History of the Reformation, vol. 1


Book 4—Luther before the Legate. May to December 1518

Chapter 1

The Resolutions—Repentance—Papacy—Leo X—Luther to his Bishop—Luther to the Pope—Luther to the Vicar-general—Rovera to the Elector—Sermon of Excommunication—Influence and Strength of Luther

Truth at last had raised her head in the midst of Christendom. Victorious over the inferior ministers of the papacy, she was now to enter upon a struggle with its chief in person. We are about to contemplate Luther contending with Rome. HRSCV1 122.3

It was after his return from Heidelberg that he took this bold step. His early theses on the indulgences had been misunderstood. He determined to explain their meaning with greater clearness. From the clamors that a blind hatred extorted from his enemies, he had learnt how important it was to win over the most enlightened part of the nation to the truth: he therefore resolved to appeal to its judgment, by setting forth the bases on which his new convictions were founded. It was requisite at once to challenge the decision of Rome: he did not hesitate to send his explanations thither. While he presented them with one hand to the enlightened and impartial readers of his nation, with the other he laid them before the throne of the sovereign pontiff. HRSCV1 122.4

These explanations of his theses, which he styled Resolutions, were written in a very moderate tone. Luther endeavoured to soften down the passages that had occasioned the greatest irritation, and thus gave proof of genuine humility. But at the same time he showed himself to be unshaken in his convictions, and courageously defended all the propositions which truth obliged him to maintain. He repeated once more, that every truly penitent Christian possesses remission of sins without papal indulgences; that the pope, like the lowliest priest, can do no more than simply declare what God has already pardoned; that the treasury of the merits of the saints, administered by the pope, was a pure chimera, and that the Holy Scriptures were the sole rule of faith. But let us hear his own statement on some of these points. HRSCV1 122.5

He begins by establishing the nature of real repentance, and contrasts that act of God which regenerates man with the mummeries of the church of Rome. “The Greek word Metanoia,” said he, “signifies, put on a new spirit, a new mind, take a new nature, so that ceasing to be earthly, you may become heavenly… Christ is a teacher of the spirit and not of the letter, and his words are spirit and life. He teaches therefore a repentance in spirit and in truth, and not those outward penances that can be performed by the proudest sinners without humiliation; he wills a repentance that can be effected in every situation of life,—under the kingly purple, under the priest’s cassock, under the prince’s hat,—in the midst of those pomps of Babylon where a Daniel lived, as well as under the monk’s frock and the beggar’s rags.” HRSCV1 122.6

Further on we meet with this bold language: HRSCV1 122.7

“I care not for what pleases or displeases the pope. He is a man like other men. There have been many popes who loved not only errors and vices, but still more extraordinary things. I listen to the pope as pope, that is to say, when he speaks in the canons, according to the canons, or when he decrees some article in conjunction with a council, but not when he speaks after his own ideas. Were I to do otherwise, ought I not to say with those who know not Christ, that the horrible massacres of Christians by which Julius II was stained, were the good deeds of a gentle shepherd towards Christ’s flock? HRSCV1 123.1

“I cannot help wondering,” continues Luther, “at the simplicity of those who have asserted that the two swords of the Gospel represent, one the spiritual, the other the secular power. Yes! the pope wields a sword of iron; it is thus he exhibits himself to Christendom, not as a tender father, but as a formidable tyrant. Alas! an angry God has given us the sword we longed for, and taken away that which we despised. In no part of the world have there been more terrible wars than among Christians… Why did not that acute mind which discovered this fine commentary, interpret in the same subtle manner the history of the two keys intrusted to St. Peter, and lay it down as a doctrine of the Church, that one key serves to open the treasures of heaven, the other the treasures of earth?” HRSCV1 123.2

“It is impossible,” says Luther in another place, “for a man to be a Christian without having Christ; and if he has Christ, he possesses at the same time all that belongs to Christ. What gives peace to our consciences is this—by faith our sins are no longer ours, but Christ’s, on whom God has laid them all; and, on the other hand, all Christ’s righteousness belongs to us, to whom God has given it. Christ lays his hand on us, and we are healed. He casts his mantle over us, and we are sheltered; for he is the glorious Saviour, blessed for evermore.” HRSCV1 123.3

With such views of the riches of salvation by Jesus Christ, there was no longer any need of indulgences. HRSCV1 123.4

While Luther attacks the papacy, he speaks honorably of Leo X. “The times in which we live are so evil,” said he, “that even the most exalted individuals have no power to help the Church. We have at present a very good pope in Leo X. His sincerity, his learning, inspire us with joy. But what can be done by this one man, amiable and gracious as he is? He was worthy of being pope in better days. In our age we deserve none but such men as Julius II and Alexander VI.” HRSCV1 123.5

He then comes to the point: “I will say what I mean, boldly and briefly: the Church needs a reformation. And this cannot be the work either of a single man, as the pope, or of many men, as the cardinals and councils; but it must be that of the whole world, or rather it is a work that belongs to God alone. As for the time in which such a reformation should begin, he alone knows who has created all time… The dike is broken, and it is no longer in our power to restrain the impetuous and overwhelming billows.” HRSCV1 123.6

This is a sample of the declarations and ideas which Luther addressed to his enlightened fellow-countrymen. The festival of Whitsuntide was approaching; and at the same period in which the apostles gave to the risen Saviour the first testimony of their faith, Luther, the new apostle, published his spirit-stirring book, in which he ardently called for a resurrection of the Church. On Saturday, 22nd May 1518, the eve of Pentecost, he sent the work to his ordinary the bishop of Brandenburg with the following letter:— HRSCV1 123.7

“Most worthy Father in God! It is now some time since a new and unheard-of doctrine touching the apostolic indulgences began to make a noise in this country; the learned and the ignorant were troubled by it; and many persons, some known, some personally unknown to me, begged me to declare by sermon or by writing what I thought of the novelty, I will not say the impudence, of this doctrine. At first I was silent and kept in the background. But at last things came to such a pass, that the pope’s holiness was compromised. HRSCV1 123.8

“What could I do? I thought it my duty neither to approve nor condemn these doctrines, but to originate a discussion on this important subject, until the holy Church should decide. HRSCV1 123.9

“As no one accepted the challenge I had given to the whole world, and since my theses have been considered, not as matters for discussion, but as positive assertions, I find myself compelled to publish an explanation of them. Condescend therefore to receive these trifles, which I present to you, most merciful bishop. And that all the world may see that I do not act presumptuously, I entreat your reverence to take pen and ink, and blot out, or even throw into the fire and burn, anything that may offend you. I know that Jesus Christ needs neither my labors not my services, and that he will know how to proclaim his glad tidings to the Church without my aid. Not that the bulls and the threats of my enemies alarm me; quite the contrary. If they were not so impudent, so shameless, no one should hear of me; I would hide myself in a corner, and there study alone for my own good. If this affair is not God’s, it certainly shall no longer be mine or any other man’s, but a thing of nought. Let the honor and the glory be his to whom alone they belong!” HRSCV1 123.10

Luther was still filled with respect for the head of the Church. He supposed Leo to be a just man and a sincere lover of the truth. He resolved, therefore, to write to him. A week after, on Trinity Sunday, 30th May 1518, he penned a letter, of which we give a few specimens. HRSCV1 124.1

“To the most blessed Father Leo X sovereign bishop, Martin Luther, an Augustine friar, wishes eternal salvation. HRSCV1 124.2

“I am informed, most holy Father, that wicked reports are in circulation about me, and that my name is in bad odor with your holiness. I am called a heretic, apostate, traitor, and a thousand other insulting names. What I see fills me with surprise, what I learn fills me with alarm. But the only foundation of my tranquillity remains,—a pure and peaceful conscience. Deign to listen to me, most holy Father,—to me who am but a child and unlearned.” HRSCV1 124.3

After relating the origin of the whole matter, Luther thus continues:— HRSCV1 124.4

“In all the taverns nothing was heard but complaints against the avarice of the priests, and attacks against the power of the keys and of the sovereign bishop. Of this the whole of Germany is a witness. When I was informed of these things, my zeal was aroused for the glory of Christ, as it appeared to me; or, if another explanation be sought, my young and warm blood was inflamed. HRSCV1 124.5

“I forewarned several princes of the Church; but some laughed at me, and others turned a deaf ear. The terror of your name seemed to restrain every one. I then published my disputation. “And behold, most holy Father, the conflagration that is reported to have set the whole world on fire. HRSCV1 124.6

“Now what shall I do? I cannot retract, and I see that this publication draws down upon me an inconceivable hatred from every side. I have no wish to appear before the world; for I have no learning, no genius, and am far too little for such great matters; above all, in this illustrious age, in which Cicero himself, were he living, would be compelled to hide himself in some dark corner. “But in order to quiet my adversaries, and to reply to the solicitations of many friends, I here publish my thoughts. I publish them, holy Father, that I may be in greater safety under the shadow of your wings. All those who desire it will thus understand with what simplicity of heart I have called upon the ecclesiastical authority to intruct me, and what respect I have shown to the power of the keys. If I had not behaved with propriety, it would have been impossible for the most serene lord Frederick, duke and elector of Saxony, who shines among the friends of the apostolic and christian truth, to have ever endured in his university of Wittenberg a man so dangerous as I am asserted to be. HRSCV1 124.7

“For this reason, most holy Father, I fall at the feet of your holiness, and submit myself to you, with all that I have and with all that I am. Destroy my cause, or espouse it: declare me right or wrong; take away my life or restore it, as you please. I shall acknowledge your voice as the voice of Jesus Christ, who presides and speaks through you. If I have merited death, I shall not refuse to die; the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is therein. May He be praised through all eternity! Amen. May he uphold you forever! Amen. HRSCV1 124.8

“Written the day of the Holy Trinity, in the year 1518. HRSCV1 124.9

“Martin Luther, Augustine Friar.” HRSCV1 124.10

What humility and truth in Luther’s fear, or rather in the avowal he makes that his warm young blood was perhaps too hastily inflamed! In this we behold the sincerity of a man who, presuming not on himself, dreads the influence of his passions in the very acts most in conformity with the Word of God. This language is widely different from that of a proud fanatic. We behold in Luther an earnest desire to gain over Leo to the cause of truth, to prevent all schism, and to cause the Reformation, the necessity of which he proclaims, to proceed from the head of the church. Assuredly it is not he who should be accused of destroying that unity in the Western Church which so many persons of all parties have since regretted. He sacrificed everything to maintain it;—everything except truth. It was not he, it was his adversaries, who, by refusing to acknowledge the fullness and sufficiency of the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ, rent our Saviour’s vesture, even at the foot of the cross. HRSCV1 124.11

After writing this letter, and on the very same day, Luther wrote to his friend Staupitz, vicar-general of his order. It was by his instrumentality that he desired the Solutions and letter should reach Leo. HRSCV1 124.12

“I beg of you,” says he, “to accept with kindness these trifles that I send you, and to forward them to the excellent Pope Leo X. Not that I desire by this to draw you into the peril in which I am involved; I am determined to encounter the danger alone. Jesus Christ will see if what I have said proceeds from Him or from me—Jesus Christ, without whose will the pope’s tongue cannot move, and the hearts of kings cannot decide. HRSCV1 124.13

“As to those who threaten me, I reply in the words of Reuchlin: `He who is poor has nothing to fear, since he has nothing to lose.’ I have neither property nor money, and I do not desire any. If formerly I possessed any honor, any reputation, let Him who has begun to deprive me of them complete his task. All that is left to me is a wretched body, weakened by many trials. Should they kill me by stratagem or by force, to God be the glory! They will thus, perhaps, shorten my life by an hour or two. It is enough for me that I have a precious Redeemer, a powerful High Priest, Jesus Christ my Lord. As long as I live will I praise him. If another will not unite with me in these praises, what is that to me?” HRSCV1 124.14

In these words we read Luther’s inmost heart. HRSCV1 125.1

While he was thus looking with confidence towards Rome, Rome already entertained thoughts of vengeance against him. As early as the 3rd of April, Cardinal Raphael of Rovera had written to the Elector Frederick, in the pope’s name, intimating that his orthodoxy was suspected, and cautioning him against protecting Luther. “Cardinal Raphael,” said the latter, “would have had great pleasure in seeing me burnt by Frederick.” Thus was Rome beginning to sharpen her weapons against Luther. It was through his protector’s mind that she resolved to aim the first blow. If she succeeded in destroying that shelter under which the monk of Wittenberg was reposing, he would become an easy prey to her. HRSCV1 125.2

The German princes were very tenacious of their reputation for orthodoxy. The slightest suspicion of heresy filled them with alarm. The court of Rome had skillfully taken advantage of this disposition. Frederick, moreover, had always been attached to the religion of his forefathers, and hence Raphael’s letter made a deep impression on his mind. But it was a rule with the elector never to act precipitately. He knew that truth was not always on the side of the strongest. The disputes between the empire and Rome had taught him to mistrust the interested views of that court. He had found out that to be a christian prince, it was not necessary to be the pope’s slave. HRSCV1 125.3

“He was not one of those profane persons,” said Melancthon, “who order all changes to be arrested at their very commencement. Frederick submitted himself to God. He carefully perused the writings that appeared, and did not allow that to be destroyed which he believed to be true.” It was not from want of power; for, besides being sovereign in his own states, he enjoyed in the empire a respect very little inferior to that which was paid to the emperor himself. HRSCV1 125.4

It is probable that Luther gained some information of this letter of Cardinal Raphael’s, transmitted to the elector on the 7th July. Perhaps, it was the prospect of excommunication which this Roman missive seemed to forebode, that induced him to enter the pulpit of Wittenberg on the 15th of the same month, and to deliver a sermon on that subject, which made a deep impression. He drew a distinction between external and internal excommunication; the former excluding only from the services of the Church, the latter from communion with God. “No one,” said he, “can reconcile the fallen sinner with God, except the Eternal One. No one can separate man from God, except man himself by his own sins. Blessed is he who dies under an unjust excommunication! While he suffers a grievous punishment at the hands of men for righteousness’ sake, he receives from the hand of God the crown of everlasting happiness.” HRSCV1 125.5

Some of the hearers loudly commended this bold language; others were still more exasperated by it. HRSCV1 125.6

But Luther no longer stood alone; and although his faith required no other support than that of God, a phalanx which defended him against his enemies had grown up around him. The German people had heard the voice of the reformer. From his sermons and writings issued those flashes of light which aroused and illumined his contemporaries. The energy of his faith poured forth in torrents of fire on their frozen hearts. The life that God had placed in this extraordinary mind communicated itself to the dead body of the Church. Christendom, motionless for so many centuries, became animated with religious enthusiasm. The people’s attachment to the Romish superstitions diminished day by day; there were always fewer hands that offered money to purchase forgiveness; and at the same time Luther’s reputation continued to increase. The people turned towards him, and saluted him with love and respect, as the intrepid defender of truth and liberty. Undoubtedly, all men did not see the depth of the doctrines he proclaimed. For the greater number it was sufficient to know that he stood up against the pope, and that the dominion of the priests and monks was shaken by the might of his word. In their eyes, Luther’s attack was like those beacon fires kindled on the mountains, which announce to a whole nation that the time to burst their chains has arrived. The reformer was not aware of what he had done, until the noble-minded portion of the nation had already hailed him as their leader. But for a great number also, Luther’s coming was something more than this. The Word of God, which he so skillfully wielded, pierced their hearts like a two-edged sword. In many bosoms was kindled an earnest desire of obtaining the assurance of pardon and eternal life. Since the primitive ages, the Church had never witnessed such hungering and thirsting after righteousness. If the eloquence of Peter the Hermit and of St. Bernard had inspired the people of the Middle Ages to assume a perishable cross, the eloquence of Luther prevailed on those of his day to take up the real cross,—the truth which saves. The scaffolding which then encumbered the Church had stifled everything; the form had destroyed the life. The powerful language given to this man diffused a quickening breath over the soil of Christendom. At the first outburst, Luther’s writings had carried away believers and unbelievers alike: the unbelievers, because the positive doctrines that were afterwards to be settled had not been as yet fully developed; the believers, because their germs were found in that living faith which his writings proclaimed with so much power. Accordingly, the influence of these writings was immense; they filled in an instant Germany and the world. Everywhere prevailed a secret conviction that men were about to witness, not the establishment of a sect, but a new birth of the Church and of society. Those who were then born of the breath of the Holy Ghost rallied around him who was its organ. Christendom was divided into two parties: the one contended with the spirit against the form, and the other with the form against the spirit. On the side of the form were, it is true, all the appearances of strength and grandeur; on the side of the spirit, is but a feeble body, which the first breath of wind may throw down. Its apparent power serves but to excite hostility and to precipitate its destruction. Thus, the simple Word of truth had raised a powerful army for Luther. HRSCV1 125.7