Bio of Luther (500 Year Anniversary of Reformation)

Bio of Luther (500 Year Anniversary of Reformation)

Oct 29, 2017

Preacher: Jason Wolin

Category: God


Here I Stand

Well today we are taking a break from our 1 Corinthians study because of an event that happened 500 years ago today, an event we call the protestant reformation. Historical anniversaries are always moments for the world to look back and remember something significant that happened in history. In fact I was just curious and typed into google trends how this works.

So every October you have these spikes where people do a little research. A couple more spikes on famous people's birthdays and final exams. Then summer hits and everyone is out of school and goes water skiing instead. And the cycle continues. Well this year, there is quite a bit more interest than normal because we hit the 500 year mark.

So I'm excited to take a Sunday away from 1 Corinthians to celebrate the reformation. We will plan on celebrating again in another 500 years.

But what really are we celebrating? Is that even the right word? The reformation produced protestants. The word was built our English word protest. We celebrating protestors, rebels of the church? Some protesting can be legitimate and other protesting is just justification for the flesh to rebel. So what was it was that they were protesting and was it legitimate?

Luther's Backdrop

If you look at protests in history they are almost always made possible when cultural pressures build and build and build and then suddenly, the smallest little touch from a feather burst the bubble. The French Revolution, the recent Arab Spring would be well-known examples. From a 20,000 foot view, this is exactly what happened in the reformation. A small town monk named Martin Luther was that guy with a feather who providentially arrived when that bubble was stretched to it's quivering limit and there was just the softest touch and the bubble that had been forming for hundreds of years burst. If Luther wouldn't have been there, someone else would have.

Now what do I mean? What were the pressures? What were the issues of his day? Probably a thousand things you could say here, but for our sake this morning we will organize our thoughts around the themes coming out of our 1 Corinthians series on strength and weakness:

  1. Weakness of the Peasant

Luther grew up in the most religiously conservative segment of society, the peasant. The Peasants were the working class. They tilled the earth. Luther's father was a miner. He worked his whole life underground, forcing the earth to yield it's treasures.

Peasants of course were poor. They were in servile relationship to the lords. So being a peasant meant a certain amount of economic weakness.

But there was also educational weakness. Now I don't mean they didn't have access to education. In fact, their education mirrored their working life. It was hard. I found it pretty enlightening to think about how schools went about instructing their children.

But despite their education, despite their discipline, they were ignorant of the one thing that really mattered, knowledge of the Bible itself. Sure they had memorized pieces of it but they had no idea how it fit into the whole, the context, the big picture. Nothing.

So because they did not have access to the truth, the common man had a mixture of Christianity, strangely mixed German Paganism, superstition and folklore. For them the woods were populated with elves, fairies, gnomes, mermen, sprites, and witches. Lakes were populated by devils.

Strip a man of any meaningful education and empty his bank account - this is the very definition of weakness. And this was the peasant.

  1. Power of the Church

Now by contrast, it's almost impossible to imagine the power of the Roman Catholic church during the period of the middle ages but we will try nonetheless. We can break their power down to a few categories.

  • Religious Power. The sacraments could literally save your soul. Mass, Baptism were not optional. They contained saving power. It didn't matter if you believed or not. That wasn't part of the equation. It was the eating of the bread that priest transformed into the body of Christ that saved your soul.
  • Social Power. The perish priest who played this dominating roll in virtually every community, baptizing, marrying, hearing their confession, providing last rites at death, burying them. Every meaningful event of life passed through the church so they had tremendous social influence.
  • Philanthropic Power. The church was the only social service that existed. State social services was an inconceivable concept. It provided all the social services for the poor, ran orphanages, provided education. That endears many.
  • Educational Power. The common man met exactly one person in their life who could read the Bible and that was their priest because the Bible was in Latin.
  • Economic Power. They also owned 1/3 of the land in all of Europe which made it the most powerful force in the world by any measure. The Roman Catholic church invented our modern system of taking out loans, charging interest, etc. They had incredible amounts of cash.
  • Political Power. The pope claimed authority over all the kings of Europe as the successor of the Roman emperor.

So can you imagine. This would be like combining Rome, Washington DC and Wall street into a single office. So you have the weakness of the peasant over here and the Power of the Church over here and it's pulling this thing drum tight and along come Luther and lays his feather down and the whole thing erupts.

Here's how that happened.

Luther's Entrance Into Religion

The story begins as Luther, a university student studying law, was traveling home from school when he was caught in a freak thunderstorm. A lighting bolt fell from heaven and struck him and splintered a tree next to him. He cried out, "Saint Ann, save me! I will become a monk."Saint Ann, by the way, was the Patron Saint of the mines and since he came from a mining family, this was like Luther's special community saint.

Well, Luther survived. And much to the disappointment to his father, he left what would have been a lucrative career in law and enterd the not so lucrative career of monking. He entered an Augustinian Monastery which was among the strictest that existed.

To give you some idea of what is meant by strict, we actually have a document that gives us the schedule of the monks that lived in the Monastery where Luther enrolled himself.

So in these disciplined conditions he spent the next two years trying to find peace with God. Luther had an unusually sensitive spirit in this regard. He was desperate to make peace with God. Desperate to find assurance. Now to be sure, there were certainly cultural pressures that aggravated this already sensitive soul.

The medieval religion intentionally juxtaposed fear and hope. For our book club this month we read a biography of Martin Luther by Ronald Bainton and there's a great quote in his book that says, "The fear of hell was stoked, not because men lived in fear of it, but precisely because they did not." So now you've amped up fear, but stirs up this emotional reaction of despair, so now you have to offer some hope. And that came in the form of purgatory. Your sin is serious, but perhaps you can burn off that impurity for a few thousand years.

So you have these two knobs to manipulate people. The temperature of hell and the mercy of the father. Now to illustrate how these messages of fear and mercy were communicated, here's a woodcarving that apparently was very famous in Luther's Day. It came from a bestselling book entitled "The Art of Dying" written in Latin.

The Art of Dying

Now in this carving you have here, demons tempt the dying man with crowns (a medieval allegory to earthly pride) under the disapproving gaze of Mary, Christ and God.

This book was published in a time in European history where there was a lot of disruption and upheaval, the most significant of which was the great plague in which 1/3 of the population of Europe died, about 20 million people. There were countless wars. So many had suffered terribly. Death was not a concept. Death was on the mind.

So the question on everyone's mind is, what happens when you die? And this book tries to help. Since in my study it seemed that this book was so widely known and was so influential I wanted to spend some time in it. I found some Latin versions online but there weren't any translations available. After a stupid amount of time, I finally tracked one down on microphiche from the University of Ottowa.

It was so interesting I ended up reading the whole thing. And it really helped me understand something fundamental about the reformation that had hitherto escaped me. Here was my path of discovery.

So the book is structured in 6 chapters with the premise being that at the hours of death you will find these incredibly strong temptations to abandon the faith. So in every chapter we are presented with an accusation from the devil you will face at the time of death and then you have some advice on how to resist that attack.

So being biased that this was the source of much fear and incorrect theology I was expecting to find total heresy and I open up the book and the first line says,

No I'm not sure I can find much wrong with that. Keep reading.

Wow, this is pretty good stuff.

But then in other places I found myself just cringing and even angry at this author who is confusing and casting doubt into the hearts and minds of those who are wondering how to die well.

In a section speaking of pride, he says, Everyone who dies is tempted to pride. So here's the remedy.

So he goes through all temptations with mixture of great solid gospel affirmations and what amounts to works based salvation. Finally he closes with these finally instructions. It's a pretty good summary of everything he says. Here's what you need to do in the last moments of death:

And that will protect you in your hour of death.

Now what I want to illustrate here is something really important to understand about the reformation. The Roman Catholic church emphasizes the importance of faith. Absolutely! They totally agree that Jesus has saving power. They totally agree that the Bible is rock solid source of authority.

But the battle cry of the reformation was not faith, it was FAITH ALONE. It was not grace it was GRACE alone. It was not scripture it was SCRIPTURE ALONE. In these final instructions on death you can see the piling on of sources of saving power. Pray to Mary, the sign of the cross, angels, and sure, we have no problem with faith in God, we will add that too.

And what does that produce? One word. UNCERTAINTY.

  • You have these carvings showing devils dragging men by their hair kicking and screaming into hell.
  • You have fears of devils in lakes and streams.
  • You have fears of purgatory. You have all this uncertainty.

You are never quite sure if you've got enough of the right thing to save you. The battle cry of the reformation was you need one thing and if you have it your saved. FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST.

So you have to understand when Luther entered the Monastery he was thoroughly conditioned by books and teaching just like this one. He took this deadly serious. Why did Luther become a Monk? For the same reason everyone became a monk - to save his soul! When he was struck by lighting it reminded him very seriously about the reality of death. He wanted peace with God. He spent hours in confession. He would torment his body.

He said of his own self-abasement:

He tried to quiet his soul through self effort. All of Luther's efforts did nothing to assuage his guilt and conscience. He would frustrate his priest as he confessed for hours and left uncertain that maybe he had forgotten to confess a sin. Perhaps he was unaware of some sin that would condemn him. Did he give enough? Did he chastise his body enough?

So what does a good Monk do? He tried harder! Through a series of circumstances he was presented with the opportunity to visit Rome. Now this was important to Luther because Rome was the greatest storehouse for relics. A relic was simply a physical object that had something to do with the story of Christianity, and people collected these things and by looking at them you would receive some sort of spiritual benefit. Rome was the collection.

  • Bones of 40 popes and 76,000 martyrs.
  • Rome had a piece of Moses’ burning bush
  • Rome had the chains of St. Paul and
  • The scissors with which Emperor Domitian clipped the hair of St. John.
  • The walls in a nearby street had white stains? How did they get there? They were created by stones which had been picked up by the angry mob and thrown at St. Peter but the moment they left their hands the stones turned to snowballs hit the wall and staining it.
  • Another church had a coin Judas used for betraying our Lord. Its value had greatly increased, because now you could take fourteen hundred years off purgatory by merely looking at it.

So Luther visited with an especially eager anticipation. He was climbing the very stairs upon which Pilate condemned Jesus. He was on hands and knees repeating the Lord's prayer for each one and kissing each step for good measure in the hope of delivering a soul from purgatory. Luther regretted that his own father and mother were not yet dead and in purgatory so that he might transfer some of this merit on them. Instead he determined to release his Grandfather. The stairs were climbed, the Pater Noster were repeated, the steps were kissed and what happened when he reached the top he experienced something that blew his mind. What happened? NOTHING! And waves of doubt began to crush him, “Who knows whether it is so?”

You see what you have to understand about Martin Luther is that the whole revolt against the Roman Catholic church came as a result of trying to follow the very way prescribed by her.

He tried to quiet his soul through self-effort, through the merits of relics, through confession, and the doubt never went away!

He began to violently despair. He wrote,

Now Luther thought to himself. Is this really the God I worship?

The way he began to discover the true God came unexpectedly. Luther was browsing around in a library and saw this giant book. He had no idea that the Bible had even been collected into a single volume. Of course it captured his interest. What he was looking at was the Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome in 380AD.

You have to remember in Luther's day that the Bible was very, very rare. Pre-printing press every single copy would have to be done by hand on very expensive paper. Tremendously expensive. To get an idea, a hand copied Bible might cost $30,000-50,000 in our currency and would take 10 months. We talk all the time about reading your Bible. We are a Bible church. We can hardly even conceive an arrangement where we would even have church without bringing a Bible, comparing what we hear to the Bible.

So Luther was looking at a Bible and so he began to read it.

He asked himself, who is this God? How does one find peace with him? Many things he read were confusing to him. I'm summarizing quickly here but he came across a verse that would rock him to the core.

Here's some of his own words as he reflect upon it.

Full Scale Conflict

What Luther was reading was not squaring with what he was seeing on the ground. And it was the practice of indulgences that was particularly aggravating to him.

Now it's helpful to explain the whole system of indulgences.

The assumption built in is that everyone needs to have a certain level of goodness to stand before God. Every sin we commit has to be dealt with and punished one at a time.

How did we deal with each sin? Well, we need to divide sin into it's two parts - guilt and punishment. The priest could absolve you of guilt but you still had to pay the punishment of that sin through either penance in this life or purgatory in the next life.

Most of us are horribly in debt. But as it turns out, certain people were so good they actually did more good than they needed for their own entrance into heaven. So there's a surplus of good that gets pooled up in what is called the merit of the Saints and the Pope can issues indulgences that transfer that surplus good to others.

At first indulgences were conferred on those who sacrificed or risked their lives in fighting against the infidel, and then were extended to those who, unable to go to the Holy Land, and finally extended to those who made contributions to the church because after all this whole forgiveness thing ain't cheap.

By the time it hit the streets in Luther's day you had this elaborate system that applied to both the living and the dead, was graduated in such a way that you purchased at a percentage of your income so both the poor and rich would sacrifice with a similar sting.

Essentially this enabled people to purchase insurance to escape the flames of hell. Now the natural question comes, well how much do I need? The ingeniousness of the system was that you could never know the length of your sentence. After all, your life isn't over yet. You could sin more and then of course it's up to God and God alone to set the terms. Who are we to know that? So you couldn't know how long your sentence would last but the length of the reduction was known to down to the year and the day.

So maybe you have 100,000 years in purgatory awaiting you, you know with that affair and all, but this indulgence is going to take care of 80,331 years of it. So it's gonna cost you, but that's worth it, don't you think?

Now in his hometown of Wittenberg a collection of indulgences were sent by the pope to Fredrick the Wise so that the power of relics could be experienced by those not wealthy enough to travel to Rome.

And you have the same kinds of goofy relics but the interesting thing about this collection was that if you viewed it you could reduce your stay in purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days.

Now just that number could invoke terror in the minds of people. I have no idea how long my sentence is, but this indulgence will reduce it by almost 2 million years. Wow.

Luther began to speak out first moderately then more strongly in his sermons against this. How can a pope take away sins? That's God's job. And if he could why didn't he just do it for everyone right away? Should it kind of be, you know, illegal to sell forgiveness? Doesn't that defeat the whole point?

The deliberate sell of indulgences as a way to make money really amped up when a Friar by the name of Johaan Tetzel came to Witenberg selling indulgences. He was trying to raise money for St Peter's Basilica, the location where St. Peter was martyred by Nero.

This was an incredibly ambitious project. It would be a monstrous structure that could hold 60,000 people at once. And for the record, this sucker was not cheap. In modern dollars the estimates range from 600 million to several billion.

So you need a way to raise money and in order to do that you've got to take the manipulation knob and peg it. He was caching in all his coupons. Friar Tetzel came into a neighboring town and here is what he preached:

Listen now, God and St. Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and those of your loved ones departed. You priest, you noble, you merchant, you virgin, you matron, you youth, you old man, enter now into your church, which is the Church of St. Peter. Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you. Have you considered that you are lashed in a furious tempest amid the temptations and dangers of the world, and that you do not know whether you can reach the haven, not of your mortal body, but of your immortal soul? Consider that all who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission of all their sins. Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? will you delay our promised glory?” Remember that you are able to release them, for As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs. Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise?

Two things to note: 1. The manipulation factor was off the charts here. 2. So John Tezel was selling an extremely rare indulgence, the complete remission of sins. No matter what you have done, no matter what you do for the rest of your life, you have a certified document from the pope himself, with his seal, certifiying that you will bypass purgatory and go strait to heaven.

Now is that not appealing to the flesh or what? But the more Luther read the Bible, the more he saw the wicked motives of the church the more he spoke out. These poor peoples were being sold scraps of toilet paper (he used stronger language than that). The more he studied the Bible he discovered that God wanted faith not works.

And thanks to the printing press, this whole Bible study thing was getting easier. In fact in 1516 a scholar named Erasumus had just finished publishing the first Greek New Testament. It had existed in pieces and fragments but never had there been an attempt to pull it all together in a single manuscript.

So Luther takes his freshly printed Greek NT with ink still wet and begins comparing the Greek manuscripts with Jerome's Latin vulgate translation which by now is over a thousand years old.

He came upon the Greek word metanoia which is the word for repentance. And if you've been in the church for any length of time you know this is an importance word. Repentance in Greek means a fundamental change of mind. It's a change of values. It's a confession of wrongly held beliefs. We are familiar with this concept. But the Vulgate translated it, "do penance." He says, "That's not right!"

Penance as they understood it was an act of self-abasement, mortification or devotion performed to show sorrow for sin. So for example a monk might "do penance" by sleeping outside without a blanket to show sorrow over his sin.

Now think of how significant a difference this makes in certain verses of the Bible,

"Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." vs "Do Penance (get busy whipping yourself, giving to the church, visiting relics)" for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

So seeing the abuses, feeling disparity. He famously wrote 95 thesis and nailed them to the Castle church door at Witenberg. Also, just for the record, this was not ruining property. The church board was kind of like the bulletin board at starbucks where people could just post community information.

His intension here was to have a debate. He wasn't trying to start a revolution. It wasn't dramatic in any way. In fact, he wasn't even appealing to the masses. The thesis were written in Latin which would have necessarily excluded most of the population. He wasn't trying to break off from the church. Now to be sure they were forged in passion and anger but he was hoping to wake people up, correct some of the abuses he was seeing.

Well someone got ahold of them, translated it into German and thanks to Guttenberg's newly invented printing press, began distributing them to the masses. Eventually it made its way to Rome. This small town Friar, he was truly a nobody, this document works its way to the top.

Now here's a few of the articles and you can imagine when you read them that the pope was not happy. Again, take this time to educate yourself. Just read them. It's so intersting. I have heard the 95 thesis my whole life but never actually read them. They are very good.

This started a series of debates where Luther was forced deeper and deeper into the Scriptures and his views came to be seen as increasingly more and more radical.

  • Christian were saved by faith alone
  • The sacraments did not have the power to save souls.
  • Then far from being infalible the church and the pope made errors all the time.
  • He said the priesthood was a human invention and then people didn't even need a priest instead Luther described a priesthood of all believers.

So this went from a call to repeal indulgences to a revolution. As promised I'm going to speed up the details of his life going forward here. Luther's work becomes increasingly more public. His arguments ressonate with the common man and he becomes somewhat of a folk hero.

  • You have the Heidelberg Disputation where Luther is asked to defend himself.
  • That didn't go well so Luther appears before Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg, and is asked to recant. Luther appeals to General Council, he absolutely refuses to recant.
  • Then you have the Leipzig Debate between Luther and John Eck. Debates in those days were very different than today. This debate went on for 18 days. Luther refused to budge.
  • Finally the big guns are called in, Leo X issues papal bull, giving Luther sixty days to recant or be excommunicated.

The word bull is short for bulla which is Latin for seal. The point is this is an official document. Here's an example of a Papal Bull from 1637.

You can see the lead seal at the bottom. Luther is not intimidated. He speaks out more and more freely publishing three treaties. For example in the The Freedom of the Christian, "Even the antichrist himself, if he were to come, could think of nothing to add to this papacies wickedness."

  • Luther burns the papal bull and a copy of Canon Law

Thomas Linsey a historian said, "It is scarcely possible for us in the 20th century to imagine the thrill that went through all of Germany and all of Europe that a poor monk had just burnt a papal bull." Can people do that?

  • Probably the most famous showdown was when Luther appears before Diet of Worms. He was received as a hero as he walked into the town. Here a small town friar monk appears before the cardinals, bishops, and the pope himself. Also present was the emperor of the Roman empire. All his books were laid out before them. Do you recant?

Luther somewhat evasively answers the question. And they ask him, speak plainly. Do you recant.

I ask you, Martin—answer candidly and without horns—do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” Luther replied,

  • Charles V issues the Edict of Worms, declaring Luther a public outlaw, sentanced him to death as a criminal and making it illegal to have Luther’s books.
  • They gave him 21 days safe passage back to Wittenberg.
  • On the way home Frederick the Wise kidnaps and hides Luther at the Wartburg Castle for eleven months gives him a new name Friar Tuck, grows a beard.

  • Luther translates New Testament into German in 5 months. He wanted the Bible to be "in the hands, eyes, hearts and ears of the people."

  • Luther publishes Large Catechism, April, and Small Catechism.
  • Eventually you had a social revolution. Luther gave a voice to long standing greviences between clergy and the common man.
  • Peasant revolt. Revolt of the knights.

  • Luther begins getting ill. Some think it a result of constant bodily abuse. He had dietary disorders, etc. He boasted of how loudly he could fart.
    Buried under the pulpit at Wartberg.

Take Aways

  1. God's Word has Power. May we always love this book. This book is the source of truth.

Luther talked a lot about the externality of the word. The objective nature of the Word of God. It exists above us. Spirit is inside us. Clay toy.

  1. Salvation is through grace alone by faith alone.

The world says, the more you do the more you will be loved.

So many people look in the mirror. Does God love me? Of course he does. Better than that person. Or the opposite. Does God love me? Of course not. What is there to love?

Throw down the mirror. It comes from Christ. I can't earn or achieve it. I can only receive it.

  1. Studying the reformation can remind us that we inherit far more than we realize. We did not invented the church.

I think my generation and even more so the millenials behind me, who think that the church is something we invented. We are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. So much has been handed to us. Men and women died and were burned at the stake to defend and uphold truths we preach as obvious and assumed. And today we want to look at how God used a depressed, broken, sinful, powerful, interesting man to open up the world to us.

  1. Standing against the culture is not easy.

the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Hus. How will the Jews, how will the Turks, exult to hear Christians discussing whether they have been wrong all these years! Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us as an inheritance, and which now we are forbidden

Important Announcement

Speaking of not easy, we need to remember something very important. The reformation is taking place all the time all over the world.

Remember I showed you the graph at the beginning showing the rising interest in reformation.

Well, here's where those hits are coming from.

The people that care about Martin Luther are those who have been impacted by the gospel. North Korea doesn't care about Martin Luther, but there are Martin Luther's in North Korea.

Saudia Arabia doesn't care about Martin Luther but there are Martin Luthers in Saudia Arabia.

Next week all across America churches will be praying for the persecuted church. And we will take time in our service to do exactly this. We will mix the service up just a little bit and just pray for the Martin Luther's of the world who not 500 years ago, but today are trying to have the gospel break into their culture.

We will close by singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" Luther's most famous Hymn.

  • He was weak.
  • He was sick
  • Opened his home to those who were dying of black plague
  • Youngest son was on the brink of death
  • He writes this Psalm out of Psalm 46