Short Papers on Church History — Chapter 33

The Reformation in Germany

The exclusive dominion of the Latin or Roman church was now drawing to a close. Since the pontificate of Gregory the Great, or for nearly a thousand years, she had reigned supreme. But the oppressed Teuton was now raising the arm of rebellion against the tyranny of the Roman. The warfare ended in a great secession of the Teutons, in wresting from the papacy a large portion of her dominions, and in the breaking up of Christendom, like the ship in which Paul sailed to Rome.

It has been our desire to present to the reader a fair view of the real character and ways of the church of Rome during the long period of her dominion, and he must judge whether the history warrants our interpretation of the epistle to Thyatira. Our own convictions are a thousandfold deeper at the close than they were at the commencement of the history, that we have given a true interpretation, and made a just application of the words of the Lord to the church in Thyatira. We have only Him to serve and Him to please in writing this history. For no one else would we have waded through these thousand years. The amount that we write bears little proportion to the amount that must be read in order to be satisfied as to the truthfulness of what is written. Besides, a very large proportion of papal history is wholly unfit for our pages, or to come before the eye of civilized people, far less the eye of the Christian. Her adulteries and abominations are better left on the page that was written in a ruder age, as they will surely be consigned to a place peculiarly dark in the regions of hell.

For nearly three hundred years, by means of schools, new translations, versions, printing-presses, and the intolerance of the church, the Lord had been preparing the way for the accomplishment of His purpose; and, this being done, the feeblest instrument was sufficient to bring all these agencies into full action. "When the train is properly laid, an accidental spark may cause the explosion." To effect great results by small means is the way of divine providence, that the power may be seen to be of God, and not of man. An occasion was furnished, and Luther was the prepared instrument to reap the glorious harvest of the great Reformation. But much labour was bestowed on the field by many noble hearts and hands which were not privileged to gather its fruits, at least in this world. These may have been the agents, Luther was the instrument.

During these thousand years, we have been chiefly engaged with popery and the witnesses for Christ; now it must be popery and protestantism. But if the reader would rightly understand the difference between the two, he must carefully consider what popery was down to the time of Luther's appearance.

Popery and Mankind

Comparatively few in our peaceful times have any idea of the real nature and the comprehensive grasp of popery. During the long period of the middle ages it was fully developed; but its nature remains unchanged until the present hour. Times and circumstances have changed, not popery. The clergy, including the monks and friars, were a distinct class, and stood entirely apart from the rest of mankind. A broad, deep, impassable line separated the two communities — the clergy and the laity. The lives, the laws the property, the rights, and the social duties of the one were not only different from those of the other, but often antagonistic.

Education, such as it was, had become the exclusive privilege of the clergy. Whoever had any desire for knowledge, could neither obtain nor employ it but in connection with the churchman or the monastery. The younger sons of the nobility, and even of royalty, as the church became wealthy and powerful, joined the clerical community. By this means the most famous names in the land were found among the clergy, and the Church and State were thus welded together. The universities, the schools, the whole domains of the human intellect, were in their possession. The other great division of mankind — the laity — were kept in utter darkness and ignorance. And woe betide the man who would venture to point out some new road to intelligence, freedom, and power. The faintest glimmer of light was instantly extinguished, and the discovery denounced as magical and forbidden.

The priests alone could read, write, draw up State papers, or treaties, and frame laws. From the sacredness of their character, and their intellectual superiority, they were admitted to the courts and the councils of kings, they were the negotiators and the ambassadors of sovereigns. But royal secrets and compacts were not all they knew; the confessional laid open the whole heart of every one, from the highest to the lowest, before the eye of the priesthood. No act was beyond their cognizance, hardly any thought or intention was secret. There might be smothered murmurs at the avarice, pride, and licentiousness of the priest, still he was a priest, a bishop, a pope; his sacraments lost not their efficacy, his verdict of condemnation or absolution was equally valid. Those who openly doubted the power of the clergy in such matters were heretics, outcasts, proscribed, only fit fuel for the flames both now and evermore.

The pope, as was universally believed, combined in his own person all the attributes of supreme power in matters of religion and of government. The power of emperors and kings was derived, his was original. He was armed with divine authority to depose monarchs, to absolve subjects from their allegiance and from every other obligation; and, if needful, to dissolve all the bonds of society. But above all, he was empowered to maintain the integrity of the faith as transmitted to him from his predecessors or defined by himself as head of the church, to repress dissent in every shape; to persecute to extermination all who ventured to dispute this supreme prerogative, as rebels and traitors to God and His church; and at any time to call upon the secular government, without compensation, to lavish life and money, labour and feeling, to enable him to maintain the integrity of the spiritual empire.*

{*Milman's Survey, Latin Christianity, vol. 6, p. 357; Greenwood's Summary, book 14, chap. 1.}

The State of the Church at the Beginning of the

Sixteenth Century

Such, as we have now described, was the unlimited power of the Romish priesthood at the beginning of this century. No man was independent of the priest. He was lord of the human conscience. His power was absolute both over body and soul, over time and eternity. None could afford to incur his displeasure or to lie under his censure. Excommunication cut the man off, whatever his rank or station, from the church, beyond whose pale there was no possibility of salvation.

It is not a little remarkable that just at this time no danger seemed to threaten this towering, monstrous system of iniquity. From the Vatican down to the smallest congregation the sovereignty and tranquillity of the church appeared to be completely secured. The various heresies and commotions which had disturbed her for centuries had been suppressed by fire and sword, the complaints and petitions of her most faithful children had been rejected with insolent impunity; and the warnings of her sincerest friends were neglected or despised. Where were now the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Beghards, the Lollards, the Bohemians and the various sectaries? They had been silenced or extinguished by papal management. True, there were many private murmurs against the injustice, frauds, violence, and tyranny of the court of Rome; also against the crimes, ignorance, and licentiousness of her whole priesthood; but the pontiffs had grown accustomed to these murmurings, and could either conciliate with their favours, or defy with their censures, as best suited their policy.

We can imagine the false woman, according to the language of St. John, surveying with exultation the pillars and bulwarks of her strength. "For she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow." She heeded not the voice that had said, "Her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities." (Rev. 18)

God's time was come for at least a partial fulfilment of this prophecy. The word of arrest had gone forth. Just when she thought everything was safe and settled for ever, the end of her uncontrolled domination was at hand. But how was this to be accomplished? A reformation of the church in its head and members had been the general cry for ages; but all such demands and complaints she set at defiance. What now was to be done? Must some mighty angel come down from heaven to overthrow the despotism of Rome, and break the yoke of popery which has so long bound in fetters the bodies and souls of men? No! such agencies were not required and not used, that God may be glorified. That which the most powerful sovereigns with their armed legions utterly failed to effect, God fully and gloriously accomplished by an obscure monk in Saxony, single-handed.

This was Martin Luther of Eisleben. He was the voice of God that awoke Europe to this great work and called the labourers into the field. But if we would form a just estimate of God's chief instrument in this mighty work, and of the grace that qualified him, we must glance at what is important in the early life of the great Reformer. D'Aubigné, in his love of Luther, speaks of him as having experienced in his own soul the different phases of the Reformation before they were accomplished in the world, and exhorts his reader to study his life before he proceeds to the events that changed the face of Christendom.

The First Period of Luther's Life

Martin Luther was descended from a poor but virtuous family, which had long dwelt in the domains of the Counts of Mansfeld, in Thuringia. "I am the son of a peasant," he used to say; "my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, were honest peasants." His father, John Luther, soon after his marriage removed to Eisleben in Saxony. There Luther was born, November 10th, 1483. It was on St. Martin's eve: the following day he was christened by the name of Martin, in honour of the saint on whose festival he was born.

His father was an upright and industrious man; frank in his manner, but disposed to carry the firmness of his character even to obstinacy. He was fond of reading, and improved his naturally strong understanding by studying such books as came within his reach. His wife, Margaret, was a humble, prayerful, pious woman, looked up to by her neighbours as a pattern of virtue.

The following summer, or when Martin was about six months old, the family removed back to Mansfeld, where they endured great poverty. "My father was a wood cutter," says Luther, "and my mother has often carried the wood on her back that she might procure the means of bringing up her children." But the Lord was not unmindful of these honest labours and raised them above such drudgery in due time. John became connected with the iron-mines at Mansfeld, and, by his habits of industry and the general respect he acquired by his good sense, he was brought into comparatively easy circumstances. He was chosen a member of the town council, and by the superior character of his mind he easily found his way to the best society in the district.

The father's fondest ambition was to make his eldest son a scholar; but he did not forget his early domestic education. As soon as he was old enough to receive instruction, his pious parents spoke to him about the Lord Jesus and prayed with him by his bedside. Martin was sent very young to school. His first instructor was one George Emilius, the schoolmaster of the place. There he was taught the catechism, the commandments, the creed, the Lord's prayer, and the rudiments of Latin. But, according to the manners of the age, poor little Martin acquired his first religious education through many and severe floggings. From an early age he was trained in the school of poverty, hardship, and suffering, for a future life of warfare. On one occasion, as he himself relates, he was flogged by the unsparing Emilius fifteen times in the same day. His treatment at home was not more merciful.

"His father administered with conscientious rigour," says one of his biographers, "what was long considered as the only instrument of moral or intellectual cultivation; and even his mother engaged in the system with so much zeal as to draw blood by her chastisements." Martin's warm and resolute temper gave frequent occasions for punishment on this principle. "My parents," he said in after life, "treated me harshly, so that I became very timid. My mother one day chastised me so severely about a nut, that the blood came; but they sincerely thought they were doing right."*

{*Waddington's Reformation, vol. 1, p. 31; D'Aubigné's Reformation, vol. 1, p. 195.}

The Second Period of Luther's Life

At the age of fourteen Martin had learned all that could be taught at Mansfeld, and having given some promise of proficiency, his father sent him to the Franciscan school at Magdeburg. But the severity of Luther's education did not cease when he left his father's house and the hard discipline of Emilius. He found himself at Magdeburg in the midst of strangers, without friends, without means, and without food enough to live upon. His spirit was crushed; he trembled in the presence of his masters, and had to employ the intervals of study in begging bread. When, with his young companions he went at Christmas through the neighboring villages singing carols, all were so timid, by reason of the menaces and tyranny with which teachers were then accustomed to rule over their pupils, that they ran away from a kind peasant, who came out with some food for them. Frightened at the sound of a loud voice calling, "Boys, where are you?" they fled. It was only his repeated calls and assurances that brought them back to partake of his bounty.

Here Luther remained about a year, but his difficulty in finding food was so great that, with the consent of his parents, he left and went to Eisenach, which contained a good school, where also his mother's relations resided. But his kindred who dwelt there either neglected him or were unable to help him. So hard were his circumstances that it seemed likely he would have to leave. But again, when pinched by hunger, he tried singing from door to door for a morsel of bread. This custom is still preserved in many German cities; and in some places the choral boys are expected to solicit contributions in aid of the funds of the institution. Such a mode of earning his bread was most humiliating to the mind of Luther. The frequent repulses he met with well-nigh broke his spirit; he shed many tears in secret, and indulged anxious thoughts about the future.

"Must I abandon all my fond hopes of education, of improvement, of advancement? must I go back to Mansfeld and be shut up in the mines for ever?" Such questions had become present realities to the young student. But there was One who was watching over him, though as yet he knew Him not, and who had destined him to work in other mines than those at Mansfeld. A Father's hand was directing and weighing every trial; the enemy could not add a grain to their weight beyond the divine measure. He was training His future servant in the school of adversity; and when he had learnt his lesson the reward would come. A crisis in his history was at hand; the Lord's time for relief had arrived.

Luther and the Pious Ursula

One day, as Luther was returning from his labours, greatly disappointed and disheartened, having sung before three successive houses unrewarded, a door suddenly opened; a woman appeared on the threshold, who invited him to come in, and relieved his wants. This was the kind-hearted Ursula, the wife of Conrad Cotta. She had noticed him before and had been struck with the sweetness of his voice and the seriousness of his expression. Conrad approved of his wife's benevolence, and they agreed that he should remain with them as an adopted son. Relieved from his temporal cares, and enjoying the many privileges of a christian family, the naturally fine mind of Luther awoke to new sympathies, new joys, new hopes — to a new and happy existence. God in mercy had opened the hearts and the home of the good Ursula and her husband for the spirit-broken youth. We need scarcely add, that their love was engraver on the heart of Luther, and recorded in heaven to be rewarded for ever.

To his literary and scientific studies — which he now pursued with fresh vigour — he added the charms of music. In gratitude to his adopted mother, he learned in his hours of recreation to play on the flute and the lute, and to sing to the latter, for she was passionately fond of the melody of his voice as an accompaniment to the lute. Thus began that love of music which continued even to old age, and was often a solace to him in times of trouble and temptation. He composed tunes for many songs, and also the words as well as the airs of some very beautiful hymns.

In the genial atmosphere of the Cotta family, it was only natural that the character of Luther should undergo a great change. His anxieties were removed, his timidity disappeared, his mind was peaceful, his ways were cheerful and happy, and his remarkable talents made him the special favorite at the Franciscan school. Thus he spent four happy years. "He surpassed all his fellows," says Melancthon, "in eloquence, and compositions both in prose and verse."

Trebonius, the superior of the convent and the head of the college, always raised his cap to salute the pupils when he entered the schoolroom. His colleagues, not adopting the same custom, expressed their surprise at his condescension. "There are among these boys," he replied, "some whom God will one day make burgomasters, chancellors, doctors, and magistrates. Although you do not yet see them with the badges of their dignity, it is right that you should treat them with respect." The youthful Luther was present, and no doubt often remembered the words of his esteemed teacher.

Encouraged by his early triumphs at Eisenach, and feeling that his course of study was secured, he thirsted for more extensive means of intellectual advancement and distinction A university education was his great desire. His father; whose circumstances were improved, agreed to this, but wished him to study the law.

Luther Enters the University at Erfurt

In the year 1501, Luther arrived at the University in Erfurt, then the most distinguished in Germany. He had reached his eighteenth year and entered with great eagerness into the studies of manhood. "My father," says Luther "maintained me there with much love and faithfulness, and supported me by the sweat of his brow." One of his biographers, moralizing on this grateful record of the son, observes: "And assuredly all the volumes of the history of mankind contain no record of a parent's manual toil being recompensed by so glorious a harvest as that which sprang from the persevering industry of the miner of Mansfeld Every drop that fell from that brow was converted by a watchful providence to the furtherance of its purposes, and made the means of fertilizing the mind, which it had ordained to change the predominant principles of the christian world."*

{*Waddington, vol. 1, p. 34.}

There is reason to believe that other thoughts besides the cultivation of his intellect were exercising the mind of Luther at this time. The merciful intervention of God in the kindness of the Cotta family, and what he had seen and learnt there, made a deep and lasting impression on his inmost soul. He strongly objected to the study of Aristotle, although his system was in great repute at the college, and represented as the best, or rather the only, discipline for his reason. "Had Aristotle not been a man," he used to say, "I should not have hesitated to take him for a devil;" so great was his aversion to the philosophy of the learned Greek. The works of the great scholastics of former ages, such as Scotus, Aquinas, Ockham, and Bonaventura, were recommended to him as the only means of piety and learning; but these, for meeting the need of a troubled conscience, were little better than the logic of Aristotle. Nevertheless, in the wisdom of God, it was necessary that he should become conversant with these writings that he might be the better able, and have the better ground, to expose their utter worthlessness as to the service and worship of God. He also studied the best Latin authors, and, being blessed with great powers of penetration, perseverance and a retentive memory, he made rapid progress in his studies, and early acquired the reputation of an expert and skilful dialectician.

In the year 1503 he took his first academic degree of Bachelor of Arts; and in 1505, he took that of Doctor in Philosophy. Having made considerable proficiency in several branches of literature, he began, in obedience to his father's wishes, to turn his attention to the subject of jurisprudence. But the Lord had other work for Luther: grace was already working in his heart. He was about that time given to much prayer; and used to say, "that prayer is the better half of studying" — a good maxim for all christian students.

Luther's First Sight of a Bible

In a state of trembling anxiety about the salvation of his soul, he was one day searching the library at Erfurt for something new, when the hand of God directed him to a Bible. He read the title page — it is indeed the Holy Bible! He was greatly excited and interested as he rapidly turned over its leaves. He was then twenty years of age, and had not so much as seen the precious volume before. Let the Protestant reader note this — he had been brought up by pious parents, lived four years in a christian family, and had not even seen a Bible! The same ignorance of the word of God prevails in Roman Catholic communities to this hour. The Bible forms no part of a Catholic priest's education, and the people are forbidden to read it. Tens of millions are now in circulation, but in a strictly Roman Catholic district it would be difficult to find a single copy. Some extracts are used in the church service, and even pious Catholics are ready to believe that these extracts contain the substance of the whole Bible. Such is the narrow and precarious foundation on which their faith is built, and such the blinding, ruinous power of that fearful system of darkness and idolatry.

But we have also, as Protestants, to remember that the Bible is not its own power, or its own interpreter. For "what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of a man which is in Him? even so the things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God." Without the teaching and power of the Holy Spirit, through faith in Christ Jesus, there can be no right understanding of the word of God, and no true subjection of heart to its absolute authority. Hence some of the protestant axioms, though sounding well and of importance as contrasted with popery, are nevertheless incorrect and misleading, such as, "The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible." This is quite true when speaking of the Bible as a standard; but if it be meant that the Bible is its own power and interpreter, it is false; for the Holy Spirit would be thereby practically excluded. "The right of private judgment" has also been much talked of by Protestants; but its effects have been most mischievous. Pride of intellect, the competency of human reason, and insubjection to the revealed will of God, are some of the evil fruits of this Protestant parent principle; although it was originally intended to contrast with the boasted infallibility of the Romish priesthood, and the enslaved mind of the laity.

How can a lost sinner, condemned already, have any private or individual rights? He has no rights save to a place among the lost. But if God is pleased to speak to him, he is bound to listen — only to listen; he has no right to reason on what God may be pleased to say; he can have no opinion of his own on divine things. People do not really believe that they are lost; they believe that they have sins — that they are guilty; but they do not believe that in their present state they are "condemned already." Most people know neither that they are lost, nor that they are saved; hence they talk of their rights as free men. But some may inquire, "What then is the use of our reason if we are not to exercise it?" To read, search, and learn the mind of God from His word, is surely the highest exercise of the human mind, and the richest privilege. But hear what another says:

How to Study the Bible

"Scripture in hand, diligent in study, what is my safeguard as to understanding it? My own competency? Its suitability to what is in me and around, which is most divinely true? Oh, no! . . . Let man humbly take his place of subjection, and God will not deny Himself — the Spirit never fails to honour the Lord Jesus; and it is written, 'If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.' Blessed ground this for man's soul to rest upon in contrast with the neologian or infidel ground of human competency and human diligence. To the spirit of obedience and subjection all is sure."* Doing, according to the word of the Lord, must go before knowing. There must be a readiness to do His will if we would know or understand His doctrine; but the pride of man would put it the other way — I must know His word, before I yield obedience to His will.

{*See The Present Testimony, vol. 1, p. 52.}

To Romanist as well as to Protestant, the oracles of God had been committed, and that Sacred Book will be the ground of men's judgment before the great white throne; but, historically, the one kept it laid up in the napkin, affirming that it was too sacred for the eyes of men to see or the ears of men to hear; the other brought it forth to the light, broadcast it over all lands, and caused its voice to be heard on the open highway, and in the streets and lanes of the city. Thus was the Reformation accomplished. Deep in the credulity and devotion of the multitude had Rome struck her roots; and she stood firm and unshaken until access was gained to the minds of the common people. And this was done by the free circulation of the Bible. "The movement was from above, in the great grace of God. The Spirit, still testifying to Jesus, Lord of all, gave its tongue and voice to the word. God was with it in the vessels He had afore prepared for the work: and whether in quickening, throwing light upon the path to glory, and upon those that travelled in it; or convicting and discovering Satan, with his slaves on their downward march of rebellion towards hell, it was the Holy Spirit who was the power of understanding, and proclamation, and application of the word." We now return to the history of Luther.

Again and again, Luther found his way to the library in the monastery. With increasing delight he examined the unsoiled pages of the Latin Bible, and wished in his heart that he might some day possess such a treasure. He was astonished at the mass of knowledge it contained, and arrested by its simple narratives, especially such as the history of Hannah and the young Samuel. But attractive as the word of God became to him, and much as he enjoyed reading it, he was far from seeing the way of salvation. The excessive labour which enabled him to pass his examinations with honours occasioned a dangerous illness. When death seemed approaching, what was his refuge? "O Mary, help me!" he kept calling loudly through the night. He knew not a more powerful saviour than the Virgin Mary. "Had I died at that time," he said years after, "I should have died relying upon Mary." The true ground of a sinner's pardon and salvation had never been presented to him; and he had received the most perfect education which home and the church, with her universities could give.

Luther Becomes a Monk

Encouraged by the dignities and the popularity which he had gained, he felt disposed, with returning health, to apply himself entirely to the study of law; and began to teach the ethics of Aristotle with other branches of philosophy. While thus engaged in secular pursuits, a singular and solemn event occurred which gave a new direction to his whole future life. One of his favorite college friends, Alexius, was cut off suddenly, and probably by the hand of violence; but the particulars of his death are uncertain: the results however were certain and important. Luther trembled. What would become of my soul, were I thus called away without warning? The terrors of death which had affected him before returned with redoubled violence and took possession of his whole soul. While in this state of mental agitation, and the solemn question of his soul's salvation still unsettled, he was overtaken by a dreadful thunderstorm near Erfurt. The lightning flashed, the thunder rolled, the terrified Luther threw himself upon the ground, imagining that the hour of death, judgment, and eternity were come. Encompassed with the terrors of death and ignorant of his way to God by the faith of Jesus, he called upon St. Anne, and made a vow that, if the Lord would deliver him from this danger, he would abandon the world, and shut himself up in a convent for the rest of his days.

The storm passed, Luther re-enters Erfurt, but not to resume his lectures, not to pursue the study of the law: his vow was upon him; he resigned his brilliant prospects for the obscurity of a cloister. This was the customary usage in those days for all who became seriously religious, in the hope of obtaining a holiness that would fit them to meet God. He knew it would greatly distress his father, and this thought pained him exceedingly, but his resolution was unalterable. About a fortnight after the event, on the 17th of August, 1505, he invited a few of his university friends to supper. As usual, music and conversation enlivened the social meeting. At an advanced hour in the evening Luther communicated his intention. This was his farewell entertainment — his farewell to the world. That same night, in spite of every remonstrance, he entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt.

Luther could do nothing coldly or feebly. See him now leaving his friends, his books, his clothes, and in the darkness of the night hastening to the convent gate. "Open to me, in the name of God," he cried. "What do you want?" replied the friar. "To consecrate myself to God." The gate opened; Luther entered, and it closed again. He was now separated from his parents, his friends, his studies, the world; but, according to the notions of that time, his soul was now perfectly safe, he was alone with God.

Luther's Experience as a Monk

The motives by which Luther was actuated in taking this hasty step he thus explains about sixteen years later: "I was never in heart a monk, nor was it to mortify the lust of my fleshly appetites, but, tormented with horror and the fear of death, I took a forced and constrained vow." Immediately after his entry into the convent, he sent back to the university his robe and ring of office; he parted with the clothes he had worn up till then, that nothing might remain that could remind him of the world he had renounced. His father was greatly grieved by all these proceedings, and his friends at Erfurt were utterly astonished. Only the monks rejoiced; they were no doubt flattered by so distinguished a doctor becoming one of their order.

But the lingering desire of Luther's heart for more reading and contemplation was not to be indulged in the monastery. No sooner had he entered than he was subjected, notwithstanding his high reputation in the university, to the most degrading monastic drudgery. He was ordered to sweep out the dormitories, to wind up the clock, to open and shut the gates, to perform the duties of porter, and to be the menial servant of the cloister. But this was not all. He must be publicly mortified; the high-minded student must be humbled. When the poor monk was tired with his manual labors, and expecting rest and some time for reading and study, he was urged to turn out with his wallet and beg for the convent. He was told that it was not by study that he would benefit the community, but rather by begging bread, corn, eggs, fish, meat, and money. And thus he wandered forth with his sack through the streets of Erfurt, begging from door to door; but not now as a poor singing boy, but as a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy.

This was a severe education for Luther, but it was no doubt permitted and overruled by an all-wise providence, that he might gain through personal experience a more minute acquaintance with monastic life, and a keener sense of its delusions, than he could have learnt in any other way. But the enemy, as he often does, went too far. The university was ashamed to see one of its late honorable members laden with the monastery's breadbag, and begging, it might be, at the doors of his old friends. The prior of the convent was spoken to, and Luther was released from those errands of mendicity.

Luther's Conversion

Having obtained some relaxation from his menial duties, Luther now returned to his studies with fresh zeal. Reading and meditation were his delight. The works of the Fathers, especially of St. Augustine, attracted his attention. In a certain spot of the convent there was a Bible fastened by a chain, and thither the young monk often resorted to read the word of God, though as yet he had no spiritual discernment of its meaning. One of the friars, named John Lange, with whom Luther became acquainted, possessed considerable knowledge both of the Greek and Hebrew, languages which Luther had not yet found time to study. But his opportunity was now come, and he embraced it with great eagerness and industry. It was thus, in the seclusion of his cell, and with the help of John Lange, that he began to learn Greek and Hebrew, and thereby laid the foundation of the greatest and most useful of all his works — the translation of the Bible into the German tongue. Reuchlin's Hebrew Lexicon had just appeared, which greatly assisted him.

But Luther's reading and exercises of mind on the scriptures, from not understanding them, only increased his distress. To have the assurance of salvation was the one great desire of his agitated soul. Without this nothing could give him rest. He had entered the cloister, he had become a monk, he had struggled unceasingly against the evil of his own heart, he had spent whole nights on his knees on the floor of his cell, he had exceeded all his brethren in watchings, fastings, and mortifications, but in monkish perfection he had found no relief; it only plunged him into deeper despair, and well nigh cost him his life. Through the rigour of his asceticism he weakened his body till his mind wandered, and then he imagined that he saw and was surrounded with ghosts and demons. But why was this? some may inquire; was he not sincere? Most surely, but he sought to obtain peace with God by means of his own religious exercises, and in this he was bitterly disappointed. He was attempting to do the work for himself which Christ had done for him — and done perfectly. And are not thousands in the present day doing the very same thing that Luther did, only less sincere, less earnest, less self-denying? They are looking to themselves — it may be only to their feelings, or it may be to their doings or their reasonings, or their realizings. Still, self is the object before the mind, not Christ and His finished work. "Look unto me," says the blessed Lord; and what will the immediate result be? Salvation! — instant, complete, personal salvation! "Look unto Me, and be ye saved all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else." (Isa. 45:22) And to this truth every soul must bow before it can taste the sweetness of peace with God. But Luther was still ignorant of the sublime simplicity and the moral glory of the gospel of the grace of God.

At this period of Luther's history, he thought nothing too great a sacrifice that might enable him to attain that holiness which would secure salvation now and heaven at last. He really thought to purchase eternal happiness by his own exertions; such is the darkness of the church of Rome, and such was the delusion of one of her most faithful sons. In after years, when he knew better, he wrote to Duke George of Saxony: "I was indeed a pious monk, and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If it had continued much longer I should have carried my mortifications even to death, by means of watchings, prayers, readings, and other labours." Admission into heaven by his own merits was the end at which he aimed, and which he pursued with a zeal that endangered his life.

From the strictness and abstemiousness of his monastic life he became subject to fits of depression. On one occasion, overwhelmed with a sense of his own wretchedness and sinfulness, he locked himself up in his cell, and for several days and nights refused to admit any one. A friendly monk, who knew something of the state of his mind, burst open his cell, and was alarmed to find him with his face on the ground, and in a state of insensibility. He was, after some difficulty, restored by the sweet singing of a few chorister boys, but he fainted again — the burden was still there. He required, not the soft music of a hymn, but the sweeter music of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And this, through the mercy of God, was near at hand.

Luther and Staupitz

John Staupitz, whom the Lord sent to Luther with a message of mercy, was vicar-general of the Augustines for all Germany. Historians speak of him in the highest terms. "He was indeed of noble descent," says one, "but he was far more illustrious through the power of his eloquence, the extent of his learning, the uprightness of his character, and the purity of his life."* It is matter of thankfulness, and worthy of note, to find such a godly man filling such an important office even in the last stage of papal degeneracy. His influence was great and good. He possessed the esteem of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, who founded the university of Wittemberg under his direction.

{*Waddington, vol. 1, p. 47.}

A visitation of this good man — the vicar-general — to inspect the monastery at Erfurt was announced just about the time when the anguish of Luther's mind had reached its height. The wasted frame, the melancholy appearance, yet the earnest resolute look of the young monk attracted the attention of Staupitz. From past experience he knew well the cause of his dejection, and most kindly instructed and comforted him. He assured Luther that he was entirely mistaken in supposing that he could stand before God on the ground of his works or his vows, that he could only be saved by the mercy of God, and that mercy must flow to him through faith in the blood of Christ. "Let your principal occupation be the study of the scriptures," says Staupitz; and along with this good advice he presented Luther with a Bible, which of all things on earth he most desired.

A ray of divine light had penetrated the dark mind of Luther. His conversations and correspondence with the vicar-general greatly helped him, but he was still a stranger to peace with God. His bodily health again gave way under the conflicts of his soul. During the second year of his residence in the convent he became so dangerously ill, that he had to be removed to the infirmary. All his former terrors returned at the approach of death. He was still ignorant of the value of the finished work of Christ to the believer, and so were his teachers. The frightful image of his own guilt, and the demands of God's holy law, filled him with fear. Not being a common-place man, and passing through an experience which common-place men could not understand, he was alone, he could tell his griefs to none.

One day, as he lay, overwhelmed with despair, he was visited by an old monk, who spoke to him of the way of peace. Won by the kindness of his words, Luther opened his heart to him. The venerable father spoke to him of the efficacy of faith, and repeated to him that article in the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins. " These few simple words, with the Lord's blessing, seem to have turned the mind of Luther from works to faith. He had been familiar with the form of these words from his childhood, but he had only repeated them as a form of words, like thousands of nominal Christians in all ages. Now they filled his heart with hope and consolation. The old monk, hearing him repeating the words to himself, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins," as if to fathom their depth, interrupted him by saying that it was not a mere general but a personal belief. I believe in the forgiveness, not merely of David's sins, or of Peter's sins, but of my sins. Even the devils have a general but not a personal belief. "Hear what St. Bernard says," added the pious old monk, "The testimony of the Holy Ghost to thy heart is this, thy sins are forgiven thee." From this moment divine light entered the heart of Luther, and, step by step, through the diligent study of the word and prayer, he became a great and honoured servant of the Lord.

Reflections on the Conversion of Luther

This is the simple story of Luther's conversion, and a genuine conversion it was, through the grace of God, but, so far as Luther's mind was concerned, it was not a very solid work. The measure and character of the truth presented by Staupitz and the old monk could not have fortified him against the attacks of the enemy. With so little knowledge of the mind of God, the love of Christ, the completeness of His work, of deliverance through death and resurrection, a converted soul might soon be filled and harassed with doubts and fears. And this is what we find on all hands in the present day. Very few have settled peace with God. They hope, they trust, that they are saved, but there is very little of the full assurance of faith. And why? Just because of defective views of their own lost state and of the work of Christ as perfectly meeting that state. Take one text as an illustration: "For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." (Heb. 10:14) Surely, if we rightly apprehended the dignity and the glory of the sufferer, what would our faith be in the value of His sacrifice, of His one offering? There is no repetition, no second application, of the blood; it can never lose its efficacy. We may be daily cleansed with the water of purification, but the idea of a second application of the blood of propitiation is unknown in scripture. Once washed in that precious blood, the conscience is perfect for ever. That word, "for ever," means not so much eternally, as continuously, permanently, uninterruptedly perfect before God, even as Christ always is. God can never overlook that which has so perfectly blotted out sin, so perfectly glorified Himself, so perfectly vanquished every foe, and so perfectly obtained eternal redemption for every believer.

Up till the time that Luther met with Staupitz and the aged monk, he was, to use his own words, "in the swaddling bands of popery, and had not seen its evils." And this is true in a certain sense, of thousands still. They are in the swaddling-bands of their respective systems of doctrine and church-standing, without having ever carefully examined these things by the word of God. Consequently they are strangers to that happy liberty wherewith Christ makes His people free. Luther was converted, but he was by no means out of the house of bondage. The unswathing of his soul was through unbelief, a slow process. He knew almost nothing of the privileges and blessings of the children of God, and of their standing in Christ. But we know from scripture what his blessings were, and what the blessings are of every converted soul. Immediately the woman touched the hem of the Redeemer's garment, the fountain of her disease was dried up. By the slender touch of faith the virtue that was in Jesus was made her own. Beautiful illustration of the newly-converted soul standing before God in all the virtue, the excellencies, the life, the righteousness, the peace, the joy, the happy liberty of Christ Himself! Eternal life has taken the place of spiritual death, divine righteousness of human sin, and nearness to God of moral distance. Such is the blessing of every soul the first moment of its conversion, though it may be on the borders of despair from the darkness of its condition, as Luther was.

Take another illustration — the penitent thief on the cross. A few moments after his conversion he enters heaven with Christ, and as fitted for that holy place as Christ Himself. "Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise." The immediate consequence of faith in Christ is meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light. See also Luke 23:39-43; Mark 5:25-34; Col. 1:12-13, 14.

Luther — a Priest and a Professor

He had spent three eventful years in the cloister at Erfurt. But these years were not lost to him. The general cultivation of his mind, the discipline of his soul, his study of Hebrew and Greek, were so many branches of needed education for his future career in the Lord's service. Besides, it was the place of his spiritual birth, and the place where he first heard of justification by faith — that divine doctrine on which so much of his subsequent work was built.

In the year 1507 he was ordained a priest, at which ceremony his father was present though still dissatisfied with the course of his son. Luther had now received power from the bishop to offer sacrifice for the living and the dead, and to convert, by muttering a few words, the unleavened cake into the real body and blood of the Lord. Luther submitted to and accepted these popish pretensions, though against his convictions, and with fear and trembling, but his soul never completely recovered from the effects of this blasphemous ordination. A judicial blindness as to the scriptural simplicity of the Lord's supper settled down upon his mind. He was enabled, by the grace of God, to throw off and denounce many of Rome's superstitions, but never fully her crowning enormity, transubstantiation.

Staupitz, the faithful friend and patron of Luther, placed him, at the age of twenty-five, in a position suited for the display of his powerful and active mind, and the further development of his character. He was invited by the Elector Frederick, at the suggestion of the vicar-general, to occupy a chair of philosophy in his rising university. He removed to Wittemberg in the year 1508. But though called to be a professor he did not cease to be a monk; he lodged in a cell in the Augustinian convent. The subjects on which he was appointed to lecture were the physics and dialectics of Aristotle. This was uncongenial employment for one who was hungering and thirsting after the word of God. Neither physical science nor moral philosophy suited the spirit of his mind. But again, we may say, it was part of his needed education. He who had passed through the cloister must now occupy for a time the chair of scholastic philosophy, that he might be better fitted to expose the evils, and combat the errors, of both systems, and emancipate the minds of men from their influence.

In the mean time, though he was attracting the youths of Wittemberg by the force and style of his lectures, he was zealously applying himself to the study of Greek and Hebrew. His desire was to drink at the fountain, and He who saw the great desire of his heart and the labour of his life opened up the way for him. In a few months after his arrival at the university he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Divinity, which entitled him to lecture on theology, or on the Bible. He now felt himself in his proper sphere, and determined to communicate that only which he learnt from the word of God. His first discourses were on the Psalms, and then he passed to Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

His precious meditations on these portions in his quiet cell both at Erfurt and Wittemberg, gave a character to his lectures altogether new. He spoke, not merely as an eloquent schoolman, but as a Christian who felt the power of the great truths he taught. When he reached, in his expositions, the last clause of Romans 1:17, "the just shall live by faith," a light, we may say, beyond the brightness of the sun, filled his whole soul. The Spirit of God clothed the words with light and power to the understanding and to the heart of Luther. The grand doctrine of justification by faith alone he received into his heart as from the voice of God. He now saw that eternal life was to be obtained not by penance but by faith. The whole story of the German Reformation is connected with these few words. In their light he explained the scriptures of the Old and New Testament; by their truth he exposed the falsehoods of popery, he thrilled the heart of Europe, he brought the reign of imposture to an end, and accomplished the great Reformation. Alone he stood before all authority — before all the world — on the truth of the word of God, "the just shall live by faith." God's word is true popery is a lie; the one must fall, the other must triumph truth is health to the soul, a lie is deadly poison. These principles of eternal righteousness were now firmly fixed in the heart of Luther by the Spirit of God; and, simple as they may appear, he was enabled, through faith in the word of God, to triumph over popes, bishops, clergy, kings, and emperors, raising the standard of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, without works of law.

The great work was now begun, but the workman had still some lessons to learn.

Luther Visits Rome

Some disputes having arisen between the vicar-general and several of the Augustinian monasteries, Luther was selected as a fit person to represent the whole matter before His Holiness in Rome. It was necessary, in the wisdom of God, that Luther should know Rome. As a monk in the far north, he only thought of the pope as the most holy father and of Rome as the city of the saints; and these prejudices and delusions could only be dispelled by personal observation: intelligence did not circulate then as now.

In the year 1510, penniless and barefoot, Luther crossed the Alps. A meal and a night's rest he begged at the monasteries or the farm-houses as he went along. But scarcely had he descended the Alps, when he found monasteries of marble and the monks feeding on the most sumptuous fare. All this was new and surprising to the frugal monk of Wittemberg. But when Friday came, what was his astonishment to find the tables of the Benedictines groaning with dainty meats? He was so moved with indignation that he ventured to say "The church and the pope forbid such things." For this remonstrance, some say, he nearly atoned with his life. Having received a friendly hint to be off, he quitted the monastery, travelled through the burning plains of Lombardy, and reached Bologna, dangerously ill. Here the enemy turned his thoughts in upon himself, and he became greatly troubled with the sense of his own sinfulness, for the prospect of death filled him with fear and terror. But the words of the apostle, "the just shall live by faith," like a ray of light from heaven, chased the dark clouds away, changed the current of his thoughts, and restored his peace of mind. With returning strength he renewed his journey, and after passing through Florence, and toiling under an oppressive Italian sun through the long tract of the Apennines, he at length drew near to the seven-hilled city.

We must preface Luther's entry into Rome by reminding our readers that, though he had received the truth of the gospel, he was still a papist, and that his devotion to the papacy partook of the vehemence of bigotry. Rome, to the rude German, was the holy city, sanctified by the tombs of the apostles, the monuments of saints, and the blood of martyrs. But alas! the Rome of reality was widely different from the Rome of his imagination. As he approached the gates, his heart beat violently. He fell on his knees, and, with his hands raised to heaven, he exclaimed, "Holy Rome, I salute thee! Blessed Rome, thrice sanctified by the blood of thy martyrs!" With all sorts of affectionate and respectful terms he thus saluted the metropolis of Christendom. And under the influence of this wild enthusiasm he hastened to the holy places, listening to all the legends by which they are consecrated; and all that he saw and heard he most devoutly believed. But his heart was very soon sickened with the profanity of the Italian priests. One day, when he was repeating Mass with great seriousness, he found that the priests at an adjoining altar had already repeated seven Masses before he had finished one. "Quick! quick!" cried one of them, "send our Lady back her Son," making an impious allusion to the transubstantiation of the bread into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Profanity could scarcely reach a higher pitch. Luther's disenchantment was complete, and the purpose of God in his education was accomplished.

Luther had expected to find in Rome an austere religion; "her brow circled with griefs, resting on the bare earth, quenching her thirst with the dew of heaven, clothed like the apostles, making her way along stony paths, and the gospel under her arm; but in place of this he saw the triumphal pomp of the pontiff; the cardinals in litters, on horseback, or in carriages, glittering with precious stones, and covered from the sun by a canopy of peacocks' feathers. The gorgeous churches, and the more gorgeous rituals, and the pagan splendour of the paintings, were to Luther, whose heart was heavy with thoughts of the priests' profanity, utterly unbearable. What was the Rome of Raphael, of Michael Angelo, of Perugino, and Benvenuto, to the poor German monk, who had travelled four hundred leagues on foot, expecting to find that which would deepen his devotion and strengthen his faith?"

Yet such was the power of educational superstition in Luther, notwithstanding his knowledge of scripture, and his bitter disappointment in Rome, that one day, wishing to obtain an indulgence promised by the pope to all who should ascend on their knees what is called Pilate's staircase, he was humbly creeping up those steps, which he was told had been miraculously transported from Jerusalem to Rome, when he thought he heard a voice, loud as thunder, crying, "The just shall live by faith." Amazed, he rises from the steps up which he was dragging his body; ashamed at seeing to what a depth superstition had plunged him, he flies with all haste from the scene of his folly.

Having transacted the business on which he was sent, he fumed his back for ever upon the pontifical city. "Adieu! Rome," he said; "let all who would lead a holy life depart from Rome. Everything is permitted in Rome except to be an honest man." He had no thought then of leaving the Roman church, but, perplexed and troubled, he resumed to Saxony.

Soon after Luther's' return to Wittemberg, on the pressing solicitation of Staupitz, he took the degree of Doctor in Divinity. The Senate also gave him the pulpit of the parish church, which opened up for him at once a sphere of the greatest usefulness. But Luther, alarmed at the responsibility, showed some reluctance to accept a dignity of such spiritual importance. As his friendly vicar sought to remove his scruples, and pressed the service upon him, he submitted, and in the performance of his pulpit duties he had the rare opportunity of preaching the word of God and the gospel of Christ in the cloisters of his convent, the chapel of the castle, and in the collegiate church. His voice, says history, was fine, sonorous, electrifying; his gesticulations were easy and noble. A bold originality ever marked the mind of Luther, charming many by its novelty, and overpowering others by its force. He had acquired during the last four or five years a respectable acquaintance both with Greek and Hebrew; he had read deeply the New Testament; he was fully assured that justification by faith was the peculiar doctrine of the gospel; that the word of God was the primary and fundamental means of the revival and reformation of the church.

From the year 1512 to the memorable year 1517 Luther was a bold intrepid herald of the word of life. In all things he longed only to know the truth, to shake off and cast from him the falsehoods and superstitions of Rome. And thus we leave Luther for the present, engaged in his glorious work, while we must refer for a few moments to the state of things in the church which brought John Tetzel and his indulgences into the neighbourhood of Wittemberg.*

{*D'Aubigné, vol. 1. Froude's Short Studies, vol. 1. Waddington's Reformation, vol. 1. Universal History, vol. 6, Bagster and Sons.}