Jeremy Sarber
Disciple of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Reformed Baptist, funeral home chaplain, and host of Sunday Tapes. All glory be to Christ.

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They Still Speak

A short history of Martin Luther

It’s hardly a stretch to say Martin Luther changed the world. He was God’s instrument for rescuing countless people from the bondage of legalism.

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I began this series in Hebrews 12. The author of Hebrews says, “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). In context, he’s referring to those heroes of faith mentioned in the previous chapter. When we consider their faith, we are encouraged to run with endurance the race that is set before us. As the author says regarding Abel, “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb 11:4). We are motivated to endure the race as we examine others who endured the race. They still speak to us.

Even so, history is never black or white. More to the point, no one we discuss in this series was perfect. No one in Hebrews 11 was perfect. While that may seem like an obvious point to make, we have a tendency to forget it. We want the good guys of history to always be good guys. We want the bad guys to always be bad guys. For example, more than one person asked me how Augustine could have such a firm grasp on the depravity of man and the sovereignty of God but have such blind spots in other areas. The short answer is Augustine wasn’t perfect.

Today, we will examine the life of Martin Luther. Spoiler alert: Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He did not have a single light bulb moment when all truth was revealed to him in an instant. While the church owes a lot to Luther, he had his flaws in both doctrine and character. But as they say, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Whether we’re talking about Luther or anyone else in history, we can commend his virtues despite his flaws. Let me also say that we shouldn’t excuse his mistakes just because he had virtues. History is never black or white.

Last week was Reformation Day, the anniversary of Luther posting his Ninety-five Theses at the church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517.

When we think back to that pivotal moment in church history, we tend to think of Martin Luther as a radical revolutionary ready to go toe-to-toe with the Roman Catholic Church. We tend to think of him nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the church door as a bold act of defiance, but that really wasn’t the case. Luther was actually quite conservative. He didn’t think of himself as a reformer. All he wanted to do was incite a healthy academic debate and, God willing, steer the church back into consistency with its own principles.

Before we go any further, let’s back up and understand what led Luther to nail his Theses to the door.

Luther’s foxhole prayer

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483. His family was neither wealthy nor poor. His father was moderately successful, and like many fathers, he wanted to give his son the best opportunity possible to be more successful than him. He put Luther on track to become a lawyer. The problem was Luther didn’t want to become a lawyer. He wanted to join a monastery. While we find that awfully strange, he did have understandable motivations.

As a young man, Luther was a fairly serious guy. Even then, he was concerned about spiritual matters—namely, the salvation of his soul. Under the predominant belief system of the medieval church, salvation was very difficult to accomplish. Luther believed the monastery gave him the best chance of getting into heaven. It would be isolated from a lot of temptations. He would be given an opportunity to wholly focus on spiritual matters. It wouldn’t guarantee him a place in heaven, but it would most likely make the path a bit smoother. Plus, a proverb of the time said, “Doubt makes the monk,” and Luther had doubts about his relationship to God.

Luther hesitated to tell his father what he wanted to do with his life, but God’s providence and Luther’s quick wit helped him out. Luther gets caught in a severe lightning storm. He genuinely fears God may strike him down with a lightning bolt at any moment, so he prays to Saint Anne, the mother of Mary. It’s what we call a foxhole prayer. It’s the kind of prayer where one bargains with God. Lord, if you save me now, I promise to— Fill in the blank. Luther prays, “Saint Anne, if you save me from this storm, I promise to quit law school and become a monk.”

It was a clever move on Luther’s part for at least three reasons. First, he promised to do only what he wanted to do all along. Second, vows in the medieval church were taken very seriously, so his father would never want him to break a vow. Third, he prayed to Saint Anne, who was his father’s patron saint. By the time he told his father about his decision to join the monastery, there wasn’t much his father could say.

Luther becomes a monk

There were plenty of monasteries to choose from in those days, but as I said, Luther was a serious guy, and he chose a serious monastery. He chose a monastery of the Augustinian order, which meant the living accommodations were quite humble, and the rules were fairly strict.

To give you a sense of just how serious Luther was about his spiritual life, he was required to confess his sins on a regular basis. The Catholic Church called it the sacrament of penance. But Luther would go to confess his sins so often and confess so many sins each time that his confessor began sending him away. He would tell Luther not to come back until he committed some sins worth confessing. To be clear, Luther was not confessing every little thing out of a sense of pious religiosity. He was sincerely burdened by his sin and wholeheartedly believed in the sacrament of penance.

Luther joined the monastery in 1505 at the age of twenty-two and promptly took advantage of the monastery’s greatest features—the time and resources to study. He already had a university education, but the university didn’t have much to offer regarding church history and spiritual matters. He wanted to be in the monastery primarily to study theology. Somewhat secondarily, he wanted to study the Bible. Let me try to explain the distinction.

Theology and biblical studies

In the late medieval tradition, Sola Scriptura was not a doctrine of the church. The Bible was not the church’s sole authority. Instead, the Bible was one authority. Tradition was another authority. Reason was a third authority. Lastly, the pope was an authority. These four were believed to be equally authoritative. No one saw any tension between them. Of course, most people didn’t read the Bible, so it was much easier to overlook tensions between them.

Again, Luther’s primary interest was theology. He wanted to learn more about God, which didn’t necessarily mean he needed to rush to Scripture because of the current system of four equal authorities. Even so, he did want to study the Bible. During this time period, biblical studies are just beginning to make a comeback. The printing press played a role, but there was also a renewed interest in reading the classics. With books becoming more easily accessible, scholars and students wanted to return to the sources of Western civilization—material that had fallen by the wayside long ago, including the Bible, to some degree.

This shift in culture also brought about a renewed interest in the biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew. Though Luther got a relatively late start—new languages are typically easier to learn as a child—he went to work learning Greek and Hebrew as well. While this would prove useful to Luther, I mention it primarily because it was a significant step toward getting the Bible into the hands of laypeople. Perhaps Luther’s best-known opponent, later on, was a man by the name of Erasmus. Seeing the flaws in the Latin Bible, the Latin Vulgate, he worked on a new translation, and his mantra was “to the source.” Rather than merely revising the Vulgate, he went back to the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament to produce what would become the King James Bible.

Luther may have gotten a late start learning Greek and Hebrew, but that seems to fit his personality. There was a brashness to Luther. He liked to work fast. For example, in 1520, he wrote a treatise titled, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which he critiqued the sacraments of the church. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe the Catholic Church observed possibly seven different sacraments. At the beginning of his treatise, Luther argued for only three—penance, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. By the end of his treatise, he had reduced that number down to two, and he never bothered to go back and revise the beginning. It seems his thoughts were still developing as he wrote.

Luther the Bible professor

In 1512, seven years after joining the monastery, Luther becomes a Bible professor at a small, lesser-known university in Wittenberg. His sole job would be to teach the Bible. Interestingly, professors of the Bible in those days did not follow any kind of curriculum. They were never told what to teach. He would simply study whatever he wanted to study and teach it as he progressed, and the obligation of his students was to follow along and learn how to study the text for themselves.

I should also mention that this position was unique. Every role connected to the church required an oath. Typically, that oath was an oath to both God and church authority—namely, the pope and the bishops. The oath of a Bible professor, however, was the only oath that was made to God alone. One had to promise God that he would teach the Bible faithfully. Later in life, when Luther opposed church authority, this would allow him to say, “I never broke my oath. I’ve only done what I was supposed to do.” According to his oath, he had no obligation to agree with church authority or tradition.

Luther begins his study and teaching with the book of Psalms. Keep in mind no other Old Testament book of the Bible is quoted more by the New Testament than Psalms. After Psalms, he moved on to Romans. After Romans, he taught through Galatians. After Galatians, he taught through the book of Hebrews. I don’t know that Luther could have chosen four books of the Bible to more likely bring about a Protestant Reformation within himself than Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.

Troubled by indulgences

To be clear, Luther was more than a mere teacher. He had a heart for people. During this time, he also preached regularly at a local church in Wittenberg, and he became very troubled when an indulgence preacher came to town. He was bothered because he feared how this indulgence preaching might hurt the flock.

In case you’re not familiar with the Roman Catholic concept of indulgences, this is a crucial part of the Reformation, so let me explain. First of all, the church believed in the sacrament of penance. In other words, it wasn’t enough to feel guilt because of sin. You’ve offended God, and you should experience a measure of suffering as punishment. Second, the church believed in purgatory, a place between heaven and hell where you’d remain after death until all of your sin debts were paid.

Indulgences were a way for people to essentially punish themselves for sin (penance) and cancel some or possibly all of their sin debts by paying money to the church. If you’ve ever seen a video of the pope at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, that was built from the sales of indulgences.

Luther is concerned, but not for the reasons you may think. He still believes in indulgences. He later argues that anyone who denies the sale of indulgences should be anathema. Let him be cursed, cut off from God. He believes indulgences should be primarily applied to the dead, not the living. So, when he is finally moved to write his Ninety-five Theses, he’s not making a Protestant argument against the practice. He’s merely asking for some academic debate. It wasn’t even an act of protest. He wrote his Theses in Latin, which meant only scholars and academics could read them. In fact, it wasn’t his first published theses. This was altogether ordinary in those days.

As I said before, Luther was quite conservative. His Ninety-five Theses weren’t a bold act of defiance against the church. He wasn’t even attacking indulgences. His primary target was the abuse of indulgences. He didn’t take issue with church authority. He merely criticized the abuse of church authority.

In hindsight, we know this was a pivotal moment for Luther and the Reformation to come, but Luther himself was not yet Reformed. He had no doctrine of justification to speak of. He’s beginning to see the tension between church tradition and the Bible, but he has no objections to the papacy yet. In short, we may celebrate Reformation Day a little early. Luther’s Protestant breakthrough would not come until the following year.

Luther’s transformation

At this point in Luther’s life, he’s not only conservative, but he’s also relatively obscure. He doesn’t come from a well-known family. Obviously, his students and parishioners know him, but he’s not famous by any means. That begins to change, however, when someone takes his Ninety-five Theses, translates it to German, and distributes it widely. The concerns Luther articulated spoke to the German people. They had grown suspicious of church authority and felt that maybe they were being taken advantage of, which catapults Luther into prominence among them. Invitations for him to preach start pouring in from all over.

Meanwhile, Luther is undergoing a transformation. First, seeing how his Ninety-five Theses are resonating with people, he’s beginning to wonder whether they’re right about church authority. His confidence in the church is beginning to waiver. Second, he’s growing in his understanding of salvation. I’ll briefly talk about both.

Luther’s changing view of authority

Let’s consider the matter of authority. I said before that the medieval church recognized four equal authorities—the Bible, tradition, reason, and the pope. Luther disregarded reason pretty quickly. By the time he posted his Ninety-five Theses, in fact, he was already arguing against what he called scholastic theology. It may seem strange to us, but the church would lift up men like Aristotle as authority figures in matters of Christianity. As Luther writes, “The whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light.” In other words, Aristotle doesn’t have anything to teach us about theology.

To be clear, Luther wasn’t opposed to examining and learning from the works of men. For instance, he believed reading Augustine was the perfect antidote to Aristotle. He believed we should rely on sound theologians, not mostly secular philosophers.

Luther would not call into question the other so-called authorities until after his Protestant conversion in 1518, but I’ll go ahead and mention them. In 1519, he enters into a debate with one of the church’s great theologians, Johannes Eck. In this debate, Eck continually presses the point that Luther could not possibly be right when he disagrees with church authority—that is, the bishops and the pope—or church tradition. It was a relatively effective argument. He was basically saying, “Luther, how can you have the audacity to say you’re right when you’re the only one saying it? Everyone else, past and present, disagrees with you.”

Eck had an advantage over Luther. He knew church history better than Luther. What did Luther do? Luther relied on what he knew best, which was the Bible. He had studied and taught the Bible for years. He had memorized large portions of it. Some historians say he had the entire New Testament memorized. Eck responded by comparing him with Jan Hus, whom the church had previously condemned and executed as a heretic. In other words, Eck basically accused Luther of being a heretic.

In that very moment, it certainly seems that Luther instantaneously realized Scripture is our only authority. Tradition is not a genuine authority over the church. Bishops are not genuine authorities over the church, not when they contradict the Word of God. From that moment forward, Luther believed Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone.

Luther’s changing view of salvation

Let’s talk about Luther’s changing view of salvation over the course of 1518 and 1519, following his Ninety-five Theses. What’s really interesting is that the crux of the matter became Luther’s understanding of justification. How is a sinner justified before God? Technically, Luther could not advocate a position regarding justification that would contradict the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church did not yet have an official position on justification, though it certainly had related and codified ideas about salvation.

In the medieval church, the gospel was less a new covenant and more so a new law. Moses was the old lawgiver. Christ was the new lawgiver. If you look at artwork from the time period, you will often see depictions of Jesus holding the book of the law in his hands. The new covenant did not come with grace. It came with more demand.

Let me read from one of the Catholic cardinals responding later to John Calvin. He writes:

And since the way of Christ is arduous, and the method of leading a life conformable to His laws and precepts very difficult (because we are enjoined to withdraw our minds from the contamination of earthly pleasures and to fix them upon this one object—to despise the present good which we have in our hands, and aspire to the future, which we see not), still of such value to each one of us is the salvation of himself and of his soul, that we must bring our minds to decline nothing, however harsh, and endure everything, however laborious, that, setting before ourselves the one hope of our salvation, we may at length, through many toils and anxieties … attain to that stable and ever-during salvation.

I feel overwhelmed and discouraged just reading that. In Luther’s day, this was the prevailing view of salvation. Christ did not come to free us from the law. He came to add to our troubles with more obligations and burdens. He made it even harder for us to obtain salvation, which unbeknownst to them, we couldn’t obtain through our own righteousness in the first place.

Keep in mind Luther had studied Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. He was increasingly convinced the Bible is our authority over any tradition or church leader. By the providence of God, Luther was primed and ready to see and accept the other four Solas—by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

Luther later writes:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.

Luther’s revelation on the toilet

Do you see how Luther, like all of his contemporaries, did not see the gospel as good news? They saw the gospel as a new law. According to him, it added “pain to pain.”. Romans 1 says:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16, 17)

When Luther read that passage and similar passages, he believed the phrase, righteousness of God, refers to the righteousness God demands of us. To be saved, then, requires we become righteous enough by our own efforts. Anyone who understands the holiness of God and the demands of his law knows that becoming righteous enough on our own is impossible. Read the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the very point Jesus makes. We will never be righteous enough, but Luther has spent his life believing one must try. Remember, he’s been a serious guy regarding spiritual matters since he was young, and like Augustine before him, he finally reaches a breaking point.

Luther will later claim to have gotten the revelation he needed while sitting on the toilet, which doesn’t mean what we think it means. That was a euphemistic way of saying he was spiritually distressed. His soul was anguished. He had done everything he could to lead a righteous life. He gave up law school to become a monk. He confessed every sin until his confessor finally told him to stop. He was confessing too many minor sins. Through it all, he still felt like an unworthy sinner who had not done enough. He correctly recognized that he still wasn’t righteous enough to please God.

Just when Luther can’t take it anymore—he’s actually become angry with God—he realizes that the righteousness of God doesn’t refer to the righteousness God demands of us. Instead, it speaks of the righteousness God gives through Christ. Luther says, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Having memorized the New Testament, he could then recall passage after passage that taught this liberating truth of God’s grace. For the first time, he began to see justification by faith in Scripture, and it was everywhere.

The Freedom of a Christian

Following Luther’s conversion and, more notably, his debate with John Eck, the church takes notice of him. Some in the church actually call for him to be taken to Rome for trial. Typically, when someone goes to trial in Rome, they don’t come back. Frederick III, or Frederick the Wise, who was the elector of the region, comes to Luther’s defense. In a spirit of German nationalism, perhaps, he won’t permit it, and he has the necessary clout to prevent it.

Luther knows he’s a marked man. He knows the church has eyes on him, but again, he’s a serious and somewhat brash guy, so he continues writing. In 1520, he writes against the papacy and church authority. He also writes against most of the sacraments recognized and practiced by the church. Then, he writes The Freedom of a Christian, which is the closest Luther ever came to writing a treatise on the doctrine of justification.

I’ll summarize The Freedom of a Christian with two quotes. First, Luther says, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” By that, he means the Christian lives free before God. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Ro 8:1). By the way, he does not deny the law. He isn’t an Antinomian, but those in Christ are freed from the law.

Second, Luther says, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” For instance, if the Bible says to love your neighbor, you have an obligation to your neighbor. In other words, Christ frees us from the law, but as Paul says in Romans 6, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Ro 6:1). Unlike his contemporaries, Luther understands the distinction between law and gospel. He no longer confuses the two.

Luther at the Diet of Worms

In June 1520, the pope issues a decree that paraphrases Psalm 80. “Rise up, O Lord, a wild boar is ravaging your vineyard.” To be clear, Luther is the boar. The pope gives him sixty days to recant, Luther refuses, and the church officially excommunicates him the following year.

Keep in mind these are the days of the Holy Roman Empire. The civil authorities have a responsibility to enforce church decisions. Charles V, a rather pious young man, is emperor, and he decides that Luther should stand trial at the next diet, or parliament, to be held in Germany. This was the Diet of Worms.

Luther knows enough about church history to realize that danger is on the horizon. While Elector Frederick secures his safe passage to and from Worms, the same was promised to Jan Hus years before, and they executed him. Even so, Luther goes to the diet. He arrives in Worms on April 16, 1521, and he is greeted by the sounds of trumpets and two-thousand supporters lining the streets. He received a better reception than the Emperor, which only made the authorities even more annoyed.

Luther assumed he would have an opportunity to explain and defend his views, but the authorities very intentionally prevented that from happening. Instead, they laid out a collection of his writings on a table and simply insisted that he retract all of them. It was then he gave the least inspiring speech of his career. He said, “Can I have a little time to think about it?”

Before we criticize Luther, we should put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. He’s painfully aware that the death penalty is a real probability if he doesn’t recant. He’s also standing in the presence of some of the most powerful people in the world. This would be enough to give anyone a reason to pause.

Ultimately, though, Luther hears the words of Christ ringing in his head. “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk 8:38).

Charles gives Luther one day to think about it, and he returns the next day to deliver what is probably his most famous speech. He boldly declares:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

Both church and state authorities wanted to kill Luther on the spot. Thankfully, though, Charles was a man of his word, and he allowed Luther to leave safely. His troubles were far from over, but Luther’s firm stance at the Diet of Worms cemented not only his place in church history but also the inevitability of the Protestant Reformation.

There’s quite a bit more I could say about Luther, but we have to stop somewhere. He certainly had his flaws, but it’s hardly a stretch to say he changed the world. He was God’s instrument for rescuing countless people from the bondage of legalism. He put the Bible back into the hands of laypeople. He brought the power of theologically rich hymns sung by the entire congregation back to the church.

In Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, he concludes by describing the way Luther came to discover the mercy of God. He writes:

But how shall we know [God’s mercy]? In Christ, only in Christ. In the Lord of life, born in the squalor of a cow stall and dying as a malefactor under the desertion and the derision of men, crying unto God and receiving for answer only the trembling of the earth and the blinding of the sun, even by God forsaken, and in that hour taking to himself and annihilating our iniquity, trampling down the hosts of hell and disclosing within the wrath of the All Terrible the love that will not let us go. No longer did Luther tremble at the rustling of a wind-blown leaf, and instead of calling upon St. Anne he declared himself able to laugh at thunder and jagged bolts from out of the storm. This was what enabled him to utter such words as these: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”