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.

Reformation: Historical Context

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on a chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany. These statements quickly became infamous, but they were only one in a series of papers that would have been nailed to that and many another door of the era. Yet that moment marks the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation. Like any other movement in history, there’s “the Reformation,” but there are also streams within the broader river of reformation. No Protestant church today reflects exactly what the Reformers thought, but we are who we are because of the Reformation and the reforms that came out of it.

The Reformation took place in a setting where culture, church, and state blended so seamlessly together that there are significant political, cultural, and global effects from the Reformation within the church.

Church Influence
For 1000 years, the church had waxed and waned in the Middle Ages. From sometime around the 400-500 until the 1500’s Europe was dominated by cycles in the church and in the general culture that echoed one another. This 1000-year period saw the rapid spread of the church from the cradle of Christianity around Israel throughout much of the world. 500 years after Christ, the church was the most dominant institution in the Western world. It’s religious influence blended into total domination of every facet of life. Rulers answered to popes and bishops, and the state lay largely under the thumb of the church. From 1000 until 1300, the church enjoyed unprecedented and unrepeated supremacy—in ways both good and bad.

For 200 years before Luther, however, the church had been enduring a breakdown. It was declining and disintegrating in almost every respect imaginable. Luther’s reforms were the result of hundreds of years of growing corruption. The church had sold its soul for influence, and it must pay. Church leaders tried to use church influence to govern the secular world.

Papal Reform
A number of popes tried to exercise reforms within the church, yet these reforms were often not biblically driven. Reforms focused on tradition and on increasing the influence of the church in society.

During this period, the corruption and confusion of the church increased, even placing the pope in Avignon, France, for about 75 years. For a time, France exercised by far the strongest influence on the church. The Roman Catholic Church then endured a time of division, the Great Schism, when there were three popes—one in Avignon, one in Rome, and one in Pisa. In the aftermath of this period, the Renaissance popes arose, and these popes functioned more like princes than clergy.

Growing Corruption
Many clergy took vows of poverty and chastity that they never intended to keep. In a church that required celibacy of priests, many got married. Nepotism was common, as children of popes were put into office (these clergy were sometimes called “papal nephews”). Families of clergy became almost like royal families, as priests, bishops, and popes practiced nepotism and gave their own kids the best positions.

Simony (the purchasing of a religious office) was a common practice. Simony takes its name from Simon the magician in Acts 8—a man who tried to purchase the power of the Spirit from the Apostles. Peter’s response? “May your silver perish with you!” The parish priest was often the most powerful person in a territory. The sale of indulgences was common practice as well.

Papal reforms were driven by a desire to increase the influence of the church in general and to bring the entire church into line under the authority of the pope. Thus, the bishop of Rome must be dominant over all other church figures. These efforts also attempted to enact reforms among the monastic orders.

Yet all of these “reforms” were driven primarily by tradition and dogma, rather than Scripture. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the power of secular monarchs grew and gradually weakened the hold of the Roman Catholic Church over society. This growth in power of the secular state sets the stage for much of what followed.

Are We Listening?

As our nation is embroiled in yet another controversy that is sweeping the airwaves and social media, I’m reminded how little I know and how ill-qualified I am to speak winsomely and helpfully to the issues of the day.

Some words from James that seem especially appropriate for white Christians in this moment: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Before jumping into the latest controversy take some time to ask (with a humble, open spirit) someone with a different skin color and perspective what they think about the protest. It’s possible that it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Then consider engaging further in a loving, respectful conversation with an actual person, and leave the social media outrage to others.

“If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. … For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:3-5).

Principles for Wise Discipline

Wise discipline of children…

1. Knows and respects the child.
There’s no place for discipline that demeans children or serves as a vent for an adult’s frustration. All people are made in the image of God, and God commands parents to rear their children in a way that doesn’t provoke or frustrate children. Discipline serves God’s ends, not our own, and should lead children toward the loving embrace of God through the love and respect of their parents.

2. Sacrifices being liked for a moment to do what is best.
Most parents are willing to sacrifice themselves to save their children, but many parents refuse to tell their children “no” out of fear that their children won’t like them or might (gasp) be upset with them. The loving and direct application of God’s truth to a child’s life is worth your child’s disapproval.

3. Varies by age and situation.
Wise discipline is consistent but not rigid. If children never know what to expect, the lack of consistency will drive them crazy. But if parents never adapt to situations and individuals, they can press “a square peg” so hard into “a round hole” that they can do harm to the child.

4. Prepares hearts for the gospel when it’s done in love.
By bringing consequences in a temporary, yet tangible way, we model the holy anger of God against sin. By loving our children warmly, relationally, and unconditionally, we model the loving care of our Heavenly Father. Understanding the character of God helps children understand the necessity of the cross for dealing with the pain of sin and the love of the cross, as Christ died for our sin. Teaching children that there’s no pain in sinning cheapens the sacrifice of Christ.

What Are “The Wounds of a Friend”?

Proverbs 27:6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

1. The wounds of a friend come from a posture of humility.
If we have something difficult to say, it’s communicated best after we’ve dealt with the beam in our own eye. It’s hard to sense humility from someone who approaches us when we’re hurting, so we tend to lash out because of pain. But a true friend identifies with us in our pain, even when they’re telling us hard truths.

2. The wounds of a friend are best built on a foundation of relational trust.
The only way to build trust in a relationship is time and personal investment. Sometimes the threat is so great that you must speak, but if at all possible, wait to speak until you’ve loved faithfully and sacrificially.

3. The wounds of a friend are rooted in a desire to benefit another,  not fix something that irritates me.
We often tend to address what’s personally annoying, but a true friend is willing to cover irritations in love, while lovingly addressing patterns that are harmful to another person. A true friend bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, when it’s a matter of personal irritation (1 Corinthians 13:7). When a matter threatens someone’s soul or personal wellbeing, a true friend attempts to restore in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1-2).

4. The wounds of a friend are the fruit of courageous love.
It’s hard to tell people something they don’t want to hear. Someone who humbly and lovingly opens your eyes to blind spots in your life is a loving and courageous friend, one worth hanging onto.

5. The wounds of a friend come with healing balm (even though they hurt).
Wounds hurt. There’s no way of getting around this. But because we’re approaching a friend in love, we also stick with our friend to help salve the wound, bind it, and help it heal.

Wisdom about Money

1. Remember that God owns everything.
Psalm 50:10-12 10 For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. … 12 … the world and its fullness are mine. God owns the world and everything in it. If God owns you and all of your stuff, it radically changes how you view what you “own.” The things you have are on loan from God. You’re a steward, not an owner. This leads to humility and should lead you to generosity, when you know that you should invest money as God himself would invest it.

2. Be content with what you have.
Hebrews 13:5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” At the end of the day, your security comes from Christ, not from what you own. How do you know where your security lies? When things get tight, do you panic, or can you rest in Christ, knowing he’s with you at all times—he never leaves, never forsakes you.

3. Beware the seductive power of debt.
Proverbs 22:7 The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. While there’s such a thing as “good debt” in our economy, our culture is out-of-control when it comes to debt, and this affects every one of us. The power of more can grow to the point where you find that what you own ends up owning you. When it comes time to buy a house, a car, or clothes, remember that that beautiful object might own you in the end.

4. Be patient and disciplined.
Proverbs 13:11 Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it. There’s a strategy of investing called “dollar cost averaging”: rather than trying to play the market you should invest in regular, predictable amounts over time to discipline your investing, rather than reacting to the market. The Bible teaches the wisdom of patience and discipline. Hold off on impulse buys. Make a plan, then follow the plan. Sometimes you’ll lose or have unexpected expenses, but as you discipline yourself to live within your means, you’ll find that God blesses you.

5. Leverage your life and resources wisely for the kingdom of God.
Matthew 25:14-30 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Jesus uses economic language in his parable of the talents to show how foolish it is not to take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God. The wisest financial investment you ever make is money leveraged for the sake of the gospel. In another parable, Jesus compares his kingdom to a hidden treasure (Matthew 13:14): The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. If you gain the world but lose your soul, what gain is that? Use your resources in a way that shows the radical nature of self-denial and gospel sacrifice, and you’ll find that in the end your investment is more than worth it.


One Church’s Response to White Supremacy in Charlottesville

Many of us are aware, while some possibly are not, that there were marches and protests by white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, this weekend. Chants, flags, racist symbols, and violence shouted as loudly as the protestors themselves that white supremacy isn’t merely a figment of black America’s imagination. Today, I’d like to share some words regarding racial events that have increased in violence and visibility.

At times I haven’t known what to say. The truth is that I’m insecure about speaking into racial issues. My experience has taught me that people from all ends of the spectrum are upset—some because they think I talk about nothing but race and others because I don’t really know how to talk about it at all. And there’s some truth in that; I’ve made a muddle of it enough times to know I don’t really know. It’s easier to just be quiet. But I do know Jesus, I do believe the gospel, and it seems that the gospel is intersecting public life at this pressure point.

So I’d like to take a moment to speak for all of us here at Morning Star.

Scenes like the ones we saw this weekend grieve us. They should grieve all Christians. Men and women made in the image of God publicly and brazenly demeaning and attacking other men and women made in God’s image is a deeply disturbing, anti-Gospel image. Because we believe the gospel, we condemn racial sin of all sorts and the lie of white supremacy in particular. It is an abomination worthy of eternal punishment in hell. We hate it because God hates it. It doesn’t need to be soft-pedaled and shouldn’t be given any modicum of acceptance in Christian churches, and it’s not acceptable here.

God has blessed our congregation with a number of families and individuals of different ethnicities and skin colors. It’s one of the things I love about our church family. It’s like a little taste of heaven. But most of us don’t have the shared experience of being black in America. Because of this, it’s easy to be blind to much of the experience of people of color within America. So we should be humble in our response to these events. We must grieve with those who grieve and weep with those who weep. We must also condemn what God condemns. We must not allow our brothers and sisters of color to fight these battles on their own. There are some moments that aren’t clear. The events of this weekend were crystal clear.

God hates the fallacy of racial superiority. He hates racism enough that he poured out his anger on his own Son to punish the sin of racism and to redeem racist bigots who repent of their sin. Jesus shed his blood to unite all people—equally condemned before the justice of God and equally gloriously redeemed by the grace of God. Revelation 5:9-10: 9 And they sang a new song (to the Lamb), “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

So how do we respond to this weekend?

First, we declare that our unity is in Christ and that all people of all color are welcome and loved here. We eat of one body and drink of one cup. And to you who have been threatened by these events, know that it’s not you, it’s we—or more colloquially … us. We are one in Christ, we love you, and we stand with you.

Secondly, we deny that any human being is inherently superior to another, and we gladly affirm the dignity of all humans—whether we differentiate by race, mental ability, gender, age, or any other measure. Because all people are created in God’s image, all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We gladly condemn racism in all its forms and white supremacy, in particular, including its most recent iteration in what’s become known as the “alt-right.”

Thirdly, we cry out to God for mercy. We pray for our nation, for our world, and for the return of Jesus. The only way that true, lasting righteousness will fully and finally reign in the world is for Jesus to come back and make it all right again, to make creation new.

So let’s take a moment now and pray for peace and pray for our gospel light to shine brightly in a world shrouded in darkness.

Will you pray with me?

“Father, our hearts were grieved this weekend as we saw what unfolded in Charlottesville, VA. We pray for your peace to reconcile divides that seem unbridgeable right now. And we ask for wisdom for the events of today. On the one hand we’re inadequate and small, yet on the other we want to love and serve those we know, those we can help. Root out the vestiges of superiority of all sorts that remain in our hearts, whether that relates to gender, race, religion, income level, or anything else. Have mercy on our nation, we pray. And give us courage to stand firm in the gospel even when the cost of discipleship seems near and dear. So we pray for wisdom and grace and courage and above all for peace. In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, amen.”