Luther Separates from Rome

Chapter 39

During the generation that came before the Reformation, the court of Rome had been disgraced by acts of treason, murder, and incest. Even its most respectable members were utterly unfit to be ministers of religion. The Church of Rome had made plain her complete opposition to the Word of God and to the way of salvation, though she professed to know the way and be the only way by which men could enter heaven. By His faithful witnesses, God had sought to call the Church of Rome to repentance; but she would not. If reform could not be brought about within the church, the only course remaining was to do so from without.

Luther's standing in Rome, as an envoy from Germany, gained him many invitations to meetings. At one of these meetings, several of the prelates were openly displaying irreverent conversation. He discovered that many of the priests were but playing a part and that in private they held in contempt and treated with mockery the rites which in public they celebrated with such a show of devotion. Surely, he thought, spirituality and godliness must still be found among the dignitaries of the Church. A short time later, he was to find how greatly mistaken he was.

One day Luther was with some prelates when they humorously related how, while they were repeating the mass at the altar, instead of the sacramental words that were to transform the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of our Saviour, they pronounced: " 'Bread thou art, and bread thou shalt remain. Wine thou art, and wine thou shalt remain. Then,' continued they, 'we elevate the host, and all the people bow down and worship it.' " D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 2, chap. 6, 69. Luther could scarcely believe his ears. He was horrified.

There was, at the time of Luther's visit, a stairway of marble that was reported to have been the stairs which Christ climbed to Pilate's judgment hall and to have been miraculously transported from Jerusalem to Rome. Everyone who climbed them on his knees, it was said, merited an indulgence of fifteen years for each ascent. While climbing the stairs, Luther was startled by a sudden voice which sounded in his ears as thunder saying, "The just shall live by faith." Luther started to his feet in amazement. In this one truth, which burned itself indelibly into his mind, lay folded the whole Reformation.

Though Luther's stay in Rome was no more than two weeks, during this short period of time, he learned lessons that remained with him throughout the rest of his life. No more did he have anything to do with relics. He had found that which was a thousand times more effective than all of the holy treasure of which Rome could boast.

A few months after his return, Luther received the degree of doctor of divinity from the University of Wittenberg. On that occasion, Luther took an oath upon the Bible to defend the faith contained in the Holy Scriptures. This proved to be a turning point in Luther's life. From this time on, he made the study of the Bible his lifework.

Truly, "we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." 2 Corinthians 13:8. "The Roman Church had made merchandise of the grace of God. The tables of the money-changers (Matthew 21:12) were set up beside her altars, and the air resounded with the shouts of buyers and sellers. Under the plea of raising funds for the erection of St. Peter's Church at Rome, indulgences for sin were publicly offered for sale by the authority of the pope. By the price of crime a temple was to be built up for God's worship-the cornerstone laid with the wages of iniquity! But the very means adopted for Rome's aggrandizement provoked the deadliest blow to her power and greatness. It was this that aroused the most determined and successful of the enemies of popery, and led to the battle which shook the papal throne and jostled the triple crown upon the pontiff's head." The Great Controversy, 127

The license to sell indulgences in the various countries was sold to the highest bidder, with the pope to be paid in advance. The indulgences in Germany were farmed out to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Madeburg. In looking for a man to traverse the country extolling and actually selling the indulgences, the archbishop found in Tetzel a man who in every way suited his purpose. Tetzel, the son of a goldsmith of Leipzig, had been convicted of a base crime at Innsbruck and had been condemned to be placed in a sack and drowned; but powerful intercession being made for him, he received a reprieve and lived to help, unconsciously, in the overthrow of the system that he espoused.

When Tetzel entered a city, he made his way directly to the cathedral. A cross was set up in front of the altar and a strong, iron box was placed beside it. Tetzel, mounting the pulpit, would expound on the incomparable merit of his wares. Never before had the gates of Paradise opened so wide. "'Indulgences,' he said, 'are the most precious and most noble of God's gifts . . . . Come, and I will give you letters all properly sealed, by which even the sins you intend to commit may be pardoned. I would not change my privileges for those of 8t. Peter in heaven, for I have saved more souls by my indulgences than the apostle did by his sermons. . . . But more than this. . . indulgences avail not only for the living but for the dead. Priest, noble merchant, wife, youth, maiden, do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss: "We are suffering horrible torments! A trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it and you will not"?'

" 'At the very instant,' continues Tetzel, 'that the money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven. Now you can ransom so many souls, stiff-necked and thoughtless man; with twelve groats you can deliver your father from purgatory, and you are ungrateful enough not to save him! I shall be satisfied in the Day of Judgment; but you-you will be punished so much the more severely for having neglected so great salvation. I declare to you, though you have a single coat, you ought to strip it off and sell it, in order to obtain this grace. . . . The Lord our God no longer reigns; He has resigned all power to the pope.' " Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1,57

The matter of indulgences quickly became the focal point of discussion from the palace to the university and even in the market place. That a little money could atone for the guilt and efface the stain of the most enormous crimes was a blow at the very foundation of the moral fabric of the nation. The more sensible portion of the population were shocked, and those who had some small knowledge of the Word of God viewed the matter in an even worse light. "The papal key, instead of unlocking the fountains of grace and holiness, had opened the floodgates of impiety and vice; and men trembled at the deluge of licentiousness which seemed ready to rush in and overflow the land." Ibid., 258

When the gold began to pour into Rome, the joy of Pope Leo X knew no bounds. "He had not, like the Emperor Charles, a 'Mexico' beyond the Atlantic; but he had a 'Mexico' in the credulity of Christendom, and he saw neither limit nor end of the wealth it might yield him. Never again would he have cause to bewail an empty treasury. Men would never cease to sin; and so long as they continued to sin, they would need pardon; and where could they go for pardon if not to the Church-in other words, to himself? He only, of all men on the earth, held the key. He might say with an ancient monarch, 'Mine hand hath found as a nest the riches of the nations; and as one gathereth eggs, so have I gathered all the earth.' Thus Leo went from day to day, building St. Peter's, but pulling down the papacy." Ibid.

One day, as Luther, who acted as confessor as well as preacher, sat in the confessional, he was approached by some citizens of Wittenberg who confessed having committed thefts, adulteries, and other heinous sins. Luther told them that they must abandon their evil course, otherwise he could not absolve them. To his surprise, they replied that they had no thought of changing, in as much as these sins were already pardoned. They then pulled out their indulgence papers obtained from Tetzel. Luther could only tell them that the papers were worthless and that they must repent and be forgiven of God or they would perish everlastingly.

The poor, deluded people, quite unhappy at losing both their money and, at the same time, their hope of heaven, quickly found Tetzel and informed him that a monk in Wittenberg was warning the people against his indulgences. Tetzel was enraged. Kindling a fire in the marketplace of Juterbock, he indicated what would be done to anyone who should presume to obstruct his noble work, declaring that the pope had given him authority to commit all such heretics to the flames.

Luther was unmoved by Tetzel's angry words. He had no thought but that the pope, if not ignorant of the sale of indulgences, was at least unaware of the frightful excesses that attended their sale; and he became even more strenuous in his condemnation of them.

Tetzel continued his sale of indulgences, and Luther felt constrained to take even more decisive measures. Elector Frederick had recently completed a church-castle in Wittenberg. He had spared neither money nor labor in gathering relics in their settings of gold and precious stones. These were put on public display and shown to the people on the festival of All Saints. On the eve of the festival, October 31, Luther, who had given no hint to anyone of what he proposed to do, joined the crowd that was approaching the church. Pressing his way to the front, he quickly nailed to the door a paper on which he had put forth ninety-five theses, or propositions, against the doctrine of indulgences. The sound of his hammer drew a crowd, and they quickly began to read. These points, Luther announced, he would defend at the university the next day against all who might choose to dispute them.

In this paper, Luther struck at more than the abuses of indulgences. The theses put God's free gift of salvation in sharp contrast with the pope's salvation to be obtained by purchase. Though he little realized the full significance of the step that he had taken, Luther had set the stage for the Reformation. The two systems—salvation by Jesus Christ and salvation by Rome—were brought face to face.

The news traveled quickly. The great Dutch scholar of the sixteenth century, Erasmus, on being asked by the Elector of Saxony his opinion on the matter, replied with characteristic shrewdness, "Luther has committed two unpardonable crimes—he has attacked the pope's tiara, and the bellies of the monks." Ibid., 263