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    Jun 24, 2016

    Class 6: Martin Luther & the Protestant Reformation

    Series: Church History

    Category: Core Seminars, Church History, The Reformation, Christian Biography, Work of Christ, Atonement, Conversion, Faith, Grace, Justification, The Gospel


    “…we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” Galatians 2:16




    We spent last time talking about the various Medieval efforts at reform. We saw Popes and Emperors seize control of the church and try to force reform from the top down; and we saw monks work to change their personal lives and reform the church from the bottom up.


    What both of these attempts at reformed shared (despite their widely different methods) was the belief that you could fix the church by fixing the moral problems of the clergy and the people.


    We’ve all seen and tried this in our own lives, when we have problems, we go at them like they are solvable by our becoming better people; if we can just tap into the good side of our wills, we can turn ourselves in a better direction and solve the problems of our lives.


    We know ultimately that that doesn't work. We need the sanctifying grace of Christ to truly change. As we will see, that's what Luther realized too.


    Moral Decay


    As we've seen over the past few weeks, the theology of the Middle Ages was on the whole quite bad. As was the moral corruption of the papacy.


    • Popes began to buy and sell church offices and tax church members, the very things which the Popes of the early middle ages had waged war on),


    • Superstition and out and out idolatry were not only sanctioned but actively promoted by the church.


    • Common people and clergy alike were encouraged to venerate dubious “relics” of saints, including purported splinters and nails from the Cross, and even pieces of bone and hair from the apostles. Noah's beard, table on which the Last Supper was eaten, the thorn in Paul's flesh, etc.


    • Church leaders taught – and the people believed – that owning or even viewing these relics, along with purchasing indulgences, could provide relief from the penalties of sin and release you from years in Purgatory.




    The selling of indulgences became a focal point for debate and discussion, as it brought together many of the problems of the church into one loathsome practice. So what is an indulgence?


    Well, it’s based on the idea of Purgatory. What is Purgatory?


    • It begins with Origen and Clement of Alexandria in the 3rd century AD. They asked the question “how can we be perfect in heaven if we’re so sinful here?”


    • He speculated (and it’s important that they merely speculated here) that maybe there was an in-between place where we are purged of our sins so that we are ready to stand in God’s perfect presence.


    • As happened fairly regularly, what the early church speculated on, the Medieval church turned into doctrine, teaching that Purgatory was a place where your remaining sin was removed, often through a long and painful process of purification. You can read Dante’s Purgatorio for a picture of that idea at work.


    • People were understandably distraught by this idea, and wanted to know how they could get out of it. After some discussion, the church declared that you could remove your sin in this life by hard work and good deeds. “Gosh,” replied some people, “that doesn’t sound very fun, isn’t there any other way?”


    • After further thought, the church declared that some people (the saints) are much holier than others, and had a surplus of good deeds and merit in their lives that could be transferred to you, to save you some work.


    • For a nominal fee (and it really was a nominal fee, the equivalent of a few dollars today to spring someone completely free of purgatory) you could pay to buy an indulgence, which would transfer merit from this treasury to yourself or a family member and get you out of the purification process.


    • The most powerful indulgences (though these were truly rare, and involved extreme acts like going on Crusade) were actually believed to purchase complete salvation—this wasn’t the norm, but it was kicked around.


    • The church quickly found that this was an easy and quick way to make money, and when money was tight, as it was at the beginning of the 1500s, the church sent out its most eloquent and capable speakers to shill their goods around Europe.


    • A man named JohanTetzel, perhaps the most successful and notorious peddler of indulgences in Luther’s day, summed up the principle in a pithy jingle: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” 


    • Not surprisingly, the sale of indulgences brought fabulous wealth to the church. The positive side of things was that the influx of money meant that new church buildings (especially St. Peter’s in Rome) began springing up all over Europe, great works of art were commissioned, and scholarship boomed as the church sponsored the work of some of the greatest minds of the time, including the artist Michelangelo and the scholar Erasmus. The down-side was that at best the shepherds were fleecing the flock, and at worst they were preaching a false Gospel.


    • By this time, almost everyone realized the need for reform in the church, but how to do it?  Time and again new popes would take office promising improvements, but to no avail.  They either would be frustrated by the entrenched corruption, or fall prey to it themselves. As we saw last time, repeated attempts to force the church to change from the top down and from the bottom up failed miserably.


    • We're going to look today at the guy we think of first when we think of church Reform—Martin Luther.





    Before we talk about Luther's reforms, I want to spend just a couple of minutes talking about the thing that made Luther's reforms possible—a movement that was just starting to die out in Luther's day called "Humanism."


    • The most important year for Humanists (and for the rest of us) was 1453. In 1453, the city of Constantinople was conquered by the Muslim armies of the Turks. This is a critical event in Western history for a number of reasons, the main one for our purposes being that the universities and schools in Constantinople closed as a result of this conquest, and the professors there packed up their books and moved West. (Really, they'd been doing this for a long time as the Muslims got stronger and Constantinople got weaker.)


    • This is called the "flight of the scholars", and the result is all of a sudden in Western Europe Greek and Latin texts that had been forgotten or lost were suddenly available for research and study. Combined with the development of the printing press in 1440, these manuscripts and documents were quickly copied and spread all over Europe.


    • And the first people to truly take advantage of this Renaissance in the West were the Humanists. The big name for our purposes is Erasmus of Rotterdam.


    • Erasmus was easily the most brilliant scholar of his age, and certainly one of the most brilliant of any age. He wrote a number of books and commentaries, most of which are excellent and worth your attention- the best of which is generally agreed to be The Praise of Folly, in which Erasmus skewers those people who take themselves far too seriously in life.


    • So we've talked about all of this church reform stuff so far, how do we fix the church? What Erasmus says is that we must go, and this is the great cry of Humanism, ad fontees—"to the sources." We have to go back to Scripture. We can't try to force a reform from the top down or from the bottom up as long as the tools we're all using are these made-up traditions and rituals that have nothing to do with Scripture. We have to get back to the original texts, which we can now do because of the flight of the scholars.


    • To help with this, Erasmus begins collecting texts and copies of the Bible, and in 1516 publishes the first edition of a Greek New Testament (later editions would be used by Luther in making his German translation).


    • So that's Erasmus' contribution and Humanism's contribution to the Reformation. I should point out that Erasmus himself was a bit of a coward and so never joined the Reformation, instead toyed with some of the Reformation's ideas and with it and was exceptionally friendly especially with the Swiss Reformation that we'll talk about next week.


    • But when push came to shove and Erasmus was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he quickly affirmed his faithfulness to the Church and spent the rest of his life half-heartedly fighting against Luther, and trying to hide behind a wall of humor. Luther said that Erasmus was like Moses, he could lead God's people to the border of the promised land, but he could not go in himself.


    Questions or thoughts on anything so far?




    III. Martin Luther: Life (1483-1546)


    • Born in Germany on November 10, 1483, Luther’s father early on planned for him to attend the university to become a lawyer.  From his youth, Luther was deeply religious.  He grew up under church teaching, and spent most of his early years in mortal fear of divine judgment and the devil in hell.  When he was 22, he found himself caught in a thunderstorm and was thrown to the ground by a bolt of lightning.  In a fit of terror, Luther cried out, “St. Anne help me!  I will become a monk!”  When he did not die in the thunderstorm, he kept his word and abandoned law school to enter an Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, Germany and began the long road toward mortification of his sin and fitness for the kingdom of heaven. 


    Luther the Monk


    • Once in the monastery, Luther became a “monk’s monk,” devoting himself constantly to the most rigorous forms of prayer, fasting, and work.  Through all his efforts to earn God’s favor, however, Luther never escaped the paralyzing fear that had plagued him his entire life. 


    • Luther tried all of the remedies that were recommended by the Church and his superiors at the monastery.  He attended mass, venerated saints and relics, and even made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he climbed the steps of Pilate’s judgment seat, kissing every step for good measure as he went. He did everything he could to atone for his sin, to no avail.


    • None of these prescriptions seemed to work.  Luther also tried to perform penance for his sins, but was convinced that no amount of penance could make amends.  Besides, even if he could perform penance and contrition for all the sins in his mind, there were countless sins that he did not know, indeed that he could not know.  Luther was convinced that God was an awful judge waiting to damn him.  His superior counseled him to find solace Christ, but even Christ seemed too terrible to contemplate.


    • Luther had discovered that sin cannot be defeated by becoming a monk and living according to the rules set down by the church. Around this time he wished that he “had never been created as a human being.” Thus the depths of despair over his sin.


    • As a monk with a particularly active conscience, Luther caused all kinds of problems. He harassed both his superiors and his fellow monks with his incessant confessions of sin. One priest he visited regularly became exasperated with Martin coming to him to confess, and then leaving, then coming back moments later with another little foible, and he finally said “Look here brother Martin, if you're going to confess so much, why don't you do something worth confessing? Kill your mother or father! Commit adultery! Quit coming here with such flummery and fake sins.”


    • Finally the church did what every bureaucracy does with annoying people it cannot get rid of, they promoted him.




    Luther the Professor


    • Luther’s supervising priest wisely encouraged him to become a professor of the Bible at the university, a job which Luther took up with vigor.  His first project was to teach the Psalms.


    • He did this systematically, working through them in numerical order.  When he reached Psalm 22, he was dumbstruck by the statement, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Luther understood this to be the cry of Jesus on the cross, but did not understand how this could be? How can Christ be forsaken?  The perfect, righteous judge? This is a cry that only a sinner should let slip! Why would it come from the perfect Son of God?


    • After much vigorous study of the books of Romans and Galatians and the writings of Augustine, Luther was struck with the conclusion that it must be that God made him who was without sin to be sin for us, to take our sin and be treated as if it were his own! 


    • This realization of God sending Christ to be our substitute, to bear the penalty of death that we deserved, shook Luther to the core.  The anguished, guilt-ridden young monk now had a profound sense of God’s forgiveness – not of working to merit salvation, but of free, unmerited grace.


    • This understanding that salvation came not by works of penance but by faith alone in the crucified savior was further confirmed the more Luther studied the New Testament and the church fathers.


    • And it should be stressed that Luther and the other reformers did not see themselves as innovators, developing a new type of theology.  They only sought to call the Church back to its roots, to the theology of early church fathers like Augustine, and most especially to the Bible.





    Luther the Reformer


    • Luther would only later comprehend just how radical was this declaration of the Gospel relative to the accepted teaching of the day.


    • Now he faced the immediate challenge of trying to reconcile his understanding of salvation as a free gift of God’s grace with the church’s practice of selling indulgences.  The problem of indulgences had only grown worse.


    • Pope Leo X, as corrupt and decadent as many of his predecessors, wanted to build an opulent new church named after St. Peter, and commissioned a new round of indulgences for sale to pay for the construction.  On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a series of 95 propositions to the door of the castle-church in Wittenburg. 


    • These “95 Theses,” as they quickly came to be known, made two major points.  First, if the pope truly has such control over purgatory and can reduce the length of time there through indulgences, then why doesn’t he just release everyone from the wretched place?


    • Second and more importantly, Luther held that remorse for sins is not a bad thing, and one should not seek to escape it by gathering indulgences, whether through paying money or visiting shrines.  In fact, it is precisely this contrition that leads one to repent and trust in Christ.


    • The 95 Theses provoked an immediate and dramatic response.  All of Germany was swept away in the controversy.  Luther found his cause being taken up by other scholars (the Humanists especially enjoyed the discussion that was started), who shared both his concerns about the corruptions of the church and his affinity for original source texts, in this case the Bible. 


    • With the help of the printing press, Luther’s 95 Theses were circulated throughout Germany, and a copy even made its way to the chamber of Pope Leo X. 


    • In 1518, Luther was summoned to appear before a Diet in the city of Augsburg to answer charges of heresy.  Luther refused to recant and declared that the pope and church councils could err.


    • In 1520 Luther published a series of books and tracts attacking the pope and elaborating on his positions.  The most inflammatory and consequential of these was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  In it Luther argued that the papacy was the kingdom of Babylon that had dragged the church into captivity, just as the children of Israel had been exiled in Babylon centuries earlier. 


    • He also affirmed only baptism and communion as true sacraments instituted by Christ in the New Testament, and denied that the other five sacraments administered by the Roman Catholic Church (confirmation, confession, marriage, ordination, and last rites) were sacraments at all.  If anything, he saw them as superstitions, manipulated by a corrupt church claiming that only its practices could transfer grace and mediate between God and man.


    • Luther pointed out that the effectiveness of the sacraments depended not on the church administering them, but on the faith of the recipient.  In other words, communion is only true communion if the person receiving it truly believes in Christ – not if the elements themselves have been mystically transformed by the priest.  The sacraments were God’s gift to His people, not magic powers controlled by corrupt church authorities. 


    • Here was the most severe challenge medieval Catholicism had ever faced.  It had fought wars with Islam over territory, and had conflicts with European emperors over the relationship between civil and church authority, but now the very core of the Church’s authority had been denied.  If the church could not control the application of God’s grace through its various sacraments, how would people trust it or even continue to support it? 


    • Not surprisingly, The Babylonian Captivity caught the attention of a distressed Pope Leo X, who issued a bull (or written mandate) Exsurge Domine.  The declaration began with a quotation from the Psalms, “Arise O Lord, and judge Thy cause!  A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard!”  The bull gave Luther sixty days to submit to the Pope.  On the final day, Luther celebrated the expiration of the deadline by burning the bull and a set of writings that supported papal claims. 


    • As we’ve seen so many times in the past, the Holy Roman Emperor attempted to step into the fray. Charles V, who would go on to become the most powerful monarch between the Roman Emperors and Napoleon, summoned Luther to appear before the Diet at Worms on April 17, 1521.


    • Upon arriving, Luther was presented with a pile of his books and commanded to renounce them.  Before Luther could answer, the Emperor halted the procession and demanded that the books be checked, there were so many of them he didn’t believe one man could have written them all! Luther [said “I need a minute.” Okay, not really, he] said “I’d like some time to think about it.”


    • He was given a day, after which he replied to the court that he could not recant because there were three sets of books on the table, one set was that which everyone, including the Catholic Church, agreed were solid and useful, and which he therefore could not recant without condemning himself.


    • Another set in which his personality had taken over and he had been too harsh against his opponents, and against such harshness he gladly recanted. And a third set decrying the evils of the day, which he also could not in good conscience recant. The prosecutor (quite rightly, I think) accused Luther of waffling and demanded a straight answer. Luther replied:


    Since Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will give an 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 contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  God help me.  Amen.


    • As one scholar has said, “with these words, Protestantism was born.”  And it was born on the foundation of the Bible as the supreme and final authority.


    • Luther’s doctrine was condemned, but he was given forty days to return home.  After that, anyone could hand him over to the authorities to be burned.  Unbeknownst to Luther, his prince, Frederick the Wise, had made plans to protect Luther. On his way home, Luther was kidnapped by Frederick’s men and taken to his castle at Wartburg, there to spend the next year in hiding.


    • Even though struggling with depression, Luther managed to be extraordinarily prolific.  While at Wartburg, he wrote many significant works, including a German translation of the Bible that is celebrated still today for its precision and elegance of language.


    • While here, Luther also underwent severe psychological and spiritual attack, over and over facing the mental challenge of his conscience: “are you really the only one who knows? Who are you to stand against so many wise men?” And of course, the spiritual challenge of his own sin. Having removed all of the church’s accepted means of responding to sin, Luther was left with nothing to fall back on but Christ.


    • This, he believed, opened him up to intense spiritual attack, including visions which he believed were from the devil, sinful pangs of conscience, and voices which challenged him at his weakest moments, until finally in a fit of desperation he flung his ink bottle at where he thought the voice was coming from and declared that he was forgiven by the blood of Christ. You can still visit the spot of the famous ink blot in the Wartburg, though of course in the last 500 years it has to have been touched up a bit.


    • Back in Wittenburg, Luther’s followers carried out concrete reforms of the church based on Luther’s teachings.  On Christmas Day, 1521, one of these ministers held a mass after the new fashion – in plain clothes, with no mention of sacrifice, and in the German tongue.  For the first time in their lives, the people heard in their own language the words, “This is my body!”  At this mass, the host was actually handed to the people instead of being placed on their tongues.  In Wittenburg, priests and monks began to marry, and Luther himself followed suit in 1525 when appropriately enough, this former monk married Katharine, a former nun.


    • From 1517 to 1525, in the words of one scholar, Luther was “both the most revered and the most hated man in Europe.”  Over the next two decades, until he died in 1546, Luther kept a lower profile, and continued to pastor and write prolifically, essays and sermons and even hymns. 


    • He engaged in numerous theological debates with the leading thinkers of the day.  For example, he carried on a lengthy discussion with Erasmus over the nature of human freedom and the effects of our sin on our inability to choose God on our own.  These essays have been collected in a marvelous book, The Bondage of the Will, which is still in print. 



    • Later, he wrote some particularly harsh and unfortunate condemnations of the Jews, and called for them to be driven out of the land.  Though Luther seems to have been upset by reports that Jews were trying to persuade Christians to abandon the faith, his words nonetheless left a bitter taste in a land where anti-Semitism would have a tragic and wicked history.


    • Meanwhile, the theological principles of the Reformation spread rapidly through Europe, and in the next two weeks we will look at their effects in Switzerland and England. 


    1. Luther: Doctrine


    • So what did this man teach that got him in so much trouble? Just briefly, I’ll summarize the four doctrines that drove the Catholics (and pretty much everyone else) crazy since then. If you want to know more about this, I’ve included some further readings on the back of your handout.


    1. Justification by Faith alone: If it is shown that our best works are actually sinful, then we cannot trust in them to be the means by which we are saved. What then is the means by which the Gospel is applied to us? Luther answered this question in his study of Romans 1: “The Just shall live by faith.” There Luther found his answer, the means by which God takes our sin and nails it to the cross, and takes Christ’s righteousness and applies it to us is by faith, and only by faith. Luther calls this “the sweet exchange” and Luther calls JBFA “the summary of all Christian doctrine, by which the church stands or falls.”


    Luther was so convinced by this that in his translation of the Bible into German, he added in a word to the verse, so that it read “the just shall live by faith alone”, which is theologically accurate but a terrible thing to have done to God’s Word…So, the just live by faith and by faith alone. What does this mean for our practical lives? When we are freed from the burden of the law, both in terms of its condemnation and in terms of its placing requirements on our lives to make us virtuous, how shall we then live? Luther’s answer was: however we want, provided we aren't sinning.

    1. Theology of Glory/Theology of the Cross: Galatians 2:16 ends with the statement: “by the works of the law, no one will be justified.” Have you ever really thought about what this means? Paul here is not talking about sin, he’s talking about what we would normally call virtue! When Luther read this verse and others like it, it cause him a great deal of anguish, because what Paul is saying that our very best attempts to be good will not save us. So, Luther pointed out that salvation is not a combination of Christ on the cross paying for our sin and our good works (either positive things, like giving to charity, or negative things like having just never killed anyone), salvation is not a team-up between Christ’s work and the very best within us.


    • Instead, Luther argued, your very best is still full of sin. The Bible commands us to love our God and our neighbor and then tells us that our very best attempts at such love are sinful.


    • Of course, this is horrendously offensive to us as human beings, we don’t like being told we’re sinners when we know we’re sinning, and we really don’t like being told we’re sinners when we think we’re doing something good. That’s because, Luther says, we are inherently theologians of glory, people who are concerned to establish our own righteousness, however small that righteousness may be. We will go to our graves to defend that inherent spark of goodness upon which we think our salvation rests.


    • Opposed to this theology of glory Luther held up the theology of the cross. Salvation comes when absolutely everything you are is recognized as insufficient and sinful and placed on the cross, both the actively sinful things and your best attempts at virtue must be nailed to the cross and in their place the righteousness of Christ must be received.


    • Luther searched and searched for an example to use to explain this, until one day he was in a tower in the Wartburg castle using the bathroom, when he happened to glance out the window at a snow-covered field (or so the story goes), and had his “tower experience”, where inspiration struck him—and from then on he delighted to describe the Christian Gospel in terms of us being piles of horse dung (again, not his word) and the Gospel being a clean, pure blanket of snow laid down on top of us by the mercy of God.


    • The question is, how do we get this Gospel applied to us? If we don’t earn it by good works, how do we take it and make it ours? This was the second doctrine:


    1. Believer’s freedom: If Christ has indeed totally and completely accomplished everything necessary for the work of salvation, if our sin is paid for and the law is totally obeyed, what do we then do? Luther’s answer was as long as you are not sinning, you may do what you please. In this he was quoting Augustine: “Love God, and do what you want.” So, for example, if we as a church as the question: “Should we or should we not have an organ in our church?” Luther would say “Because the Bible lays down no law on that topic, we may either have or not have one as we so desire.” (Luther, by the way, was a great proponent of organ music, as you can probably tell from A Mighty Fortress is our God.) We are free, because of the Gospel, to have joy in ourselves and in the world, not because we’re wonderful individuals, but because of the cross.


    • Questions on Luther’s doctrines? Clearly there are more we could talk about, including Biblical interpretation, preaching, the sacraments, etc, but for the sake of time, let’s move on to:


    1. Lutheranism:


    • Following the death of Martin Luther in 1546, several other men rose to guide the Lutheran Church, including Philip Melanchthon, Andreas Osander, and Martin Bucer (though Bucer had a Reformed and even Anglican side to him as well). None of them had quite the same level of influence, but some (especially Melanchthon) were of equal brilliance and even better temperament.


    • Luther did not want his followers to be called Lutherans, only Christians. He said “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone. How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”


    • In 1580 the Book of Concord was drawn up, which summarizes and defines Lutheranism in a way that most Lutherans since have agreed upon, however much they’ve split over other issues.


    • From 1618 to 1648, Europe was caught up in one of its worst wars ever, not least of which because it’s incredibly hard to figure out what on earth was going on. Nominally it was a war between Protestants and Catholics, fought mostly in Germany, over who was going to control continental Europe religiously.


    • More realistically it had economic, political, and moral factors as well. The primary result of the war was the utter devastation and depopulation of central Germany, and the realization that the divide between Protestant and Catholic wasn’t going to be settled by force of arms.


    • Another result of this war was that Lutheranism was not the dominant Protestant sect, so much of their energy was spent fighting that almost nothing was spent on missions or theological development. This meant that Anglicans, the Reformed, and a new sect called the Puritans surged ahead both in terms of numbers and terms of theology.


    • Lutheranism has only experienced two major expansions in its history (again, largely because of the 30 years war). The first was Northward, into Scandinavia at the end of the 1500s. This was very fortunate for the Lutherans because it meant that when the 30 years war started, the Swedes intervened on the side of the Protestants under one of the greatest military and political minds ever to live, Gustavus Adolphus, who essentially invented the modern way of war (which later Oliver Cromwell would copy in England) and who by all accounts was a truly devout Christian.


    • The second major expansion was in a wave of immigration from Germany to the United States at the beginning of the 18th century right before the Great Awakening, which means that America today has a hefty population of Lutherans, at least compared to most other countries.




    [1] Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press 1952), 17.

    [2] Quoted in Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco 1984), 373.

    [3] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Penguin 1995), 53.

    [4] Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books 1997), 154.

    [5] Quoted in Noll, 167.

    [6] Bainton, 302.