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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 5 — History of Protestantism in Germany to the Leipsic Disputation, 1519

Chapter 4 — Luther the monk becomes Luther the reformer

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Staupitz – Visits the Convent at Erfurt – Meets Luther – Conversations between the Vicar-General and the Monk – The Cross – Repentance – A Free Salvation – The Dawn Begins – The Night Returns – An Old Monk – "The Forgiveness of Sins" – Luther's Full Emancipation – A Rehearsal – Christendom's Burden – How Delivered

AS in the darkest night a star will at times look forth, all the lovelier that it shines out amidst the clouds of tempest, so there appeared at intervals, during the long and dark night of Christendom, a few men of eminent piety in the Church of Rome. Taught of the Spirit, they trusted not in the Church, but in Christ alone, for salvation; and amid the darkness that surrounded them they saw the light, and followed it. One of these men was John Staupitz.

Staupitz was Vicar-General of the Augustines of Germany. He knew the way of salvation, having learned it from the study of Augustine and the Bible. He saw and acknowledged the errors and vices of the age, and deplored the devastation they were inflicting on the Church. The purity of his own life condemned the corruptions around him, but he lacked the courage to be the Reformer of Christendom. Nevertheless, God honored him by making him signally serviceable to the man who was destined to be that Reformer. [1]

It chanced to the Vicar-General to be at this time on a tour of visitation among the convents of the Augustinians in Germany, and the path he had traced for himself led him to that very monastery within whose walls the sore struggle we have described was going on. Staupitz came to Erfurt. His eye, trained to read the faces on which it fell, lighted on the young monk. The first glance awoke his interest in him. He marked the brow on which he thought he could see the shadow of some great sorrow, the eye that spoke of the anguish within, the frame worn to almost a skeleton by the wrestlings of the spirit; the whole man so meek, so chastened, so bowed down; and yet about him withal an air of resolution not yet altogether vanquished, and of strength not yet wholly dried up. Staupitz himself had tasted the cup of which Luther was now drinking. He had been in trouble of soul, although, to use the language of the Bible, he had but "run with the footmen," while Luther was contending "with horses." His own experience enabled him to guess at the inner history of the monk who now stood before him.

The Vicar-General called the monk to him, spoke words of kindness – accents now become strange to Luther, for the inmates of his monastery could account for his conflicts only by believing him possessed of the Evil One – and by degrees he won his confidence. Luther felt that there was a mysterious influence in the words of Staupitz, which penetrated his soul, and was already exerting a soothing and mitigating effect upon his trouble. In the Vicar-General the monk met the first man who really understood his case.

They conversed together in the secrecy of the monastic cell. Luther laid open his whole soul; he concealed nothing from the Vicar-General. He told him all his temptations, all his horrible thoughts – his vows a thousand times repeated and as often broken; how he shrank from the sight of his own vileness, and how he trembled when he thought of the holiness of God. It was not the sweet promise of mercy, but the fiery threatening of the law, on which he dwelt. "Who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth?"

The wise Staupitz saw how it was. The monk was standing in the presence of the Great Judge without a days-man. He was dwelling with Devouring Fire; he was transacting with God just as he would have done if no cross had ever been set up on Calvary, and no "place for repentance." "Why do you torture yourself with these thoughts? Look at the wounds of Christ," said Staupitz, anxious to turn away the monk's eye from his own wounds – his stripes, macerations, fastings – by which he hoped to move God to pity. "Look at the blood Christ shed for you," continued his skillful counselor; "it is there the grace of God will appear to you." "I cannot and dare not come to God," replied Luther, in effect, "till I am a better man; I have not yet repented sufficiently." "A better man!" would the Vicar-General say in effect; "Christ came to save not good men, but sinners. Love God, and you will have repented; there is no real repentance that does not begin in the love of God; and there is no love to God that does not take its rise in all apprehension of that mercy which offers to sinners freedom from sin through the blood of Christ." "Faith in the mercies of God! This is the star that goeth before the face of Repentance, the pillar of fire that guideth her in the night of her sorrows, and giveth her light," [2] and showeth her the way to the throne of God.

These were wise words, and "the words of the wise are as nails, and as goads fastened in a sure place by the master of assemblies." So was it with the words of the Vicar-General; a light from heaven accompanied them, and shone into the understanding of Luther. He felt that a healing balm had touched his wound, that a refreshing oil had been poured upon his bruised spirit. Before leaving him, the Vicar-General made him the present of a Bible, which Luther received with unbounded joy; and most sacredly did he obey the parting injunction of Staupitz: "Let the study of the Scriptures be your favorite occupation." [3]

But the change in Luther was not yet

complete. It is hard to enter into life – to cast out of the heart that distrust and fear of God with which sin has filled it, and take in the grand yet true idea of God's infinite love, and absolutely free and boundless mercy.

Luther's faith was as yet but as a grain of mustard-seed. After Staupitz had taken leave of him he again turned his eye from the Savior to himself; the clouds of despondency and fear that instant gathered; and his old conflicts, though not with the same violence, were renewed. He fell ill, and in his sore sickness he lay at the gates of death. It pleased God on this bed, and by a very humble instrument, to complete the change which the Vicar-General had commenced. An aged brother-monk who, as Luther afterwards said, was doubtless a true Christian though he wore "the cowl of damnation," came to his bedside, and began to recite with much simplicity and earnestness the Apostle's Creed, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." Luther repeated after him in feeble accents, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." "Nay," said the monk, "you are to believe not merely in the forgiveness of David's sins, and of Peter's sins; you must believe in the forgiveness of your own sins." [4] The decisive words had been spoken. A ray of light had penetrated the darkness that encompassed Luther. He saw it all: the whole Gospel in a single phrase, the forgiveness of sins – not the payment, but the forgiveness.

In that hour the principle of Popery in Luther's soul fell. He no longer looked to himself and to the Church for salvation. He saw that God had freely forgiven him in His Son Jesus Christ. His prison doors stood open. He was in a new world. God had loosed his sackcloth and girded him with gladness. The healing of his spirit brought health to his body; and in a little while he rose from that bed of sickness, which had so nearly been to him the bed of death. The gates of destruction were, in God's marvelous mercy, changed into the gates of Paradise.

The battle which Luther fought in this cell was in reality a more sublime one than that which he afterwards had to fight before the Diet of the Empire at Worms. Here there is no crowd looking on, no dramatic lights fall upon the scene, the conflict passes in the obscurity of a cell; but all the elements of the morally sublime are present. At Worms, Luther stood before the powers and principalities of earth, who could but kill the body, and had no more that they could do. Here he meets the powers and principalities of darkness, and engages in a struggle, the issue of which is to him eternal life or eternal death. And he triumphs! This cell was the cradle of a new life to Luther, and a new life to Christendom. But before it could be the cradle of a new life it had first to become a grave. Luther had here to struggle not only to tears and groans: he had to struggle unto death. "Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die." So did the Spirit of God inspire Paul to announce what is a universal law. In every case death must precede a new life. The new life of the Church at the beginning of the Christian era came from a grave, the sepulcher of Christ. Before we ourselves can put on immortality we must die and be buried. In this cell at Erfurt died Martin Luther the monk, and in this cell was born Martin Luther the Christian, and the birth of Luther the Christian was the birth of the Reformation in Germany. [5]

Let us pause here, and notice how the Reformation rehearsed itself first of all in the cell at Erfurt, and in the soul of Luther, before coming forth to display its power on the public stage of Germany and of Christendom. The finger of God touched the human conscience, and the mightiest of all forces awoke. The Reformation's birth-place was not the cabinet of kings, nor the closet of philosophers and scholars: it had its beginnings in the depths of the spiritual world – in the inextinguishable needs and longings of the human soul, quickened, after a long sleep, by divinely ordained instrumentalities.

For ages the soul of man had "groaned, being burdened." That burden was the consciousness of sin. The method taken to be rid of that burden was not the forgiveness, but the payment of sin. A Church arose which, although retaining "the forgiveness of sins" as an article in her creed, had discarded it from her practice; or rather, she had substituted her own "forgiveness of sins" for God's.

The Gospel came to men in the beginning preaching a free pardon. To offer forgiveness on any other terms would have been to close heaven while professing to open it. But the Church of Rome turned the eyes of men from the salvation of the Gospel, to a salvation of which she assumed to be the exclusive and privileged owner. That on which the Gospel had put no price, knowing that to put upon it the smallest price was wholly to withhold it, the Church put a very great price. Salvation was made a marketable commodity; it was put up for sale, and whoever wished to possess it had to pay the price which the Church had put upon it. Some paid the price in good works, some paid it in austerities and penances, and some in money. Each paid in the coin that most suited his taste, or convenience, or ability; but all had to pay. Christendom, in process of time, was covered with a vast apparatus for carrying on this spiritual traffic. An order of men was established, through whose hands exclusively this ghostly merchandise passed.

Over and above the great central emporium of this traffic, which was opened on the Seven Hills, hundreds and thousands of inferior marts were established all over Christendom. Cloisters and convents arose for those who chose to pay in penances; temples and churches were built for those who chose to pay in prayers and masses; and privileged shrines and confessional-boxes for those who preferred paying in money. One half of Christendom reveled in sin because they were wealthy, and the other half groaned under self-inflicted mortifications because they were poor. When at length the principle of a salvation purchased from the Church had come to its full height, it fell.

But Christendom did not deliver itself on the principle of payment. It was not by remaining the bondsman of the Church, and toiling in its service of penances and works of merit, that it wrought out its emancipation. It found that this road would never lead to liberty. Its burden, age after age, was growing but the heavier. Its case had become hopeless, when the sound of the old Gospel, like the silver trumpets of the Day of Jubilee, broke upon its ear: it listened: it cast off the yoke of ceremonies: it turned from man's pardon to God's; from the Church to Christ; from the penance of the cell to the sacrifice of the Cross. Its emancipation was accomplished.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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