Triumph of the Reformation
Upon his return from Wartburg, Luther gave his attention to the work of revising his translation of the New Testament, and the gospel was soon after given to the people of Germany in their native tongue. This translation was received with great joy by all who loved the truth; but it was scornfully rejected by those who chose human traditions and the commandments of men.
The priests, who themselves knew little of the Scriptures, were alarmed at the thought that the common people would now be able to discuss with them the precepts of God's word, and that their own ignorance would thus be exposed. Rome summoned all her authority and power to prevent the circulation of the Scriptures; but decrees, anathemas, and tortures were alike in vain. The more she condemned and prohibited the circulation of the Bible, the greater was the anxiety of the people to know what it really taught. All who could read were eager to study the word of God for themselves. They carried it about with them, and read and reread, and could not be satisfied until they had committed large portions to memory. Seeing the eagerness with which the New Testament was received, Luther immediately began the translation of the Old, and published it in parts as fast as completed.
About this time there appeared a new foe of the Reformation. Tidings reached Wittenberg that Henry VIII., king of England, had written a book supporting the Romish doctrines, and violently attacking Luther. Henry was one of the most powerful monarchs of Christendom, and he vainly imagined that he could, without difficulty, annihilate the Reformation. He drew no arguments from the Scriptures in support of his position, but cited instead only the authority of the church and the traditions of the Fathers. He also resorted to contempt and ridicule of his "feeble adversary," as he termed Luther, styling him also a wolf, a poisonous serpent, a limb of the devil.
The appearance of this book was hailed with great delight by the partisans of Rome. Its superficial reasoning and harsh denunciations suited well a people who willfully rejected the truths of God's word. It was lauded by princes and prelates, and even by the pope himself, and Henry VIII. was revered as a prodigy of wisdom, even a second Solomon.
Luther read the work with astonishment and contempt. Its falsehood and insulting personalities, as well as its tone of affected contempt, excited his indignation, and the thought that the pope and his partisans had exulted in so weak and superficial a production, inspired him with a determination to silence their boasting.
Again he took up his pen against the enemies of the truth. He showed that Henry had sustained his doctrines only by the decrees and teachings of men. "As to me," said he, "I do not cease my cry of, 'The gospel, the gospel! Christ, Christ!' and my enemies continue to reply, 'Custom, custom! Ordinances, ordinances! Fathers, Fathers!' ST. Paul says, 'Let not your faith stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.' And the apostle, by this thunder-clap from Heaven, at once overturns and disperses, as the mind scatters the dust, all the foolish thoughts of such a one as this Henry."
"To all the decisions of Fathers, of men, of angels, of devils, I oppose," says he, "not the antiquity of custom, not the habits of the many, but the word of the eternal God, the gospel, which they themselves are obliged to admit. It is to this book that I keep; upon it I rest; in it I make my boast; in it I triumph and exult. . . The King of Heaven is on my side; therefore I fear nothing." And with arguments drawn from the word of God did Luther demolish and scatter to the winds all the sophisms of his opposers. It was with the new doctrines and their advocates as with the Israelites in Egypt,-"the more they were afflicted, the more they multiplied and grew."
Luther's writing were eagerly read alike in the city and in the hamlet. At night the teachers of the village schools would read aloud to little groups gathered at the fireside. With every effort some souls would be convicted of the truth, and, receiving the word with tears of gladness, would in their turn tell the good news to others.
The words of inspiration were verified, "The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple." The study of the Scriptures was working a mighty change in the minds and hearts of the people, not only reforming the morals, but arousing the intellectual powers to a strength and vigor heretofore unknown. The papal rule had placed upon the people an iron yoke which held them in ignorance and degradation. All their instruction and discipline had been of a character to encourage a superstitious observance of forms; the prescribed routine of worship was scrupulously maintained, but in all their service the heart and intellect had little part. Yet many of these worshipers possessed dormant powers that needed only to be awakened and called into action. The preaching of Luther, setting forth the plain truths of God's word, and then the word itself, placed in the hands of the common people, had not only purified and ennobled the spiritual nature, but had imparted a new life to the intellectual powers.
Persons of all ranks were to be seen with the Bible in their hands, defending the doctrines of the Reformation. The papists who had left the study of the Scriptures to the priests and monks, now called upon them to come forward and refute the new teachings. But ignorant alike of the Scriptures and of the power of God, priests and friars were totally defeated by those whom they had denounced as unlearned and heretical. Unhappily," says a Catholic writer, "Luther had persuaded his followers that their faith ought only to be founded on the oracles of Holy Writ." Crowds would gather to hear the truth advocated by common men, and even discussed by them with learned and eloquent theologians. The shameful ignorance of these great men was made apparent as their arguments were met by the simple teachings of God's word. Persons of little education, women and laborers, were able to give from the Scriptures the reason of their faith.
The success that attended the Reformation excited the most bitter opposition. As the Romish clergy saw their congregations diminishing, they invoked the aid of the magistrates, and by every means in their power endeavored to bring back their hearers. These efforts were but partially successful. The people were hungering for the bread of life; they had found in the teachings of the Reformation that which supplied the wants of their souls, and they turned away from those who had so long fed them with the worthless husks of superstitious rites and human traditions. Sometimes the people, irritated at the thought that they had so long been deceived by fables, compelled the priests to leave their positions.
When persecution was kindled against the Reformers, they gave heed to the words of Christ, "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another." The light penetrated everywhere. The fugitives would find somewhere a hospitable door open to them, and there abiding they would preach Christ, sometimes in the church, or, if denied that privilege, in private houses, or in the open air. Wherever they could obtain a hearing was a consecrated temple. The truth, proclaimed with such energy and assurance, spread like fire in the stubble. No effort could stay its progress. In the city of Ingolstadt, where was a university, and where, also, lived one of the most learned opponents of the Reformation, a young weaver read Luther's works to a crowded congregation. In the same city, the university council having decided that a disciple of Melancthon should be compelled to retract, a woman volunteered to defend him, and challenged the doctors to a public disputation. Women and children artisans and soldiers, had a better knowledge of the Scriptures than learned doctors or surpliced priests.
In vain were both ecclesiastical and civil authorities invoked to crush the heresy. In vain they resorted to imprisonment, torture, fire, and sword. Thousands of believers sealed their faith with their blood, and yet the work went on. Throughout Germany, particularly in the Saxon States, in France and Holland, in Switzerland, in England, and in other countries, the Lord raised up men to present to the benighted minds of the people the light of God's word. Persecution served only to extend the work; and the fanaticism which Satan endeavored to unite with it, resulted in making more clear the contrast between the work of Satan and the work of God.
The cause of truth was destined to triumph. God's faithful builders were not toiling alone. Could their eyes have been opened, they would have seen as marked evidence of divine presence and aid as was granted to a prophet of ? When Elisha's servant pointed his master to the hostile army surrounding them and cutting off all chance of escape, the prophet prayed, "Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see." And, lo, the mountain was filled with chariots and horses of fire, the army of Heaven stationed to protect the servant of the Lord. Thus did the angels of God guard the workers in the cause of the Reformation. God had commanded his servants to build, and the combined forces of earth and hell were powerless to drive them from the walls. Saith the Lord, "I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night."