“Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, And many there be which go in there at.”
“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the broad religious path to eternal destruction in the Western World was well traveled. Countless souls had embraced those doctrines that set forth a system of salvation by works.
Very few individuals bothered to ask, whether the things that the Catholic Church taught were true, or consistent with the Scriptures. Some did not ask because life was exciting and filled with adventure. This was the era of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Copernicus. The Western World was alive with art and literature, court intrigue and political upheaval, the discovery of new worlds, and the rebirth of learning.
While some enjoyed the Renaissance, others, mainly to be found in the countryside, were struggling to exist. Hundreds upon thousands of peasants were not aware of the voyages of Columbus. They knew nothing of the glories of Renaissance art and literature, until much later.
Instead, multitudes endured the terrible realities of life in Europe where violence and bloodshed were part of everyday life.
Life was short, medicine was crude, and death was certain. People who lived past thirty were old. Women often-died in childbirth, and if they managed to survive, an alarming number of their babies did not.
The institutional Roman Catholic Church took advantage of the plight of the people.There was financial exploitation as church offices were given to the highest bidder and worse, salvation was offered for a price.
Greed, graft, and moral corruption characterized convents, monasteries, and reached upward to capture the Vatican itself.The glorious light of the gospel grew dim in such circumstances causing concerned souls to search for salvation.
Among those who were struggling to know the truth was a young German lad. The things he would be shown by the grace of God would restore his soul,reform the Church,and revolutionize the world. And it all came about in the search for salvation.
The story begins on November 10, 1483, at Eisleben, German, when a baby boy was born who was destined to change the world. His name: Martin Luther. Luther’s parents had worked in Eisleben as domestic servants. Then, the family moved to Mansfield, where the father, Hans Luther, went to work in the local copper mines. Hans would prosper and one day own his own copper mine.
It was not always a happy home into which Martin had been born. Both his father, and his mother, Hannah, were strict disciplinarians. Martin would later record that his father whipped him so severely on one occasion that,
“I ran away and felt ugly toward him until my father sought me out for reconciliation.”
His mother was equally firm. In years to come, when he was a priest and a professor, Luther would tell his University students,
“My mother once beat me with a cane for stealing a nut, until the blood came.
Such strict discipline drove me to the monastery, although she meant well.”
Despite the rigorous punishment as a child, Luther honored his parents, except for his choice of becoming a priest. Hans had hoped that Martin might become a lawyer. Indeed, Luther’s initial studies were destined to lead him in that direction.
In 1501, at the age of 17, Luther entered the University of Erfurt, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree the next year in 1502.Three years later, in 1505, Luther earned another degree (MA) at Erfurt, and began his law studies.
Academically, things were going very well for Martin, until one humid day in 1505.While walking back to school, on July 2, the twenty-one-year-old law student encountered a fierce lightning storm.
Terrified that he would be killed, Luther cried out,
“Help me, St. Anne!
I will become a monk!”
The storm passed, but not Luther’s vow.
He was determined to keep his word to St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, miners, and apparently, college students. Perhaps Martin remembered another crisis experience he had survived. Luther was nineteen years old when he almost bled to death. It happened this way.
On his way home from school, a sword Luther wore, according to the custom of the day, pierced his leg, and cut an artery. The wound was severe. Luther’s friend ran off to find medical help. Luther put his finger in the gaping hole and prayed,
“O Mary, help!”
God the Father was gracious, and a doctor came, just in time.
Luther’s life was spared. Having escaped death twice, Luther was not willing to risk a third encounter of the worst kind. He would enter a monastery, because there was something which Luther was concerned about: the state of his soul.
As Luther meditated on life, death, and God, he wanted to know how a person could be righteous in the sight of God. Luther would search for that answer in submission to the discipline, and authority, of the Church of Rome.
Giving away his earthly goods, Luther joined the Augustinian order where he vowed to die to self, forsake family and friends, renounce the flesh, suffer poverty, mortify his body, be obedient to his superiors in all things, and follow the rules imposed upon him.
Becoming a friar in the Augustinian monastery, Luther set out to honor his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience through endless acts of confession of sins, and the performance of good works.
And yet, despite all that Luther did, he failed to find the peace with God he sought. What could he do? Luther could do more.
He would flagellate himself, until the blood ran profusely down his body. He would fast, to the point of exhaustion. He would sleep on the cold hard floor. He would do anything to merit the merits of Christ, and please the Father.
But somehow, in the deepest recesses of his soul, Luther felt that God was not satisfied. Luther was but another Cain, offering the fruit of his labors to an unsmiling God. In the search for personal salvation, Luther continued his studies. Within two years of entering the Black Cloister he was ordained a priest in 1507.
However, this only made matters worse, from Luther’s point of view, for now he had the awesome responsibility, in the form of transubstantiation, of offering unto the people of Erfurt the Living, the True, and the Eternal God. How could he do that in a worthy manner? He could not, and he knew it!
So terrified was Martin of the presence of God in the Holy Sacrifice, that he trembled at the altar; he could barely complete his first mass.
There was something else that Luther trembled at. He believed he had committed an unpardonable sin. Like everything else, Luther confessed to his superior and “most beloved father in Christ”, Dr. Johann von Staupitz [staw-pitz] (1469?-1524).
“He is God, and He is holy.”
“I am man, and I am unholy. No matter what I do, He condemns me. I cannot love God, and that is my unpardonable sin.”
Dr. Staupitz [staw-pitz] did not understand the seriousness with which Luther took sin, and the unceasing confession of his heart.
Exasperated, the Confessor exclaimed:
“Man, God is not angry with you. You are angry with God. Do not you know that God commands you to hope?”
He was right, of course.
Luther was angry that God could not be pleased. Although he had truly sought to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, he found no comfort. There was always a sense of the wrath of God. But what was he to do? He would do more!
With renewed vigor, Luther would study Scripture and theology. He would teach and preach so much that he did not have time to think! Perhaps a life of zeal and overwork would placate his tormented soul in search of personal salvation.
There was something else Luther would do. He would make a pilgrimage to Rome stopping at various cloisters along the way.
Once in Rome, Martin would engage in religious rites to secure a place in heaven. He would make a general confession of sins to a Roman priest, as opposed to a German priest. He would hear a daily mass. And so, to the city of Rome, Martin went to work for the salvation of his soul.
At the altar of St. Sebastian, Luther once said several masses in a single hour, and then was sadden that his parents were still alive,
“For I would have loved to deliver the from purgatory with my masses and other
special works and prayers.”
Because Martin wanted to deliver his grandfather from purgatory, Luther crawled up and down the twenty-eight marble Santa Scala (Holy Stairs) on his knees, reciting the Lord’s Prayer on each step. By praying this way, it was said that a soul could be saved. The Santa Scala was believed to be the very stairway that Jesus climbed before Pontius Pilate.
When the ordeal was over, and Luther arrived at the top of the incline, a moment of honesty overtook his soul.
“Who knows if it is really true?”
he softly asked himself.
It was almost a blasphemous thought but Luther had seen some things that planted seeds of concern in his sensitive conscience. There was much sin in the Holy City. Luther witnessed drunken priests, rampant immorality, and open laughter at the saints and all that was sacred. All this, and more, disturbed Luther.
By March, 1511, Luther had returned to the Augustinian monastery in Germany, but the old doubts still lingered and the old questions burned more brightly in his soul concerning the righteousness of God and other matters. Luther wanted to know:
“Does the righteousness of God merely judge a man, or can it deliver him from the power and pollution of sin?”
“Is the Church alone competent to interpret Scriptures or can individuals be guided by their own consciences, understanding, and the Holy Spirit”?
“Why must the mass be said in Latin? Why can’t the natural language of the people be used?”
While Luther continued to study and search for the salvation of his soul, his
life was about to change.
In the little town of Wittenberg, Germany, Duke Frederick III “The Wise” (1463-1525) was determined that the University he had established should have a new professor who could also be a pastor to his people. The name of Luther was brought before Frederick’s attention.
Arrangements were made, and in 1511 Luther was brought to Wittenberg to baptize infants,
catechize the children, preach to the people, teach students in the University, and study the Scriptures.
While Luther seemed content in his new surroundings, he became uncomfortable that Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, was bringing too many religious relics into the realm. Perhaps 19,013, items were a bit too much. The pious prince meant well. He brought the relics for the glory of God, and the good of the church.
Still, Luther was concerned that people would shift the foundation of faith from Christ to religious objects. Despite his concerns over the relics, Luther had two other issues to deal with. One issue was theological, the other was practical.
It was either late in 1513 or early in 1514 that Luther began to teach openly his students something different from Catholic orthodoxy.
Luther was now convinced that the true ground of justification was by faith apart from good works.
Romans 1:17 declared that,
“The just shall live by faith!”
Suddenly, illuminated by God the Holy Spirit, Luther understood that, the just do not live by relics,
nor by good works, nor by any papal forgiveness.
Man is declared righteous in the sight of God by faith.
There was more!
The true Church was not the visible organization that could boast about apostolic succession; the true Church of Christ was invisible and consisted of those in the community of faith, who had been given grace to believe in the substitutionary work of Christ at Calvary.
Salvation was not corporate, but common and individual.
Salvation was not to be found in the seven sacraments, but in the Savior.
The concept that human beings had a spark of goodness, enough to seek out God, was not a foundational truth, but something that was taught by “fools” and “pig theologians”!
Humility was no longer a virtue that merited grace; rather, humility was the soul’s response to the gift of God’s grace. Faith no longer consisted of mentally agreeing to the dogma of the Church. Saving faith was trusting the promises of God, and the work of Christ.
Like a dam bursting with the pressure of floodwaters, gospel truths, long neglected, began to pour forth from the heart of Luther and washed over the people in his parish.
Luther was renouncing everything he had been taught.
A religious revolution had been launched and the world would soon realize it.
In the providence of God, a date had been set:
All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517.
The issue that would help to crystallize the doctrine of justification by faith alone, was the selling of indulgences on a wide scale, in an inappropriate manner. An indulgence is simply a formal church document stating that certain sins are forgiven.
A major motive for the selling of indulgences was a desire to finish building St. Peter’s Church in Rome. Leo X (1475-1521) was determined to bring this project to completion. To raise the necessary funds, the pope began to distort the grace of God.
To sell indulgences in Germany, the services of Johann (John) Tetzel were secured, for Tetzel was a master salesman, even though he was also a Dominican priest.
Gathering the peasants about him, Tetzel proceeded to share that this latest Papal indulgence was nothing ordinary.
Each person who purchased this indulgence would share in all the future masses to be said at St. Peters.
Furthermore, they would immediately receive forgiveness for all sins, and absolution from all eternal punishments.
And there was more.
Confession of sins to the local parish priest no longer had to be made.
But best of all, said Tetzel, others could be freed from purgatory.
“As soon as the money clinks in the chest,
a soul flies up to heavenly rest!”
To another audience he declared that,
“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings,
a soul from purgatory springs!”
With freedom to sin based upon papal forgiveness being purchased, the moral life in Germany immediately disintegrated. Outraged at what he was witnessing, Martin Luther decided to act.On the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, Luther went to the church door of Wittenberg, and nailed up a public notice written in Latin.
There were 95 propositions that Luther wanted to debate with the scholars of the Church. He made a public announcement of this fact—and turned the world upside down. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, were full of fire and thunder as selected excepts reveal.
“In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matthew 4: 17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
“They preach only human doctrines that say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”
“Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
Turning from the sale of indulgences Luther had some questions for the pope about purgatory.
“Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there …?”
Luther had many other questions and statements to make about the pope and Catholic dogma in general.
Within weeks the 95 Theses was the talk of Germany. Within months all of Christendom was on fire. It was inevitable that the contents of the theses made their way to Rome. Emissaries from the Vatican were sent to Germany to tell Luther to be silent. Luther was officially forbidden to preach any more about doctrinal and moral corruption in the Church. If he did not keep silent, Luther would be banished from the church, excommunicated, and imprisoned.
Luther did not keep silent.
In 1517, Luther joined a debate at Leipzig with representatives from Rome.During the debate Luther articulate many of the great propositional truths he wanted the people of God to reclaim.
The Church was not founded upon Peter but upon Christ. Proposition. There was only one universal Church.
It was not necessary for the soul to be subject to the Church of Rome for salvation when the Church was wrong in matters of faith and practice.
Salvation is not corporate but personal.
Neither council nor pope has ultimate authority over the soul.
A simple layman armed with Scriptures is greater than the mightiest pope without it.
All these points, and more, became too much for Rome.
A papal bull was prepared. The Mad Monk had to be destroyed. He was nothing but a wild boar running loose in Christendom. Luther’s books were to be burned and he himself was to be damned forever if he did not recant within sixty days. Anyone who sided with Luther was also to be banned and cast out of the kingdom of God.
Luther’s bold response to the whole situation was to burn the papal bull on December 10, 1520. Had Rome tried to destroy the truth of the Scriptures? Then let God destroy Rome!
Instead of repenting and listening to what Luther had to say, the Pope of Rome roared. Luther would have his trial at the Diet of Worms.
The German Parliament would have to meet and decide what to do with this troublesome priest.
In the spring of 1521, the Parliament of the German state assembled and demanded the appearance of Luther.
Obedient to the crown, Luther journeyed to Worms believing that he had been summoned to debate his positions.
That was not to be the case.
Luther was really being summoned to recant his position at the instance of the Emperor, Charles V.
In Worms late in the afternoon, 4:00 PM, April 17th, 1521, Luther was ushered into a large room where the nobility of the land had assembled including the king and the royalty of Rome.
His books were spread on a table. Luther was to answer two questions in a simple and straightforward manner:
“Are these your writings?”
“Will you recant the writings and the beliefs that they contain?”
For the moment, Luther was caught off guard. He had come to debate his works not to renounce them.
In desperation Luther asked for more time to consider the request and time was given.
Luther was to return the next afternoon.
At the appointed hour Luther re-appeared.
He was ready to answer the questions.
Yes, the writings were his, and no he would not recant what he had written for this reason:
“Not all the books are of the same kind: some deal with matters of faith which popes and priests alike have universally applauded as being worthy of a Christian’s perusal.
Others do attack the papacy, and the teaching of the papist. But what is that? Truth is truth! Therefore, Your Most Serene Majesty and Your Lordships, since they seek a simple reply, I will give one that is without horns or teeth, and in this fashion: I believe in neither pope nor councils alone; for it is perfectly well established that they have frequently erred, as well as contradicted themselves.
Unless then I shall be convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I must be bound by those Scriptures, which have been brought forward by me; yes, my conscience has been taken captive by these words of God.
I cannot revoke anything, nor do I wish to; since to go against one’s conscience is neither safe nor right: here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
It had been a long journey for this soul in search of salvation. But Martin Luther had found peace with God at last through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. With Paul, Luther finally knew by personal experience that there is “now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 5:1)
The Great Invitation
Perhaps you too are a soul in search of salvation, or you know of someone searching. It is my earnest prayer that God the Holy Spirit will help you to see in this very hour that “the just shall live by faith.” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). I say this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.