The Sower 1886:
It was about the middle of July, 1504-5, that a young man, a student at the University of Erfurt, invited his friends to his apartments to spend an evening in conversation and music. At the close, he told them that it would be the last time they would meet together for such pleasure, for on the morrow he would become a monk. This was the language of Martin Luther. His father had intended him for a lawyer, but the death of one of his companions, and being brought to death’s door himself but a little while before, weighed so heavily upon his mind that he determined to enter upon a different course of life. He sent the gown and ring of his degree of M.A., which was conferred upon him by the University at the age of twenty, to his parents, and unfolded to them his reason for doing so. They were much grieved that he should betake himself to a life that differed but little from death. But Luther’s heart had been touched by God. Still, he saw no way of obtaining peace and inheriting heaven save by entering the monastery, and he therefore determined to be a monk; and, applying himself to monkish duties with earnestness and zeal, he pressed forward to join those noble men who, as he then thought, had continual access to God. But here he found he had not left the world behind him, for he had sore battles within himself. He still thought that divine influences entered the soul by attending to ordinances, and, with streaming eyes, he would wait for that influence, and, above all, for the pardon of his sins. He sought this at the altar and in his cell; yea, he wanted sleep that he might find it.
One morning, his brethren found his cell-door shut, and had to force it open; and what do they see? Poor Luther is stretched upon the ground insensible. They gradually restore him, but he only recovered to feel that he had not found peace, for his soul was still full of trouble.
On one occasion, when in the library of the Erfurt Monastery, he found an old Latin Bible. The people knew nothing of it, and the monks had forgotten it. He was now nearly twenty years of age, and had been brought up almost all his life in schools and colleges, yet this was the first time he had seen the holy Scriptures. “Here is God’s own Word,” he said; “here God speaks out direct to me”; and he soon began to study it in real earnest. Other monks, in whom the good work was going on, joined him in his pursuit. He soon saw the rottenness of those things that were read to the people in the churches by the priests, and that there were far more evangelical and apostolical texts in the Bible than they ever read to their hearers. With great attention and delight did he read in the Old Testament the account of Hannah and Samuel, and, as he drank in the sacred Word with sweetness and delight, he began to wish he was the owner of a like Book.
Those that were opposed to his studying in this kind of way told him to mind his monastic duties, which he did, for he swept the monastery, begged for it, prayed in it, and did penance. But all this would not give peace to his soul, which caused him to cry out, “This black heart of mine—these sins day by day, hour by hour—this perpetual inclination to sin—who shall free me from all this?” This was soul-trouble indeed to him, and such as brought his body to the brink of the grave. Those who saw his conduct said he was a devout man, but he replied, “I am a great sinner. How is it possible for me to satisfy divine justice?”
An old monk entered his cell one day—one who was by Luther highly esteemed, and to whom he used to tell his doubts and fears—and, on his repeating at that time that part of the Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” the old man answered him, “It is not enough to believe that David’s sins and Peter’s sins were forgiven. The commandment is, that we believe our own sins are forgiven. Instead of torturing yourself on account of your sins, cast yourself into the Redeemer’s arms; look to the wounds and blood of Jesus Christ. By His stripes you are healed; by His blood your sins are washed away.” Luther’s eyes were opened. The light had dawned upon his soul, and he was face to face with the infinite mercy of God. His soul had at last entered into a peace that passeth understanding. “I have been begging and sweeping and praying,” said he, “that I might procure the pardon of my sins, and lo! God has shown me that what I was seeking for by monastic works was mine already by His infinite grace.”
But Luther’s mind was not as yet wholly freed from Popish error, for, on being sent to Rome on some monastic business, he ran from church to church, doing those things which were described for the salvation of the soul—shocked at everything, yet believing everything. Once he was to be seen on his knees, climbing “Pilate’s Staircase.” He who does this has an indulgence—a boon of future mercy from heaven. It was too late for the German monk. The Erfurt Bible was in his heart, and ever, as he mounted another step, by this climbing a material stair striving to possess more of God’s life, a voice from the bottom of his heart cried to him in tones of thunder, “Luther, Luther, not by climbing stairs—not by works of this sort! ‘The just shall Jive by faith.'”
The work was done. That side of the Reformation which was a protest against the priestly Church was realized in the heart of this man. His preaching was a denial of official priesthoods, for he spoke to the individual conscience, and showed that a man might be saved without the priest, and that salvation did not flow to the heart through the Church. What a wonderful revolution of things was here! God’s Word shut up for centuries in the Latin Bastile, and now set at liberty—once again brought to the light of day!
Luther was not alone in this German revolt. The German princes were ripe for it, and German towns rejoiced in it. It was this element, speaking humanly, backing him that gave Luther a fitting occasion to stand against the Pope, and all Germany leaped up to support him.
Although his journey to Rome had opened his eyes to the state of the then existing religion, yet, for the first year or two, he questioned himself as to whether or not he was presumptuous.
During his stay in Rome, one named Tetzel came, selling indulgences, which brought forth Luther’s voice against such proceedings, for he clearly saw it to be the Pope’s lie, that mere writing on a piece of paper could forgive sins, and he was much against German money going to Rome for such purposes. This caused him to denounce Tetzel, and made him draw up his ninety-five Theses, exposing the errors of the Papacy, and then boldly nailed them to the church door, and thus challenged the whole priesthood to refute them if they could.
For a time Luther went on in his work unheeded by the Papists, but after a little while he is found to be a too dangerous character for the welfare of the Pope and his colleagues. Consequently, a Papal Bull is issued against him, his books are to be burnt, and he is to repair to Rome. But what does he do? He invites the members of the University and the officials of Wittenberg to meet him at nine o’clock on the morning of December 10th, 1520, at the gate opposite the Church of the Holy Cross, and there, not without solemnity, did what European man never before had done—committed the Bull, and all the paper pamphlets and books connected with it and the question at issue, to the flames. This probed the Popish nest to the centre, and the “mighty hunter,” as Luther called the Pope, demanded the victim. He is summoned to Worms, to answer for his doctrine, and thither went emperor, prince, and peasant, all anxious to see the man that had dared to lift his hand and voice against the Pope. His friends advised him not to go. “I will go,” said he, “if there are as many devils in Worms as tiles on the house-tops”; and, on April 2nd, 1521, he sets out. Turning to Melancthon, he said, “If I am put to death, cease not, oh, my brother, to teach, and remain firm in the truth. If thou art spared, what matters it if I perish?’’
As he journeyed, every one looked upon him as one marching to his grave. When he arrived at Erfurt, what a scene presented itself to his mind, for here, in his young days, he had to sing at the doors of the rich for his daily bread, and it was here he first saw the Word of God. The gloom of the sightseers hero was turned into joy, for many came out on horseback to meet him, and they line the streets to cheer him as he passes along. “Thou must preach to us,” they said. He was led into the church, and ascended the pulpit. Often had he swept its floors and opened and locked its doors, in days long past; and now he is in the pulpit. His text was, “Peace be unto you. And when He had so said, He showed unto them His hands, and His side.” He denounced all creature work and merit to be but vanity in the matter of salvation, and preached unto the people the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From Erfurt to Gotha, and thence to Frankfort, where they took him to a school, and he discoursed to the children.
On the 16th, he came in sight of Worms. His head is leaning upon the Lord. When he beheld the tower of the ancient city where the fate of the Reformation was to be decided, he rose up in the wagon that was conveying him, and sung a hymn he had composed a day or two before—“A safe Stronghold our God is still,” &c.
Next morning, he is summoned to appear and stand before the young emperor, princes, nobles, and dignitaries of the Church. A manly modesty overpowers him at the first. He asks for a day to prepare his answers, and he is allowed it.
On the 18th of April, in the afternoon, he is escorted by soldiers through the crowded streets into the imperial presence once more; but he comes not with the timidity of the previous day. “I am here,” he said, “to answer for my books. In one part of these, I say that man is saved by God’s mercy, and not by going on pilgrimages, and doing penances, and such like. This part I dare not retract. A second portion of my writings is directed against Papal abuses and tyranny. This part—the abuses existing—I dare not retract. In a third portion of my works, I have used personalities and hasty words, which I now regret. This portion I most heartily give up. I am but a man, and I may have formed wrong notions; but, if there be anything opposed to Scripture, show it to me, and that which is wrong I will retract, but no more.” He was then reprimanded by the official for the liberty he had taken in saying such things, and for not giving a plain and direct answer. Luther then spoke to the Council thus—“Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture, or evident reason, I shall not revoke anything that I have written or spoken, for I will not in any wise wound my conscience. I do not conform my belief to the Pope or the Council’s determinations alone, for they have often erred and delivered contradictions one to another. I neither can nor will do or say anything concerning God’s Word to the injuring of my conscience. This will I stand to, God helping me. Amen.”
After a little further persuasion, the Council retired for that day. The Bishop of Triens, with others, afterwards called on Luther, to try and get him to alter his decision, but he kindly thanked them, remarking that he was not afraid to have his works tried by the Word of God. The Bishop then asked him if he could advise anything for the quieting of the people, but he answered, “None other than that of Gamaliel, for, if it be of men, it will not continue; but, if of God, no power of man can stay it”; and this he asked the Bishop to signify to the Pope.
On the 26th of April, they allowed him to leave Worms for his flock at Wittenberg.
In 1522, he translated the New Testament into the German tongue, but some of the priests prohibited the people reading it. He then showed them that by their tyranny they should not prevail, because he was neither moved by the Pope’s curse nor Cresar’s proscription; and the more they tried to slander his doctrine, he, with greater courage, would propagate the Gospel; and, if they should kill him, it would not extinguish it, and God would plague them most grievously if they still proceeded in their furious course. This book so enraged the bishops, priests, monks, and the very dregs of them, that they were determined, if they could not burn him, they would burn all his books.
Such was a few years of Luther’s life—the man to whom we are not a little indebted, through God’s manifest workings within him and by him, for the freedom which we now have in worshipping God according to His Word and our desire; but oh, how little do we value it!
But the time came for Luther to lay down his body. He was taken with his last illness while going to Isleben, to settle some dispute that arose at the Council of Trent; and, on reaching there, was almost past hope of recovery, but he lingered for some little time.
On February 17th, after eating his supper, he was violently seized with pains in his chest. He took a little medicine, and lay down for an hour or two before the fire. On bidding the friends “good night,” he admonished those who were present to pray to God for the propagation or the Gospel, because the Council of Trent and the Pope would attempt wonderful devices against it. He had not rested beyond midnight when he had another severe attack, and he complained of the narrowness of his chest, and, feeling that his life was at an end, began to pray for a continuance of God’s mercy for the few remaining moments he had to wait.
Dr. Jonas then asked him if he died in the constant confession of that doctrine of Christ he had so often preached. He answered so as he might be distinctly heard, “Yes,” which was the last word he spoke. He then, without any apparent pain, and like as one falling asleep, passed from this life, about three o’clock in the morning of February 18th, 1546, in the sixty-third year of his age. He was buried in the temple in Wittenberg, on February 22nd, many princes and nobles attending to pay the last tribute of respect. Melancthon addressed them with much feeling, and, when done, the coffin was placed by learned divines into a tomb near to the pulpit in which he had so often proclaimed the truth of God. A brass plate was put to indicate the spot where the remains of Luther rest.