Martin Luther Recovers The Gospel
15th C. Europe, the very end of The Middle Ages (476-1499 AD), was full of human despair. The people were illiterate, without understanding, tied to the soil, and consigned to subsistence living. Scientific principles were vague (Isaac Newton’s birth, 1642, was over 100 years away). The forces of nature were immense, mysterious and terrible. The world was flat – maybe round! Crude maps and globes presented Europe and the Americas as misshapen masses. The coasts of Africa and Asia had this label: “Here are dragons.” Europe had just gotten over the worst health disaster in human history: black rats and fleas carrying the Yersinia Pestis bacteria decimated almost 60% of Europe’s 450 million people (The Black Death peaked in 1348-1350). People did not – could not – read the Scriptures. They trusted that God ruled over the darkness and chaos. Yet fear and superstition were everywhere. God’s grace, God’s Gospel was unknown.
Europe began to change in the 16th C. First came intellectual change. The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 – catastrophic as it was for eastern Christendom – created a wave of Greek scholars that flooded Western Europe with classical learning, new ideas and the cultural tastes and appetites of the East. Then came technological change. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (1440), began to flood Europe with books (an estimated 9 million by 1500 compared to fewer than 100,000 hand-written manuscripts in 1450). Then came economic change. A new merchant class, uprooted from the soil, peddling goods for profit and putting out money for interest, began to supply Europe with more commodities. However, spiritual change was lacking. The greatest hunger, the hunger of a man’s soul for the grace of God, remained unsatisfied.
A Very Hungry Young Monk
Into this growing intellectual and material maelstrom and long-standing spiritual void came Martin Luther (1483-1546). Martin’s father, a middle-class merchant, guided him into Law, the realm of the aristocrats. However, young Martin chose the Monastery. In 1505 (not yet 22 years of age), Martinentered the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt. The spirituality of the time was Medieval. Ascetics fasted and flogged their way toward heaven. God ‘granted’ forgiveness only after confession, penitence (self humbling) and penance (physical punishment). Acts of penance could be severe: 7 years of fasting on bread and water; vows of silence and solitude; long and difficult pilgrimages and rituals at various holy places. With his characteristic diligence and zeal, Martin fasted so excessively, prayed so exhaustively and confessed his sins so painstakingly that he exasperated himself and his mentors. He later wrote, “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, I would have made it. All my brothers in the monastery will testify that had I gone on with it, I would have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading and other works.” Martin’s superior, Johann von Staupitz, ordered Martin into an academic career to distract and relieve him from his excessive introspection. Martin graduated as a Doctor in 1512 from the University of Wittenberg. Still, Martin found no satisfaction for his soul.
Turning to the Scriptures
The love of God and His grace did not yet motivate Martin. At this point, he did not even know what that was! Like many, the fear of hell compelled him (others indulged in resignation – “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” – Isaiah 22:13; 1 Corinthians 15:32).
As a priest in Wittenberg, Martin listened to the confessions of his parishioners and was dismayed at their lack of remorse for their sinfulness but their zeal to avoid punishment. People seemed unconcerned about the glory of God! They seemed concerned only for self. In many ways, Martin understood. Concerns regarding self plagued him also – only, those concerns had not yet turned to resignation. As Martin became more and more skeptical as a priest but advanced as a scholar, he turned to the Scriptures for light and relief.
Martin later confessed that at that point, he resented God. He had a great desire to understand the Book of Romans, but one phrase in particular offended him: “the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17). In Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the accepted version of the Bible (Vulgate means ‘common,’ ‘vulgar’: the Bible in ‘common’ Latin), the word ‘righteousness’ was justitia (Latin: justice, righteousness) from which we get the English word ‘justice.’ Justitia in Martin’s mindset could only refer to God’s fierce wrath: the constant threat of God’s punishment hanging over the believer’s head like a sword. However, as Martin began to examine the underlying Greek, he found relief in a single word: the Greek word for righteousness, δικαιοσύνη. As Martin pondered and prayed over this fresh word (a word freed from the horrible associations of justitia – “God’s justice”), he began to understand that this hated phrase, ‘justitia enim Dei‘ – ‘the very justice of God’, referred not to God’s punishment but to God’s grace. Although God does punish unrepentant sinners, Romans 1:17 was referring not to this but to God’s supplying or gifting of His Son’s righteousness to repentant but bankrupt sinners who have no righteousness of their own. Romans 1:17 was referring not to God’s punishment but to God’s boundless provision! The ‘hanging sword’ – the constant threat of fear and guilt – were gone. He wrote: “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.”
No More Self-Punishment
As Martin continued to ponder and pray, he also began to understand biblical repentance. In Latin, the word for repentance was poenitentia from which we get the English word, ‘penitentiary’ – ‘prison.’ Like our current associations with Leavenworth, Alcatraz and San Quentin penitentiaries, for Martin, this word included all the daunting associations of continual shame, penalty and pain. From this came the Catholic practice of penance: inflicting pain on oneself in order to get God to forgive. As Martin studied the underlying Greek word, metanoia, these associations vanished. Biblical repentance was not Catholic penance – an attempt to appease God by personal pain. Mετάνοια (Greek: “change of heart”), was God showing that He had already forgiven (2 Timothy 2:26). Biblical repentance is God showing His forgiveness by completely transforming a sinner both on the inside and the outside so that he hates sin on the inside and begins to love and perform righteousness on the outside. Christ alone, Who is perfect and does not Himself deserve punishment from God, is the only One Who can satisfy God by His physical suffering. Therefore, a sinner need only trust in what Christ has already done for him on the Cross to receive God’s forgiveness. One’s own suffering cannot add to what Christ’s suffering alone can accomplish. Forgiveness then is a matter of faith in Christ not flogging oneself. Catholic penance made it seem as if God’s forgiveness had to be personally gained, whereas biblical repentance was proof that His forgiveness had already been divinely granted! The Bible’s great picture of repentance (God’s forgiveness shown in a sinner’s turnaround) is the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). God’s forgiveness and granting of repentance was supposed to make Martin return to God like the prodigal, not flog and gash himself like one of the demon-possessed men who resided among the tombs (Mark 5:5). A verse like Romans 2:4, previously inexplicable, Martin now understood: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance.” God’s kindness and forgiveness shows itself in a humbled, thankful and worshipful sinner, not one who is advancing in doubt and self-affliction.
The Boldness of God’s Grace
Because of his scriptural study, Martin became a lion for the Gospel. The fear of hell, which once paralyzed him, gave way to a zeal to make God’s grace known.
Much of Europe attacked Martin’s views so relentlessly that he wavered at times. Was he right in defying the established church and centuries of tradition? He chided himself, “Do you mean to say that all the previous teachers knew nothing . . . ? Are you alone the nest egg of the Holy Ghost in these last times?” However, he went forward in exposing one unbiblical Catholic practice after another. He publicly challenged Roman Catholic indulgences (the heretical practice of purchasing spiritual benefits with money) with his 95 Theses at Wittenberg in 1517. When Pope Leo X threatened excommunication (1520), Martin publicly burned the order and wrote a pamphlet in his defense: Why the Pope and his Recent Book are Burned. Facing secular authorities (Diet of Worms) a year later (1521), he stated: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything.” The next year Martin translated The New Testament into German (1522) with pictures identifying the pope as the Antichrist. This New Testament, which Germans still read today, became Germany’s bestseller, with more than 100,000 copies purchased during his lifetime. Martin’s hymns and catechisms appeared in churches throughout Europe, and Germany printed more religious pamphlets in the 3 years after his excommunication (1521-1524) than at any other time in German history. Germans soon claimed that the average churchgoer knew the Scriptures better than the priests, and Luther himself wrote: “He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved” (1523).
Luther’s main accomplishment was that he recovered the Gospel. People all over Europe began to read the Scriptures in their own language, and the Bible began to demolish the control the pope had over the mind of Europe. Hope and grace began to replace what seemed like universal despair, confusion and darkness.
Church historian Philip Schaff wrote:
Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and
shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel
and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some
committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed
themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only
with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.
Luther also advanced the German language. Luther’s Bible was not the first German translation, but it was by far the most influential. Luther’s goal was to get every German to study the Word of God personally. Previous translations used poor German and were retranslations of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. However, Luther translated from original manuscripts and into common German – the language of the people. Notable German writers including Goethe and Nietzche would later praise Luther for his lively language (“kraftvolles Deutsch” – ‘forceful,’ or ‘full force’ German). Most consider Luther’s Bible a German classic, an undisputed landmark of German literature.
Luther helped unify the German people. The German of Luther’s day was so splintered and fragmented with regional dialects that Germans could hardly understand one another. Although scholars continued in Latin, Luther’s Bible brought attention to the Saxon dialect, and German writers began to borrow this dialect and copy Luther’s vocabulary and style. A unified German language began to develop, and Germans had less difficulty communicating with one another. Luther was ‘the German Cicero’: his Bible brought solidarity to the mind and communication of all Germans.
Luther advanced education. Luther’s desire to saturate every German mind with the Bible stimulated attempts toward universal education and educational reform. Germany embraced the notion that every person should be able to read and understand the Bible. Ultimately, Luther founded a state church that educated and molded German citizens into a Bible-studying, law-abiding community. The Protestant states of Northern Europe were educational states noted for cultivating the spirit of teaching and learning.
Luther liberated. Luther’s life, work and writing helped break the ‘caste’ mentality. People educated and enlightened by Luther’s influence started cultivating a mind, spirit and opinions of their own. They were no longer content to function as mere economic pawns and began to rise up against the political and economic monopoly of the priests and aristocrats.
Luther’s liberating influence helped break the ‘caste’ mentality in the church. For centuries, the Catholic Church separated the priests from the people and said that the clergy were superior. They said that forgiveness of sins required the participation of the human priesthood and that only priests could perform the sacraments which bestowed grace upon the participants. The Catholic Church also maintained that only priests could read and teach the Scriptures. Luther not only put the Bible into the hands and minds of the people but taught from the Scriptures that personal faith was the only thing necessary for receiving God’s grace. He taught that personal faith, not the mediation of priests, was alone necessary for the forgiveness of sins and that the only distinction between the priests and the people (clergy/laity) was that God gave a leading role to the priests (not an exclusive one) in educating and exhorting the people and leading worship services. The sacraments were tools for teaching, not ceremonial means of receiving grace in addition to personal faith. Luther’s stance, called the ‘Priesthood of all believers’ made all believers spiritually equal, the only difference being the task each was to perform. Since the reception of grace depended on faith and faith alone, “then faith makes all people priests and priestesses, be they young or old, Lords or servants, women or men, scholars or laymen.” People were spiritually equal in the church, differing only in their spiritual tasks.
Luther’s liberating influence helped break the ‘caste’ mentality in society. For centuries, the Catholic Church maintained that the priests were closer to God than the rest. Therefore, their occupation was superior to all others. However, since faith was the only distinguishing spiritual quality between people, distinctions based on anything else had no spiritual value. A streetsweeper full of faith and Bible was much closer to God than a priest who was not. Therefore, since a man’s standing depended on his personal faith and not on his religious or economic function, God equally honored all occupations, regarding only his personal faith. Therefore, all lawful occupations became ‘holy’ and honored in God’s sight, not just the Catholic priesthood. Luther’s teaching, called the “Sanctity of all occupations” gave equal dignity to priest and plowman. He wrote: “A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of this trade . . . and everyone by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.” The layman need never again consider himself inferior or further from God than the priest.
Luther proclaimed parenting as the ultimate earthly occupation. Luther taught that raising a family was the most important vocation of all. He and his wife Katherine devoted themselves to family. Besides raising 6 children they took in 11 orphans. He wrote: “Married people should know that they can perform no better and no more useful work for God, Christianity, the world, themselves and their children, than by bringing up their children well . . . on the other hand, hell cannot be more easily deserved . . . than by neglecting children, letting them swear, learn shameful words and songs, and do as they please.”
Martin & Katherine
“God our Father has made all things depend on faith,
so that whoever has faith will have everything,
and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.”
“When we begin to have faith, at the same time we begin to die
to this world and to live to God in the future life.
Thus, faith is verily both death and resurrection.
“Not only are we the freest of kings, we are also priests forever,
which is far more excellent than being kings, for as priests
we are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to
teach one another divine things.”
“The whole power of the mass consists in the words of Christ in which He testifies that forgiveness of sins
is bestowed on all those who believe that His body is given and His blood poured out for them. Nothing is
more important for those who go to hear mass than to ponder these words diligently and in full faith.”