The Reformation is Born

Chapter 38

During the days of Valentinian (A.D. 364), the Roman Empire was divided into the Eastern and Western sections. The Turks eventually came to control the Eastern Empire but were unable to conquer Western Europe. It was the ambition of the popes to revive the old Roman Empire in the west. Largely as a result of their efforts, the nations of Western Europe formed a federation of confederate States. From the kings of these various states, one was chosen to rule over them collectively. To him was given the title Emperor.

Charlemagne, the first head, succeeded in giving the confederation a show of power; but true to the words of prophecy (see Daniel 2:34), they were never more than a loosely knit confederation. It was extremely difficult to introduce universal laws or to bring the nations together, even in matters of mutual interest. It was only the terror inspired by Moslem forces that threatened them that led the princes of Germany to unite themselves in an empire.

Though the emperor carried a title that suggested authority, he had no special revenue to support the imperial dignity and no power to enforce the imperial commands. The princes who elected him were careful to see that the emperor was not too powerful, for fear that he would fail to respect their independent sovereignty. In the end, the Empire had only two elements that held it together—the Roman Catholic religion and their fear of the Turks.

With the death of Maximilian in 1519, Charles of Austria, the King of Spain, was elected emperor. Charles V was more powerful than any emperor had been for centuries. To the imperial dignity he added the substantial power of Spain, which was, at that time, by far the mightiest nation in Europe. In order to better understand how Spain had achieved this position, we will briefly look at the events that had taken place to bring Spain to the pinnacle of power and grandeur that it then enjoyed.

In 711, a Muslim army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa into the Iberian Peninsula. By 719, Moorish rule was established in southern Spain. Their progress northward was stopped, however, at a battle fought in France between Tours and Poitiers in 732. In that battle, the Frankish ruler Charles Martel succeeded in ending the Moslem threat in the west.

During the centuries of Moorish supremacy in Spain, numerous schools were built, many of them free and for the education of the poor. At the great Muslim universities, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and literature were cultivated, placing Spanish civilization far in advance of that experienced by the rest of the continent.

With the death of Hisham III, the dynasty ended and the dissolution of the central Moorish power began, enabling the Christian kings of northern Spain to gain the advantage and subdue some Moorish states, while making others tributary. The Christian kings, in a great battle fought on the plains of Toledo in July 1212, won a decisive victory and shortly thereafter largely expelled the Muslims from Spain.

For the next two centuries, Spain was made up of various principalities. As the Reformation approached, this suddenly changed with the merging of the various kingdoms into the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragun. Only one step remained to make Spain one monarchy, and that step was taken in 1469 by the marriage of Princess Isabella of Castile and Prince Ferdinand of Aragun. They became joint rulers of Castile in 1474 and of Aragun in 1479.

In 1492, sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella, Christopher Columbus sailed west and landed in the West Indies. The opening of the New World, with its treasures of gold, made Spain the richest and most powerful European state of the sixteenth century. Through conquest and exploration, the Spanish colonies came to include the West Indies, Cuba, Mexico, all of Central America, the greater part of South America, Florida, and the Philippine Islands. A few years later, Oran, Bougie, and Tripoli, in North Africa, became Spanish tributaries. It could then be said, as was later said of the British, that the sun never set on the Spanish Empire. Upon the death of Ferdinand, his grandson Charles became the first king of a united Spain.

In addition to Spain and the Spanish colonies, Charles inherited various other European states. Not since the days of the Roman Empire had the liberties of the world been threatened by so great a power. "There was no principle known to the men of that age that seemed capable of doing battle with this colossus, and staying its advance. . . . Unless Protestantism had arrived at that crisis, a universal despotism would have covered Europe, and Liberty banished from the earth must have returned to her native skies." Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, book 2,220

It was into this setting that Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. John and Margaret, Luther's parents, were very poor. His father, however, was determined to make a scholar of his son; and at the age of fourteen, Luther was sent away to advance his education at Madeburg, and later at Eisenach. At eighteen, Luther entered the university at Erfurth where he pursued a course in law, according to his father's wishes.

At this time, books were very rare. One day, during his second year at Erfurth, he was in the library opening books to learn the writers' names, when he came upon a Bible. His interest was greatly aroused to learn that there was such a book. Until this time he had thought that the fragments of the Gospels and Epistles that the Church had selected for reading made up the entire Bible. With indescribable emotion, he turned the pages of the sacred Volume. The first part to which his attention was drawn was the story of Hannah and Samuel. As he read of Samuel's dedication to the Lord, of how he witnessed the wickedness of Eli's sons, the priests of the Lord who made the people to transgress and abhor the offering of the Lord, he fancied that he saw a parallel with his own times. Day after day he returned to read, rejoicing in the truth that began to open to his inquiring mind.

Luther continued to pursue his education until he acquired a Doctor of Philosophy; and for a time, the Bible appeared to be forgotten as he began to give public lectures physics and ethics of Aristotle.

God did not, however, leave Luther. About this time, a very dear friend and companion, Alexius, was overtaken by a sudden and violent death. Soon after this, Luther paid a visit to his parents in Mansfield. On returning to Erfurth, he was caught in a fierce thunderstorm as he neared the city gate. One bolt struck so close that, by some accounts, he was thrown to the ground. In his extremity, he vowed to God that if his life was spared, he would devote his life to His service. The storm passed, and a solemn Luther made his way into town.

On August 17, 1505, Luther entered the Augustinian Convent. He had expected that in a place so quiet and, as he thought, so near to heaven, he would find rest for his soul and relief from the burden of sin that was, to him, becoming an unsupportable burden. "There is a city of refuge to which the sinner may flee when death and hell are on his track, but it is not that into which Luther had now entered." Ibid., 236

The monks at the convent received Luther with joy. It brought real satisfaction to their vanity to have one of the most esteemed doctors of the age abandon the university and join their order. Nevertheless, they treated him harshly and imposed on him the meanest occupations, seeking to humble him.

Later, as a Reformer, 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 have certainly 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 my watchings, prayers, reading, and other labors." D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 2, chapter 3, 59

As Luther reviewed his life, he could find nothing to commend him to God. He endeavored, by severe self-denial, to atone for it; but he still found no peace of mind.

It was at this time that the Lord brought the pious John Staupitz into Luther's life. Staupitz was Vicar-General of the Augustines of Germany. Through his study he had learned the way of salvation. The purity of his own life condemned the corruption that surrounded him, but he lacked the courage to be the" Reformer of Christendom. In spite of this lack, God used him in preparing Luther for that work. Pointing Luther to the love of God, he said, "Look at the wounds of Jesus Christ, to the blood that He has shed for you: it is there that the grace of God will appear to you. Instead of torturing yourself on account of your sins, throw yourself into the Redeemer's arms. Trust in Him—in the righteousness of His life—in the atonement of His death. Do not shrink back; God is not angry with you, it is you who are angry with God. Listen to the Son of God. He became man to give you the assurance of divine favor. He says to you, 'You are My sheep; you hear My voice; no man shall pluck you out of My hand.' "Ibid., chapter 4. His words made a deep impression upon Luther's mind. Though he had further struggles before his mind was able to fully grasp the truth of the free grace of Christ, a new day had dawned for Luther. The light that pierced the darkness surrounding him freed Luther from the principles of popery. He no longer looked to himself and to the Church for salvation but to Jesus Christ. Before he left the convent cell to break the shackles of Rome from the Christian world, Luther first experienced the freedom of the gospel in his cell at Erfurth.

A short time later, Luther was ordained a priest and accepted a call to professorship in the University of Wittenberg. There he applied himself to his study of the Scriptures in the original tongues. He began to lecture on the book of Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles. His friend Staupitz urged him to ascend the pulpit and preach the Word of God; but Luther hesitated, feeling himself unworthy of such a high calling. It was only after a long struggle that he yielded to the invitation of friends.

Still a true son of the papal church, Luther had no thought that he would ever be anything else; but in the providence of God, he was led to make a trip to Rome. About this time, a quarrel broke out between seven monasteries of the Augustines and their Vicar-General. It was agreed to submit the matter to the pope, and Luther's eloquence recommended him as the person most fit to undertake the task. Descending the mountains to the fertile plains of Lombardy, he stopped for a few days of rest at a monastery on the banks of the Po River. He was filled with misgivings as he observed the magnificence and luxury. The monks, endowed with a princely income, lived in splendid apartments and dressed themselves in the richest and most costly attire. His mind became perplexed as he contrasted this lifestyle with the self-denial and hardship of his own life. Friday came and, according to church law, there was to be no meat served. The tables of the monks, however, groaned under the abundance as before. Luther could no longer remain silent. " 'On this day,' said Luther, 'such things may not be eaten. The pope has forbidden them.' " Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, book 2,248

Though it did not spoil their appetites, the manners of this rude German did startle the monks. They became apprehensive that he might report their lifestyle to their superiors at headquarters, and they consulted how this danger might be avoided. A friendly porter disclosed to Luther that to remain longer would be to incur great risk. Profiting by the friendly warning, Luther departed with as little delay as possible.

At the first sight of Rome, Luther fell to his knees, exclaiming, "Holy Rome, I salute thee!" Expecting there to find the spotless beauty of apostolic truth, he made his way into the city.