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"…the Scriptures cannot be broken." John 10:35

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Life of Luther—1517 “Just leave me alone!”

The ROAD TO REFORMATION

In preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we have presented a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther leading up to
the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses. The series culminates in this month’s issue.

A disgruntled child stomps away when angry. You decide to tackle projects alone rather than with impossible people. Life’s problems often seem easier in isolation.

By 1517, Luther thought he had tucked himself away from trouble. He grieved that the Bible commentaries he read were filled with men’s babble, but he could always close them and teach Scriptural truth in his tiny lecture hall. In Rome, he had seen gross doctrinal error; but far to the north, with the Alps in between, he could just focus on his little world enclosed by Wittenberg’s walls. And although confusion abounded among the people, he could take the time to counsel them one by one.

But then Tetzel arrived.

A Dominican monk with a flair for the dramatic, Johann Tetzel brought Rome’s very worst to nearby Jüterbog, where many people from Wittenberg went to purchase his indulgences (Frederick the Wise had forbidden him from entering Saxony). A sales slogan Tetzel used best illustrates his guile: “As soon as the gold in the coffer rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.”

Luther learned that many residents of Wittenberg were flocking to Tetzel. Souls he knew and loved fell for the lie that a few coins got them closer to heaven. In private, Luther had sought to convince them of God’s love. In public, they had the fear of God pressed back upon them. The ringing of coins in the collection box would have sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard to poor Luther.

With All Saints Day looming, the fevered pitch of Tetzel’s false preaching grew, deceiving the people into believing that purchasing his pieces of paper could finally release their loved ones from purgatory. The day before that feast, Luther produced his now-famous Ninety-Five Theses. They outlined the inherent contradiction of burdening already-repentant souls with relentless fear and dread.

Although these theses were publicly displayed, Luther purposely wrote them in Latin. They were not meant for everyone to read, just the educated and ruling class.

Luther did not intend to agitate the people with his Ninety-Five Theses. They were a statement directed to those who tried to impose Rome on Wittenberg. In a way, their posting was meant to shout, “Just leave us alone!”

The Ninety-Five Theses spread like wildfire. God’s hour had come. Luther could no longer hide.

The Savior Himself had hidden away at times, but only to allow His Word to work on the hearers’ hearts. And He was completely alone when forsaken on the cross. But when Christ rose triumphant from the grave, there was no more hiding. His resurrection was the public declaration that the forgiveness of sins won by His blood is the immediate ticket to eternal life.

From 1517 on, Luther ever more openly proclaimed this good news. God had used the events of that year to force His chosen instrument out of hiding, “having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth.” (Rev. 14:6)

Luther’s 1517 lectures on Hebrews reveal a personal reflection on God’s work in his life. He talked at length about the duty of a “preacher of the Gospel” to point a burdened soul away from the Law and to Christ’s work alone.

What followed was a very public Luther. No more private lectures. Instead, a German Bible to be heard and read by the people. Countless letters sent throughout Europe expounding what the Scriptures truly teach. And as a traveling preacher, he openly proclaimed God’s Word wherever called, right up until his final journey home.

This everlasting Gospel brings you out of isolation, too. Christ crucified gives you the comfort of freedom from all that makes you want to hide away. And wherever God leads you, He takes you there to share your hope with other souls burdened by sin. May the good news in Jesus’ name carry you on each day until His promised heaven is yours.

Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.

Luther Finds the Pearl of Great Price 1514-1515

The ROAD TO REFORMATION

In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series will culminate
in the October 2017 issue with an account of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.

Luther struggled mightily to find peace with God and certainty of salvation. We have seen how he drove himself mercilessly to achieve this while he was a monk, and was himself driven nearly to despair in the attempt. But this peace came to him in quite a different manner. Late in his life he described his experience in this way, “Then I felt as if I had been completely reborn and had entered Paradise through widely opened doors. Instantly all Scripture looked different to me.” He also mentions a tower in the Black Cloister in Wittenberg in which he studied as the place of this discovery. “And my conscience and spirit were lifted up, and I was made certain that it is the righteousness of God which justifies and saves us.” When this took place is not precisely known, but it is widely thought to have been in the fall of 1514.

What led Luther to this point? First and foremost, we note that Luther was now constantly immersed in the study of Scripture. He lectured on the Psalms (1513-15), then on Romans (1515-16), next on Galatians and Hebrews (1516-1518), and finally back to the Psalms (1519), for he thought that now he might be prepared to understand them.

Secondly, he preached often, both in the cloister to his fellow monks and then several times a week in the town church. One year he is said to have preached 170 sermons! That’s more than three a week! Thus, his entire attention was given to trying to understand and teach the Bible.

His first lectures were based on the standard text of the time: the Latin Vulgate. But God in His wise planning had arranged that, just at this time, it was possible to return to the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, and Luther was among the first to do so.

Erasmus, a noted scholar, had prepared a more accurate Greek New Testament by diligently collecting and comparing a large number of manuscripts. Luther used the first edition almost as soon as it was printed. He used the second edition in translating the New Testament a few years later.

John Reuchlin, a lawyer and accomplished linguist, had published a Hebrew grammar and dictionary a few years earlier, in 1506. This made him controversial because many people suspected he was sinfully collaborating with the Jews. And when the Dominican monks sought to persuade Emperor Maximillian to burn all Hebrew writings in his empire, Reuchlin bravely opposed them, and found himself in serious danger. One of the few people to offer him support in this controversy was Luther, who certainly did not want the Hebrew Old Testament destroyed. An interesting side note is that Reuchlin was the teacher and great uncle of Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s friend and colleague, and an invaluable help in his translation of the Old Testament.

And what was that insight that opened the gates of Paradise to Luther? In a word, the doctrine of justification. Wrestling with the expression “the righteousness of God,” he came to understand that it was used in two different ways in Scripture. Sometimes it is that righteousness that is in God and prompts Him to punish the unrighteous sinner. But when Paul says, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith,’” (Romans 1:17) it is referring to that righteousness given by God and received by faith. This is Christ’s righteousness, which covers our sins, and on account of which God declares us holy. This is the foundation of the Reformation message, the pearl of great price, recovered by Luther and given to us to treasure.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.

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