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OUR MARTIN > Here I Stand



Luther's feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness continued to haunt him upon his return from Rome. He needed some big task to take his mind off himself, and he found one the next year. Frederick the Wise, who ruled Saxony (a duchy in Northwest Germany), was looking for a professor at his new university in Wittenberg. Martin Luther was given the assignment.


At the University, Luther lectured on the Bible. He was a forceful teacher and became quite popular with his students. He spent much time in Bible study, and came to love the book and its messages. But he had many difficulties in reconciling what the Bible had to say with what the church taught.

Johann von Staupitz, the head of the Augustinian order of monks, knew Luther was troubled. Generously he advised Luther to study for his doctor's degree in the teachings of the church. Staupitz was a good friend, gladly giving of his own time to help Luther find solutions to his doubts. He suggested that, above all else, the young professor learn to love God; he had to, if he were to find peace. But Luther simply could not love God. How could he love a God who was angry with him, who would judge him and condemn him to hell? Luther commented, "I was driven to the very abyss of despair so much so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!"


It was not until the spring of 1513 that things began to change. Luther was preparing a series of lectures on the Book of Psalms. He came to the word "righteousness" in many of the psalms. Righteousness meant being free from all sin, worry, and guilt. The righteous man was holy before God, worthy of God. Every time he came upon this word, he was disturbed by his own doubts and fears. He could not think of himself as being righteous. Yet he believed God wanted him and all men to be righteous.

To understand the word "righteousness" better, he decided to study Paul's Letter to the Romans. With amazement, he paused at the words, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live'" (Romans 1:16-17).

Suddenly Luther understood the truth. When the Bible is describing the "power of God," it isn't speaking of a power God bottles up in himself. It is describing a power God gives to people. Likewise, when the Bible is describing righteousness, it isn't speaking of a righteousness which belongs to God alone, but rather the righteousness God gives to man. This righteousness is the free gift of God. No one can earn it. When God forgives a person, he makes that person righteous as though he had never sinned aT all.


Luther had already realized that it was impossible to please God by his own efforts. Now he discovered that he had been wrong in assuming that he or anyone else could climb up to where God was; instead, God comes down to men. In Jesus Christ, God came to men dramatically, giving not only forgiveness for his sins but righteousness as well to each person who accepts these gifts!

How can man have peace with God? How is man redeemed and saved from the curse of selfishness, from the punishment he deserves for his sins? Now Luther had the answer to these problems. It was so simple -- God's love. God was not a tyrant you could bribe with a sack full of good works. Instead, God was like the father in Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Remember how Jesus described the father running out to greet and forgive his wayward son? The boy had gone away, selfishly seeking to live the way he wanted. But he soon realized that he had been wrong. Sadly returning home, realizing that he didn't deserve it but hoping for some small favor, the son was overwhelmed to have his father hug him and forgive him and treat him as though he had never been away. In Christ, God was coming to embrace all people who were sorry for their sins.

Through his study of the Bible, Luther realized that God was calling him to faith in Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ had done everYthing necessary to bring God and men together. Nothing more need be done except for Luther to put his complete trust in Jesus as his Lord.


Luther's great discovery that God in Christ comes to men freely, forgiving them and accepting them as his sons, is called "justification by faith." The meaning of "justify," in this sense, is to "release from the guilt of sin and make righteous." "Justification by faith" means that it is our faith in God, and not our good works, that makes us righteous and frees us from sin. The church in Luther's day had forgotten that the most important thing for man was to love and trust God. It had emphasized doing the right things so hard that it had lost sight of the reason for doing them.


Luther came to feel very close to the apostle Paul. It was Paul's Letter to the Romans that had opened his eyes to the truth about God's love. And the more he read Paul's letters, the more Luther realized that Paul had had a similar experience to his own. At one time, Paul had possessed all the qualifications which were thought to give a man special standing before God. He was born a Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin. He was one of the Pharisees, a group extremely zealous to do all the works of the Jewish Law. He had been very strict in obeying whatever the Law of God commanded. He had even helped to persecute the early Christians. Yet, says Paul, "Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord" (Phillippians 3:7-8).

Coming to know Jesus Christ as God's fullest expression of love and concern for men was the turning point in Luther's life as it had been in Paul's. Life now had new dimensions, opportunities, and challenges. Life was rich and satisfying now that the heavy burden of guilt and despair had been lifted from him.

The four years following Luther's momentous discovery were quietly busy. He spent much of his time in Bible study; he was busy thinking, writing, and lecturing. He must have been working day and night, for he wrote a friend, "I could use two secretaries."

In a sense, this quiet was deceptive. Luther was just beginning to study the church and its teachings carefully in the light of his newly uncovered Bible truths. An explosion was coming soon.


In the fall of 1517, a man named John Tetzel, a seller of indulgences, appeared near Wittenberg. An indulgence was a slip of paper bearing the signature of the pope. By buying this little piece of paper a person could receive assurance that his sins of the future would be forgiven, or that some member of his family or a friend would have less time to spend in purgatory. Remember, in those days practically everybody believed that purgatory was a real place where people went when they died and that, by doing special good works for God, you could shorten someone's stay there. Buying an indulgence was considered a very good work, although the amount of time its purchase actually cut from someone's stay in purgatory depended upon how much money you paid.

At this time, Pope Leo needed money badly for the building of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, and indulgences were a good way of getting funds. He promoted the sale of indulgences all over Germany. John Tetzel was one of his star salesmen. Coming into a community, Tetzel would gather a crowd and describe for them the terrors of eternal flames in which persons now dead were suffering. Then he would add: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." He sold indulgences at a fantastic rate.


When Luther saw people coming back to Wittenberg feeling they had helped their loved ones in purgatory, he was distressed. This was not faith in Christ; it was faith in a piece of paper! He had to do something to bring men to their senses. All Saints' Day, November 1, was close at hand. This day was observed in the church as a time to recall great Christians who had lived in the past. It made people mindful of members of their own family who were now dead. On October 1, 1517, the evening before All Saints' Day, Luther strode to the door of the Castle Church where public notices were displayed. On that door, he nailed a list of ninety-five theses (or arguments) protesting the sale of indulgences and questioning other unscriptural practices of the church. The Ninety-Five Theses were intended for scholars who often spent All Saints' Day debating current problems or matters of theology. Luther planned to give the scholars at Wittenbeg something to think about.

Luther didn't realize how many people soon would be thinking, arguing, and discussing the questions he had raised. Someone printed copies of the Ninety-Five Theses and distributed them all over Germany. Like a prairie fire, Luther's ideas spread across the country and were eagerly taken up by men from all walks of life. Luther was surprised and pleased at this reaction.

How did the pope and officials of the church feel about all this? At first they ignored Luther and his point of view. They were busy with other things. However, when many pamphlets, sermons, and tracts began to appear, all bearing the name of Martin Luther, Pope Leo paid more attention. He ordered Cardinal Cajetan to get Luther to stop these writings questioning the practices of the church.

In October, 1518, Luther was ordered to by the Cardinal to appear in Augsburg. Obediently, Luther went to meet Cajetan. The cardinal urged him to take back what he had written. Boldly Luther refused. Lunching later with Staupitz, who had come with Luther to Augsburg, the cardinal said, "I am not going to talk with him any more. His eyes are as deep as a lake, and there are amazing speculations in his head."

The cardinal urged Staupitz, as head of the Augustinian monastery, to make Luther renounce his writings. Staupitz tried and failed. Not knowing what else to do, he released Luther from his vows as a monk. Now the professor was on his own.


Luther continued writing. In 1520, of the 208 books published in all Germany, 133 of them were written by Luther. It was in this year, too, that the pope decided to excommunicate Luther. Excommunication means to be denied the privilege of participating in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. In effect, it means being thrown out of the church. Luther was labeled a heretic, a man who distorted Christian doctrines. Further, people were expected to avoid him; a heretic was supposed to have no friends. The pope charged Luther with forty-one heresies. The charge said, in part, "We can no longer suffer the serpent to creep through the field of the Lord. The books of Martin Luther which contain these errors are to be examined and burned."

The name used for the official papers which declared Luther's punishment was the "Bull of Excommunication." (A Bull is a formal decree, usually issued by the pope.) This document reached Luther in October, 1520. He was given sixty days to retract his damaging statements. What would he do?

The answer came on the night of December 10. At Wittenberg, a group of university students gathered around a roaring bonfire. Into the fire, people threw books written by Luther's enemies. Suddenly Luther appeared at the fire and calmly tossed a little book into the flames. It was the Bull of Excommunication. He was not going to change his mind or his ideas.

What to do with Luther became one of the problems which faced Charles V, the young emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, when he came into Germany late in 1520. Charles hesitated in making any decision. He needed the help of all the Germans in his war with France, and he knew that Luther was very popular. To punish Luther openly might mean the loss of troops and support for his military campaigns. On the other hand, he couldn't very well ignore the growing support for a man who had been excommunicated and labeled a heretic


Finally, in 1521, Charles called for a diet to meet in the city of Worms. A diet was a gathering of the princes of the different states and cities. Their task was to pass judgment on the various problems confronting the Empire. Luther was summoned to appear before this group. Many of his friends urged him not to answer the summons. They remembered that a century earlier John Huss, who also had sought to reform the church, had trustingly appeared before the council at Constance; he was martyred. Luther's enemies called Luther "the Saxon Huss." His friends feared that he, like Huss, might be burned at the stake. But Luther went to Worms anyway, secure in his belief that God would take care of him.

When Luther appeared before the Imperial Diet, he expected to have the opportunity to tell what he believed and why. The emperor sat on a throne at one end of the room, with his officers and the representatives of the pope about him. In the center of the room was a table on which were copies of the books Luther had written. Luther was ready to explain his views. Instead the spokesman for the emperor asked him two questions. First, would Luther admit he was the author of the books on the table? Second, would he renounce them? To the first question Luther, without hesitation, answered, "Yes. The second question was not so easy to handle. Luther asked for more time to prepare his answer, and was given until the next day. Luther spent the night in prayer.

The next day, the hall was crowded. When his time came to speak, Luther began an explanation of the types of writings which were on the table. He was rudely interrupted, "Do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?"

Then slowly came Luther's reply. "Since Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and or 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. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

The diet was in confusion. Charles stalked out in anger. Back in his room Luther paced the floor in sadness, saying over and over again, "I am through! I am finished!"

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