Clang! Clang..! We hear the sound of hammer on the doors of the Wittenberg church. Martin Luther is nailing his 95 theses for people to read. This is going to cause a split in the thousand-year-old Roman Catholic Church. One group will be loyal to the Pope and others will be launching a protest against his authority. This is the biography of a man whom God used mightily to snatch people out of mouth hell and death. Martin Luther’s biography is published here, not to exalt him as a hero, but to understand his personal tryst with the religion of his fathers. It is to grasp the essence of the foundational difference between Catholic and Protestant theology. As the famous quote says, those who do not read history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, we must learn from reformers life to avoid our fall back into the same pit from which we protestants are drawn from.
Raised in Strict Discipline
Martin Luther was born in Germany on 10th November 1483. Hans Luther, his father was a middle-class copper miner. He raised his children in strict discipline. The extent of rules, regulation and discipline in the family was so intense that even a joke was considered as the sin of mocking. Children would be punished if they were seen laughing on Sundays. Such rigid sensitivity to sin made Luther think that God is a stern unrelenting judge towards sins and impurity. Biographers describe his childhood like a child crying to God in night hours as
“God, please don’t punish me, I made a mistake today. “Martin Luther
This appears to me as the sovereign plan of God in allowing him to go through such stringent demands of regulations of God’s holiness. Without this sensitivity to sin and the rigidness of law, he would not have tried a million times and failed a million times. It is only on failing repeatedly that humans lose their confidence. Repeated failure breaks a man. However, there is a catch. Those whose sensitivity to sin gets marred by searing of conscience they will get habituated to sin. They will not resist it. Mysterious blindness covers them, making them insensitive to their failures. They assume God will ignore their evil ways. They never feel the burden of the wrath of God upon them, as they repeat sins. There are the people with whom the Spirit of God ceases to strive. Ichabod – God forsakes them to their evil hearts! Thankfully God keeps pursuing his chosen ones and keeps pricking their soul until they are broken and seek external help. Martin Luther was one such man whose conscience God did not leave to die. On committing a sin like all of us, he was constantly in terror of God. This terror of God was breaking him from his childhood and yet leaving him not to become numb to sin. Constant breaking him led him to realize his helplessness. It brought him therefore to Christ at the time when God needed him. Law became his schoolmaster until he was led to Christ.
The Early Education
Martin Luther’s father wanted him to become a Lawyer. So in the year 1501, he put him in school where he could study Latin, rhetoric, grammar and logic. The schools were operated by the Brethren of Common Life (Under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church). During those days, the bible was not available for everyone to read. It was in Latin and was not translated into English. Keeping bible at home was a punishable offence. Once he noticed a Latin Bible in the library of his school. Being a student of Latin he could read the bible, but with quickened pulse and throbbing heart. He wished, “Oh that God would give me such a book for myself!” Luther completed his masters in 1505.
Entry into the Catholic Church as a Monk
One day, as he was returning to university from his home trip, a lightning bolt struck and fell near the horse on which Martin Luther was travelling. He cried out “Help Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” Thus he became a Roman Catholic monk (belonging to Augustinian order). With a passion to become perfect and free of sin, Luther devoted himself to monastic life. To get rid of sin, he would fast too often and pray in the night (vigils) in order to obtain pardon from God. Later in his life, he accepted, “I was a pious monk and followed rules of my order more strictly than I can express.” He further said, “If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkish work, I should certainly be entitled to it.” Luther used to think that chastening himself by taking fasting and praying would cleanse his sins.
He later said, “in the monastery, I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled about whether God would bestow His grace on me. . . .If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.”
Luther continued his studies in biblical theology while being a monk. Three years later he received his bachelor’s degree in biblical theology.
The Visit to Rome
After finishing his bachelor’s degree in theology, Luther was made a faculty in the university of Wittenberg (Germany) and was ordained as a priest of the Augustinian Order (under the umbrella of the Catholic Church). Luther’s superior the vicar general of the order in Germany Johannes von Staupitz had taught Luther to stop trusting in his own fasting and penance for the remission of sins and trust in arms of Christ.
In 1510, there arose a dispute in the Augustinian order in Germany. Many churches opposed the reform led by Luther and his superior Johannes von Staupitz. Disapproving parties made a direct appeal to Rome. Luther now got a chance to visit Rome to defend his side. He pursued this journey on foot lodging in monasteries in his way. At a convent in Italy, he was filled with wonder, looking at the wealth, magnificence and luxury of these so-called houses of God. Monks used to dwell in splendid apartments, wore rich and costly clothes, and feasted at sumptuous tables. Luther contrasted this with his own self-denial and hardship of his life. He was perplexed. Finally, he reached the city of seven hills. When he arrived, he fell on the ground, raised his hands and said, “Holy Rome I salute thee!” He was expecting a spiritual experience. But to his dismay, he met astonishment and horror. He saw iniquity existed among all classes of clergy. He heard indecent jokes from prelates and was filled with awe at their profanity even during masses. Turned wherever he would in the place of sanctity he found profanity.
Having witnessed all this, Luther visited the famous “Scala Sancta (Holy Staircase).” It was believed in those days that these were the same staircase on which Jesus stood when he was facing Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. These stairs were said to be brought to Rome in the 4th century. They were made of marble enclosed in wood. It was said that climbing the staircase on knees, is a way to get forgiveness of sins of souls suffering in purgatory. Luther was devoutly climbing these stairs on his knees when he heard the voice, “The just shall live by faith.” This was the moment when Luther rose from his knees and turned his back on Rome never to return again. These words enlightened him in the fallacy of trusting human works for salvation.
Clang! Clang! The first conflict with Rome
After his return from Rome, Luther finished his masters and was awarded the Doctor of Theology. In 1515, Luther was made vicar of Saxony and Thuringia. Under him, he had 11 monasteries. Luther wrote three famous books from 1510 to 1520,
- Commentary on Galatians
- “On Babylonian Captivity of Church”
- “On the freedom of Christian.”
Luther was convinced that the church had erred from the path and was corrupted. He wrote
“I was a pious and blameless monk. Yet I could not bear the words “Justice of God.” I was secretly filled with rage against God and hated God secretly because humans who were already lost in original sin, God was not satisfied by terrifying them with miseries of law and he further increased our torment by the gospel. But now I realize that the sinner’s justification (declaration of the verdict as not guilty) proceeds from pure mercy of Lord, by means of faith. With this realization, I was relieved and entered into the paradise of God. From that time I beheld the bible with new eyes (paraphrased for simplicity).”Martin Luther
About his visit to Rome he wrote,
“No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to believe.” “Where God build church, the devil puts chapel next door. If there is a hell, Rome is built over it; it is an abyss from whence issues every kind of sin.”Martin Luther
In the year 1516, The Pope sent a man by name Johann Tetzel to Germany, to collect funds for renovating St. Peter’s Basilica (a church in Vatican City of Rome, Italy). He went on preaching sale of indulgences. Sale of indulgences meant that those who donate money for building the house of God in Rome, God will forgive their sins and lessen their punishment in purgatory, before perfecting and taking him in heaven. When Tetzel entered Germany, a messenger went before him, “The grace of God and of holy fathers is at your gates.” People welcomed him as if God himself has come down from heaven. Thousands eagerly accepted Tetzel’s offer. Gold and silver flowed into his treasury. Just as Peter opposed Simon the Sorcerer who attempted to buy the Holy Spirit’s miracles, so did Luther opposed Tetzel.
Luther objected to this saying “Why does pope whose wealth today is more than the wealth of richest man in Rome, build the house of God with the money of poor believers rather than his own money?” He had written this as a scholarly letter as “Disputation of Martin Luther on Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” In these letters, Luther mockingly wrote, “As soon as the coin in coffin box rings, the soul from purgatory springs (into heaven).” Luther argued that forgiveness is God’s alone to grant and those who are selling it are in error. One account says he nailed these documents as 95 Theses on doors of the church of Wittenberg Germany. Within weeks copies of it spread in entire Germany and in two months it had spread in all of Europe.
In 1517, when the Archbishop read 95 Theses of Luther, he did not reply but forwarded it to Rome, marking it as heresy. Pope Leo X was used to reformers and heretics. He was slow to respond to Luther. Over the course of three years, he deployed a series of papal theologians against Luther. First Dominican theologian wrote a thesis against Luther’s and he was summoned to Rome, but elector Frederick persuaded the pope to have Luther examined at Augsburg. There were many supporters of Luther and few of them were powerful. Over a trial of 3 days, Luther was questioned. It happened to be shouting match rather than a sensible discussion between the two men. Cardinal Cajetan was ordered to arrest Luther but Luther escaped from the city in the midnight with the help of a Carmelite monk.
There were no telephones or emails those days to make communication happen fast. It took days and months for letters to travel. Further, many political twist and turns, help from powerful friends in Germany, and other events helped Luther get to pass through these years.
In 1520, the pope issued a bull (public decree) against Luther, in which it was issued that unless Luther takes back 41 statements from his 95 theses, he will be excommunicated. The wordings of pope’s public decree began with prayers which called Lord to arise (Exsurge Domine) against the foxes that have risen to destroy the vineyard of the Lord. Prayers were made to Apostle Paul and Peter and the whole church of saints to defend Catholicism against Luther’s 41 proposition selected by committee.
The Words of bull were as follows
“With the advice and consent of our venerable brothers, ……by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, …… we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears…we likewise condemn, reprobate, and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin, whether in Latin or any other language,……… penalties to be incurred automatically, to read, preach, praise, print, publish or defend them. … Indeed immediately after the publication of this letter these works……. shall be burned publicly and solemnly in the presence of the clerics and people.“Papal Bull of 1520
Because of the widespread support of Luther, the cardinal and priests supporting pope found it difficult to publish and spread the decree of pope in the public. When Luther received the copy of this bull he publicly burned it and said,
“…whoever wrote this bull is the antichrist. I PROTEST before God our Lord Jesus Christ …..I curse and execrate this as blasphemy of Christ.”Martin Luther
Luther wrote his response to the bull and named it Adversus Execrabile Antichristi Bullam (Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist). Six days later he wrote another response and entitled it Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull. He also published a book “On freedom of Christian.”
Luther along with another professor at Wittenberg called for students at the university and publically burned canon laws and books of Rome. He said, “Since they have burned my books, I burn theirs. The canon law was included because it makes the pope a god on earth. So far I have merely fooled with this business of the pope. All my articles condemned by Antichrist are Christian. Seldom has the pope overcome anyone with Scripture and with reason.”
On 3 January 1521, Pope published another bull (Decet Romanum Pontificem) and Luther was finally excommunicated.
To be continued…