There’s a carved pumpkin on my doorstep this season but it's no pagan icon. It honors a backwoods monk from sixteenth century Saxony who, in God’s providence, changed the world on what the culture now calls Halloween. It was on that day in 1517 that 37-year-old monk and University of Wittenburg theology professor, Martin Luther, nailed a challenge to the church authorities on the bulletin board—the church door—to debate ninety-five points of Scripture and church custom.
It set in motion a chain of earthshaking events over the next three-and-a-half years that led to what British historian Thomas Carlyle called "The greatest moment in the modern history of man"—Luther before the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. We know it as the Reformation.
On that day in 1521, Dr. Luther stood before the assembled heads of state of the known world. It was standing room only at the Diet of Worms, with the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, an awesome collection of lesser provincial kings, princes, nobles, prelates, burghers, and two high-powered representatives of Pope Leo X. The room was so crowded with spectators that the blue bloods could hardly get to their seats. It would be like a meeting of the United Nations today; only this group had real power.
Johann Eck, the pope's envoy, after an exchange of viewpoints that was going nowhere fast, said in Latin:
Martinus, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Huss...How can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect Lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the Apostles, sealed by the red blood of martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, and defined by the church...and which we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss, lest there be no end to debate. I ask you, Martinus, answer candidly and without distinctions, do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors they contain?
The air in the room was electric with tension. Luther knew the fate of the Bohemian John Huss 111 years earlier—no doubt Eck mentioned his name on purpose. Huss’s beliefs were similar to Luther’s and he was burned at the stake.
It was never Luther’s desire to create such a ruckus. Neither he nor his family planned that he should even be a monk. It was one of the least regarded professions of the day. There was a widely held suspicion that monastic vows were a copout—an excuse for a man to secure a pleasant, comfortable life without having to work or worry about where his next meal was coming from.
Corruption abounded in the church, and monasteries and nunneries were known for their sexual promiscuity and drunken excesses. It is reported that the highest-ranking church official in England had six illegitimate children in spite of his vows of abstinence.
But Luther's life was forever changed, at age 21, while riding a horse with a friend through the woods during a violent storm. In the midst of a series of lightening bolts that killed his friend he cried in mortal fear, "Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk."
Two weeks later, on July 17, 1505, he said good-bye to an appalled father, had a wild farewell party with his friends, and told them at the door of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenburg, "You see me today and never again." But God had other plans. In his later years he said of that moment, "To the world I had died, till God thought it was time."
Martin Luther took his vows very seriously. He was driven by his desire to find the merciful God. He said, "In the monastery I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me. For I had strayed from faith and could not but imagine that I had angered God, whom I in turn had to appease by doing good works."
Luther worked so hard at fasting and prayer that he was sometimes found unconscious in his austere little cubicle. He was obsessed that he would die with some unknown sin that would condemn him. In spite of fasting, detailed self-examination, even scourging, and every form of self-discipline that existed in the already strict order he had joined, he was utterly without peace of mind. The awful consciousness of the majesty and holiness of God, which had almost crushed him as he celebrated his first mass, never completely left him. He was tormented by the recognition of his own sin, and by the question, "Have I fasted, watched, prayed and confessed enough?"
It was one day in 1508 or 1509 that the Holy Spirit opened Martin Luther's eyes. He had been a monk for three or four years when, while reading the first chapter of Romans, he was struck by verse 17: "...as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’" It was as if "…the door of heaven had been thrown open wide."
It was to become the heart of Luther's theology, the truth that he would be willing to die for: "justification by faith offered to us freely in the gospel of Jesus Christ." All of his writings, which were encyclopedic by any human measure in any era, and for which he never took one cent while making his publisher wealthy, were nothing but an expansion of those six words—the just shall live by faith.
Those words did not remotely describe the Christian practice of his day, and the unlikely monk began to write and preach his way, as a professor and pastor of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, toward the collision with the Church of Rome that changed history. He knew eternity was in the balance every time he preached to his Saxon congregation and he knew the truth by which God had enlightened him was unpopular and objectionable to some, but he could do no less for the immortal souls entrusted to his care.
Most historians skim over the Reformation as an argument over indulgences that financed all manner of escapades by a corrupt pope. Church members were enticed to purchase them by the pope’s pronouncements that such would buy their deceased relatives out of purgatory and into heaven—a blasphemous idea and one of Luther’s ninety-five debating points.
But the real issue of the Reformation, "the hinge," as Luther called it, was justification by faith alone. Luther believed that justification by works as practiced by the Catholic Church was not what God had revealed in the Scriptures and was in fact under condemnation. He shared Augustine’s conviction, stated over a thousand years earlier, and of course the apostle Paul, that salvation was by grace alone.
As Luther stood before his accusers at the Diet of Worms he was the picture of godly calm, but the day before, April 17th, the first day of his trial had been a different story. He had ridden proudly into Worms at the head of a massive entourage of his followers. When a friend advised him enroute by letter not to enter Worms, he replied by letter in his usual bombastic way, "Though there were as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I will go there."
Yet he was gravely ill enroute, probably from the stress. A crowd of 2000 people gathered around his carriage when he arrived in Worms at a guesthouse of his King, Frederick the Wise of Saxony. He had been given safe passage by the pope, but so had John Huss a century earlier, and virtually no one thought it meant anything this time either. People were more anxious to see Luther than the Emperor Charles V himself, a fact that must been hard on the ego of the twenty-one-year-old emperor.
The first day of his trial Luther responded like a scared, almost crazy person to Eck's demand to repudiate his writings. He bobbed his head up and down and wrung his hands and asked in a barely audible voice for more time to consider. They gave him overnight—most assuredly the longest night in his life. It was up to him to decide whether to recant and live...or die in the most hideous manner society of the Middle Ages could devise.
Some members of the Diet, as well as many others, actually came to him that night and encouraged him to stick to his guns. Most secular rulers were sick and tired of the Church of Rome siphoning off all the money of their subjects. It left nothing for them to tax and their lifestyle suffered, but they did not have the nerve themselves to defy the Church of Rome.
Some of them were very excited about the possibility of the separation of church and state for the first time, and in Luther they saw the possibilities for that to become a reality...and it did. Hence, Carlyle's comment that it was the greatest moment in modern history. Distraught Brother Martin prayed and prayed. He said, "Amen," then prayed some more. "Help me, God. Help me, God. Amen. Help me, God. Help me, God."
The next day, April 18th, was his last chance, and Eck repeated his question in Latin, "Martinus, do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors they contain?"
Martin Luther, standing behind a table piled high with his writings, replied in German rather than Latin, the mother tongue of all scholars and church officials. His response was short and concluded with:
Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason...my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
Emperor Charles V was shaken. He foresaw the very foundations of the existing social order crumbling if Luther was allowed to go unpunished and his ideas proliferate...and he was right.
Luther went unpunished by the church in spite of their best efforts, because his king, Frederick the Wise, arranged to have him "kidnapped" on his way home from Worms. Martin was taken to one of the king’s cloud-shrouded mountaintop castles where he dressed in knight’s clothes and went by the moniker, Junker Georg.
That long year might as well been spent in prison as far as Luther was concerned. His health suffered mightily there. He blamed it on bad beer (probably a correct assumption, but water was not safe to drink) and the devil. Luther had a highly developed sense of the devil and demons. He kept a bucket of walnuts by his bed at night to throw at demons in that cold, spooky old castle.
All of Europe was in such turmoil that Luther threw caution to the winds and came down off the mountaintop. Thus the reluctant monk from Saxony who loved life, loved to socialize with friends, sing and play the lute, was used by God to change the world. He was bombastic, as were his writings and he was usually his own worst enemy when it came to debate, but his sermons, hymns and writings electrified his age and every age since. And his theme was the heart of the gospel: "…the just shall live by faith" in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Every Maundy Thursday as long as he lived—28 more tumultuous years—Luther was number one on the pope’s published excommunication list. Even on his deathbed at age fifty-seven an emissary of the pope was with Luther, asking him to his last breath if he would repent.
It is in honor of Martin Luther, man of God, that my October pumpkin is carved not with a ghoulish smile, but with the cross of my Savior, Jesus Christ, who died to give this unworthy eternal life. And it burns incongruously among the jack-o-lanterns of the night to tell the world that by faith alone here I stand at its foot. I can do other.
JD Wetterling is a PCA ruling elder and regular contributor to PCANews. He has just begun his service as Resident Manager of Ridge Haven, the Camp and Conference Grounds of the PCA.
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Bibliography and suggested readings:
Luther, Martin, The Bondage of The Will, Translated by James I. Packer and O.R. Johnson, Revell Co., Tarrytown, N.Y., 1957.
Kepler, Thomas S., Editor, The Table Talk of Martin Luther, Translated by William Hazlitt, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1995.
Oberman, Heiko A., Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, Image Books, N.Y., N.Y., 1982.
Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 6: The Reformation, MJF Books, N.Y., N.Y., 1957.
Plass, Ewald M., This Is Luther, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Mo., 1984.