Luther Summoned to Augsburg
Luther's pen was tracing words of truth that shook the very foundations of the papacy. "Whatever sermons and instructions do not exhibit and make known Jesus Christ, cannot be the daily bread and nourishment of souls. Therefore we must preach Christ alone." What words were these to come from a son of the Roman Church! Christ was exalted above the pope. Christ was lifted up before the people as the Lamb of God, who alone can take away the sin of the world. What marvel that Satan was enraged, and that all the power of the Roman hierarchy was excited against Luther?
The Reformer continues: "What is it to know Christ? and what good will come of it? I answer, To learn and know Christ is to understand what the apostle declares, namely, that Christ is made unto us, of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption." "To believe is nothing else than feeding on this bread from Heaven."
Concerning the power of the church to remit sin, he writes: "The remission of sin is out of the power of pope, bishop, or priest, or any man living, and rests solely on the word of Christ and on their own faith. A pope or bishop has no more power to remit sins than the humblest priest."
To bring the truth more prominently before the people, Luther prepared theses setting forth the new doctrines, and engaged in public discussion of them with his opponents, at one of the leading universities of Germany. This discussion was listened to with deep interest. Educated young men marked with astonishment the force of Luther's arguments from the Scriptures They sought out the Reformer, and in private eagerly listened to his explanation of the word of God. They honestly desired to know the truth; therefore the entrance of God's word gave light to their understanding. The teacher's work was rewarded. When Luther was called to other fields, these young men, with the Bible in their hands, fearlessly proclaimed the words of life. Crowds came together to hear the truth, and many captives were released from the bondage of papal error. These young men became active and useful laborers in the church, and occupied responsible positions in the great work of the Reformation.
Luther saw that the cause of truth had little to hope for from those who had been educated in error, and he felt that its success must depend upon the rising generation. He says: "I have the glorious hope that as even Christ, when rejected of the Jews, turned toward the Gentiles, so we shall see the rising generation receive true theology, which these old men, wedded to their vain and most fantastical opinions, now obstinately reject."
These words of the Reformer contain a truth that should be heeded by those who are still pressing forward in the work of reform. Men are slow to renounce the cherished errors of a life-time. Many resolutely close their eyes, lest they see the light of truth. Oftentimes the clearest evidence from the word of God serves only to excite their hatred and opposition. Now, as in the time of Luther, the hopes of reform rest with the young, whose habits and opinions have not yet become stereotyped, and who therefore more readily yield to right influences. Converted to God, the youth of our time may, like the young men whom Luther instructed, fill an important place in the cause of truth.
The wide spread interest excited by Luther's teachings aroused the fears of the papal authorities, and efforts were at once put forth to quench the dangerous heresy. A letter was written in the pope's name to the elector Frederic, urging him to withdraw his protection from Luther, and intimating suspicion of the elector's fidelity to the church. The Romanists had misjudged the character of the prince with whom they had to deal. Frederic of Saxony was a devoted servant of the church, but he was also a man of sterling integrity, and he would not sacrifice justice and truth, even to the demands of the pope. To the papal letter he replied, that Luther had uniformly expressed a willingness to defend his doctrines before proper judges, and to submit to their decision if they should be able by the Scriptures to convince him of error.
But the word of God was not the weapon most convenient for Rome to handle. It was the very thing that they did not want brought to light; for they well knew that the truths contained therein would not only condemn their unrighteous course, but would lay their lofty pretensions in the dust. The only weapons which they could safely use were prisons, torture, and death. Erelong Luther receives a summons to appear at Rome to answer at the papal tribunal to the charge of heresy. This command fills his friends with terror.
They know full well the danger that threatens him in that corrupt city, already drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. With indignation they ask among themselves, Shall every man who dares lift his voice against the sins of Rome be silenced by death? Shall we permit this great sacrifice?
Luther's teachings had attracted the attention of thoughtful minds throughout all Germany. From his sermons and writings issued beams of light which had awakened and illuminated thousands. A living faith was taking the place of the dead formalism in which the church had so long been held. The people were daily losing confidence in the superstitions of Romanism. The barriers of prejudice were giving way. The word of God, by which Luther tested every doctrine and every claim, was like a two-edged sword, cutting its way to the hearts of the people. Everywhere there was awakening a desire for spiritual progress. Everywhere was such a hungering and thirsting after righteousness as had not been known for ages. The eyes of the people so long directed to human forms and human mediators, were now turning, in penitence and faith, to Christ and him crucified.
Luther and his friends knew that he could not hope for justice at Rome. They knew that there would be no safety for him on the journey to Rome, and no safety after his arrival. The Romists had not been sparing in their denunciations of him, and once in their grasp no human power could release him. His friends were unanimous in the desire that he should receive his examination in Germany.
This arrangement was finally effected, and the pope's legate was appointed to hear the case. The instructions communicated by the pontiff to this official were as follows:--
"We charge you to compel Luther to appear before you in person; to prosecute and reduce him to submission without delay, as soon as you shall have received this our order, he having already been declared a heretic by our dear brother Jerome, Bishop of Asculan." "If he should return to a sense of his duty, and ask pardon for so great an offense, freely and of his own accord, we give you power to receive him into the unity of the holy mother church." "If he should persist in his stubbornness, and you fail to get possession of his person, we give you power to proscribe him in all places in Germany; to put away, curse, and excommunicate all those who are attached to him, and to enjoin all Christians to shun his society."
The pope goes still farther, and calls upon his legate, in order entirely to root out the pestilent heresy, to excommunicate all, of whatever dignity in church or State except the emperor, who shall "neglect to seize the said Martin Luther and his adherents, and send them to you under proper and safe authority."
Here is displayed the true spirit of Romanism. Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document. Luther is at a great distance from Rome; he has had no opportunity to explain or defend his position; yet before his case has been investigated, he is summarily pronounced a heretic, and in the same day, exhorted, accused, judged, and condemned; and all this by the self-styled holy father, the only supreme, infallible authority in church or State! The spirit of the dragon, "that old serpent, which is the devil and Satan," is seen in this transaction. Notwithstanding his cunning, he has in his rage forgotten to be wise.
Augsburg had been fixed upon as the place of Luther's trial, and thither the Reformer went. Serious fears were entertained in his behalf. Threats had been made openly that he would be waylaid and murdered on the way, and his friends begged him not to venture. Staupitz entreated Luther to come and take refuge with him until the storm should subside. "It seems to me," he wrote, "that the whole world is up in arms and combined against the truth. Even so was the crucified Jesus hated. I see not that you have anything else to expect than persecution. Your most prudent course is to leave Wittenberg for a time and come and reside with me. Then let us live and die together."
But Luther would not leave the position where God had placed him. He must continue faithfully to maintain the truth, notwithstanding the storms that were beating upon him. His language was, "I am like Jeremiah, a man of strife and contention; but the more they increase their contentions, the more they multiply my joy. My wife and children are well provided for, my lands and houses and all my goods are safe. They have already torn to pieces my honor and my good name. All I have left is my wretched body; let them have it; they will then shorten my life by a few hours. But as to my soul, they shall not have that. He who resolves to bear the word of Christ to the world, must expect death at every hour."