Luther's Royal Protector
At the news of Luther's departure from Augsburg, the papal legate was overwhelmed with surprise and anger. He had expected to receive great honor for his wisdom and firmness in dealing with this disturber of the church, but now this hope was disappointed. He gave expression to his wrath in a letter to the elector, bitterly denouncing Luther:--
"Since Brother Martin cannot be brought by parental measures to acknowledge his errors, and continue faithful to the Catholic Church, I request your highness to send him to Rome, or to banish him from your territories. Be assured that this complicated, evil-intentioned affair cannot be long protracted, for as soon as I shall have informed our most holy lord of all this artifice and malice, he will bring it to a speedy end." In a postscript he begs the elector not to tarnish with shame his own honor and that of his illustrious ancestors for the cause of a contemptible monk.
The elector sent Luther a copy of this letter, to which the Reformer answered: "Let the reverend legate, or the pope himself, specify any errors in writing; let them bring forward their reasons; let them instruct me, who desire instruction, who beg and long for it, so that even a Turk would not refuse to satisfy me. If I do not retract and condemn myself, when they have proved to me that the passages of Scripture that I have quoted ought to be considered in a different sense from mine; then most excellent elector, let your highness be the first to prosecute and expel me; let the university reject me, and overwhelm me with indignation. I will go farther; I call Heaven and earth to witness; let the Lord Jesus Christ himself reject and condemn me.
"These are not words of vain presumption, but of firm conviction. Let the Lord deprive me of his grace, and every creature of God refuse to countenance me, if, when I have been shown a better doctrine, I do not embrace it." In closing, he says: "I am still, thanks be to God, full of joy, and praise him that Christ, the Son of God, counts me worthy to suffer in so holy a cause. May he ever preserve your illustrious highness! Amen."
This letter made a deep impression upon the mind of the elector. He had never thought of giving up Luther, an innocent man, to be put to death by the power of Rome. Now he resolved to stand firm in his defense. In answer to the letter of the legate he wrote: "Since Dr. Martin has appeared before you at Augsburg, you ought to be satisfied. We did not expect that without convincing him of error, you would claim to oblige him to retract. Not one of the learned men in our states has intimated to us an opinion that Martin's doctrine is impious, anti-Christian, or heretical." He declined sending Luther to Rome, or expelling him from his territories. Luther, having seen this letter, exclaimed: "With what joy I read and re-read it; for I know what confidence I may repose in these words, at once so forcible and so discreet." God in his providence had raised up a man in high position to defend his servant.
The elector saw that there was a general breaking down of the moral restraints of society. The extensive and perfect organization of the Romish Church, and her immense outlay of money, time, and labor to secure order and harmony, was no indication of the real virtue and integrity of her members. A great work of reform was needed. All the complicated and expensive arrangements to restrain and punish crime would be unnecessary if the members of the church individually acknowledged and obeyed the requirements of God and the dictates of an enlightened conscience.
He saw that Luther was laboring to secure this object, and he secretly rejoiced that a better influence was making itself felt in the church.
He saw, also, that as a professor in the university, Luther was eminently successful. All his associates there spoke warmly in his favor. From all parts of Germany flocked students to listen to his teachings. Young men coming in sight of the steeples of Wittenberg for the first time, would stop, and raising their hands toward Heaven, would praise God that he had caused the light of his truth to shine forth from Wittenberg as in former ages from Mount Zion, thence to penetrate to the most remote countries.
Luther is, as yet, but partially converted from the errors of Romanism. But he is forced to battle constantly in defense of the truth which he has already accepted, and in this warfare he is driven for comfort and support to Christ and the Word. And as he compares the holy oracles with papal decrees and constitutions, he is filled with wonder.
"I am reading," he writes to Spalatin, "the decretals of the popes, and let me whisper in your ear, that I know not whether the pope is anti-Christ himself, or whether he is his apostle, so misrepresented and even crucified does Christ appear in them." Yet at this time Luther was still a supporter of the Roman Church, and had no thought that he would ever separate from her communion.
The Reformer continued searching the Scriptures, praying, preaching, and writing. He knew not how soon his work might close, and he be deprived of liberty or even life; but so long as God should will it, he determined to labor for the upbuilding of Christ's kingdom. The knowledge that precious souls were everywhere receiving the truth, filled him with joy.
It was his work to build in the temple of the Lord. There were living stones buried from sight amid the papal rubbish of false doctrines, forms, and ceremonies, and he must search them out, and lay them on the true foundation. The followers of Christ were not then united as a peculiar and holy people separate from the world. They were mingled with the sons of Belial, and must be separated by the power of divine truth.
Luther was not blinded to his own peril or to the peril of his converts. He knew that the subjects of Prince Immanuel are not called to the enjoyment of ease and honor and riches, of titles and possessions; but to a life of conflict with the prince of darkness; they are to wrestle against principalities and powers, and they must put on the whole armor of God, that they may be able to stand. They are called to endure privation, hardship, imprisonment, torture, and death, even as the Captain of their salvation endured before them. The riches and co-operation of the wicked were subject to his command if he so willed it; but he declares, "My kingdom is not of this world." And again, "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." In like manner the servants of Christ have no home, no treasure here. It is only because Jesus reigns, that they are kept from the cruel power of the prince of evil.
Luther's voice as a reformer was no longer confined to Germany. His writings and his doctrine were extending to every nation in Christendom. The work spread to Switzerland and Holland. Multitudes of copies of his writings had found their way to France and Spain, and the truth was working in many hearts, reforming the life, and arousing the understanding to perceive the corruption of Romanism. In England the Reformer's teachings were received as the word of life. In Belgium and Italy also the work was spreading. Thousands were awakening from their death-like stupor to the joy and hope of a life of faith.
In this little moment of calm, Luther works on with renewed hope and courage. His friends urge him to be content with the victories already gained, and to give over the conflict. But he replies, "God does not conduct, but drives me forward. I am not master of my own actions. I would gladly live in peace; but I am cast into the midst of tumult and changes."
The Reformer pressed on in the path in which God was leading him; and as he continued to defend the truth, it constantly became more clear to his understanding, and he perceived more fully the arrogant assumptions of the papal power. He says: "How hard it is to unlearn the errors which the whole world confirms by its example, and which, by long use, have become to us a second nature. I had for seven years read and hourly expounded the Scriptures with much zeal, so that I knew them almost all by heart. I had also all the first-fruits of the knowledge and faith of my Lord Jesus Christ; that is, I knew that we were justified and saved, not by our works, but by faith in Jesus Christ; and I even openly maintained that it is not by divine right that the pope is chief of the Christian church. And yet . . . I could not see the conclusion from all this; namely, that of necessity, and beyond doubt, the pope is of the devil; for what is not of God must needs be of the devil." Again, he says: "I do not now give free utterance to my indignation against those who still adhere to the pope, since I, who had for so many years read the Holy Scriptures with so much care, yet held to papacy with so much obstinacy."
The battle went on. Rome was becoming more and more exasperated by the attacks of Luther. And now it was secretly declared by some of his fanatical opponents, that he who should kill Luther would be without sin. One day a stranger with a pistol concealed in his sleeve, approached the Reformer, and inquired why he went thus alone. Luther answered, "I am in the hands of God. He is my help and my shield. What can men do unto me?" Upon hearing these words, the stranger turned pale, and fled away as from the presence of the angels of God.
Rome was bent upon the destruction of Luther; but God was his defense. His doctrines were sounding everywhere; in convents, in cottages, in the castles of the nobles, in the academies, and in the palaces of kings; and noble men were rising on every hand to sustain his efforts.