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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 7 — Luther in Rome

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Enchantment – Ruins – Holy Places – Rome's Nazarites – Rome's Holiness – Luther's Eyes begin to Open – Pilate's Stairs – A Voice heard a Third Time – A Key that Opens the Closed Gates of Paradise – What Luther Learned at Rome

AFTER many a weary league, Luther's feet stand at last within the gates of Rome. What now are his feelings? Is it a Paradise or a Pandemonium in which he is arrived?

The enchantment continued for some little while. Luther tried hard to realize the dreams which had lightened his toilsome journey. Here he was breathing holier air, so he strove to persuade himself; here he was mingling with a righteous people; while the Nazarites of the Lord were every moment passing by in their long robes, and the chimes pealed forth all day long, and, not silent even by night, told of the prayers and praises that were continually ascending in the temples of the metropolis of Christendom.

The first things that struck Luther were the physical decay and ruin of the place. Noble palaces and glorious monuments rose on every side of him, but, strangely enough, mingled with these were heaps of rubbish and piles of ruins. These were the remains of the once imperial glory of the city – the spoils of war, the creations of genius, the labors of art which had beautified it in its palmy days. They showed him what Rome had been under her pagan consuls and emperors, and they enabled him to judge how much she owed to her Popes. [1]

Luther gazed with veneration on these defaced and mutilated remains, associated as they were in his mind with the immortal names of the great men whose deeds had thrilled him, and whose writings had instructed him in his native land. Here, too, thought Luther, the martyrs had died; on the floor of this stupendous ruin, the Coliseum, had they contended with the lions; on this spot, where now stands the sumptuous temple of St. Peter, and where the Vicar of Christ has erected his throne, were they used "as torches to illumine the darkness of the night." Over this city, too, Paul's feet had walked, and to this city had that letter been sent, and here had it first been opened and read, in which occur the words that had been the means of imparting to him a new life – "The just shall live by faith."

The first weeks which Luther passed in Rome were occupied in visiting the holy places, [2] and saying mass at the altars of the more holy of its churches. For, although Luther was converted in heart, and rested on the one Mediator, his knowledge was imperfect, and the darkness of his mind still remained in part. The law of life in the soul may not be able all at once to develop into an outward course of liberty, and the ideas may be reformed while the old acts and habits of legal belief may for a time survive. It was not easy for Luther or for Christendom to find its way out of a night of twelve centuries. Even to this hour that night remains brooding over a full half of Europe.

If it was the physical deformities of Rome – the scars which war or barbarism had inflicted – that formed the first stumbling-blocks to Luther, it was not long till he began to see that these outward blemishes were as nothing to the hideous moral and spiritual corruptions that existed beneath the surface. The luxury, lewdness, and impiety that shocked him in the first Italian towns he had entered, and which had attended him in every step of his journey since crossing the Alps, were all repeated in Rome on a scale of seven-fold magnitude. His practice of saying mass at all the more favored churches brought him into daily contact with the priests; he saw them behind the scenes; he heard their talk, and he could not conceal from himself – though the discovery unspeakably shocked and pained him – that these men were simply playing a part, and that in private they held in contempt and treated with mockery the very rites which in public they celebrated with so great a show of devotion. If he was shocked at their profane levity, they on their part were no less astonished at his solemn credulity, and jeered him as a dull German, who had not genius enough to be a skeptic, nor cunning enough to be a hypocrite – a fossilized specimen, in short, of a fanaticism common enough in the twelfth century, but which it amazed them to find still existing in the sixteenth.

One day Luther was saying mass in one of the churches of Rome with his accustomed solemnity. While he had been saying one mass, the priests at the neighboring altars had sung seven. "Make haste, and send Our Lady back her Son:" such was the horrible scoff with which they reproved his delay, as they accounted it. [3] To them "Lady and Son" were worth only the money they brought. But these were the common priests. Surely, thought he, faith and piety still linger among the dignitaries of the Church! How mistaken was even this belief, Luther was soon to discover. One day he chanced to find himself at table with some prelates. Taking the German to be a man of the same easy faith with themselves, they lifted the veil a little too freely. They openly expressed their disbelief in the mysteries of their Church, and shamelessly boasted of their cleverness in deceiving and befooling the people. Instead of the words, "Hoc est meum corpus," etc. – the words at the utterance of which the bread is changed, as the Church of Rome teaches, into the flesh and blood of Christ – these prelates, as they themselves told him, were accustomed to say, "Panis es, et panis manebis,"

etc. – Bread thou art, and bread thou wilt remain – and then, said they, we elevate the Host, and the people bow down and worship.

Luther was literally horrified: it was as if an abyss had suddenly yawned beneath him. But the horror was salutary; it opened his eyes. Plainly he must renounce belief in Christianity or in Rome. His struggles at Erfurt had but too surely deepened his faith in the first to permit him to cast it off: it was the last, therefore, that must be let go; but as yet it was not Rome in her doctrines and rites, but Rome in her clergy, from which Luther turned away.

Instead of a city of prayers and alms, of contrite hearts and holy lives, Rome was full of mocking hypocrisy, defiant skepticism, jeering impiety, and shameless revelry. Borgia had lately closed his infamous Pontificate, and the warlike Julius II. was now reigning. A powerful police patrolled the city every night. They were empowered to deal summary justice on offenders, and those whom they caught were hanged at the next post or thrown into the Tiber. But all the vigilance of the patrol could not secure the peace and safety of the streets. Robberies and murders were of nightly occurrence. "If there be a hell," said Luther, "Rome is built over it." [4]

And yet it was at Rome, in the midst of all this darkness, that the light shone fully into the mind of the Reformer, and that the great leading idea, that on which his own life was based, and on which he based the whole of that Reformation which God honored him to accomplish – the doctrine of justification by faith alone – rose upon him in its full-orbed splendor. We naturally ask, How did this come about? What was there in this city of Popish observances to reveal the reformed faith? Luther was desirous of improving every hour of his stay in Rome, where religious acts done on its holy soil, and at its privileged altars and shrines, had a tenfold degree of merit; accordingly he busied himself in multiplying these, that he might nourish his piety, and return a holier man than he came; for as yet he saw but dimly the sole agency of faith in the justification of the sinner.

One day he went, under the influence of these feelings, to the Church of the Lateran. There is the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs, which tradition says Christ descended on retiring from the hall of judgment, where Pilate had passed sentence upon him. These stairs are of marble, and the work of conveying them from Jerusalem to Rome was reported to have been undertaken and executed by the angels, who have so often rendered similar services to the Church – Our Lady's House at Loretto for example. The stairs so transported were enshrined in the Palace of the Lateran, and every one who climbs them on his knees merits an indulgence of fifteen years for each ascent. Luther, who doubted neither the legend touching the stairs, nor the merit attached by the bulls of the Popes to the act of climbing them, went thither one day to engage in this holy act. He was climbing the steps in the appointed way, on his knees namely, earning at every step a year's indulgence, when he was startled by a sudden voice, which seemed as if it spoke from heaven, and said, "The just shall live by faith." Luther started to his feet in amazement. This was the third time these same words had been conveyed into his mind with such emphasis, that it was as if a voice of thunder had uttered them. It seemed louder than before, and he grasped more fully the great truth which it announced. What folly, thought he, to seek an indulgence from the Church, which can last me but a few years, when God sends me in his Word an indulgence that will last me for ever! [5] How idle to toil at these performances, when God is willing to acquit me of all my sins not as so much wages for so much service, but freely, in the way of believing upon his Son! "The just shall live by faith." [6]

From this time the doctrine of justification by faith alone – in other words, salvation by free grace – stood out before Luther as the one great comprehensive doctrine of revelation. He held that it was by departing from this doctrine that the Church had fallen into bondage, and had come to groan under penances and works of self-righteousness. In no other way, he believed, could the Church find her way back to truth and liberty than by returning to this doctrine. This was the road to true reformation. This great article of Christianity was in a sense its fundamental article, and henceforward Luther began to proclaim it as eminently the Gospel – the whole Gospel in a single phrase. With relics, with privileged altars, with Pilate's Stairs, he would have no more to do; this one sentence, "The just shall live by faith," had more efficacy in it a thousand times over than all the holy treasures that Rome contained. It was the key that unlocked the closed gates of Paradise; it was the star that went before his face, and led him to the throne of a Savior, there to find a free salvation. It needed but to re-kindle that old light in the skies of the Church, and a day, clear as that of apostolic times, would again shine upon her. This was what Luther now proposed doing.

The words in which Luther recorded this purpose are very characteristic. "I, Doctor Martin Luther," writes he, "unworthy herald of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, confess this article, that faith alone without works justifies before God; and I declare that it shall stand and remain for ever, in

despite of the Emperor of the Romans, the Emperor of the Turks, the Emperor of the Tartars, the Emperor of the Persians; in spite of the Pope and all the cardinals, with the bishops, priests, monks, and nuns; in spite of kings, princes, and nobles; and in spite of all the world, and of the devils themselves; and that if they endeavor to fight against this truth they will draw the fires of hell upon their own heads. This is the true and holy Gospel, and the declaration of me, Doctor Martin Luther, according to the teaching of the Holy Ghost. We hold fast to it in the name of God. Amen." This was what Luther learned at Rome. Verily, he believed, it was worth his long and toilsome journey thither to learn this one truth. Out of it were to come the life that would revive Christendom, the light that would illuminate it, and the holiness that would purify and adorn it. In that one doctrine lay folded the whole Reformation. "I would not have missed my journey to Rome," said Luther afterwards, "for a hundred thousand florins."

When he turned his back on Rome, he turned his face toward the Bible. The Bible henceforward was to be to Luther the true city of God.


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Sunday, June 24th, 2018
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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