Luther at Wittenberg
After two years in the cloister, Luther was consecrated to the priest's office, and a year later he was called to a professorship in the University of Wittenberg. Here he applied himself diligently to the study of the ancient languages, especially Greek and Hebrew, that he might study the word of God in the original tongues. He began to lecture upon the Bible; and the book of Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles, were opened to the understanding of crowds of eager listeners. From all parts of Germany and even from foreign countries, students flocked to the university.
Staupitz, the friend and superior of Luther, urged him to ascend the pulpit, and preach the word of God. But Luther hesitated, feeling himself unworthy to speak to the people in Christ's stead. It was only after a long struggle, that he yielded to the solicitations of his friends.
The pulpit in which he first preached was an old rostrum made of rough planks, in a dilapidated chapel propped on all sides to keep it from falling. Here the Reformation preaching was entered upon. When Jesus came to earth, he was cradled in a manger. And the gospel was not first proclaimed in imposing churches, but from the swaying seat of a fisherman's boat, and upon the mountain side, in the plain, and by the highway.
Already Luther was mighty in the Scriptures; and the grace of God rested upon him. His surpassing eloquence delighted and captivated his auditors; the clearness and power with which he presented the truth convinced their understanding, and his deep fervor touched their hearts. The little chapel could not contain the crowds that sought admission, and he was called to preach in the parish church. So wide-spread had his reputation now become that Frederic the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, came to Wittenberg to hear him.
Luther was still a true son of the papal church, and had no thought that he would ever be anything else. In the providence of God he decides to visit Rome. He pursues his journey on foot, lodging at the monasteries on the way. He passes the Alps, and descends into the plain of Italy, and is filled with wonder as he goes. Visiting a convent in Lombardy, he sees the splendor of the apartments, the richness of the dresses, the luxury of the table, the extravagance everywhere. With painful misgivings he contrasts this scene with the self-denial and hardship of his own life. His mind is becoming perplexed.
At last he beholds in the distance the seven-hilled city. With deep emotion he prostrates himself upon the earth, exclaiming, "Holy Rome, I salute thee!" He enters the city, visits the churches, listens to the marvelous tales repeated by priests and monks, and goes through all the forms and ceremonies required. Everywhere he looks upon scenes that fill him with astonishment and horror. He sees that the same iniquity exists among the higher clergy as among the lower. He hears the indecent jokes from prelates, and is filled with horror at their awful profanity, even during mass. As he mingles with the monks and citizens, he meets dissipation, debauchery. Turn where he will, in the place of sanctity he finds profanation. "It is incredible," he says, "what sins and atrocities are committed in Rome. If there be a hell, Rome is built above it. It is an abyss whence all sins proceed."
The heart-sickening depravity and blind superstition which he saw on every side led him to press more closely to Christ. On his knees one day Luther was ascending the stairway to ST. Peter's, when a voice like thunder seemed to say to him, "The just shall live by faith!" He sprang upon his feet in shame and horror, and fled from the scene of his folly. That text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time he saw more clearly than ever before the fallacy of trusting to human works for salvation, and the necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ. The truth of God had enlightened his understanding. His eyes had been opened, and were never again to be closed to the Satanic delusions of the papacy. When he turned his face from Rome, he had turned away also in heart, and from that time the separation grew wider, until he severed all connection with the Romish church.
At the age of twenty-nine Luther received at the University of Wittenberg, the degree of doctor of divinity. Now he was at liberty to devote himself, as never before, to the Scriptures that he loved. He had taken a solemn vow to study carefully and to preach with fidelity the word of God, not the sayings and doctrines of the popes, all the days of his life. He was no longer the mere monk or professor, but the authorized herald of the Bible. He had been called as a shepherd to feed the flock of God, that were hungering and thirsting for the truth.
Luther's feet were now planted upon the true foundation,--"the prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone." He firmly declared that Christians should receive no other doctrines than those which rest on the authority of the sacred Scriptures. At the sound of these words Rome trembled. They struck at the very foundation of papal supremacy. They contained the vital principle of the Reformation.
In the providence of God, Luther was now to stand as the reformer of the church. He sought to turn the minds of his students away from the sophistries of philosophers and theologians, to the eternal truths set forth by prophets and apostles. He fearlessly attacked the speculative infidelity of the school-men, and opposed the philosophy and theology which had so long held a controlling influence upon the minds of the people. He saw, as we see to-day, the danger of exalting human theories and speculations above the revealed truths of God's word. He denounced such studies as not only worthless but pernicious, declaring, that, "the writings of the prophets and the apostles are more certain and sublime than all the sophisms and theology of the schools." "Within my heart," he adds, "reigns alone, and must alone reign, faith in my Lord Jesus Christ, who alone is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the thoughts that occupy me day and night."
With deep earnestness he declared his faith in Christ as the basis of his hope,--the beginning and the end, the foundation and crowning glory of the plan of salvation. He was listened to with wonder as he spoke of that faith to the students in the university and to the crowded congregations in the church. He was steadily and surely drawing the minds of pupils and hearers away from trust in men, however high their claims, away from self-righteousness, to Christ.
The burden of his preaching was, "Learn to know Christ and him crucified. Learn to despair of your own work and cry unto him, Lord Jesus thou art my righteousness and I am thy sin. Thou hast taken on thee what was mine, and given to me what was thine. What thou wast not, thou becamest, that I might become what I was not."
Thus fearlessly and firmly Luther presented those great truths which the apostles of Christ had proclaimed with such power. The voice of Paul, sounding down through the centuries, spoke through Luther, exposing superstitions, refuting error, and uprooting heresy.
Priests and prelates, the professed expositors of divine truth, were perverting the Scriptures by their misstatements and prevarications; wresting the word of God to make it sustain their errors and traditions. They sedulously withheld the Bible from the people, well knowing that should they search it for themselves, their faith would be fixed upon Christ, and not upon pope and priests. The light shining forth from God's word would lead the mind directly away from the Romish faith.
Such had been the experience of Luther. As he saw the terrible apostasy and corruption of the church, he determined to be a faithful steward of God's word, to dispense to others its holy teachings in their purity and simplicity. He knew that unless the people could be led to receive the word of God as their rule of life, there could be no hope of reform. He therefore presented the Scriptures to his hearers as the oracles of God, a divine communication as verily addressed to them as though they heard the voice of God speaking to them from Heaven. With great earnestness he urged upon them the importance of gaining for themselves a knowledge of the sacred word. The Bible was written by holy men under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, and the aid of that same Spirit was indispensable to an understanding of its teachings. It should be studied in humility and in faith, with unwavering confidence in its supreme authority, and with earnest prayer for divine aid. Only in pursuing such a course could the searcher hope to discern spiritual things. Were the word of God thus studied, it would exert a molding influence upon both the mental and the moral powers, quickening and ennobling the intellect, purifying the soul, thus erecting mighty barrier against the iniquity that was flooding the world.
Luther came not with human ceremonies, traditions, and fables, to impose on the credulity of the people, but with the truth and the power of God to enlighten their understanding, and free their souls from the bondage of superstition and the tyranny of sin. He declared to his hearers that they must individually believe in Christ, if they would receive salvation through him; no priest or pope could take the place of the divine Mediator. Those who came to Jesus as repentant, believing sinners, would find pardon and peace, and would have his righteousness imputed to them. Sanctification is the fruit of faith, whose renewing power transforms the soul into the image of Christ. It was by faith in a crucified Redeemer that souls were saved in the days of the apostles; it was only by the same faith that souls could be saved in the days of Luther. He taught the people that they must exercise repentance toward God, whose holy law they had transgressed, and faith in Christ, whose blood could atone for their sins. He showed them that all who were truly penitent would pray earnestly for divine aid to battle against their evil propensities, and he also urged upon them the fact that the sincerity of their prayers would be evinced by the energy of their endeavors to render obedience to the law of God.
Precious indeed was the message which Luther bore to the eager crowds that hung upon his words. Never before had such teachings fallen upon their ears. The glad tidings of a Saviour's love, the assurance of pardon and peace through his atoning blood, melted their hearts, and inspired within them an immortal hope. A light was kindled at Wittenberg whose rays should extend to the uttermost parts of the earth, and which was to increase in brightness to the close of time.