England, Huss in Bohemia, John von Wesel in Germany, John Wessel in Holland, but without any lasting effect. But now also Luther was aroused. The result was the nailing of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church of Wittenberg on the eve of All-Saints Day, October 31, 1517.
Here was a monk and priest, living within the church, yet daring to raise his voice against her corruption. From this first act the rest must follow. Having taken the first step, there was no alternative but to go on. God had created all the attending circumstances both religiously and politically, had prepared the man of his choice for the work that had to be accomplished, had appointed the moment for the Reformation, and was now bringing it to pass. Thus, approximately four years later, when he was placed before the Diet of Worms and required to retract all his writings of the past years, he was ready to defy the pope and the councils of the church, and thus make a complete break with the institute of Roman Catholicism. Then and there he made the bold and defiant statement, at least in substance, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Plainly the Reformation was prepared by God in the soul of Martin Luther.
In conclusion, it may be well to add, that because of this peculiar beginning, the Reformation never found its completion in Luther himself. Luther opened the way, but it took a Calvin to point out the real doctrinal significance of the Reformation. For Luther the break with the Roman Church centered about the truth of justification by faith, but Calvin brought out that this truth rested in the more fundamental truth of the sovereignty of God. Calvin saw and taught that we can never maintain the truth of justification by faith alone without a clear conception of God’s sovereignty and eternal predestination.
History has also proved this to be a fact. Although Luther himself remained sound in the truth, his close friend, Melanchthon, weaned away from it and even favored a healing of the breach with Rome, particularly after Luther’s death. And in the centuries that followed, Lutheranism often became man-centered rather than God-centered.
Thus Luther’s work prepared the way for that other reformer, John Calvin, who with the theological principle of “Soli Deo Gloria” set the Reformation on a sound Reformed path.