Gospel For Life

Training and building disciples for Christ

Wartburg Castle

The Wartburg Castle, Martin’s Luther’s Stronghold

 

The Protestant Reformation

More books have been written about Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, than about any other figure in history, except Christ. Luther was a remarkable man. This obscure monk from an unknown university was used by God to stir the whole of Europe. The medieval European world at the time of the Reformer was held in the sway of Catholicism’s traditions, superstitions, and corrupt practices. A scandal of the medieval church was the selling of indulgences. In this practice priests played upon the people’s dread fear of the punishment in purgatory. Clergymen collected money in return for absolving the purchaser of sins. Luther argued in his 95 Theses that the selling of indulgences had grown into a scandal that had infected the everyday practice of the church. His deepest concern was that the perversions of indulgences were harmful to human salvation, and that the trade in indulgences was totally unwarranted in Scripture. Luther saw that the practice encouraged people in their sin and actually turned them away from Christ and true forgiveness. This was the initial point in which Luther’s theology contrasted sharply with that of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope claimed authority to ‘shut the gates of hell and open the door to paradise.’ An obscure monk challenged that authority. His contemporaries knew that the Reformer had touched not only the exposed nerve of the papal hierarchy, but also the everyday practice of Christianity. Christian Europe was never the same again. In 1520 Luther was ordered to recant. He was eventually excommunicated on the 3rd of January in 1521 and outlawed the same year. Luther’s dramatic stand against both pope and Emperor fired the imagination of Europe. He found his sole support in his faith in God and in the authority of God’s Word. Luther published book after book over the next twenty-five years. Those written for ordinary Christians were in powerful and vivid German. He translated the Bible and backed up his points from Scripture which enabled his readers to see for themselves the truth of his arguments. He also published an account of each of his disputes with Rome so that people could judge for themselves. He put the ordinary Christian on his theological feet so to speak (the common man was able to see that divine authority is resident in the Holy Scriptures and not in the clerical operations of an exclusive priesthood). As his readership multiplied, Emperor Charles V attempted to use force to curb the movement spawned by Luther’s writings. But some of the princes of the German states protested – thus the movement found itself with the title ‘Protestant.’ From the movement (which had all along been intended to reform Catholicism from within) separated off what came to be known as ‘the Reformation.’ Lasting social, political, and economic changes followed the Reformation. It was the placing the Scriptures in the hands of the people in the language of the people that proved to be the prime mover; Europe was led out of the darkness of feudalism. But the Reformation was primarily a rediscovery of the gospel of God’s saving work in Christ. Once Luther came to understand the nature of the righteousness of God, he rejected all theology based solely on tradition. He emphasized personal understanding and experience of God’s Word. The discovery that God spares the sinner was always decisive for him. We are justified not by our deeds, but by faith alone. This truth has liberated the mind and heart from any theology which obscured it, and any practice or custom which corrupted it. “A Christian man is free from all things he needs no work in order to be justified and saved, but receives these gifts in abundance from his faith alone.” Martin Luther.

The Exile of Luther at Wartburg Castle

Luther took his stand before the Diet of Worms in April 1521; he refused to recant unless what he had written could be refuted by Scripture. He was outlawed by the church and the state; action was taken by his opponents to imprison him. For his own safety he was seized by his friends and taken to Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. Luther lived incognito in the Wartburg. He changed his appearance from a pious monk to a knight of the middle ages. As part of his disguise he called himself Junker George (Knight George). He grew his hair and beard. He had armor made for himself; he wore a cloak and dagger and went on hunts in the woods. During his lonely year in the castle he wrote countless letters and religious tracts. But his productivity was resisted by many obstacles. His exile in the Wartburg was a time of great trial (as recounted by his friends). Health problems were numerous and spiritual battles were fierce. Satan opposed the dissemination of the truth of God’s Word; the evil one frequently buffeted Luther. During one night of spiritual struggle, the reformer threw an ink well at the wall as he rebuked the devil. He left the stain on the wall as a reminder of the fight. Holed up in the castle tower with a whale vertebra for a stool; Luther devoted the lion’s share of his energies to translating the New Testament into German, so that the Bible might be read by all. In God’s providence, Luther’s translation of the New Testament from original Greek into German coincided with the availability of the printing press. The distribution of N.T. in the language of the people brought radical reform to Christianity in Germany, and eventually to Christian Europe. The change produced by his German New Testament was both spiritual and cultural. With its publication in September of 1522 Luther gave the Germans a uniform written language which in its basic form is still being used today. “Not until Luther did the Germans become a people,” Goethe wrote as he reflected upon this great achievement.

The Legacy of Martin Luther

 Luther’s greatest contribution can be summarized in a single sentence: when, as a monk, Luther diagnosed the disease of Christian Europe to be the same as his own spiritual disease, he broke through to the gospel and offered it to Europe. While in a monastery, his early searching for peace and pardon through the rigorous techniques of his order brought him no nearer to God. By religious duty, effort, and mysticism he was unable to find God. Luther found one basic error in all of his endeavors to know God and His character. His trust had been in his own efforts and striving to reach God. He had been depending upon human ability both to find God and to gain His acceptance. As he searched the Scriptures it became increasingly clear that the reverse was true. Sinful humanity was distant from God; but God in Christ had come all the way to find us; God in His mercy finds us. This was no new truth; but simply the old gospel of grace found in the N.T. This was not a break from the general creeds of the early church; the problem was that the Roman Catholic Church had overlaid the historic gospel with layers of dogma and human tradition. By contrast, the Reformers held that the believer came into direct relation and union with Christ, as the one, only all-sufficient source of grace. Through Christ God’s grace is available to the repenting believer by the power of the Holy Spirit – through the preaching of God’s Word sinners hear the message of the gospel which alone can bring life. Luther was not an innovator. His work was that of the rediscovery of the direct and personal relationship between Christ and the believer. From this rediscovery of the biblical gospel came the three great principles of the Reformation.

The authority of God’s Word

God has spoken to humanity and acted on behalf of humanity throughout history. The account of how God had dealt with people was given in Scripture. God continues to speak to mankind today through the words spoken to the holy prophets and apostles. In this personal self-revelation of God, the Bible, the Lord Himself spoke in love to His created humanity and renewed people heard and answered in faith. In all his writings Luther affirmed the final authority of Scripture; The Reformers bowed before the authority of God expressed in His infallible Word. They did not feel that they were handling and interpreting Scripture; but that God was handling them through Scripture. The authority of Scripture governed all of life; beliefs and church practices could not be justified if they were other than, outside of, or apart from the Word of God. Through its decrees and councils, the Church of Rome claimed that in practice both the Bible and tradition were sources and rules of faith. The Catholic Church went so far as to make tradition the only infallible interpreter of the Bible. But in reality the Bible was hardly ever read. When the Bible was read, it was most often interpreted at several levels (literally, allegorically, mystically, and spiritually). Because of this multi-level approach, interpretation was obscured; few knew what the Bible said or meant. Medieval theologians had tended to put themselves (by way of their opinions and traditions) between the believer and his Bible. Luther’s teaching penetrated this confusion. Luther uncovered the apostolic biblical principle of a self-interpreted Bible. His writings brought renewed momentum to the truth that Scripture belongs to the people of God – and that the Bible can be understood and rightly interpreted by the believer. Many of the Reformers were linguists and scholars. They studied the origin, history, and accuracy of the biblical text. They argued that through the message of the Bible God speaks to all classes of people of every age. Luther’s teaching and personal experience are closely connected. He always proceeds in the same way: from Scripture to personal conviction to declaration and preaching. For Luther there was no ‘natural’ understanding of God. God’s only communication with mankind is through His Word; and Christ in the Living Word. Christ is the essence of Scripture, and in Christ the Word of God becomes flesh. The Bible, and God, speaks only to those who have faith. Faith is God’s gift, not our achievement.

The salvation of the sinner by grace alone

The second great principle of the Reformation was salvation by the free and undeserved grace of Christ. Luther learned from the apostles Paul and John that our holy Creator saves sinners by imparting through His Word a transforming knowledge of Jesus Christ as the divine Lover who died for their sins, who rose again to conquer ‘principalities and powers’, and now as Mediator secures to them the gift of righteousness – pardon of guilt, acceptance as God’s children, and sure hope of reward. From this faith-knowledge of Christ and His benefits flows the whole of Christian living: repentance, fellowship with God, and good works. This rediscovery of the gospel of God’s justifying grace came to be known as ‘justification by faith only.’ The Protestants believed that by the action of God alone, in the death and resurrection of Christ, they were called from their sin to a new life in Christ. The Catholic Church had modified this by placing good works alongside the work of Christ as the cause of divine acceptance and salvation. The Protestants did not disapprove of good works, but denied their value as a condition of justification. They saw good works as the product and evidence of justification, not the cause of justification. As Luther examined Catholic teaching in the light of Scripture, he spoke out against the soul-destroying necessity of earning God’s continued favor by self-effort. As such Luther’s articulation of the gospel of justification by faith alone is the very centre-piece of all Protestant theology; for only in justification by faith do the benefits of Christ’s saving work become the possession of the believing sinner. Luther is church history’s champion of salvation by faith alone in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Luther often highlighted the central importance of justification by faith: When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen. This is the chief article from which all other doctrines have flowed. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God. Without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour. It is the master and the prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines.

The priesthood of every believer

The third great Reformation principle was termed ‘the priesthood of believers’. The Reformers argued that there was no precedent in Scripture or the early church for the priest as mediator. Such a role was not part of the gospel. Nothing in God’s Word supports the secular power of the clergy. This doctrine eliminated the two levels of Christianity; spiritual and lay. According to God’s Word there is one gospel, one justification by faith, and one status before God common to all believing men and women. There is no biblical warrant for authority resting in an exclusive priesthood. People were freed from their vague fear of priests – a massive liberation resulted. The Reformers held that God called people to different occupations; whether farmer, soldier, baker, or pastor. In and through his calling the Christian served God. No matter his calling, every believer was a servant employed by Christ. A Christian has the right and duty to read the newly-translated Bible. Every lay person was expected to take a responsible part in government and the public affairs of both church and society. Such thinking birthed the concept of self-government and ultimately gave rise to the democratic states of Europe and America.

The Setting of Wartburg Castle

Nestled in the Thuringian Forest, the Wartburg Castle is located on a 1230-foot cliff overlooking Eisenach, a city formerly behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. It was founded by Duke of Ludwig of Thuringia in 1067 AD and is one of the best preserved castles in Germany. Visitors have described it as, “Breath-taking, wonderful, and amazing.” It its great hall, the minstrels of the High Middle Ages held their competition. The castle was renovated through the ages, especially during the Romantic period of the 19th century. The drawbridge (the only entrance), over which Luther was brought in 1521 following his conviction as public enemy number one, was restored in 1683. Today the castle’s half-timbered ramparts, as well as many other structures of the castle, appear as they did during the time of Luther. In 1999 Wartburg Castle was selected to the World Heritage List by UNESCO as an “Outstanding monument of the Feudal Period in Central Europe” and is linked to “Cultural Values of Universal Significance.” On October 18, 1817, some 500 students gathered at the castle for the “Wartburgfest,” the first democratic public demonstration in the not-yet united Germany. Under the motto, “Honor, Freedom, Fatherland,” the students proclaimed their commitment to a free and united Germany. Wartburg Castle is an imposing Medieval fortress that stands as monument to the power and goodness of God. For through a man who took refuge there, God turned the tide of church history. By the work of God’s sovereign grace in Martin Luther’s life the energy and vision for the Reformation was formed. Luther had only aimed at reform within the church. But forces hostile to him providentially set in motion circumstances which actually helped launch the Reformation. Luther virtually created and sustained the German Reformation single-handed. This he achieved by an immense output of books, and by fearless preaching and teaching. The single most important catalyst in the Reformation is the Word of God; by putting the Bible in German into the heart and mind of every man, woman and child, and by writing many biblical hymns, an immense portion of Christian Europe experienced a supernatural return to her biblical foundations. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the Word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits of His creatures (James 1:18). For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is through the living and abiding Word of God (1 Pet 1: 23). (Select Bibliography: The History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, Ed., Lion Pub., Oxford, 1977)