Martin Luther--His Character and Early Life
Through all the ages of papal darkness and oppression, God's care was over his cause and his people. Amid opposition, conflict, and persecution, an all-wise providence was still at work in the upbuilding of Christ's kingdom. Satan exercised his power to hinder the work of God, by destroying the workmen; but as soon as one laborer was imprisoned, or slain, another was raised up to fill the vacancy. Despite all the opposing powers of evil, angels of God were doing their work, heavenly messengers were searching out men to stand as light-bearers amid the darkness. Notwithstanding the wide-spread apostasy, there were honest souls who had given heed to all the light which shone upon them. In their ignorance of God's word they had received the doctrines and traditions of men, but when the word was placed within their reach, they earnestly studied its pages, and in humility of heart they wept and prayed for a knowledge of God's will. With great joy they accepted the light of truth, and eagerly sought to impart light to their fellow-men.
Through the labors of Wickliffe, Huss, and kindred workers, thousands of noble witnesses had borne testimony to the truth; yet at the beginning of the sixteenth century the darkness of ignorance and superstition still rested like a pall upon the church and the world. Religion was made to consist in a round of ceremonies, many of them borrowed from heathenism, and all devised by Satan to lead the minds of the people away from God and the truth. The worship of images and relics was still maintained. The Scriptural ordinance of the Lord's Supper was supplanted by the idolatrous sacrifice of the mass. Popes and priests claimed the power to forgive sins, and to open and close the gates of Heaven to all mankind. Senseless superstitions and rigorous exactions had taken the place of the true worship of God. The lives of popes and clergy were so corrupt, their proud pretensions so blasphemous, that good men trembled for the morality of the rising generation. With iniquity prevailing in the high places of the church, it seemed inevitable that the world would soon become as wicked as were the antediluvians or the inhabitants of Sodom.
The gospel was withheld from the people. It was regarded as a crime to own or read the Scriptures. Even the higher classes found it difficult to obtain a glimpse of the word of God. Satan well knew that if the people were permitted to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, his deceptions would speedily lose their power. Hence it was his studied effort to shut the Scriptures away from the people, and to prevent their minds from becoming enlightened by the truths of the gospel. But a day of religious light and freedom was about to dawn upon the world, and all the efforts of Satan and his hosts were powerless to prevent its coming.
Foremost among those who were called for God to break the chains of popery, and lead the church into the light of a purer faith, stood Martin Luther. Though, like others in his time, he did not see every point of faith as clearly as we see it to-day, yet the earnestly desired to know the will of God, and joyfully received the truth as it was made plain to his understanding. Zealous, ardent, devoted, knowing no fear but the fear of God, and acknowledging no foundation for religious faith but the Scriptures of truth, Luther was the man for his time; and through him God accomplished a great work for the emancipation of the church, and the enlightenment of the world.
Like the first heralds of the gospel, Luther sprung from the ranks of poverty. His father earned by daily toil as a miner the means to educate his son. He intended him for a lawyer; but God designed to make him a builder upon the great temple rising so slowly through the centuries.
Luther's father was a man of strong and active mind, and great force of character, honest, resolute and straightforward. His life was characterized by stern integrity; he was true to his convictions of duty, let the consequences be what they might. His sterling good sense led him to regard the monastic system with distrust. He was highly displeased when Luther, without his consent, entered a monastery; and it was two years before the father was reconciled to his son, and even then his opinions remained the same.
Luther's parents were strictly conscientious, earnest, and zealous in the performance of their parental duties, seeking to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Yet with their firmness and strength of character they sometimes erred by exercising too great severity. Their government was one of law and authority. The mother especially manifested too little love in the discipline of her sensitive son. While she gave him faithful instruction in Christian duty, as she understood it, the austerity and even harshness of her training led him to cherish erroneous views of a religious life. It was the influence of these early impressions that led him in later years to choose the life of a monk supposing it to be a life of self-denial, humiliation, and purity, and therefore pleasing to God.
The life of Luther from his earliest years was one of privation, hardship, and severe discipline. The effect of this training was seen in his religious character throughout his life. Luther himself, though conscious that in some respects his parents had erred, found in their discipline much more to approve than to condemn.
The prevailing sin of parents at the present day lies in the indulgence of their children. The youth are weak and inefficient, with little physical stamina or moral power, because of the neglect of parents to train them in childhood to habits of obedience and industry. The foundation of character is laid at home: no after influence from any earthly source can wholly counteract the effect of parental discipline. If firmness and decision were mingled with love and tenderness in the training of the young, we would see youth coming up, like Luther, qualified for lives of usefulness and honor.
At an early age Luther was sent to school, where he was treated with a harshness and even violence that he had not been subject to at home. So great was the poverty of his parents that he was obliged to obtain his food by singing from door to door, and he often suffered from hunger. The gloomy, superstitious ideas of religion then prevailing filled him with fear. He would lie down at night with a sorrowful heart, looking forward with trembling to the dark future, and in constant terror at the thought of God as a stern, unrelenting judge, a cruel tyrant, rather than a kind heavenly Father. There are few youth at the present day who would not have become disheartened under so many and so great discouragements; but Luther perseveringly pressed forward toward the high standard of moral and intellectual excellence which he had determined to attain.
He thirsted for knowledge, and the earnest and practical character of his mind led him to desire the solid and useful rather than the showy and superficial. At the age of eighteen he entered the University of Erfurth. His situation was now more favorable and his prospects brighter than in his earlier years. His parents having by thrift and industry acquired a competence, were able to render him all needed assistance. And the influence of judicious friends had somewhat lessened the gloomy effects of his former training. He now diligently applied himself to the study of the best authors, enriching his understanding with their most weighty thoughts, and making the wisdom of the wise his own. A retentive memory, a vivid imagination, strong reasoning powers, and energetic application to study, soon won for him the foremost rank among his associates.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." That fear dwelt in the heart of Luther, enabling him to maintain his steadfastness of purpose, and leading him to deep humility before God. He had an abiding sense of his dependence upon divine aid, and he did not fail to begin each day with prayer, while his heart was continually breathing a petition for guidance and support. "To pray well," he often said, "is the better half of study."
While one day examining the books in the library of the university, Luther discovered a Latin Bible. He had before heard fragments of the Gospels and epistles at public worship, and he thought that they were the whole of God's word. Now for the first time he is looking upon the whole Bible. With mingled awe and wonder he turns the sacred pages; with quickening pulse and throbbing heart he reads for himself the words of life, pausing now and then to exclaim, "Oh, if God would give me such a book for my own!" Angels of Heaven were by his side, and rays of light from the throne of God flashed upon the sacred pages, revealing the treasures of truth to his understanding. He had ever feared to offend God, but now the deep conviction of his condition as a sinner takes hold upon him, as never before.
An earnest desire to be free from sin and to find peace with God, led him at last, after many severe conflicts, to enter a cloister, and devote himself to a monastic life. Here he was subjected to the meanest service, being required to act as door-keeper and sweeper, and to beg from house to house. He was at an age when respect and appreciation are most eagerly craved, and these menial offices were deeply mortifying to his natural feelings; but he patiently endured it all, believing that it was a necessary humiliation because of his sins. This discipline was fitting him to become a mighty workman upon God's building.
Every moment that could be spared from his daily duties, he diligently employed in study, robbing himself of sleep, and grudging even the moments spent in eating his coarse, humble food. Above everything else he delighted in the study of God's word. And he often repaired to the Bible which he had found chained to the convent wall. As his convictions of sin deepened with the study of the Scriptures, he sought by his own works to obtain pardon and peace. He led a most rigorous life, endeavoring to crucify the flesh by fastings, watchings, and scourgings. He shrank from no sacrifice to become holy and gain Heaven. As the result of the painful discipline which he imposed upon himself, he lost all strength, and suffered from fainting spasms, from the effects of which he never fully recovered. But with all his efforts, his burdened soul found no relief. He was at last driven to the verge of despair.
When it appeared to Luther that all was lost, God raised up a friend and helper for him. The pious Staupitz opened the word of God to Luther's mind, and bade him look away from himself, cease the contemplation of infinite punishment for the violation of God's law, and look to Jesus, his sin-pardoning Saviour. "Instead of torturing yourself for your faults, cast yourself into the arms of your Redeemer. Trust in him, in the righteousness of his life, in the sacrifice of his death. Listen to the Son of God. He became man to assure you of the divine favor. Love him who has first loved you." Thus spoke this messenger of mercy. His words made a deep impression upon Luther's mind. After many a struggle with long-cherished errors, he was enabled to grasp the truth, and peace came to his troubled soul.
Oh that there were seen in this day, so deep abhorrence of self, so great humiliation of soul before God, and so earnest a faith when light is given, as were manifested by Martin Luther! True conviction of sin is now rarely experienced; superficial conversions abound, and Christian experience is dwarfed and spiritless. And why is this? Because of the false and fatal education given by parents to their children, and by ministers to their people. The young are indulged in their love of pleasure, and left unrestrained to pursue a course of sin; thus they lose sight of filial obligation, and having learned to trample upon the authority of their parents, they are prepared to trample upon the authority of God. And the people, in like manner, are allowed, unwarned to unite in the sinful pursuits and pleasures of the world, until they lose sight of their obligations to God, and of his claims upon them. They are assured of divine mercy, but permitted to forget divine justice. They expect salvation through the sacrifice of Christ, without rendering obedience to the law of God. Hence they have no true conviction of sin, and without this there can be no true conversion.
Luther searched the Scriptures with untiring interest and zeal, and at last found therein the way of life clearly revealed. He learned that it is not to the pope, but to Christ, that men are to look for pardon and justification. "There is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved." Christ is the only propitiation for sin; he is the complete and all-sufficient sacrifice, for the sins of the whole world, securing the pardon of all who will believe on him as God hath appointed. Jesus himself declares, "I am the door. By me if any man enter in, he shall be saved." Luther sees that Christ Jesus came into the world, not to save people in their sins, but to save them from their sins; that the one only way whereby the sinner can be saved is by repentance toward God, because of the transgression of his law, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, both for the pardon of sin and for grace to lead a life of obedience.
Thus he was led to perceive the fallacy of the papal doctrine, that salvation is obtained by punishments and penances, and that men must through hell reach Heaven. He learned from the precious Bible that he who is not cleansed from sin by Christ's atoning blood, can never be cleansed by the fires of hell; that the doctrine of purgatory is but a cunning device of the father of lies, and that the present life is the only period for probation granted to man in which to prepare for the society of the pure and holy.