A Luther-Lantern for Halloween
- Wednesday, October 31, 2001
Martin Luther took his vows very seriously. He was driven by his desire to find the merciful God. He said, "In the monastery I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me. For I had strayed from faith and could not but imagine that I had angered God, whom I in turn had to appease by doing good works."
Luther worked so hard at fasting and prayer that he was sometimes found unconscious in his austere little cubicle. He was obsessed that he would die with some unknown sin that would condemn him. In spite of fasting, detailed self-examination, even scourging, and every form of self-discipline that existed in the already strict order he had joined, he was utterly without peace of mind. The awful consciousness of the majesty and holiness of God, which had almost crushed him as he celebrated his first mass, never completely left him. He was tormented by the recognition of his own sin, and by the question, "Have I fasted, watched, prayed and confessed enough?"
It was one day in 1508 or 1509 that the Holy Spirit opened Martin Luther's eyes. He had been a monk for three or four years when, while reading the first chapter of Romans, he was struck by verse 17: "...as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’" It was as if "…the door of heaven had been thrown open wide."
It was to become the heart of Luther's theology, the truth that he would be willing to die for: "justification by faith offered to us freely in the gospel of Jesus Christ." All of his writings, which were encyclopedic by any human measure in any era, and for which he never took one cent while making his publisher wealthy, were nothing but an expansion of those six words—the just shall live by faith.
Those words did not remotely describe the Christian practice of his day, and the unlikely monk began to write and preach his way, as a professor and pastor of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, toward the collision with the Church of Rome that changed history. He knew eternity was in the balance every time he preached to his Saxon congregation and he knew the truth by which God had enlightened him was unpopular and objectionable to some, but he could do no less for the immortal souls entrusted to his care.
Most historians skim over the Reformation as an argument over indulgences that financed all manner of escapades by a corrupt pope. Church members were enticed to purchase them by the pope’s pronouncements that such would buy their deceased relatives out of purgatory and into heaven—a blasphemous idea and one of Luther’s ninety-five debating points.
But the real issue of the Reformation, "the hinge," as Luther called it, was justification by faith alone. Luther believed that justification by works as practiced by the Catholic Church was not what God had revealed in the Scriptures and was in fact under condemnation. He shared Augustine’s conviction, stated over a thousand years earlier, and of course the apostle Paul, that salvation was by grace alone.
As Luther stood before his accusers at the Diet of Worms he was the picture of godly calm, but the day before, April 17th, the first day of his trial had been a different story. He had ridden proudly into Worms at the head of a massive entourage of his followers. When a friend advised him enroute by letter not to enter Worms, he replied by letter in his usual bombastic way, "Though there were as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I will go there."
Yet he was gravely ill enroute, probably from the stress. A crowd of 2000 people gathered around his carriage when he arrived in Worms at a guesthouse of his King, Frederick the Wise of Saxony. He had been given safe passage by the pope, but so had John Huss a century earlier, and virtually no one thought it meant anything this time either. People were more anxious to see Luther than the Emperor Charles V himself, a fact that must been hard on the ego of the twenty-one-year-old emperor.
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