by Charles Fry /
A BRIEF LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER, Part 4
Peace with God, War with the World
During the period 1513–1516, Luther was lecturing through Paul’s epistles and the Psalms and beginning to understand the gospel. Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Leo X was continuing to build Saint Peter’s Cathedral, a project begun in 1506 by Pope Julius II. To help fund that work, a priest named Johann Tetzel was in Germany selling indulgences. For the right price, a person could buy an indulgence that would supposedly guarantee that the purchaser would go to heaven, skipping purgatory entirely. Optionally, the purchase could be used to release a presently tormented soul out of purgatory.
When Luther became aware of Tetzel’s practice, he was furious. One result of his outrage was his 95 Theses, which carry the formal title, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Reading this document, it’s clear that Luther still believed in purgatory and found some value in indulgences. He was essentially respectful of the Pope and the authority of the Roman Church. He simply thought that Tetzel’s methods were trivializing the grace and forgiveness that a “proper” use of indulgences was supposed to produce. He saw Tetzel’s approach as the abuse of a valid doctrine by Rome for the sake of financial gain.
Thus, by nailing that document to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, Luther merely intended to promote debate within the Roman Church, as a supportive follower of the Roman Church. He had no idea that in short order his theses would be widely reproduced by the relatively new printing press and distributed to a Germany that was outraged by the oppression and financial tyranny of Rome. Virtually overnight, the Reformation had begun. At the time, no one could imagine the theological breadth it would eventually encompass, going far beyond indulgences to the heart of salvation itself.
The Gospel Becoming Clarified
In 1518, Luther was asked to give a disputation to a group of fellow Augustinian monks in Heidelberg, Germany. This meeting was something of a local gathering where monks and church leaders met to discuss a topic of theology. In this meeting, Luther clarified and expanded more fully what he understood the Scriptures to teach. He sharply opposed the Aristotelian use of reason found in scholastic theology, a practice that left man and his speculative thinking, rather than God’s pronouncements, as the final arbiter of truth.
At the core of this disputation, however, Luther presented his contrast between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. The first might be called a theology of human glory, for it teaches that one can climb to God by worldly thought and reason. By contrast, a theology of the cross is not man-centered but God-centered, embracing the wisdom of God—found chiefly in Christ crucified—as the way to God.
In this theology of the cross, man is absolutely dependent on God for a righteousness outside of himself. Christ did it all; man does nothing but believe. These were Luther’s clearest statements up to that time on the gospel and the errors of Rome’s theology. This teaching went against the reason of the world and struck at the heart of Roman doctrine. Surprisingly, the Heidelberg Disputation produced little immediate opposition or objection.
Debate and Dispute
Within a year, however, controversy over Luther’s teachings had become quite pitched. Luther had gained popularity and notoriety, and had become an annoying fly in the ointment of Rome’s religion. From July 4–14, 1519, Luther engaged in a debate over his teachings with John Eck, whom Luther described as a man with “a butcher’s face and a bull’s voice…[a man] of prodigious memory, torrential fluency, and uncanny acumen.” The debate was to take place in Leipzig, some 45 miles from Wittenberg.
About a century earlier another man, John Hus, had become popular for challenging Rome. The Church promised him safe passage to defend his teaching, but the promise was broken and Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic. Aware of the danger of his position, Luther traveled to Leipzig under the protection of two hundred men armed with battle axes; Eck himself was protected by seventy-six bodyguards.[i]
During this debate over the legitimacy of the papacy and various points of doctrine, including the nature of man, Eck quoted the Church fathers, while Luther repeatedly went back to the Scriptures as his final defense and authority. This debate thus helped crystallize for Luther his belief in the doctrine of sola scriptura (Scripture alone).
Scripture alone is man’s final authority—not popes or councils or the traditions of men. Luther stated, “I am bound, not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and death. I want to believe freely and be a slave of no one, whether council, university, or pope. I will confidently confess what appears to me to be true, whether it has been asserted by a Catholic or a heretic.”[ii]
By 1520, Luther’s once-respectful manner of writing to and about the pope had become bold, bitter, and caustic. Pope Leo X, responding in kind, gave this famous and furious prayer against Luther while hunting: “Arise, O Lord, and judge thy cause. A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard.” Leo also called on Peter, Paul, and the saints to defend the Church against Luther’s “heresies,” and issued a papal bull (an official letter), giving Martin Luther 60 days to recant his views. When Luther received the bull, he tossed it in the fire.
In April of the following year, Luther was ordered to the Diet of Worms, a meeting in the German city of Worms consisting of top leaders of the Roman Church. Rome’s intention was that Luther would publicly recant his teachings and be brought back into the Church’s favor. Despite the dangers of even traveling to this event, Luther chose to go, accepting the passage provided by Rome. As Luther entered the city, it seemed to him as though there were devils on every rooftop. He was preparing to stand against the entire Church, the Holy Roman Empire, and the very hosts of hell.
During the Diet, Luther was asked if he would recant his teaching. Fearful, yet desiring to stand on the side of God and his Word, he asked for a day to think about his answer. After a long night of anguish and prayer, he returned the next day strengthened with the certainty that he was standing with the Word of God. When asked again if he would recant, he gave his famous reply:
Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have often contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant of anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.[iii]
Luther’s stand that April day in 1521 would forever change the world. Eugene Klug captures something of the impact of that day on world history:
It is impossible to proceed very far without at some point feeling the impact of Luther’s person upon human history since 1521. His stand at the Diet of Worms in April of that year has, with good reason, been judged to be the continental divide of modern world history. His is a giant presence, like a skyscraper, inspiring awe the closer one stands or tries to embrace its totality, but most profitably appreciated when viewed from a distance as it provides the bearing point for all else on the horizon.[iv]
Luther found peace with God through being justified by faith alone. Yet in finding peace, he discovered he was at war with the world.
The irony—that the sweet and pure good news from heaven would bring such enormous warfare and destruction—was not missed by Luther. In his later years, he would reflect on how the world has ever been at war with the gospel, going back even to Paradise and the murder of Abel by Cain. He perceived this rage against the promise of grace continuing on through history, up to his own time. “Yet I am compelled to forget my shame and be quite shameless in view of the horrible profanation and abomination which have always raged in the Church of God, and still rage to-day, against this one solid rock which we call the doctrine of justification.”[v]
Part 6 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.
[i] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand; A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1950), 93, 97.
[ii] Bainton, p. 105. By “heretic,” Luther was referring to John Hus or others who the Roman Catholic Church considered to be a heretic.
[iii] The famous phrase, “Here I stand; I can do no other,” is disputed as to whether or not it was part of Luther’s original words.
[iv] The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Eugene F.A. Klug (ed.), Eugene F.A. Klug, Erwin W. Koehlinger, James Lanning, Everette W. Meier, Dorothy Schoknecht, and Allen Schuldheiss, translators (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), vol. 5, 11.
[v] A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Based on Lectures Delivered by Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg in the year 1531 and First Published in 1535, Philip S. Watson (ed.), A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575 (Logos Bible Software), 16.