The First Blow of the Reformation
The year 1517 marked the beginning new era for the church and the world. It was a period of great excitement in Germany. To replenish her treasuries, the Roman Church had opened a vast market on earth, and made merchandise of the grace of God. Indulgences was the name given to this merchandise. As the dealer entered a town, one went before him, crying, "The grace of God and of the Holy Father is at your gates." And the people welcomed the blasphemous pretender as if he were God himself come down from Heaven to them.
Tetzel, the leader in this infamous traffic, had been convicted of the basest offenses against society and against the law of God; but having escaped the punishment due to his crimes, he was now employed to further the mercenary and unscrupulous projects of the Romish Church. With shameless effrontery he framed the most glaring falsehoods, and related all manner of marvelous tales to deceive an ignorant, credulous, and superstitious people. Had they possessed the word of God, the unerring detector of sin and Satanic delusions, they could not have been thus deceived. It was to keep them under the control of the papacy, that they might swell the power and wealth of her ambitious leaders, that the Bible had been withheld from them.
Tetzel sets up his traffic in the church, and ascending the pulpit, he with great vehemence extols indulgences as the most precious gifts of God. "Draw near," he cries, "and I will give you letters, duly sealed, by which the sins you hereafter desire to commit shall be all forgiven you." "Even repentance is not indispensable." "But more than all this, indulgences save not only the living but the dead." "The very moment that the money clinks against the bottom of this chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies to Heaven." With such Heaven-daring blasphemy spoke this agent of Satan.
When Simon Magus offered to purchase of the apostles the power to work miracles, Peter answered him, "Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money." But Tetzel's offer was grasped by eager thousands. Gold and silver flowed into his treasury. A salvation that could be bought with money was more easily obtained than that which required repentance, faith and diligent effort to resist and overcome sin. They could sin as they pleased, and money would purchase their pardon.
The doctrine of indulgences had long been opposed by men of learning and piety in the Romish Church, and there were many who had no faith in pretensions so contrary to both reason and revelation. Yet no bishop dared to lift his voice against the fraud and corruption of this iniquitous traffic. The minds of men were becoming disturbed and uneasy, and they eagerly inquired if God would not work through some instrumentality for the purification of his church.
The traffic in indulgences, subversive as it was of the very foundation principles of the gospel, could not fail to arouse determined opposition on the part of Luther. Though still a papist of the straightest sort, he was filled with horror at the blasphemous assumptions of Tetzel and his associates. Many of his own congregation had purchased certificates of pardon, and they soon began to come to Luther confessing their various sins, and expecting absolution, not because they were penitent and wished to reform, but on the ground of the indulgence. Luther refused them absolution, and warned them that unless they should repent, and reform their lives, they must perish in their sins. In great perplexity, they sought out Tetzel, and informed him that Luther, an Augustine monk, had treated his letters with contempt. The friar was filled with rage. He uttered the most terrible curses, caused fires to be lighted in the public square, and declared that he had orders from the pope to burn the heretics who should dare to oppose his most holy indulgences.
Luther now enters boldly upon his work as a champion of the truth, fighting not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places. His voice is heard from the pulpit, in earnest, solemn warning. He sets before the people the offensive character of sin, and teaches them that it is impossible for man by his own works to lessen its guilt or evade its punishment. Nothing but repentance toward God and faith in Christ can save the sinner. The grace of Christ cannot be purchased. It is a free gift. He counsels the people not to buy the indulgences, but to look in faith to their crucified Redeemer. He relates his own painful experience in vainly seeking by humiliation and penance to secure salvation, and assures his hearers that it was by looking away from himself and believing in Christ that he found peace and joy unspeakable. He urges them to obtain, if possible, a copy of the Bible, and to study it diligently. It is those who do not learn and obey its sacred truths that are deceived by Satan, and left to perish in their iniquity.
A bold blow had been struck for the Reformation. But Satan was rallying his forces to control the minds of the people and maintain the traffic in the grace of God. He aroused such hatred against Luther that many were ready to silence his opposition, even by taking his life. Thus the great controversy between the Prince of light and the prince of darkness went steadily forward.
About this time the elector Frederic had a dream which made a deep impression upon his mind, and which seemed in a remarkable manner to foreshadow the work of the Reformation. "The feast of All-Saints was at hand, and the elector, having retired to rest, lay musing how he should keep the festival, and was praying for the poor souls in purgatory, and beseeching Divine guidance for himself, his counselors, and his people. Thus engaged, he fell asleep, and dreamed that a monk, a true son of the apostle Paul, was sent to him; and that all the saints accompanied him, for the purpose of testifying that he was divinely commissioned. They asked of the elector, that the monk might be allowed to write something on the church door at Wittenberg. The monk began to write, and the characters were so large and brilliant that they could be read at a great distance; and the pen he used was so long that its extremity reached even to Rome, and wounded the ears of a lion which was crouching there, and shook the triple crown on the pope's head. All the cardinals and princes ran to support it; and, as the dreamer himself joined in the effort to support the pope's crown, he awoke in great alarm, and angry with the monk who had used his pen so awkwardly. Presently he fell asleep again, and his strange dream continued; the disturbed lion began to roar, and Rome and all the surrounding States ran to make inquiry; and the pope demanded that the monk be restrained, and demanded this especially of the elector, as the monk dwelt in his dominions.
"Once more the elector awoke from his dream, besought God to preserve the holy father, the pope, and slept again. And still his strange dream continued, and he saw all the princes of the empire crowding to Rome, and all striving to break the mysterious pen. Yet the more they endeavored to break it, the stiffer it became; and when they asked the monk where he found it, and why it was so strong, he replied that he secured it from one of his old schoolmasters; that it belonged to a Bohemian goose* a hundred years old; and that it was strong because no man could take the pith out of it. Suddenly the dreamer heard an outcry, and lo, a great number of pens had issued from the long pen of the monk!"
The festival of All-Saints was an important day for Wittenberg. The costly relics of the church were then displayed before the people, and a full remission of sin was granted to all who visited the church and made confession. Accordingly on this day the people in great numbers flocked to Wittenberg.
On the 31st of October, the day preceding the festival, a monk went boldly to the church, to which a crowd of worshipers was already repairing, and affixed to the door ninety-five propositions against the doctrine of indulgences. That monk was Martin Luther. He went alone; not one of his most intimate friends knew of his design. As he fastened his theses upon the door of the church, he proclaimed himself ready to defend them the next day at the university itself against all opposers.
These propositions attracted universal attention. They were read and re-read and repeated in every direction. Great excitement was created in the university and in the whole city.
By these theses the doctrine of indulgences was fearlessly opposed. It was shown that the power to grant the pardon of sin, and to remit its penalty, had never been committed to the pope, or to any other man. The whole scheme was a farce, an artifice to extort money by playing upon the superstitions of the people, a device of Satan to destroy the souls of all who should trust to its lying pretensions. It was also clearly shown that the gospel of Christ was the most valuable treasure of the church, and that the grace of God, therein revealed, was freely bestowed upon all who should seek it by repentance and faith.
God was directing the labors of this fearless builder, and the work he wrought was firm and sure. He had faithfully presented the doctrine of grace, which would destroy the assumptions of the pope as a mediator, and lead the people to Christ alone as the sinner's sacrifice and intercessor. Thus was the elector's dream already beginning to be fulfilled. The pen which wrote upon the church door extended to Rome, disturbing the lion in his lair, and jostling the pope's diadem.
The sin-loving and superstitious multitudes were terrified as the sophistries that had soothed their fears were rudely swept away. Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their hellish work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold the pope.
Luther's theses challenged discussion; but not one dared to accept the challenge. By the grace of God, the blow struck by the monk of Wittenberg shook the very foundation of the papacy, stunned and terrified its supporters, and awakened thousands from the slumber of error and superstition. The questions which he proposed in his theses had in a few days spread throughout Germany, and in a few weeks they had sounded throughout Christendom. Many devoted Romanists, who had seen and lamented the terrible iniquity prevailing in the church, but had not known how to arrest its progress, read the propositions with great joy, recognizing in them the voice of God. They felt that the Lord had graciously set his hand to arrest the rapidly swelling tide of corruption that was issuing from the see of Rome. Princes and magistrates secretly rejoiced that a check was to be put upon the arrogant power from which there was no appeal.
Yet there were some who doubted and feared. The prior of Luther's order, frightened by Tetzel, came to the Reformer in great alarm, saying, "Pray do not bring disgrace upon your order." Luther had great respect for this man, and was deeply affected by his words, but rallying he replied, "Dear father, if the thing is not of God, it will come to naught. If it is, let it go forward."
But the Reformer had more bitter accusers to meet. Some charged him with acting hastily and from impulse. Others accused him of presumption, declaring that he was not directed of God, but was acting from pride and forwardness. "Who does not know," he responds, "that we can seldom advance a new idea without an appearance of pride, and without being accused of seeking quarrels? Why were Christ and all the martyrs put to death? Because they appeared proud despisers of the wisdom of the times in which they lived, and because they brought forward new truths without having first consulted the oracles of the old opinions."
Again he declares: "What I am doing will not be effected by the prudence of man, but by the counsel of God. If the work is of God, who shall stop it? If it is not, who can forward it? Not my will, not theirs, not ours; but thy will, thine, holy Father who art in Heaven."
Luther had been urged on by the Spirit of God to begin his work; but he was not to carry it forward without severe conflicts. The reproaches of his enemies, their misrepresentation of his purposes, and their unjust and malicious reflections upon his character and motives, came in upon him like an overwhelming flood; and they were not without effect. He had felt confident that the leaders in the church, and the philosophers of the nation, would gladly unite with him in efforts for reform. Words of encouragement from those in high position had inspired him with joy and hope. Already in anticipation he saw a brighter day dawning for the church. But encouragement had turned to reproach and condemnation. Many of the dignitaries both of the church and of the State were convicted of the truthfulness of Luther's theses; but they soon saw that the acceptance of these truths would involve great changes. To enlighten and reform the people would be virtually to undermine the papal authority, to stop millions of streams now flowing into her treasury, and thus greatly curtail the extravagance and luxury of the Romish leaders. Furthermore, to teach the people to think and act as responsible beings, looking to Christ alone for salvation, would overthrow the pontiff's throne, and eventually destroy their own authority. For this reason they refused the knowledge tendered them of God, and arrayed themselves against Christ and the truth by their opposition to the man whom he had sent to enlighten them.