Why Family Worship Is Difficult

Family worship (or family devotions, as we called them when I was a kid) is the gathering of a family together during the week to reflect in smaller ways what the gathered church does each Sunday together. This can be one of the most encouraging—but also most frustrating and discouraging—parts of the Christian life.

Responses to the idea of family worship tend toward extremes—(1) imagining a glorious ideal that will never happen or (2) simply throwing up your hands and saying you can’t do it. While both are temptations, I’d encourage you to hang in there and trust that the Lord will give you grace in this effort.

Many people don’t have the opportunity to enjoy family worship, due to life’s circumstances (unbelieving parents, unengaged parents, schedules that don’t intersect, etc.), but there are many other families who could pursue Christ together as a family but don’t.

So what are some obstacles to regular family worship?

The family itself can make time together hard. Different stages of life mean different things, and each stages brings its own challenges. When your kids are young, it’s hard to get them to sit still. As they grow older, it’s hard to get everyone in the same place at the same time. And it’s hard to keep kids of different ages engaged (if you have multiple kids). Furthermore, while in two-parent homes Dad should serve as the spiritual leader, Mom is often more engaged and interested in the spiritual well-being of the family.

We schedule our lives to the max. We tend to live this way individually, and this is magnified exponentially when it comes to families. School, sports, music, scouting, gymnastics, dance … the list could go on. And that doesn’t include the reality that our work tends to come with us wherever we go, and we have responsibilities at home and in our communities that are time-consuming. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time for the basic things of life, let alone things that aren’t absolutely required.

Our culture doesn’t value family time together. In ads or commercials for family events, they’re almost always geared around entertainment—Disney, a family smiling warmly at their devices, or watching a movie together. The idea of people sitting in a room and just being together without some form of entertainment feels more and more distant from everyday experience.

Let’s face it—we’ve all been here. It’s hard to work up the energy to do one more thing after (or before) a long day at work. It doesn’t seem urgent, and we can get by without it. So we do things that are easier and that we can “slide” into. Gathering a family together and leading in a time of worship takes effort and intentionality.

Legalism is the idea that we can earn God’s approval by performing to a certain standard. In a desire to avoid legalism we sometimes avoid doing good things that people who love the Lord should do. Because there’s no “law” that says we must, we neglect something that we should delight to do in love.

Lack of knowledge
Leading in family worship can be intimidating. We all feel lost sometimes. We don’t feel that we have the skill or resources to do it, so we avoid it altogether. Or we might give it a shot, but we’re just so lost that we lose our way altogether.

Fear of failure
Many parents (and dads in particular) are aware of their failings across a broad spectrum of life. It’s hard for someone who feels that he’s failing to lead a family to worship God. Beyond that, it’s hard to want to add another area in which it’s easy to fail—either by doing a poor job of leading (or feeling like you are) or starting something but not continuing faithfully in it.

If you find yourself failing or feeling discouraged, hang in there!

Tips on Prayer

Do you ever pray, other than before a meal or a quick breathed prayer before or a big test or job interview? Prayer is one of the simplest, yet most difficult, Christian practices. Here are some thoughts that may help in establishing the discipline of regularly talking to God in prayer:

1. Pray.
Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t wait until you’ve got the perfect system. Get into the habit of talking with God, rather than just talking with yourself about what’s going on. Set aside time in your schedule to help make this happen.

2. Find places you can go and things you can do to help you pray.
It might be taking a walk or riding your bike. Perhaps it’s getting alone in a quiet place. It might be riding in the car, leaving off the music and podcasts, and talking to God.

3. Use written guides in prayer.
Start a prayer list or prayer journal. “PrayerMate” is an app that can be quite helpful.  Create categories for prayer on different days of the week. Pray for extended family one day; pray for friends another day; pray through your church membership another day. Find something that helps you pray.

4. Use Scripture.
The Bible is full of prayers. Take a walk sometime and pray a psalm back to God. Study the prayers in the Old and New Testaments, and let those guide your prayer time.

Prayer can be hard, but the fruit is worth the effort: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working!” (James 5:16).

A Better Path

In a world that’s characterized by increasing polarization, with both ends of the spectrum complaining about how terrible the other is, we can choose a different, better path.

Rather than interacting with people who annoy us as if they annoy us, what if we caught a vision for how Jesus treated people that seemed like an inconvenience? What if we begin to treat irritations with mercy and grace?

And then imagine that our actions have the power to affect the way others interact. If there’s ever been a day that needs people to show mercy to those that don’t deserve it, it’s our day. Instead of viewing differences as obstacles, view them as opportunities for mercy and grace.

Sometimes people can’t hear the truth, because of our lack of mercy. If people reject Jesus, let it be because they reject him and his message, not because we’re so pugnacious or politically-affiliated that they can’t even hear the words of good news.

Reformation: Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)

Searching for biographies on Martin Luther will lead you to more than you have time to read—some excellent, some not so excellent. Look for biographies on John Calvin, and you’ll find a smattering of options. Ulrich Zwingli, by contrast, has had relatively little written about his life and legacy. He’s often tossed into the discussion as the “third Reformer” after Luther and Calvin, but available resources on his life are rather scarce. That being said, his life is fascinating on its own merit, and he is a prodigious Reformer.

Birth & Childhood
While Calvin made his mark in Geneva, Switzerland, he was a Frenchman by birth. Zwingli was a Swiss Reformer through and through. He was born at the dawn of the new year, January 1, 1484. His more famous German counterpart, Martin Luther, was born just two months before in late 1483. Zwingli’s home was in the rustic town of Wildhaus, in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

Though Wildhaus was a small village, the Zwinglis were one of the chief families of the town. Ulrich senior, Zwingli’s father, was a successful farmer and chief magistrate and held a position of good income and respect. Zwingli was one of several children who grew up in a log cabin, topped off by a roof of wooden shingles.

Swiss Mercenaries
While the Alps are beautiful, it wasn’t a simple thing to scratch out a living there. Some men raised cattle, while others became lumberjacks or furniture makers. But the most profitable occupation was soldiering. While the Swiss are noted for their neutrality today, in Zwingli’s day they were noted mercenary soldiers.

The French hired many Swiss soldiers to fight their battles, and the Swiss were noted for being fierce, competent warriors. Pope Julius II hired Swiss soldiers to form the bulk of his army and personal bodyguard. The well-known legend of William Tell (the father who shot the apple off of his son’s head) was a beloved story of the day.

The Alps were the beloved backdrop of Zwingli’s life. He later translated Psalm 23: “In the beautiful Alps, he tends me.”

Though soldiering would have a lifelong effect on Zwingli, he was destined for a different life. His first teacher was his Uncle Bartholomew, and he began his learning in a rustic log cabin. Zwingli quickly distinguished himself as bright and precocious. From his early days in school, he studied the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.

When he had learned all he could from his uncle, he went to Basel for further education. There he interacted with other students who were similarly passionate about learning, and his horizons expanded. He was a skilled debater, a discipline that would stand him in good stead later in life. At the recommendation of his teacher, Zwingli next went to the town of Berne for further education. He became known there as a skilled musician and fine singer. His talents led some Dominican monks to attempt to recruit him. At just 13 years of age, Zwingli was still impressionable, but his father had greater plans than a life of poverty in a Dominican monastery.

Therefore, in 1498 Zwingli enrolled in the university at Vienna. Four years later, he returned to Basel at the age of 18 to continue his education and teach Latin. While in Basel, Zwingli grew increasingly wary of papal corruption. The current pope, Alexander VI, had several mistresses and children by the those mistresses. In 1506 he received a Master of Arts degree and became the parish priest in the Swiss village of Glarus. Glarus served as an army base of sorts, funneling men into the pope’s army.

Influence of Humanism
The most famous humanist scholar of Zwingli’s era was Desiderius Erasmus. While the worst of humanism worships humanity and prizes human reason above divine revelation, in many ways the humanists advanced education and the Reformation itself. Humanists emphasized the necessity of studying original sources and of finding the truth. Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was a primary source for the Reformers in their efforts to understand the Word itself.

Army Chaplain
Zwingli went on two military campaigns as a military chaplain—in 1512 and again in 1515. Both were Italian campaigns, as part of the papal army. The campaign of 1512 saw great success, and on June 6, 1513, 13,000 Swiss soldiers routed a French army of 20,000. The second campaign, however, was a far different matter. The Swiss army, as part of the pope’s forces, met a huge French force near Milan. It was a bloodbath, and the French cannon slaughtered the Swiss pikemen. More than 10,000 men died in that Battle of Marignano.

Zwingli suddenly found himself disillusioned with war and the pope. He began to reexamine his life, his reasons for living, and everything he’d ever known. This led him to closer and closer study of Scripture. In 1513, between the two Italian campaigns, he’d begun to learn Greek in an effort to better understand the Word. Now his labor began to come to fruition.

Studying the Word
In 1516 Zwingli purchased a copy of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. As a priest, he was permitted to possess a copy of the Word, but he then took the rather unusual step of actually studying the Bible. He was so devoted to the Scriptures that he memorized almost the entire New Testament … in Greek.

Though Zwingli began to see the need for a living relationship with Christ, he struggled throughout this period with a desire for human intimacy and fell prey to immorality, even having a relationship with a prostitute. In spite of his personal struggles, Zwingli began to see the truth more and more clearly.

Zwingli’s fame as a powerful preacher continued to grow. He had begun preaching against mercenary fighting and thus forced to leave Glarus in 1516. He served for two years as a priest in a monastery at Einsiedeln and continued to grow in influence. In 1518, therefore, he was appointed to a prestigious position as priest in Zurich, a city of some 5000 people. Some folks opposed his appointment because he openly confessed that he had recently been with a prostitute. His repentance, however, seemed to be genuine, and what he did next was more revolutionary than anything he’d done up to this point.

On New Year’s Day, 1519, Zwingli announced on his birthday—his first sermon in his new pulpit—that rather than preaching through set liturgical readings, he would preach expositionally through the Gospel of Matthew and then continue to preach his way through the New Testament. His preaching began to focus increasingly on the gospel itself, not on church tradition.

Unlike Luther, Zwingli’s reformation wasn’t the result of great personal agony. Rather, it arose from a commitment to study the Scriptures as a humanist would—to see what it said and live according to its teachings. When someone arrived in Zurich to sell indulgences, Zwingli convinced local officials to expel the salesman before he could even begin selling his indulgences.

The Plague
It was later in 1519 that another traumatic event changed Zwingli’s life. The plague, killing thousands throughout Europe, had come to Zurich. Zwingli performed the Requiem, the Mass of the Dead, so many times that year that he began quoting it in his sleep.

His youngest brother, Andrew, was living with him at the time, but Zwingli sent him away to be free of the plague. Eventually Zwingli himself caught to the plague. It seemed that he would die. It was at this time that he penned these words:

Help me, O Lord, my strength and rock;
Lo, at the door I hear death’s knock.
Yet, if thy voice in life’s mid-day,
Recalls my soul, then I obey.
Uplift thine arm, once pierced for me,
That conquered death, and set me free.
In faith and hope earth I resign,
Secure of heaven, for I am thine.

Soon a rumor began to circulate: “Ulrich Zwingli is dead.” Friends and family began to mourn for him. But as the famous American author Mark Twain once remarked, the reports of Zwingli’s death were greatly exaggerated.

Zwingli’s brother Andrew returned to Zurich to nurse his brother back to health. By this time, the plague was receding, and the environment was much safer. It took a great while for Zwingli to recover. Tragically, Andrew’s sacrifice for his brother would cost him his own life. As Ulrich grew stronger, Andrew weakened and died on November 19, 1519.

Zwingli knelt by his brother’s deathbed and sobbed uncontrollably and lapsed into sudden and terrible grief for days. All this took place in the first year of Zwingli’s ministry in Zurich.

Sausage and Lent
Zwingli’s influence continued to grow. In 1520, the Zurich town council decreed that preachers could preach only Scripture, not church tradition. Zwingli’s preaching began to increasingly clash with church dogma. In 1522, he clashed with the Roman church over Lent. The church required that faithful church members eat no meat during Lent. Zwingli preached against and wrote against this fast. A local businessman responded to Zwingli’s teaching by having a sausage feast during Lent. Charges were brought against the businessman and Zwingli. Zwingli’s response? “If you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meat, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter.”

In 1522 Zwingli was secretly married to Anna Reinhard. It was considered a great scandal for a priest to marry, though many priests lived in immoral relationships. Therefore, Ulrich and Anna lived together married but—to external appearances—cohabiting, which, ironically, was considered a less scandalous living situation for a priest than marriage itself. In 1524, Zwingli threw convention to the wind and openly married his wife.

Zwingli wrote a letter to the bishop in behalf of Swiss priests: “Influenced by the Word of God, we are persuaded that it is far more desirable if we marry wives, that Christ’s little ones may not be offended, than if, with bold brow, we continue rioting in fornication.” Though church tradition didn’t change, Zwingli’s thinking continued to grow.

The 67 Articles
In January of 1523 Zwingli engaged in a debate known as the First Disputation. The bishop sent Johann Faber as an official church representative (there was earlier talk of a debate between Zwingli and Johann Eck, Luther’s great opponent), and several hundred folks watched the two men debate. Zwingli wrote his 67 Articles in preparation for the debate. His theses were far more thorough, radical, and Protestant than Luther’s original 95 Theses, which had addressed only the abuse of the sale of indulgences.

Zwingli opened with a prayer: “Deus det nobis suam pacem” (“May God grant us his peace”). He followed with these words: “You know what a revival has taken place among us during these last five years. The decrepit human laws and statutes have finally begun to give way to the gospel of God’s blessed Son, which we have preached from his Word. We have declared that all our true happiness, consolation, and good consists, not in our merits, nor in external works, rather alone in Jesus Christ our Savior, to whom the heavenly Father himself gave witness that we should hear him as his beloved Son. For this preaching I am maligned by many as a heretic, a liar, a deceiver, and one disobedient to the Christian Church. Now, if anyone thinks that my sermons or teachings … are unchristian or heretical, let them speak in the name of God. Here I am!”

To this Faber responded, and the debate was on. Though Faber was smoother and more well-mannered than Zwingli, it was Zwingli who had the more persuasive arguments. The question of the day was this: must people submit to the tradition of the church or to the Word of God itself?

The city council of Zurich rendered an official declaration after the debate: “The city council of Zurich has resolved that Master Zwingli continue as before to proclaim the holy gospel, and the pure holy Scripture, with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, all priests and preachers in this city and canton shall do likewise and refrain from slander under strict penalty imposed by this council.”

After the debate, Zwingli expanded his 67 Articles into a full-fledged book. There was a Second Disputation in October of 1523, leading to further reforms. Zwingli had carried the day.

The Marburg Colloquy
For some time, the churches in Zurich remained officially Roman Catholic, but in 1525 Zwingli convinced the city council to abolish the Mass and take a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. The following Sunday, rather than standing with his back to the congregation and presenting the Supper to God as a priest, he stood behind the communion table, as a shepherd bringing bread to God’s people.

The Lord’s Supper prove to be a dividing point not only with the Roman Catholic Church but also among the various sections of the Reformation as well.

In 1529, representatives from the Swiss and German Reformation movements met in Marburg, Germany. It was a “who’s who” of Reformers: Luther, Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Philip Melancthon, Johannes, Oecolampadius, and others. Luther and Zwingli led the two sides in a debate and attempted to harmonize their doctrine into a cohesive system of theological thought. Though they agreed on 14 points, they clashed on the 15th: the Lord’s Supper. While both sides rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, they couldn’t agree with each other.

Luther held to the real presence of Christ in the Supper, while Zwingli believed that the Supper was a mere memorial—a way of remembering Christ’s sacrifice. Though Zwingli’s views later morphed to be somewhat closer to Calvin’s spiritual presence of Christ, the two sides could find no agreement.

It was here that some of Luther’s personal weakness displayed themselves. Luther accused Zwingli of being of the devil and a “wormy nut.” Zwingli resented being treated “like an ass.” When Zwingli was later killed in battle, Luther snorted derisively when he heard the news. Luther also said that “Zwingli was a ‘very good man,’ yet of a ‘different spirit,’ and hence refused to accept his hand of fellowship offered to him with tears.”

Though Zwingli was forced to leave Glarus for preaching against mercenary soldiers, Zwingli failed to learn his own lesson. In 1531, Zurich found itself threatened by 5 Catholic cantons. Zwingli went into battle again as a chaplain. He was clad in full armor and armed with a battle-axe. Badly wounded on October 11, 1531, he was later found by enemy soldiers who finished him off. The Catholic armies then cut his body in pieces, burned the remnants, mixed his ashes with dung, and scattered the ashes.

If you visit Zurich today, you can find a statue of Zwingli with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other, a fitting picture of this Swiss Reformer. Though he was a flawed man in a flawed age, he advanced the cause of the Reformation, the authority of Scripture, and the good news that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Reformation: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Part 4: Luther’s Legacy

What, then, is Luther’s contribution to history? Consider 5 primary areas of his lasting influence.

1. Doctrine
Luther’s wrestling with Romans 1:16-17 is the seminal theological moment of the Reformation. The doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, came from his commitment to the authority of Scripture over all of life.

2. Bible Translation
One of the Reformers’ great legacies is the return of the Word of God to the people. For centuries, not only were there no good translations in the common language, the official church position was that lay people should be forbidden from reading the Bible. The Council of Toulouse decreed in 1229: “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.”

Like other Reformation figures, Luther valued the Bible in the language of the people. Because he believed in the priesthood of every believer, he wanted every person to have a Bible for himself. His linguistic skills were brilliant, and he set translation and the German language forward by hundreds of years.

3. Catechism
While Luther recognized that the Bible itself is the chief educational tool for believers, he also believed that children and adults alike needed targeted discipleship and training in the faith. So Luther produced two catechisms in 1529. The Large Catechism is for adults and contains a lengthy section on marriage. The Small Catechism is designed for children and is much shorter. Each catechism focused on the same five points: the Ten Commandments (as a way of understanding sin and moral will of God), the Apostles’ Creed (as a summary of doctrine and understanding of forgiveness), the Lord’s Prayer (to help understand God’s mercy), and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of God’s grace to us.

Luther wanted the catechism to be used in church as a basis for teaching, but he emphasized in an even greater way its importance for the home. Fathers, as the heads of home, should quiz children and servants at least once each week to make sure they were learning their catechism. Children who failed their catechism check shouldn’t be allowed to eat, and servants who failed were to be kicked out of the household.

4. Congregational Singing
It’s hard to define Luther’s greatest legacy, because he’s such a prodigious figure, but the reformation of church music must rank near the top of the list. Luther: “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. … Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

Prior to Luther, the congregation was rarely involved in participating in worship. Luther changed that tradition so much that he’s often considered “the father of congregational singing.” It’s in the singing of the entire congregation that Luther most clearly embodies his doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. In Luther’s church, everyone sang.

Because Luther so valued congregational singing, he published a hymnal in 1524, with 23 hymn texts he authored (and tunes which he may have helped compose). His most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” was published in a later hymnal. Luther taught his people to sing, having choir practices during the week … for the entire congregation. One of Luther’s opponents commented, “The hymns of Luther killed more souls than his sermons.”

5. Preaching the Word
Luther believed in the centrality and authority of the Word of God for all of life. Protestant churches began placing the pulpit higher than the altar, because salvation comes to us through the Word. Luther was remarkable in his ability to preach in church and lecture at the university.

We have 2300 extant sermons of Luther’s. In the year 1528 alone, he preached 195 sermons in 145 days. He believed that the preacher’s job is to lay open God’s Word for the people.

He offered this advice to a struggling preacher:

“Do not try to imitate other people. Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God. Look solely to his honor and not to applause. Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears. I can tell you preaching is not a work of man. Although I am old and experienced, I am afraid every time I have to preach. You will most certainly find out three things: first, you will have prepared your sermon as diligently as you know how, and it will slip through your fingers like water; secondly, you may abandon your outline and God will give you grace. You will preach your very best. The audience will be pleased, but you won’t. And thirdly, when you have been unable in advance to pull anything together, you will preach acceptably both to your hearers and to yourself. So pray to God and leave all the rest to him.”

And I love this section from one of Luther’s Christmas sermons:

‘The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time should have been glad to give her a hand. There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: ‘If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!’ Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself. The birth was still more pitiable. No one regarded this young wife bringing forth her first-born. No one took her condition to heart.”

Praise God for Martin Luther, the lion of the Reformation, who more than anyone else embodies the personality and boldness that produced a spiritual and theological revival that—in many ways—continues today.

Reformation: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Part 3: Luther’s Flaws

Personal Struggles
Martin Luther is known today as a rather crass man, but it’s worth noting that he reflected his generation. As Roland Bainton notes, “Life itself stank. One could not walk around Wittenberg without encountering the odors of the pigsty, offal, and the slaughterhouse. And even the most genteel were not reticent about the facts of daily experience.”

Luther also enjoyed a good drink. He was rather proud of his ability to hold his beer. He had a large mug that had three rings around it. The first ring down he named “the Ten Commandments,” while the second was called “the Apostles’ Creed,” and the third “the Lord’s Prayer.” Luther reveled in the fact that he could drain the mug down through the Lord’s Prayer, while his friend could only get to the 10 Commandments. That being said, there’s no record of Luther’s ever getting drunk.

Luther struggled his whole life with severe depression. He tended to get physically ill, but the physical battles paled in comparison to his emotional and spiritual illness. In 1527, Luther wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.”

To those who struggle with depression, Luther offers help. He believed that intense struggles are often the only way to press through to genuine answers for major religious problems. He also commended various strategies for fighting darkness: (1) faith in Christ, (2) anger at the darkness, and (3) the love of a good woman. He also looked to music for help: “We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues. Getting outside in creation was a great source of encouragement, and he loved to get outside and work with his hands as well as a way of fighting anxiety and depression.”

Above all, Luther looked to Christ. On the cross, when Jesus was most desperate, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luther noted that in Christ’s abandonment, his cry was a cry of faith. In the middle of the worst year of his life, the year in which he suffered his deepest depression, Luther wrote these words:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Glaring Faults
As we’ve already noted, Luther had more than his fair share of faults. Nevertheless, it’s the last period of his life in which his most notable issues arise. The strain of life took its toll on Luther, making him prematurely miserable and petulant. He grew harder in his views toward other Reformation movements, especially the Anabaptists. Luther wrote, “Although it seems cruel to punish (the Anabaptists) with the sword, it is cruder that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the truth and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.”

The biggest criticism of Luther is that he was a racist, because of his view toward Jews. He said that all Jews should be removed from Germany and sent back to Israel, that synagogues should be burned, and that their books should be taken away from them. That being noted, Luther’s condemnation of the Jews—while extremely regrettable—wasn’t for racial reasons but for reasons of faith. The worst sin that anyone can commit, in Luther’s view, is the rejection of Jesus. So Luther condemned the Jews harshly for their lack of faith in Christ.


Reformation: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Part 2

The posting of Luther’s theses led to a series of debates and trials, culminating in the Diet of Worms in 1521. There were a number of conflicting powers at work within the church and outside that church that protected Luther. First, the pope asked the Augustinian monks to deal with Luther, since he was a member of their order. However, many Augustinians were sympathetic to what Luther had to say. This is, in part, because there was also a conflict between two of the most powerful orders of monks—the Dominicans and the Augustinians.

The Dominicans sided with Tetzel and hastily conferred on Tetzel a doctorate, so he could be permitted to publish and respond to Luther. Soon more capable opponents arose. Cardinal Cajetan, a brilliant scholar and respected churchman pressured Luther to recant at the Diet of Augsburg. Eventually, Johann Eck emerged as Luther’s primary nemesis and debated Luther at Leipzig for 18 days. One of the chief accusations he made against Luther (and what ended up firmly driving the stake between Luther and the church) was that Luther agreed with Wycliffe and Hus: “I see that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wycliffe, who said, ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of Jan Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.” It was when Luther admitted to agreeing with Wycliffe and Hus that his fate was sealed. Johann Eck tagged him with a moniker that Luther couldn’t shake: Luther was the “Saxon Hus.”In all this, Prince Frederick the Wise protected Luther. His motives weren’t so much that he agreed with Luther but that he wanted his legacy to be one of true justice and wisdom. He was thus concerned that Luther should receive a fair trial.

Diet of Worms
Eventually, Luther appeared before the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, at the Diet of Worms. He wasn’t given the opportunity to debate but was shown copies of his works and asked if he would recant or retract what he had written. Realizing the stakes were incredibly high, he asked to sleep on the matter. The question of recanting was posed to Luther again the next day. In reply, Luther said that much of his writings contained basic doctrine that all agreed on, and he couldn’t recant these things.

His interrogator pressed him: “Do you recant, or do you not?” Luther now replied in German (rather than the usual Latin, departing from the accepted norms of debate): “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and 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. God help me. Amen.” The earliest published record of the diet also added these words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Luther in Exile
After the Diet of Worms, Luther was “captured” by some of Frederick’s men and taken to Wartburg Castle. His abduction was so secretive that not even Frederick himself knew his whereabouts (and didn’t want to know, so he could truthfully claim ignorance of Luther’s whereabouts). Luther dressed as a knight and grew a long beard to disguise himself.

This enforced exile was a blessing in disguise, as Luther made the most of his time away. In just three months he produced a German translation of the New Testament. His translation is brilliant by any objective standard and formed a foundation for the German language for centuries to come. It’s said that his work advanced the standards of translation by 1000 years. It took Luther some time to translate the Old Testament, and the complete Bible was published in 1534. Though he first translated the New Testament in 1522, he continued revising, updating, and improving it until his death in 1546.

The Word forms the beginning and end of Luther’s theology. By rooting authority in the Word, he changed the entire conversation around church doctrine and all of life.

Luther’s Return
Luther went to the Wartburg on May 4, 1521. Seven months later he returned, beard and all, to Wittenberg on December 4, 1521. The Reformation had progressed in his absence; on Christmas Day, 1521, Luther’s colleague, Carlstadt spoke the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper in German, rather than Latin. One of the worshipers was so overcome by the moment that he trembled and dropped his bread on the floor.

Carlstadt had emerged as leader in Luther’s absence and saw that many of Luther’s reforms were implemented, but he also led the Reformation to grow more radical in some unhealthy ways. As the Reformation movement in Wittenberg grew more radical, it led to increased tensions between the Reformers and Prince Frederick. In the midst of the conflict, the town council invited Luther to return home. By this time, Luther was seen as a reasonable, moderating influence, in comparison to the more radical Carlstadt and his colleague Zwilling.

Luther’s return, without Frederick’s official invitation, meant that the Prince couldn’t offer Luther protection from the pope and emperor as he had previously done. Though he didn’t intervene to stop Luther, neither could he truly protect him. Nevertheless, in spite of the risks, Luther opted to return.

Roland Bainton tells the following story of Luther’s journey home recorded by a Swiss traveler:

“The host brought (some) bedraggled travelers into a room where sat a knight with a bushy black beard clad in a scarlet cloak and woolen tights, his hands resting on the hilt of a sword as he engaged in reading. The knight rose and hospitably invited the muddy wayfarers to sit and share with him a glass. They noticed that his book was in Hebrew. They asked him whether he knew if Luther were in Wittenberg. ‘I know quite positively that he is not … but he will be.’ Then he inquired what the Swiss thought of Luther. The host, observing that the pair were well disposed to the reformer, confided to one that the knight was Luther himself. The Swiss could not believe his ears, thought he must have mistaken the name for Hutten. On parting the next morning they let the knight know that they took him for Hutten. “No, he is Luther,” interposed the host. The knight laughed. ‘You take me for Hutten. He takes me for Luther. Maybe I am the Devil.’ Within a week they were to meet him again in Wittenberg.”

Luther returned to chaos. He urged the people to remember that true faith can’t be coerced. In his absence, the leaders of the Reformation had turned to violence, destroying churches, smashing altars, dragging priests out by the hair to shame and ridicule. Luther urged peaceful persuasion: “Give men time. I took three years of constant study, reflection, and discussion to arrive where I now am, and can the common man, untutored in such matters, be expected to move the same distance in three months? Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit wine and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky? Such haste and violence betray a lack of confidence in God.”

Under Luther’s leadership much of the chaos settled, but the conflict among segments of the Reformation was not one that would easily go away. Luther attempted to articulate a “middle way.” He harshly condemned the abuses and false teachings of the Catholic Church, but he called for a relatively peaceful resistance. During this period Luther continued to fight the for the authority of Scripture over the church. The new pope, Pope Hadrian condemned Luther: “Be not beguiled because Martin Luther appeals to Scripture. So does every heretic, but Scripture is a book sealed with seven seals which cannot be so well opened by one carnal man as by all the holy saints.”

While Luther had many gifts, diplomacy wasn’t one of them. In challenging King Henry VIII of England, Luther wrote to the king, referring to himself as “minister at Wittenberg by the grace of God” and to “Henry, King of England by the disgrace of God.”

Radical Reformation
By far the biggest blow to Luther came when his own followers began to defect from the movement he was leading.  Andrew Carlstadt and Thomas Muntzer led the way. While many of Carlstadt’s ideas actually had biblical warrant (like rejecting infant baptism), he was personally unstable and lent his section of the movement a chaotic, violent tone. Muntzer went even further than Carlstadt, rallying an army “to slaughter the ungodly.” Fortunately, all he accomplished was the burning of one chapel. Though Carlstadt condemned Muntzer, the two were lumped together  and banished from Saxony, the province in which Luther ministered. Muntzer continued to foment rebellion against church and state. As unrest grew, the common people rose up against the princes in the Peasants’ Rebellion. Muntzer attempted to lead the people into battle, but the combined forces of the princes proved too much. The peasant army was surrounded, 5000 were violently slaughtered, and only 600 taken prisoner. Muntzer initially got away but was later captured, tortured, and beheaded.

Diet of Augsburg
Luther and his colleague Phillip Melanchthon led the way in formally articulating the theology of the German Reformation (a theology that would eventually become Lutheranism). They first drafted the Articles of Schwabach in 1529. Emperor Charles V, however, was growing increasingly concerned for the unity of his empire. Germany at this time was a collection of provinces ruled by princes. One of the great unifiers of the Holy Roman Empire had been its religion. Now that some princes were Protestant, while others were Catholic, the empire threatened to rip apart. So Charles called for the Diet of Augsburg, to encourage the Protestant princes to adopt a statement of belief. That statement from June 25, 1530, is largely the work of Phillip Melanchthon and is known as the Augsburg Confession. It forms the basis of Lutheran doctrine to this day.

When the statement was first read, the emperor required that it be read in a tiny chapel, to attempt to exclude the people from hearing what was articulated. But the influence of the princes allowed the dissemination of the document. It was written in both Latin and German. The German reading lasted two hours and was read so clearly that every word could be heard both inside and outside the chapel.

Though Luther initially questioned whether Melanchthon’s irenic spirit would produce a suitable document (he was concerned that the confession would “defang” the Reformation), he gladly approved of the finished document. Though other Protestant confessions would arise, the Augsburg Confession formalized and finalized the theological division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation.

Family Life
In 1523 Luther helped some nuns who had recently escape their convent. A merchant who delivered barrels of fish to the nunnery shipped out twelve nuns in empty barrels. Three returned to their homes, but the task fell to Luther to find places for the other nine. A student wrote: “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.”

Since Luther was still a bachelor, it was suggested that he solve the problem of a home for one of the nuns. Luther resisted the suggestion because he feared that he could die a martyr’s death at any moment. Yet two years after the dramatic escape in the fish barrels, one nun still remained unaccounted for. Her name was Katherine von Bora. Luther chose a husband for her, a Dr. Glatz. Katherine was completely unwilling to marry Dr. Glatz, but she proposed to Luther that she be matched to another doctor, Dr. Amsdorf, or to Luther himself.

Luther still had no intentions of marrying, but upon returning home to visit his parents, his father was excited at the prospect. What Luther shared as a good joke, Hans took seriously, because he wanted his son to carry on the family name. Martin and Katherine were married—not for love but for pragmatic reasons. Luther gave three reasons for marrying: (1) to satisfy his father, (2) to defy the pope and the devil, and (3) to validate his witness before martyrdom might come.

Marriage did bring some positive changes for Luther: “Before I was married the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. But I worked so hard and was so weary I tumbled in without noticing it.” Katie kept the house clean. Luther never received a single payment for any of his writings, though he was by far the best-selling author of his day. Therefore, he and Katie often struggled to make ends meet. He grew to love Katie, eventually paying her the highest of compliments, calling the book of Galatians, “my Katherine von Bora.” Katie and Martin had 6 children, the eldest of whom was named Hans.

In addition to their children, the Luthers took in all kinds of guests, from folks fleeing persecution to students eager to learn from Dr. Martin.

Reformation: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Part 1

No personality dominates the Reformation quite like Martin Luther. He looms large over the rise of the Reformation and still dominates both Protestant and Roman Catholic conversation about the 16th century. His life reads like a fantastic novel, needing no embellishment. He’s a larger-than-life figure that dominated his era while he was living and has grown larger since his passing.Over the last few decades, many Protestants and Catholics have attempted to gloss over the issues that led to the Reformation era. In Roland Bainton’s magisterial biography of Luther, he recounts singing “A Mighty Fortress” in a Catholic mass. And in an age of growing political correctness and increasing discomfort with the foibles of our historical heroes, Luther has been the brunt of much recent Protestant criticism, because he had some glaring faults.

There are few heroes of the faith that are quite as relatable as Luther. This is, in part, because he was so raw—he wore his feelings on his sleeve almost all the time, so he’s simpler to connect with than someone who keeps his cards closer to his vest. And Luther’s greatness is something we can aspire to, while also identifying with his weakness, anxiety, depression, and battle to persevere in the faith. Luther: “Many have taken the Christian faith to be a simple and easy matter, and have even numbered it among the virtues. This is because they have not really experienced it, nor have they tested the great strength of faith.”

If you’ve walked with Christ for any length of time, you know the truth of that statement.

Lightning Bolt Experience
Acts 9 tells the story of Saul on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the church. As he traveled, the Lord Jesus dramatically appeared to him in a blinding light and spoke to him. As a result of this, Saul turned from his persecution of the church to faith in Christ.

One of the most significant events in Luther’s life is similarly dramatic. While it didn’t result in his immediate conversion, it did change the course of his life forever. Medieval theology is filled with superstition. People in the Middle Ages saw spiritual explanations for everything. It’s in this context that we find Luther, a university student at the time, traveling near the village of Stotternheim. As he traveled, it began to rain and then storm. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck so near Luther that it cast him to the ground. In desperation he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!”

Roland Bainton offers this comment on this experience: “The man who thus called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of the saints. He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist. For this young man was Martin Luther.”

St. Anne is the patron saint of miners, and this points us back from 21-year-old Luther to his early life.

Early Life
Nine years before Columbus sailed the ocean in search of the “new world,” Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, some 120 miles southwest of Berlin. 1483 was about three decades after the printing press began changing the world (Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1456). Luther’s parents were Hans and Margaret Luther. Hans, in particular, is a somewhat dominant figure in Luther’s life. He made his living as a miner, first working in a mine and then working his way up to owning multiple foundries. In many ways, he was a medieval version of the American dream. His hard work opened doors for Martin that wouldn’t have been open otherwise. That being said, Hans and Margaret were severely strict parents (not at all uncommon in that day), and Luther bore mental and emotional scars from his early childhood for the rest of his life.

Hans sent young Martin to school to get an education, a privilege that wasn’t afforded to many children in his day. His school masters, like his parents, were harsh, and his later writings recall with some resentment whippings for failures at his lessons. The boy who did the worst on his lessons in a given morning was forced to wear a donkey mask for the afternoon and called the asinus. Poor behavior earned demerits, and demerits were accumulated throughout the week and then punished at the end of the week. Boys sometimes received up to fifteen lashes with a birch rod for failures and misbehavior.

Luther recalls this period with some pain but also with fondness. He loved music, played the lute, loved the German countryside, and was a fun-loving boy. That being said, he struggled with wild mood swings from an early age—from the heights of euphoria and joy to the depths of darkness and depression.

Roland Bainton explains one of the major reasons for Luther’s emotional struggles: “The explanation lies … in the tensions which medieval religion deliberately induced, playing alternately upon fear and hope. Hell was stoked, not because men lived in perpetual dread, but precisely because they did not, and in order to instill enough fear to drive them to the sacraments of the Church.”

At age thirteen Martin went to the University of Erfurt to become a lawyer. He soon graduated with an undergraduate and master’s degree and in the meantime proved his prodigious skill in public debates.It was in this period of his life that he encountered the storm that created such fear in his heart that he promised to become monk.

The truth is that Luther never really wanted to become a lawyer. It was his father’s dream that his son would create a career in law that would enable him to provide for his parents in their old age. Hans and Margaret saw Martin’s brilliance and thought a strategic marriage and good vocation would end many of their worries. In a day when parents were mostly free to dictate the lives of their children, Martin’s decision came as a shock to Hans. He got very angry and took a number of years to forgive his son for this betrayal of trust. It wasn’t until two other sons died that Hans reconciled with Luther, believing that God was punishing him for his resentment.

In July of 1505, at the age of 21, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. The people of the day believed that while all should live in dread of God, if anyone were to get into heaven, it would be a monk. Luther became a monk for the salvation of his soul.

Augustinian liturgy describes the process Luther would have gone through to be accepted in the monastery: He fell prostrate on the ground, and the prior of the monastery asked him this question: “What do you seek?” To which Luther answered, “God’s grace and your mercy.” The prior then describe what Luther’s life would look like: renouncing his right to his own decisions, little to eat, poor clothing, night watches, work during the day, denying his normally fleshly desires, poverty, begging, and living in isolation in this monastery. After an initiation ceremony, he was accepted into the monastery with these words: “Not he that has begun but he that endures to the end shall be saved.”

The rebellion against church authority came from one who desperately trying to obey to earn his salvation. Only after exhausting every possible avenue would Luther reluctantly become the Luther we know today.

First Mass
The time came for Luther’s first mass, and Luther invited his father to come. Hans made a great show of his arrival, bringing a train of 20 horsemen and making a large contribution to the seminary. Yet when it came time for the mass, Luther spoke these words—“We offer unto you, the living, the true, the eternal God”—and was petrified. He later recalled his feeling in that moment: “At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, ‘With what tongue shall I address such Majesty. … For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.’”

Martin was unable to complete the mass. He froze, and someone else completed the service. Afterward, he approached his father as the monks and guests were eating together. There Hans exploded in anger, all his resentment at Martin’s choice to become a monk boiling over.

Luther, however, remained a devoted monk. He would fast for three days at a time, without eating a single bite. He would sleep at night with no blankets, at times almost freezing to death. He later said: “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.”

He was a conscientious confessor of sin. He went to confession almost daily, sometimes confessing his sins for up to six hours. Catholic theology teaches that only those sins that are confessed can be forgiven. So Luther agonizingly sought to categorize every sin. At one point his mentor, Staupitz, said to him: “If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive … instead of all these little sins.” At times he would leave the confession booth, only to immediately return because another unconfessed sin occurred to him.

While this was a very painful process, God was revealing something vitally important to Luther: the Catholic system of confession is directed toward individual sins. The problem is that man is corrupt to his very core, in every part of his nature. It’s not merely individual sins that need to be forgiven. Our entire being needs forgiveness.

Trip to Rome
In the midst of his struggles, his monastery selected him for a pilgrimage to Rome in the year 1510. As a devoted son of the church, Luther was delighted and honored. When he first saw the city from a distance, he cried out, “Hail, holy Rome!” But when he arrived in the city what he saw was disgusting and disillusioning.

He went to confess his sins, but the confessor wasn’t competent in confession. The Italian priests were party animals, running through masses as quickly as they could recite the words. They could perform a half dozen masses in the time it should take to say one mass. If he took too long, they’d say, “Move on!” Some priests were publicly flippant unbelievers. The Roman clergy were flagrantly immoral. The more chaste of the priests considered themselves holy because they restricted themselves to women.

Luther’s view of salvation began to crumble. He was trying to atone for his sins and also accumulate good works for his salvation and the salvation of those he loved. While in Rome he climbed Pilate’ stairs on his hands and knees, kissing each step, and saying a prayer at each step. Tradition taught that this process would release a soul from purgatory, where the remaining sins are purged from a person’s soul. Yet when he reached the top of the stairs, Luther turned and said, “Who knows whether it is so?” His doubts were increasing.

When Luther returned from Rome, he was transferred from Erfurt to Wittenberg, where he’d become famous and spend most of the rest of his career. The town was less than a mile in length, with a population around 2000 people. It was built on a hill of sand and was thus called Wittenberg, or “White Hill.”

The crown jewel of Wittenberg was its university, carefully cultivated by Prince Frederick the Wise who sought to build an academic bastion that rivaled the great institutions of the day. The move to Wittenberg also led Luther into a close relationship with his mentor, Johann von Staupitz. Pained monk that he was, Luther later wrote, “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”

Staupitz recommended mystical theology as a possible cure for Luther’s woes. While still submitting themselves to the Roman Catholic pentitential system, mystics also saw that man’s problems were greater than could be atoned for by confessing individual sins. Luther must surrender to the enveloping being and love of God. But this introduced an ever greater problem for him. How could he surrender to a God who would punish men for their sins? “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”

In desperation, Staupitz was casting about for any solution to help his beloved and tortured student. He informed Luther the he should study for his doctorate and would become a professor at the university. As Roland Bainton comments in his biography: “A young man on the verge of a nervous collapse over religious problems was to be commissioned as a teacher, preacher, and counselor to sick souls. Staupitz was practically saying, ‘Physician, cure thyself by curing others.'”

Staupitz knew that Luther, by studying particular subject matter, could help himself.

Professor Luther & Conversion
Luther devoted himself to becoming an expert in the Word of God. In August of 1513 he began lecturing on the Psalms. His years reciting the Psalms as part of the liturgical calendar affected his interpretation. The liturgical year is built around events in the life of Christ, so Luther interpreted the Psalms through a Christ-centered lens. By fall of 1515, he was teaching from Romans and Galatians in 1516-17. In the end, it wasn’t his Damascus Road experience with the lightning that saved him. It was the Gospel Road through the Word of God.

In the Word Luther discovered God the All Merciful, and it’s at the cross that God’s justice and mercy meet. God doesn’t overlook sin, because he is God the Just, but God has made reconciliation possible through Christ. Somehow, some way, God takes the immeasurable sins of mankind and deals with them.

While lecturing from Romans in 1515, Luther found the solution to his dilemma. A little phrase in the first chapter of Romans did it for him: “the just shall live by faith” (Romans1:17). Yet this discovery wasn’t a simple one for Luther. It was the result of lengthy and agonizing study. How could Paul say that the righteousness of God was good news? Then it hit Luther. The righteousness of God isn’t given to sinners because they become righteous but because of the free grace of God through faith in Christ. God gives his righteousness to those who believe simply because he wishes to. Both faith in Christ and justification for our sins are the free gift of God to sinners who don’t deserve it. Luther remarks, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

Prince Albert & St. Peter’s
We now come to the conflict that would eventually fan the sparks of the Reformation into a full-fledged inferno. Simony (the acquiring of a position of influence in the church through bribery) was a common practice in the medieval church. Prince Albert of Brandenberg was of a master of simony. His aim in life was to become the most powerful church figure in all of Germany, and he did this buy buying influence. Albert already held two bishoprics and was thus 2X a breaker of canon law. First, he was too young to be a bishop in the first place, and secondly, church law forbade one person from holding multiple bishoprics.

Money talks loudly, though, and Albert thus had access to power. When the seat of the archbishop of Mainz came open, he knew that acquiring this position could fulfill his dream of being the leading churchman of Germany, as Mainz was the most important archbishopric in Germany.

The pope at this time, Leo X, was raising money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In an era of corrupt popes, Leo X stands out as one of the worst. Roman Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor: Leo “was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church.” While constructing this magnificent edifice, Leo began running short on money. So when Prince Albert contacted him to purchase the archbishopric at Mainz, Leo was excited. He set a price of 12,000 golden ducats—1000 for each of the apostles. Albert countered with 7,000 golden ducats (one for each of the 7 deadly sins). They eventually compromised on a price of 10,000 ducats—1000 for each of the 10 Commandments.

Because Albert was out of money and didn’t have 10,000 golden ducats, Leo authorized the sale of indulgences for Albert to pay off his debt.

According to Roman Catholic theology, the pope holds the keys to God’s kingdom (Matthew 16—Jesus gave the keys to Peter and the apostles), and these keys open the most important treasury in the church—the Treasury of Merit. The Roman Church distinguishes between mortal sins—those that result in eternal damnation (murder, rape, incest, adultery, etc.)—and venial sins—lesser/ordinary sins that still must be atoned for. If you’re unable to do enough penance in this life, you may spend some time in purgatory, where the remaining sins are purged from you.

These sins are paid for by acquiring merit, and this merit is held in the Treasury of Merit. This treasury is the superabundant storehouse of righteousness belonging to Jesus Christ, to his parents Joseph and Mary, to the apostles, and to canonized saints throughout history. Humans can access this storehouse of merit by giving a gift to God that’s greater than the deficit caused by our sin.

An indulgence is transfer of merit from the Treasury of Merit to an individual. You can obtain indulgences through pilgrimages or church relics. A visit to a coin for which Judas betrayed Jesus could obtain a reduction of time in purgatory of 1400 years. Luther’s own protector, Prince Frederick, had a remarkable collection of relics. At times, the church makes possible the sale of indulgences, and Roman Catholics still practice this today. Indulgences can’t be purchased for the living, but you can shorten the time of loved ones in purgatory.

Johann Tetzel was an early church marketer, known for his effectiveness in selling indulgences. He’d enter a town with great pomp and pageantry. A train of attendants entered with him, one holding a cross on a pole, another carrying the papal bull authorizing the sale of indulgences on a pillow.

He was creative in his marketing, coming up with the jingle (translated into English): “When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” It’s said that he claimed the purchase of an indulgence could remove sin even from a man “who had violated the Mother of God.” He also purported that “the cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ.”

Luther ministered in Saxony, where the sale of indulgences was illegal, but people from his region streamed over the border to purchase them in a neighboring province. Church doctrine taught that indulgences would only be effective if they were purchased with a sincere and contrite heart. Tetzel threw that teaching to the wind, and this infuriated Luther.

95 Theses
Thus, Luther wrote a series of statements against the sale of indulgences. He was assuming that both Prince Albert and Pope Leo were unaware of Tetzel’s unethical tactics, not realizing Tetzel was fully authorized to raise money by any means possible.

Luther’s theses were written in Latin, and they served as an invitation to debate. His expectation was that a member of the clergy or academia would respond and engage him in a debate about the current practices regarding the sale of indulgences. The theses didn’t address anything like the doctrine of salvation or the authority of Scripture. Luther was likely surprised that his theses were met with silence. He also sent a copy to Prince Albert with a very respectful cover letter, informing him about Tetzel’s poor representation of the church. Albert then forwarded the letter and theses to Pope Leo.

The spark that set off the Reformation was some students who apparently made copies of the theses and translated them into German. Printers got ahold of copies, and the 95 Theses soon spread like wildfire through all of Germany.

I love Roland Bainton’s description of what happened (with an illustration borrowed from Karl Barth): “Luther … was like a man climbing in the darkness a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.”

Reformation: Jan Hus (1369-1415)

Jan Hus (often anglicized to “John Huss”) was an important Bohemian (now Czech Republic) clergyman who taught at Charles University in Prague, eventually becoming the head clergyman at the University of Prague. As a university student, he was known as an excellent chess player but also managed to excel in his studies.

Upon assuming his professorship, Hus experienced a remarkable change that transformed his life and commitment to Christ. He’d entered the priesthood because it promised a life of comfort. This life change was likely influenced in large part from the writings of Wycliffe, whose works had come to Prague and were beginning to stir up controversy.

Like other reformers, Hus never intended to tear apart the church. Rather, he wanted to restore the purity of the doctrine and life of the church. Wycliffe’s ideas came to Prague because Czech students had studied at Oxford and carried his ideas back to Prague.

Pulpit Influence
While Wycliffe exerted most of his preaching and teaching influence through the university, Hus used his position as preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague to get his message to the masses. In 1403, concern over Wycliffe’s teachings in Prague came to a head. Hus sided with the pro-Wycliffe folks. His preaching became a clarion bell warning against the corruption in the church.

The archbishop of Prague managed to obtain a papal decree banning Wycliffe’s books and ordering that preaching must done only in cathedrals, monasteries, or parish churches. Since Bethlehem Chapel was none of these, this amounted to an attempt to shut up Jan Hus. Yet after much internal wrestling, Hus elected to disobey and continue preaching.

The papal decree ended up forcing Hus into increasingly clear views. He now rejected the authority of the pope, because he believed that anyone who wouldn’t submit to the Word of God shouldn’t be obeyed.

Excommunication & Exile
When Hus continued to preach, the archbishop condemned Hus as a heretic and excommunicated him from the church. Ironically, it was the archbishop who then had to flee Prague, for fear of the people. The pope followed the archbishop’s lead and condemned Hus as well and placed Prague under interdict (a declaration that clergy couldn’t preach or perform any sacred duties in the city).

God used the state to protect Hus. King Wenceslaus used his influence to protect Hus (the king’s 10th-century forebear is the subject of a Christmas carol). Eventually, the pope ordered a sale of indulgences in Bohemia to pay for a war. Because King Wenceslaus got a cut of the sales, he forbade anyone from condemning indulgences. Hus couldn’t comply in good conscience and in 1412 went into exile in southern Bohemia for two years. These years produced some of his most fruitful writing.

Mixed Bag
Like many Reformers, Hus was a work in progress. Unlike Wycliffe, he accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation and believed that good works play some role in our justification. On the whole, though, he condemned the moral excesses and doctrinal aberrations of the Catholic Church—condemning the worship of Mary and the saints, condemning the withholding of wine in communion, and arguing for the purity of the church. His thoughts about the church sound remarkably similar to Wycliffe’s: “The pope is not the head, or are the cardinals the whole body of the holy, catholic and universal church. Only Christ is the head, and his predestined are the body, and each is a member of that body.” Perhaps most importantly, Hus held that Scripture is infallible and is authoritative over the church and that it alone is our rule for faith and practice.

Trial & Death
In 1414 Hus was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance, the same Council that would condemn Wycliffe. Hus was promised safe conduct and thus agreed to attend the council (he hoped to influence church leaders toward the important reforms of the church). However, Hus was arrested when he arrived and imprisoned until his trial in 1415.

On July 6, 1415, Hus was stripped naked, had a dunce cap placed on his head, was paraded through the streets, tied to a stake, and then burned to death. As the flames rose up around him, he sang a hymn and committed his soul to God. Roman Catholic officials took his ashes and spread them on the Rhine River, so that his followers couldn’t rally around his remains.

Hus’s last name means “goose” in Czech. Legend has it that he spoke to his executioners just before he died: “Today you burn a goose, but in one hundred years a swan will arise which you will prove unable to boil or roast.” While it was actually Luther who took some of Hus’s words and crafted this particular statement, a “swan” did arise in Germany a century later.

On December 17, 1999, Pope John Paul II traveled to the Czech Republic and offered a posthumous apology (“deep regret for the cruel death”) for the Catholic Church’s persecution of Hus. Too little, too late, but God had used this man to pave the way for what was to follow.

Reformation: John Wycliffe (1320s-1384)

John Wycliffe is often called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” The morning star refers to either the star Sirius or the planet Venus, and it shines the brightest in the dark moments just before dawn. This light foreshadows the rising of the greater light, the sun. Wycliffe is one of the first to begin shining the light of God’s Word in the dark corridors of the medieval church.

Wycliffe was an English clergyman who remained a puritan within the church. We know very little about his early life. As a seminary professor at Oxford, he was a gifted scholar and influential teacher. He also served as rector, or head of parish, in a Lincolnshire church. Because of his teaching duties at Oxford, he spent relatively little time teaching from the pulpit in his church.

Political Influence
As would be the case with later reformers, Wycliffe focused on doctrine, but the moral corruption of the church is what really drew his ire and opened his eyes to how bad things are. He was famous for attacking the luxurious and abusive lifestyles of church leaders. A particular point of contention was the question of divine right—who had the right to rule people? In this era, many believed that only the church should rule and that there was no place for the state, except under the authority of the church. So there was no separation of church and state. Wycliffe taught the radical idea that morally qualified secular rulers could also be used by God to govern and that in extreme cases, the state should be used to protect the church from wicked clergy.

Thus, church leaders hated Wycliffe, while the leaders of the state found him a rather convenient ally. Though the pope condemned Wycliffe’s teachings, and though the English church attempted to try him for heresy, the Duke of Lancaster interceded for Wycliffe and protected him from being tried and punished.

Theological Influence 
One side of Wycliffe’s influence is political, but his greater legacy is theological. Wycliffe espoused a radical idea—God’s Word is inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative. In other words, the Bible contains all that we need for salvation. We don’t need the pope, church tradition, or any human priest for salvation. Wycliffe’s theses didn’t become as famous as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, but he had his own statements against the church: “There is one universal church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ. No pope may say that he is the head.” He saw the abuses and doctrinal error in the church and knew that the only way to bring the church back to center was to build on the Word of God.

Naturally, the church didn’t welcome Wycliffe’s teachings. In addition to his direct challenges to the pope, he also denied transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine in the supper become the literal body and blood of Jesus), that priests had the power to forgive and absolve sins, that purgatory existed, etc.

Though Wycliffe enjoyed the protection of powerful people initially, the pressure of the church continued to be brought to bear, and he and his followers experienced significant persecution at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.

English Bible
Wycliffe penned a number of influential works that would bear fruit in the lives of later reformers, especially Jan Hus and Martin Luther. Yet his most influential work was The Wycliffe Bible. Because he believed in the authority of Scripture over the church, he believed it was important for people to be able to read and understand the Bible for themselves. In 1378 he wrote On the Truth of Sacred Scripture a treatise that is the seed of what later became sola Scriptura. It was here that he articulated the importance of having the Bible in the language of the people.

Because the Bible in the people’s language was so important to Wycliffe, he devoted much of the late years of his life to translating Jerome’s Latin Vulgate into English. His friends helped him with the translation, and this translation was then copied by hand for distribution. Hundreds of painstakingly hand-written copies of the Word were distributed by Wycliffe’s followers. Wycliffe’s company of followers became known as Lollards. “Lollard” is a Dutch word that means “to mumble.” Wycliffe and company were called this because they read the Bible in English, not Latin. His followers extended his influence well beyond his personal influence and lifetime, and his voice became an important one in the English Reformation of the 1500’s.

On December 28, 1384, Wycliffe suffered a severe stroke while worshiping in church. He died two days later. On May 4, 1415, decades after his death, the Council of Constance retroactively condemned Wycliffe as a heretic. The Catholic Church ordered his works burned and that his body be dug up and burned. Thirteen years later, in 1428, they dug up what was left of him and burned his remains. They finally got their heretic.