Charles Ebert Hay.

Luther, the reformer online

. (page 2 of 14)
Online LibraryCharles Ebert HayLuther, the reformer → online text (page 2 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and a chair. He; could afterward declare: "If
ever a monk eould have entered heaven through
moniLstic tortures, I should have done so," and
fearlessly appeal to his former associates to attest
his scrupulous fidelity in obeying all the minutest
rules of the order.


20 M'THKK, Tin-: kekokmek.

At least onct' a week, every l)rotluT was coni-
pelle<l to make confession j)rivatcly to a desijr-
nateti priest. Luther aekimwledjied so many trans-
gressions to his "confessor," that the well-meaninj;
old man grew tired of hearing him. He was guiUy
of no gross outward sins, l»ut aeeused himself of
(|uiekness of temjK-r, envy, impatience, and a host
of insignilicant olTenses against the rules of the con-
vent eoneerning the daily exereises(>f worship, etc.

It was the tloetrine of the Church, that the peni-
tent nmst confess all his sins, with inward peni-
tence, or contrition. The confessor then ])ro-
nounce<l ahsolution, or the pardon of sin, hut at
once also imposed as temporal i)i'nalties yet to be
re<iuire<l various mortilications of the llesh. com-
monly called penances. The imperfect j)erforn»-
ance of these j>cnanc« s wouM incur the wrath of
(iod, and, if not leading to final perdition, would
at least re(|uire the soul to endure uns})eakal»le tor-
ment in j)Urgatorial fires. Luther accepted this
teaching with umpiestioning faith, and sought in
the prescribed way to make sure of his accei»tance
with (lod. But he wju^ too honest to believe that
his jKiiitence was as dee|) as it should be, and
although it was taught that tlie absolution j)ro-
nouiiccd would atone for any imperfection in the
contrition of the sincere penitent, yet he was de-
prived of the comfort which he might have found
in this assurance l»y the immediate imposition of
further penances, in the fulfihnent of which he
again realized his own inlirmity. In tlii' desper-
ate effort to find inward peaci', he lunhrtook far
more than was re(iuire<l of him. lie thus gainetl
much repute for sanctity; l»ut in all these e(T<»rts
hv afterwanls recogni/cd the i>ri«le of his own
Ijeart, which sought in this way t<» attain a right-
eouHncKS of it- ..un ;ni,l t.. iniiit tli«' divine favor.


In May, I.'jOT, LutluT w;is formally iiiductcd
intn the priesthood, wln-n the svnav of addcii iv-
spoiisibility ;,'itatly hiirdt'm'd him. \\'ho was he,
that he should dare to aj>i»roaeh (Jod and j)resent
to llim, in the sacrifiee of tlie mass, the body of
His dear Son? He trembled, and almost i)erished
at tlie tlioiifjht. The aceidental omission of a
word of the prescribed formula he regarded as a
^Tievous sin. He selected twenty-one out of the
lonjx eatalo«rue of saints, and at each daily mass
implored the intercession of three of these, thus
eom]»letin;z the list every week.

Meanwhile, he studied diligently the scholastic
theology, and soon knew the works of liiel and
I)'Ailly almost by heart. He found great delight
in the keen dialectics of Occam. He read faith-
fully, but with some impatience, the voluminous
works of Tlu>mas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. lUit
all these celebrated teachers of tlieology failed to
bring peace to his troubled heart. They all
taui:lit him to rely on liis own efforts to procure for
himself the favor of (Jod. Preaching not the love
of (Jod, but His majesty and absolute power, tliey
led the anxious student to imagine that the tor-
tures of mind which he had so long endured were
indications that he was hoplessly given over to
eternal destruction by an unchanging decree of the

His despondency was doubtless increased by the
im|iaired condition of his bodily health. Long
fa>ting and arduous labors, cond)ined with an al-
most unexampled devotion to study, reduced his
vitality and naturally inclined him to gloomy
forebodings. Thus many circumstances cond)ined
to m.ike him for all time an exam]»le of the utter
helplessness of the man who thinks by his own
iiMble.-( and most self-denying elTorts to sceure the
.ipproval of a holy (Jod.


But the mercy of the lA)nl whom he thus
i^^norantly sou«;lit to worship was j)re|)arin«; cle-
Hveranci*. Wliile yet a novice, he was permitted
for a sexsoii to liave the use of a liihle, ami,
thouj^li he faileil to ^rasp tlie central thouj^'ht of
the (iospel message, he stored up many })assages
in his faithful memory. A brother in the mon-
astery, to whom he confided somethin*^ of his
spiritual trouhle, urj^ed him to make his own the
declaration of the Creed, '' 1 helieve in the for-
giveni'ss of sins,'' reminding; him that it is not
the sins of Peter or of Paul of which we are to
tiiink when makini? this ci^nfession, hut ()ur own,
and insistiuL^ also that " Ciod commands us to
hope," and that despair is therefore disohedience.

But it was from the vicar-general of his (»rder,
John von Staupitz, a man of earnest practical
piety and of sympathetic nature, that he received
the most suhstantial ai»l. The latter, on his regular
visits to Erfurt, encouraged the confidence of the
young monk and hecame deeply interested in hini.
He advised him, instead of worrying ahout prt'dcs-
tination, to view the mercy of Clod in the wounds
of Clirist; inst^^ad of his own scrupulous ohserv-
ance of outward ceremonies, to seek that inward
renewal of heart which is, according to the New
Testiunent, the essence of conversion; and to trust,
not in the preti*ntious works of his own prouil self-
righteousness, hut in the grace of (Jod as reveaU'd
in Christ. This was timely advice, and to his old
age IjUther acknowledged it as the chief means hy
which (tod led him to a knowledge of the saving
truth. In the light of his experience we can un-
derstand why he so frecpiently speaks of the value
of wise Christian counsel in hours of spiritual
distress and of the henelits of confession and ahso-


With a new hope stirring within liini, Luther
now turui'cl with fr»>h intiTrst to the Seriptuns.
He discovered tliat the st riptural word for re}>ent-
anee in the ori«iinal CJreek liad no referenci' to
outward ohservanees, hut could mean only a
chan«;e of niintl, or heart. Everywhere he found
clearest revelations of the grace of (lod, and his
whole concej)tion of the i>lan of salvation was
cliange<l. Looking away from himself with a
faith genuine yet timid, he found a measure of
inward comfort utterly unknown hefore. This
was the crisis period of his new spiritual life.
He now advanced steadily in his ])ercej)tion of
scriptural truth, although he had not the remotest
idea of the revolulinnary character of his new

The intellectual attainments of the Erfurt
monk had meanwhile hecome widely known, and
he was regarded as the most talented and learne(l
man in the Augustinian order of (lermany. His
zeal for the proper understanding of the Scriptures
led to the purchase of a Hebrew lexicon, then a
great rarity, and his diligent ai>]>lieation to the
study of that language without an instructor or



At the close of the year 150S, Luther was, \i]>nn
tlic reeoininendation of Staiipitz, aj)p()inte(l a Pro-
fessor in the newly-('stal»Hslieil rnivei*sity of
M'ilt('n)»('r«:. II*' at first taii^Mit only the so-ealU'tl

1»hil(>s(>j)lii(al hranchcs, which he had pursued at
u-furt. His j)rt'f(renee was, however, for the-
olojzy, whieh, as he was aceustonieil to say, deals
with the kernel of truth, whereas the other
sciences are concerned only with the shell. In
connection with his oflicial duties, he at once
entered uj^on the course of study necepsary in
order to secure the academic rank nMjuircd for the
hi-jlicr })osition. The de<:re('of Bachelor of The-
ology could he ohtained only tlirou;_di three stai:i's,
each occupying at least six months, and each
closing with an examination and a ]iu)>lic discus-
sion. These recjuirements weri' easily met, and
the haccalaureate degree ol)tained witliin eighteen
months. \\'ithin this jjcriod he gave theological
instruction for three sessions at the University of
Krfurt, when lie was recalled to Wittenherg, where
he now outranked all the other instructors in the

In January, IT)!!, he. in conipany with anotlier
delegate, was sent to Rome upon an important
mi.'^sion connecte(l with the government of the
Augustinian monasteries of (lermany. He re-
joiced in this opi)ortunity of visiting the fountain-
head of Christian authority and life, and hojK'd
for great spiritual henelit from contact with the


holy leaders of the Cliunli. At the lii-st si^dit of
the capital he j)r()strateil hiiiisrlf Ujxni the j^ruund,
CTvinir, ''Hail, holy Hoinc!'' The four weeks
spent ill theeity were (liliL'eiitly utihzfd. He ran
ahoiit, he afterwards tells us, like "a stupi<l
Srtint," from church to churc-h, helievin;^ all the
silly fahles told him, and striving to gain the
8j)ecial hlessings offered to the worshijters at each
sacri'd shrine. He almost wished that his mother
and father were dead, that he might emhrace the
oi)portunity to ])ray them out of ])urgatory. As
lie was reverently climhing U})on his knees up the
stair-case saiil to have heen brought from Pilate's
judgnunt-hall at Jerusalem, an exercise which ap-
peared to him the very acme of holy service, in-
stead of the sense of the divine favor which he
had anticipated, he was overwhelmed with a con-
viction of the utter inconsistency of all such works
of supi)osed merit with the great declaration of the
Apostle: "The just shall live hy faitli."

His fond belief in the sanctity of Rome was
now rudely disj)elled. Hi' was amazed at the
reckless luxury of the ]»apal court, and greatly
scandalized by the trilling way in which the priests
conducted sacred services, even jesting as they
celebrated the solemn mass. He discovered that
Pope Julian was a shrewd, worldly-minded man,
and that cardinals were guilty of gross, open im-
morality. He heard it said upon the streets that
"if there is a hell. Home is built over it." His
j)atriotic spirit was stirred when he heard theder-
man people sneeringly spoken of as "stujjid" Utr
their simple and r<>verent obedience. Yet all this
did uoi shake his conlidence in the divine author-
ity of the Church, but oidy led him to grieve over
the unworthiness of those occu]»ying its chief
j)laces of honor, and to long more earnestly for


Roturninp to Wittt-nhor^. he was aj)j>ointcd
Sub-prior <>f tho nmna^tcry at that ^)lacH', and on
(Jctohcr ISlh and r.Hh, loTJ, was solciiinly in-
vested with the title. Doctor of Theology. He
aeoeptiH.1 this vtTv unwillingly, hut, as it involved
both the authority and a sole inn oath to defend
the truth of the (Ii>sik'1, it aftenvard gave him
great contidince when compellrd to maintain his
eonvictions against the traditional teachings of the

In the theological lectures whidi he now be-
gan to deliver, an entirely new nulliod was intro-
ducc«d. The exjK)sition of the 8cri})tures had been
previously connnitted to instructors of lower rank,
whilst the doctore of divinity were expcx.ted to
base their instructions upon the developed system
of the great s(h(>la>tic authorities. Luther, on the
contrary, conlined his lectures to the Herijitures
themselves, and aimed especially to present in the
clearest possi})le form the great saving truths of
revelation. In the very first course of instruction,
full notes of which have haj>]>ily been preserved
to us, he declares the Word of ( Jod to be for the
eeeker after truth what i»asture is to the ox, its
nest to the bird, or a stream to the fish.

He chose for his first course of lectures as
"Doctor <»f tlic Sacred Scriptures," in \i')]'.\ and
l')!-!, the Psalms, l)eing attracted by their devo-
tional sj>iiit. He had a special edition of the
Psalter printed for the use of his students, in which
large spaces were left between the lines and upon
the margin. A copy of this editi(»n is still pre-
served in the library at Wolfeiibilttel, the pages of
which are crowded with comments in the liand-
writing of the Kcfornier, evidently forming the
!>asis for tlic fuller expositions given to his classes.
The euinments du not manifest that anxiety to


discover the oriLMnal meaninjj: of tlic text wliidi
afti rwanls tliaractcrizAMl LiUIut's expository writ-
iiiL's, l)Ut tlicy display tlit' cli'ej)C'St sympathy witli
the inward stru«:«;lt'S of the saered writers and a
constant elYort to detect, wherever possible, projdi-
I'cies and types of that Saviour in wliose fellowship
his own soul had now found rest.

In l')!'), he hejran to lecture upon the Epistle to
the Romans, havinjx found the key to a i)roper
undrr>tandin«^^ of this profound theological treatise
in the 17th verse of the lirst cha}>ter. He had for-
merly conceived of the righteousness of Ciod as a
revelation only of sttTU, uncompromising justice,
lie now, in the light of Paul's argument, beheld
in it the righteousness imputed to every one who
believes in Christ, as the sure i)ledge of his accept-
ance as a child of (4od.

In 1510, he undertook an exposition of the
Epistle to the Galatians, developing especially
the scriptural discrimination between tlie Law and
the (ios])el — between the bcaulage of the letter and
the freedom of the s})irit. As the original epistle
swept away the pntensions of the Pharisees of old,
so Luther's strong presentation of its principles
now placed in clear light the perversions of the
entire i)apal system of human ordinances, and
taught men to render even to the divine law not a
servile, l>ut a willing and loving obedience.

These three early commentaries all discuss the
great question which in j)ractical importance
overshadows all others: How shall man become
righteous before (iod and inherit eternal life? They
clearly state tin; scri])tural doctrine of justilication
by faith. They teach that Christian character de-
pends, not U])on outward works of self-inortilica-
tion, but upon the state of the heart; that sins
are forgiven freely by the grace of CJod; and that


\hv faith wliich acot'j>ts j)aril()n as a free ^'itt )>e-
comos an active jjroinotor of all p^xl >vorks, just
as a pMul trof will prudiu'e pxuj fruit.

Frnin the celehrate«l teachers of theolojjy of the
Mi<Ulle A«;es, who ha<l hliiully adojtti'*! the ideas
ami inetlKxl of the ancient heathen i)hilosoj)her,
Aristotle, and who failed, in eonseijuenec, t*> un-
derstand the nature of sin and the real purpose of
the Gospel, Lnther turned to Augustine, whose
name was slill honored, hut wlM)se works had
fallen into neglect. He was delijihted to lind in
this j^reat teacher a clear confi'ssion of the de|tlh
of human de)>ravity and helplessness, and a nia;,'-
nifyinjj of tiie free mercy of (iod. lUit evi-n
Au«,'ustine had not so fully prasped as did Luther
the apostolic conception of faith alone as the
means of appropriatinj; the freely-offered grace.

But the mind and lieart of the great Keformer
were suhjected also to a j)owerful influence from
another (piarter. During the thirteenth and four-
teenth centuries there had arisen in (iermany a
numher of men of deep contem]»lative l>iety,
known as the German Mystics. They sought to
attain fellowsliip wiili (iod l.y renunciation of the
world and of their own desires. They too often
carried out this i«lea to great extremes, endeavor-
ing to lose all sense of exist^'nce in a dreamy re-
verie, to dissolve away "into nothingness."
Alrea«ly in the cloister Luther had felt the im-
pulse of this system from his study of the works of
Gerson (f A. I). LLiD), und from his intercourse
with Staupitz. The sermons of mic of the n(»h!cst
of its representatives. John Tauler (t A. D.
1361 ), now fell into his hands and he read it with
avidity. In strong contrast with thee(»ld formulas
of the scholastics and the empty external works of
the papal system, the deep religious sj.irit of these


men oncliantcd him. lie was so niuch plcasril
witli a little anonyiuttus tract in which their views
were advocated that hi' himself, in l')l(), puidished
a portion of it, and, two years later, tin* entire
work, under the title of ''German Theology."
Whilst he avoided the cmj)ty j)hilosophical con-
clusions in wliich the system of the Mystics linally
evaporated, his sympathetic study of its hetter
literature was of Lcreat henetit in adding deptli and
fervor to his piety. Its iniluence may ]»e traced
in all his future writing's in his })rofound yearning
for fi'llowship with (lod and in the recognition of
self-will as the very essence of sin. lie rose ahove
it, however, when he tauglit that Clod is love, and
that we are not only to prostrate ourselves before
Him, hut to allow Ilini to lift us uj) and inspire
us with a new and joyous life. Whilst the piety
of tlie Mysties led tliem to withdraw from the
w(»rld, that of Luther sent him forth to valiant
service in the cause of truth.

With his learned lahors was combined a glowing
zeal in the ]»ractical application of the Gospel to
the connnon peoi)le. At Krfurt, he had ]»reache(l
in the dining hall of the convent; during his first
years at Wittenl)erg,in a little building of logs and
clay, and afterwards in the I'niversity Chureh. It
was his custom at times to ]>reach every day for a
week or more, sometimes delivering two daily ser-
mons in addition to his regular hctuns at the
Cniversity. His sermons were plain and prac-
tical, addressed not to the learned ]»rofessors in the
front pews, but to the ])easants and servants who
occupied the hundder seats. He spoke with great
fervor and with convincing power.

In a series of diseourses upon the Ten Com-
mandments and the Lord's Prayer, eonehidt d in
the early part of A. D. 1517, the sins of every-


day life wore vividly j>ortray('<l, ^vitll tlio manifest
purix>se of awakniinp in tln' hearers a deep sense
of j»ers(»nal sinfulness with distrust in any pnssihle
effort of their own, and thm l«adin«; thmi to tho
excicisr of simple, joyous faith in Christ. The
glaring abuses of tlie prevalent saint-worship and
the niueh-laudrd jiil^'riniaps-are freely denounee<l,
and the sanctity t)f the ordinary daily life ot the
hmnhle believer is exalti'd in eontrast with the
sup])osed FujKTior holiness of the nionastie and
clerical orders. Thus, lon<r before Luther dreamed
that he should he called to occuj)y a j)ositi(>n of
World-wide inlluence as a reforuier, he was known
in the (•(•niniunity in which he lived as a man
utterly fearless in Ids denunciation of j)opular
errors. In this, many brave men had, indee<l,
preceded him, but he dilTered from them all in his
fervent prescntiition of direct, personal faith in
an atoning and triumj)hant Saviour as the all-
suHlcient basis of a p'uuine relipous life.

The rejxular monastic duties were still faitlifully
discharged, although he no longer sought thus to
merit the f;ivor of (lod. lie was in lolo ch^ted
District Vicar for 'i'huringia and Misnia (Meis-
sen), having eleven Augustinian monasteries un-
der his care. lie dis])layed a deep ]>ersonal inter-
est in the spiritual welfare of the inmates of the.'^e
in.stitutions, as well as practical wisdom in gov-
ernment and disei])lin«\

He was still a faithful subject of the Ivoman
Catholic Church, bowinLT before her authority and
acknowledging the vali<lity of all her ordinances.
He wore his monk's cowl, and urged his associ-
nt*^ and subordinates as strongly as ever to faith-
ful f)!)edience. He still thought it proper to
implore the saints to intercede for men witli CJod,
and he himself in his sermons o])enly invoke<l


the ;ii<l of the Virgin Mary. IIuss and tho I>o-
liemian lirt'thren, wlio had renoinuvd tlie pupal
authority, hv rc^zarded as " wri'tc-hcd heretics."
It" li«' invi'ight'd a«:ainst the corruptions of the
monks and c'K'r«ry, and warned a<;ainst the preacli-
iug of idh' U'«rends instead of the sinipK' truth of
tlie Gospel, he thought himself in this fully sus-
tained hy the hetter sentiment of the Church at
large. If he (juoted Augustine against Aijuinas
and Scotus, he did not imagine that he was
tlierehy assailing the accci)ted dogmas of the
C'iiurch, or <|Uestioning its authority.

r.ut tlic Reformation was now essentially
completed in the soul of Luther. He had for
years l»een leading a life of joyous faith in Christ.
He had found himself in full spiritual accord
with Paul and David. \\'ith unwearying delight
he had been unfolding to all about him the con-
solations of the glorious CJospel. Within the still
narn^w circle of his inlluence, the truth had been
gladly welcomed by many. The time had come
when, in the providence of God, the light thus en-
kindled was to break through the heavy shrouds
of mediaval darkness and shine forth to the ends
of the earth.





It was tlic pul)lic Sale of Indulgences, or oor-
tificates <»f jjanlon for sin, l)y oflicial rcprrscnta-
tives of the Pope, tluxt suniinoned the studious
professor and earnest pastor to the field of contro-
versy. That an ahuse so flaf^rant should find
intelligent defenders even in that ajro, or that op-
position to it should lead to a transformation of the
whole civil and reliirious aspect of the modern
world, seems almost inore<lihle. Yet it was just
here that the hattle for (iospel liherty was joined.
The sliameless ahuse of the traditional indulg«'iu<'S
led to an examination of the theory upon which
they were l)ased, and this involved a direct scru-
tiny and rejection of th(; claims upon which rested
the whole system of mediieval theology, and the
entire fahric of the papal authority.

The accepted theology of the day taught that
repentance is a sacrament, or churchly ordi-
nance, consisting of three parts: contriti«>n of heart,
confession hy tlie lips (to a priest), and satisfac-
tion hy works. Upon the first part hut little stress
was commonly laid. It was understood to he
merely a dread of punishment, and if sufficiently
deep Uy lead to confession, the ofliiiating priest

Tin: (ALL TO A(TION. 33

was aullinriz(Ml t<> jintiKtuiu'e absolution, l>y wliidi
act, it was tauj^^ht, any dt'tiiii'ncy in tlir sinrt-rity
or depth of thv contrition was fully supplied, and
the profess* '< I jieniteiit positively released from the
penalty (»f eternal death. In plaee of the latter,
iiowever, were now ai)i)ointed vari<>us tenijtoral
penalties, such as fastings, preseril»e<l religious
exiTeises, the giving of alms, ete. The meeting
of these demands constituted the third necessary
part of repentance. If the works of satisfaction
thus re(|uire(l he not fully rendered in the present
life, the neglect must he atoned for hy an indefinite
perio<l of suiTering in the lires of purgatory.

There was thus, after all, ui»on this theon', no
such thing as the free and full forgiveness of sin
hy the grace of (Jod. The confessing penitent
was, indeed, declarctl free from the j)enalty of
eternal death; })ut for every slightest defect in the
atoning work still re(iinre(l of liim he must face
the ])rospect of purgatorial fires. Unless his ohedi-
ence was ])erfect, he was therefore still, and must be
for :in iiidetiiiite ]MTiod after death, a subject of
punishment, <'nduring the wrath of ( iod. As the
penalties imposed hy the Church grew heavier, the
\enrs of prosjMX'tive purgatorial jtains grew longer.
Since the obedience of the masses to the mandates
.•f the Church de]>ended largely upon their desire
to avoid the aggravation of the agonies of jnirga-
l(»ry, it was hut natural that zealous partisans of
the hierarchy should ])aint those agonies in the
deejicst lines, until they became, to the imagina-
tion of the common pe<>]>le, practically equivalent
to the unending pains of hell.

Hut tlie !'()])(•, it was further taught, might re-
mit ecclesiastical j)enalties in view of distinguished
-t-rvice rendered to the Church, or generous gifts
to her coffers. The merits of Christ and the g(jod


works of those eminent saints who liad done more

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryCharles Ebert HayLuther, the reformer → online text (page 2 of 14)