Martin Luther was a colossus. He influenced Archbishop Cranmer, the Anglican Reformer, along with the great Continental Reformers. In essence the new movement that humanly Luther started was a 'back to the Bible' movement.
Not everyone agreed with Luther. He made some mistakes. And he was different. The French/Swiss Calvin was a scholar and intellectual giant. Cranmer was a typically British cautious Reformer and in Shakespeare's league as a writer. But Luther was rougher all round. He was very intelligent and enormously hard working. He shot-from-the-hip and was not always precise. Yet he brilliantly hit the traget. He spoke his mind. Nor was tact a high priority. He may have exaggerated at times but at least he said something while others kept their mouths shut out of fear of the Pope or the secular authorities. His goal was clear. It was to 'preach Christ'. As he says: 'the one doctrine which I have supremely at heart is that of faith in Christ.'
Born on 10 November 1483, Luther had a good education ending up at the University of Erfurt. He then entered an Augustinian monastery in the town at the age of twenty-two. He wanted to make his peace with God, having had an earlier brush with death and realizing that he was in no way fit to face his maker. But the monastery did not help him. As he said: 'If ever a monk could have got to heaven by monkery, it would have been me.' He never was sure he had sufficiently confessed his sins or done all that was required. Conscious of the wrath of a holy, righteous God confronting his sin, he knew he deserved God's condemnation. And he was right. This is what he read in his Bible. He knew there were no 'ladders to heaven' - neither those of the intellect, nor of works nor of mysticism. They did not reach God. Oh! he knew about grace. The Old Testament and Roman Catholicism taught about the primacy of God's grace - that unless God first worked there was no hope. But it was 'grace' plus; you needed human works as well - so he was taught - after God's grace if you were to be saved.
In 1508 he was made Professor at the new University of Wittenberg. With a short break back at Erfurt, he remained a Professor there until his death in 1546. He got this post thanks to the efforts of his vicar-general, Staupitz - a spiritual man of great learning and with a good knowledge of the Bible. Staupitz believed that if you were called by God and received his grace through the sacraments then you would get the strength to will and do what was good. No one could be certain of their election, but the sacraments gave you hope. Staupitz wanted Luther to turn from his despair and to seek God and not on the basis of his own resolutions or good works. Rather he was to trust God's forgiving mercy. He wanted Luther to think of Christ not as a condemning judge but as a Saviour. While not clear or the full gospel, this helped Luther go in the right direction.
It was, however, Luther's study of the Psalms and Romans that helped him understand the good news - the gospel. He saw in Romans that Paul was saying that a person is set right with God utterly freely (there is no need of prior works) by grace (God is doing it all out of his love) in Christ. We are justified by faith (simply trusting and accepting what God has done). Luther came to see the core as what God had done in Christ at Calvary. His great work, his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, could not be clearer. Writing on Galatians 3:13 where Paul says, 'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having been made a curse for us (for it is written: "Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree") etc (Deut. 21:23),' he says this: '[Christ] being made a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, is not now an innocent person and without sins ... but a sinner, which hath and carrieth the sin of Paul, who was a blasphemer, an oppressor and a persecutor; of Peter, which denied Christ; of David, which was an adulterer, a murderer, and caused the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of the Lord: and briefly, which hath and beareth all the sins of all men in his body, that he might make satisfaction for them with his own blood.'
Luther complained that Roman Catholic teachers 'do spoil us of this knowledge of Christ and most heavenly comfort (namely, that Christ was made a curse for us, that he might deliver us from the curse of the law), when they separate him from sins and sinners, and only set him out unto us as an example to be followed.'
Of course, Luther knew Christ was sinless: 'He verily is innocent, because he is the unspotted and undefiled Lamb of God. But because he beareth the sins of the world, his innocence is burdened with the sins and guilt of the whole world.' And this is the gospel. He says it is, 'a singular consolation for all the godly, so to clothe Christ with our sins, and to wrap him in my sins, thy sins, and the sins of the whole world, and so to behold him bearing all our iniquities.' It is here, he argues, that 'the doctrine of the Gospel' shines out:
'[It] speaketh nothing of our works or of the works of the law, but of the unspeakable and inestimable mercy and love of God towards us unworthy and lost men: to wit, that our most merciful Father, seeing us to be oppressed and overwhelmed with the curse of the law, and so to be beholden under the same that we could never be delivered from it by our own power, sent his only Son into the world and laid upon him all the sins of all men, saying: "Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly, be thou the person which have committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them." Here now cometh the law and saith: "I find him a sinner, and that such a one as hath taken upon him the sins of all men, and see no sins else but in him; therefore let him die upon the cross." And so he setteth upon him and killeth him. By this means the whole world is purged and cleansed from all sins, and so delivered from death and all evils. Now sin and death being abolished by this one man, God would see nothing else in the whole world, especially if it did believe, but a mere cleansing and righteousness.'
Faith and Prayer
'Especially if it did believe' - faith is then the key. But what is faith? According to Luther:
'There are two ways of believing. First, to believe that there is a God. This kind of faith is knowledge, or information, rather than faith as such. Secondly, there is faith in God. This faith I possess when I not only hold that what is said about God is true, but when I put my whole trust in him, undertake to deal with him personally, and believe without doubt that I shall find him to be and to do as I have been told.'
And essential to faith is God's word. 'Is it not true to say that God's word is greater and more important than faith? For God's word is not founded and built on faith, but on the contrary, faith is built on God's word. Besides, our faith may waver, even fail altogether, but the word of God stands for ever.'
And faith will be followed by 'good works' - not as a cause of salvation but a consequence. 'There is something vital, energetic, active, mighty about this kind of faith,' says Luther. 'It is impossible for it not to be engaged in good works without ceasing.' And there will be prayer. 'We should pray, not as the custom is, turning over many pages or counting many beads, but fixing our mind upon some pressing need; desire it with all earnestness, and exercise faith and confidence towards God in the matter, in such a way that we do not doubt but that we shall be heard.' 'Prayer is a two-way activity. First, we speak to God, and then he speaks to us. Simply talk with God - that is the nature of prayer. How great and glorious a thing it is that the most high God in all his majesty so condescends to us poor worms of earth that we may open our mouths to talk to him, and that he delights to listen. Yet more glorious and precious by far it is that he does actually speak to us, and that we listen to him.' And how do we hear God speak? 'Let the man who wants to hear God speak read Holy Scripture.' 'Whenever a man reads the word of God, he is being handled by God: the Holy Spirit is speaking to him.' Luther was not interested in a 'silent God'. 'I have always with the greatest diligence exhorted men to read Scripture and to hear the spoken word, that we may deal with the God who has revealed himself and is speaking to us, and may in every way avoid the God who is silent and hidden in majesty.'
This is the context from which Luther took on the Church and the world. In 1517 he posted his ninety-five theses on the door at Wittenberg that included an attack on the false assurance of indulgences (money you could pay the Church to release you from purgatory). In 1520 he was excommunicated by the Pope. Before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521 he famously said: 'I cannot and will not recant! I can no other! Here I stand! May God help me! Amen!' He had to fight his own extremists in 1522; the clever but weak Erasmus in 1524; the peasants revolt in 1525 which harmed the cause as they jumped on the Reformation band-wagon. And so it went on until his death in 1546. All the time he was writing and teaching and leading the Church in reform. Praise God for Luther.