Church History, Part 3: Martin Luther

February 23, 2003



Church History, Part 3: Martin Luther (2/23/03)

University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

Over the past two weeks we’ve managed to zip through 1500 years of church history. We traced the development of the early church, from the time Christianity was a persecuted and outlawed cult, until it became the official faith of the Roman Empire. We watched as St. Augustine—the greatest voice of the early church—formed the theology the church follows even today, as the Roman Empire fell and the world descended into the Dark Ages.

We saw the power of the church reach unparalleled heights during the Dark Ages, and the church’s ultimate rediscovery of Greek philosophy in the 13th century, with the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas. And finally, we left off last week with the church of the late Middle Ages having become so corrupt, the need for reform was obvious.
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Today, we look at the Reformation. This is my favorite era in church history, not because I am a Protestant, but because this was a time when all the old assumptions about the Christian faith were called into question. Remember, the church councils of the 4th century supposedly answered the more difficult questions about our faith. Then, over the next thousand years, the institution of the church, as it grew in power, added law after law, rule after rule, regarding the proper way of practicing the Christian faith. During the Reformation, everything about the church was re-examined. The faith was taken apart and put back together. Not surprisingly, it got put back together in more than one way. There was, and there continues to be, disagreement about the proper way of approaching the faith. This fact is revealed by the countless denominations that are scattered across the world today.

Last week, I detailed some of the ways the church had become corrupt. In 1517, a priest named Martin Luther posted a list of 95 complaints against the church on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This document, called the “95 Theses,” was the spark that set the Protestant Reformation ablaze.

Martin Luther is undoubtedly one of most interesting people in church history. Luther always retained a sense of pride that he had been born and raised in the peasant class. His father was a copper miner in Germany, and he was raised in a strict and almost repressive manner. This certainly played a role in the fact that Luther was subject to depression and anxiety throughout his life.

In 1505, at the age of 22, he had earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, and intended to follow his father’s wishes and enter law school. He disappointed his father by entering an Augustinian monastery instead. Two things led to this decision. First, he narrowly escaped death in a thunderstorm, and promised St. Anne in the midst of the storm that he would become a monk if he lived through the storm. Second, he was concerned about his salvation.

Martin Luther took religion seriously. He took the notions of salvation and damnation seriously. The idea of gaining prestige and riches seemed ridiculous to him. He felt certain that life in this world is a tiny moment on the brink of eternity. And he believed that the frugal and prayerful life of the monastery offered him the greatest chance for salvation.

Luther was a tortured soul. The life of a monk, and then of a priest, gave him some peace for a time. But in the long run he was overpowered by his sense of how sinful he was. We have to understand something on this point. Martin Luther wasn’t much of a sinner. In fact, there has never been a person more committed to living a godly life. He was the best monk, the best priest, the best man he could possibly be. But he saw within himself something that fell short of God’s perfection.

He found some comfort in the writings of the mystics, who said that all one needed to do was love God. He found some comfort in the church, which claimed to offer a path to salvation. But in the end he believed that God is just, and that a just God could not overlook his sins. At the same time, when he looked deep within himself, he could not in truth love the God who would judge him worthy of hell.

For years, Luther prayed more devotedly, confessed more often, and studied harder than God could expect of any human being. He earned his doctorate in theology. But he did not earn his salvation. He remained convinced that the judgment of God was unbearable, and that he was deserving of God’s judgment.

Finally, Luther found his answer. It was in reading and studying the first chapter of the Book of Romans that he found the weight of damnation lifted off his shoulders. A full ten years after entering the monastery, he came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and humankind, and that salvation comes not from prayer, not from study, and importantly, not from the church. Salvation comes from God’s grace alone. And the free gift of God’s grace is received by each individual human being through faith, and nothing else.

Let me state it as clearly as possible: It’s all up to God. And God loves us. Accept that fact, and you have your salvation. You can’t earn it. You can’t learn it. You can’t work your way to it by adhering to the proper rituals of the church. All you can do is have faith that it’s all up to God. God’s role in creation is grace, and humanity’s role is faith. Faith and grace: that is what Martin Luther is all about.

Over the past two weeks we emphasized how great people arise not only for what they say and think, but also because of the time in history when they appear. It was the fact that Augustine appeared at the time of the early church councils and at the time of the fall of Rome that made him so historically important. For Thomas Aquinas, the fact that the church had reached the height of its power at the same time the western world rediscovered Greek philosophy cemented his place in history.

For Martin Luther two factors probably combined to make him one of the most crucial figures in European history. First, this very serious monk and priest lived at a time when the church had become outrageously corrupt. Second, a recent invention called the printing press allowed for new thoughts to be duplicated and disseminated in a way that was previously unheard of.

Within a year Martin Luther was the talk of all Europe. Within three years he had written three major works that were widely read. One called on the German princes to overthrow the church by taking reform into their own hands. One made a bold and almost sarcastic attack on the office of the pope. And one explained his position that people are justified by faith and grace, and not by good works.

Luther was charged with heresy, and summoned to defend himself against church charges. Emperor Maximilian granted “safe-conduct” to Luther, meaning he could appear without being seized and killed by church authorities. Luther was quite aware that the last person to have been granted safe-conduct was John Huss, who had been taken by force and burned at the stake.

Over the next several years Luther led a life of adventure, usually in hiding, and always in danger of being found and burnt at the stake. He had close allies and bitter enemies both within the church and within the secular governments. Frederick the Wise of Saxony saved his life on more than one occasion, hiding him from angry mobs supportive of the pope. People rioted in the streets, burning Luther’s books. He received official orders—a papal bull—from the pope, ordering him to recant all he had said and written. Luther made a very public display of burning the papal bull.

Luther had completely alienated himself from the church. His only protection would come from the state authorities. In 1521, Emperor Charles V agreed to have Martin Luther appear before the great lords of the German Empire to explain himself.

Charles wanted all this nonsense put behind him, and he thought that given the chance to publicly recant, Luther would do so to save his skin. And he wanted Luther to take back not just the things he had said about the pope, and about the church, but also the things he had said about tyranny and injustice suffered by the German people.

After a long debate, Charles grew impatient with Luther’s talk, and said quite directly, “Do you recant or don’t you?”

Luther’s reply is famous. He said, “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me. Amen.” He then left the hall, making a gesture of victory to the stunned gathering.

We can hardly imagine how much courage this took. He would indeed need God’s help if he were to survive. Luther left the hall and walked out to what he assumed would be his execution. He had now alienated both the church and the state. In fact, they both wanted him dead, and their track record of doing away with those they wanted dead was very good.

His friend Frederick the Wise had a band of armed men abduct Luther from his quarters, for his own safety, and hurry him away to Wartburg, Germany. Hidden there, Luther grew a beard as a sort of disguise, and over the next two years translated the New Testament into German—also a capital offense. In another ten years he had translated the entire Old Testament into German. And in the meantime he showed his complete departure from the Roman church by entering into what turned out to be a happy marriage to a former nun.

The politics behind all that happened in the ensuing years is complex, and probably of interest only to those with a real love of history. To make a long story short, Luther’s followers continued the public reformation while he was in hiding. Eventually, Emperor Charles V, needing a united Germany to stand against the invading Turks, legalized Protestantism in Germany.

This was a tumultuous time for the church, to say the least. Luther, after he came out of hiding, was the most important and respected figure of the Reformation. He was involved in many arguments and controversies over his remaining years. His health eventually failed, and he died in 1546, at the age of 53.

That is all the time we have for the history of Martin Luther, because I want to take a few moments to talk about his theology. There are three areas we should briefly touch on to reveal the crux of the debate between Luther and the church: the celebration of communion; the sale of indulgences; and the path to salvation.

First, communion. Something strange happened to communion during the Middle Ages. People who attended church were no longer permitted to partake. There was a sound theological reason for this. Because the church believed that the bread and wine of communion literally turned into the body and blood of Christ during the ceremony, how could the church possibly allow such precious elements to be passed among the common people? What if somebody spilled some of the wine? That’s the blood of Jesus, after all!

In fact, the whole ceremony was so holy, the church authorities decided the masses should not even be allowed to look upon it. They placed walls between the chancel, where the altar sat, and the nave, where the people worshipped. The priests spoke in Latin, so the people had no idea what was being said—they only knew it was holy.

When the priest said the words of institution over the bread and wine—when he said the words of Jesus from the Last Supper about the bread being his body and the wine being his blood—a bell would ring so the people would know the miracle had happened. It was common for people to say something like, “Raise the body that we might see the miracle,” and the priest would hold the bread up over his head so the masses could see it over the wall.

Luther called this “denying the cup.” This was the church’s denial of the people’s right to actively participate in the Christianity’s most central practice—communion. This is one of the areas where Luther made his most vehement attack on the church.

A second area we should touch on is the sale of indulgences, which we discussed last week. Pope Leo X raised the funds to complete the basilica of St. Peter through the sale of indulgences. People were told that their sins would be wiped away if they made payment to the church. They were also told that their departed loved ones were in purgatory, and that a payment to the church could spring their souls into heaven. It was claimed by some in the church that the seller of indulgences had as much power as the cross of Christ. There was even a little rhyme for those who were paying a loved one’s way out of purgatory: as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.

And as I mentioned last week, there were cases where the local parish became a sort of franchise that a person could purchase. There was big money in indulgences, and the priests were permitted to keep a percentage of the take, the balance going to Rome. That’s the type of corruption that led Martin Luther to risk everything on behalf of the faith.

The third area we should take note of is salvation, because that’s what it was all about for Martin Luther. How does one become justified before a perfect God? If God is pure perfection, how can tainted souls such as ours ever be received into heaven—into the presence of God’s perfection. Would not our very presence be a corruption of that perfection?

The church had an answer for this. Confess your sins to the priest, be obedient to the church, and you would be saved. The church—the priest—was the link between your soul and God. Of course, this idea was completely corrupted by the sale of indulgences, but that corruption was an offshoot of the one idea that Luther simply could not accept: that salvation was dependent upon something other than God.

This is the importance of Luther’s legacy. You and I cannot manipulate God. We can’t go to a place of worship and jump though the hoops the religious leaders have established for us, and by doing so claim we are saved. It is all about faith and grace. Faith is our confidence that everything is in God’s hands where it belongs. Grace is God’s love for us in spite of the fact we can’t earn God’s love.

The result of this thinking? The very Protestant notion that there is no intermediary between any one of us and the God we find in Jesus Christ. God’s nature is love and grace. We respond to that love with faith. When we get down on our knees and pray to God, that is a close to God as anybody can get. We are no closer when in the presence of a priest; we are no closer when in a confessional. This does not lessen the importance of church. This doesn’t lessen the importance of public prayer, and worship, and communion. These are all ways we respond to God’s love. But they are not ways we earn God’s love. That simply cannot be done, because it is a free gift. According to Luther, if we don’t understand that, we don’t understand God, and we’ve missed the whole point of the Christian faith.

Well, three weeks down and one to go. And next week we’ll be talking about a theologian most people have never heard of—Frederick Schleiermacher. I have a feeling most of you are really going to like the way Scheiermacher thinks. He is the father of liberal theology. He told the faithful that if they found themselves rejecting science due to their religious beliefs, they’d better re-think their religious beliefs. And he told scientists who rejected God because of their scientific beliefs that they’d better think again—they were missing the whole point.

I dare say that of the four theologians we’ll examine in this series, Schleiermacher is the one who would have felt quite at home in this pulpit.