The Coming Millennium Part II-a (Direct Examination of Martin Luther)

by Tom Wolpert on October 31, 2017

We begin our questioning of Martin Luther. I note in passing my debt to John Dillenberger’s Edition of the Writings of Martin Luther, upon which I have relied.  In my intellectual life in my mid to late 20’s, everyone was telling me what free will could accomplish.  Only Martin Luther told me what it couldn’t.  The title of his book ‘Bondage of the Will’ was worth a million words of self-help and self-congratulation.  Finally, finally, an adult had entered the room.

Question: Good afternoon, Mr. Luther. Could you identify yourself for the court?

Luther: Martin Luther, theologian, reformer, Christian.

Question: Where were you born?

Luther: In Mansfield, in the region of Thuringia, in Germany.

Question: When was that?

Luther: In 1483.

Question: What was your father’s name, and what did your father do?

Luther: My father was Hans Luther. He was born a peasant, but he became prosperous in copper-mining. Thuringia was a copper-mining area.

Question: What was your mother’s name. Can you tell us about her?

Luther: My mother’s name was Margaret. Her family had some social standing in Mansfield. My father could not have married my mother, if he had not achieved some worldly successes.

Question: Did you receive schooling as a child?

Luther: Yes, some. When I was fourteen, I was sent to the Latin School of the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg. From there I went to the University of Erfurt in 1501.

Question: At about age 18?

Luther: Yes. The next year I received a bachelor’s degree, and in 1505 I received the Master of Arts. I was about 22 years old then. A young man, eager to learn. I completed the degree in the minimum amount of time.

Question: In terms of your education, what did you do next?

Luther: I began studies with the Faculty of Law, in preparation to be an attorney.

Question: That was something your father wanted?

Luther: Yes, he was eager for me to be an attorney.

Question: Mine also. In any event, your legal career did not continue for long?

Luther: I encountered a violent thunderstorm on my way back to Erfurt, after visiting my family. A bolt of lightning knocked me to the ground and nearly killed me. I cried out to St. Anne, saying “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!”

Question: So this thunderstorm and bolt of lightning changed the entire course of your career?

Luther: That, and the fact that I was never enthusiastic about becoming a lawyer. I was not happy about my father’s choice for my life, without knowing exactly why, except that it was his choice and preference, not mine. Climbing the ladder of prosperity was his preoccupation. That was how he managed to persuade my mother and her family to be his wife. In those years I had great questions, and great insecurities. I was a young man, wondering why I existed and to what purpose. The thunderstorm surfaced and emphasized what I was feeling. The thunder and lightning caused me fear. The nearness of death brought home to me who I was. That I was not what my father wanted me to be. I made a vow to St. Anne, and I intended to keep it.

Question: Even at a young age, when you made a vow, you intended to keep it?

Luther: Yes.

Question: Thereafter where did you go?

Luther: I entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

Question: Were you a conscientious and diligent monk?

Luther: I was, most certainly. I was most serious and attempted to meet or exceed every requirement. Within two years I was permitted to say my first mass.

Question: In the interim, had you reconciled with your father?

Luther : Yes. He had become at least somewhat reconciled to my career choice. And being a monk at that time had some status. He was present when I said my first mass.

Question: Did you have a conversation with him at that time?

Luther: Yes, I asked for his approval and blessing on my vocation. I told him that God had revealed this to me as His divine will. My father was not quite fully reconciled to all this. His response was “God grant it was not an apparition of the Devil.”

Question: Did that upset you?

Luther: Not really. I knew his feelings. I had begun the interior questioning that would lead to my later public career. The Holy Spirit was already at work in my life, prodding me. If I did not yet have the answers, I was beginning to have serious questions. And I knew my father loved me, but he did not have those answers.

Question: What were those questions?

Luther: How can a man be right before God? How can a man ever know whether he has done enough, to merit God’s grace? To avoid judgment and condemnation? How can the accusations of conscience be stilled? When our conscience assails us, and says to us, ‘you have not done enough, you could have done more’ – how do we answer that charge? It is certainly a right and true accusation. Conscience has all the facts before it, to sustain the indictment. How do we avoid the resentment, indeed, the hatred of God, who rains down on us unreachable requirements and impossible demands – and threatens us with death, damnation, destruction and hell, if we do not meet them? How can we, or how could I, under such circumstances, love God? And if I failed to love God, wasn’t that the greatest sin of all? The sin most worthy of condemnation? Those were a few of the questions I had.

Question: Difficult questions, indeed. What measures did you take, to try to answer them?

Luther: I was confessing my sins all the time. I was a constant source of annoyance to the other monks, as I importuned them constantly to hear my confessions of sin. I was a soul in an agony of doubt and uncertainty.

Question: Did you attempt to discuss this with your Superior at the monastery?

Luther: Yes. His name was Johann Staupitz. He told me that I should stop confessing all these trivial sins, which were of no importance. He told me that if I expected to be forgiven, I should come up with some really serious sins, like adultery or murder. He told me that I should not be angry at God, because God was not angry with me.

Question: Were you angry with God?

Luther: Yes, I was. And in mortal fear, too. Of judgment, death and hell. Both my anger and fear worked together, and fed off each other.

Question: Did your interview and counsel with Staupitz help?

Luther: No. God and I were clearly adversaries. Any attempt to smooth this over was like smearing a little cream on a gaping wound. Here I had taken a religious vocation, and I was in the posture of an enemy to God, hating him, for his righteous decrees and terrifying threats.

Question: Was Staupitz angry at you, for not accepting his counsel?

Luther: No. He seemed to treat this as some type of growing pain – an indication that I took my religious vocation seriously. He never fully took seriously my confessions of sin, nor did he take fully seriously my avowals of my bad relations with God and conscience. He seemed to like me, in spite of myself.

Question: As a result, what happened?

Luther: I was encouraged to study theology. Apparently, they thought that if I studied theology more deeply, I would find the answer to my questions. I studied theology with all the intensity of a soul on the way to the gallows, searching for the mysterious words that would win a reprieve. They sent me to the University of Wittenberg to lecture on philosophy, and had me lecture on theology and the Church Fathers. In 1511, when I was 28 years old, I transferred to the University of Wittenberg. In the following year, I took a doctorate in theology.

Question: Did this study of theology resolve your questions and doubts?

Luther: No. But it did allow me to pose my questions with more precision.

Question: Did you begin a more serious study of the Bible?

Luther: Yes, I lectured on the Psalms, on the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Question: Did that assist you, in your troubled conscience, and your adversarial relationship with God?

Luther: Ultimately, yes. There were a series of further understandings in my mind, as I grappled with the problems. Somewhat like an ant, discovering a tasty grain of sugar, I first felt with my spiritual antenna that there was something good in Paul’s writing, then proceeded to investigate, feeling confidence that I was on the right path. Finally, I had an overpowering experience of insight, faith, understanding. I felt enormous emotional relief and joy – all at once, compressed and compounded, in the tower at the Augustinian Monastery at Wittenberg. I found and accepted God’s unmerited grace to sinners by faith. I clutched at it like a drowning man, offered a life preserver on a rope. It was in the tower at Wittenberg that I accepted and rejoiced in this with my whole being. I was saved, saved by God’s grace. I did nothing for it. I accepted it. I understood it. I believed it. It was a gift. I had nothing to bargain with. I brought nothing to the table. My works were useless and unnecessary. All of the observations, ceremonies and rites of monkery were useless and unnecessary. Salvation, righteousness and peace were simply God’s gift in Christ. God was at peace with me. The war was over. God had already made a way.

Question: Was there a formulation you used to express this?

Luther: Yes, although it sounds a little awkward now. But I expressed it this way: God imputed righteousness to man. God’s righteousness was passive – it was not the active righteousness of a judge finding fault and bringing charges – it was the passive righteousness of faith, by grace, because all righteousness was already achieved. This was Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us. We accepted it without any works to add to it, by faith. No work of ours is possible to add to Christ’s work, and no works of ours are necessary. God sees us, through Christ and his righteousness. Christ’s work on the cross is complete, perfect, necessary, sufficient, and final. It is imputed to us. We are beggars. We bring nothing to the table, except our need.

Question: As you developed these ideas and had this experience, you presented them to the world you lived in?

Luther: Yes. I developed theses. 95 of them. I posted them on the door of a church.

Questions: Certain consequences arose from that act, of posting 95 theses?

Luther: Yes.

Question: First, you were criticizing the practice of the granting of indulgences by means of a sales drive?

Luther: Yes. I objected to the marketing of eternal grace. That was wrong.

Question: Where did you see the merits of Christ making their rightful appearance?

Luther: The merits of Christ are always working grace in the inner man, and working the cross, death and hell in the outer man. We are sinners and saints at once, and the work of the Holy Spirit is interior work, changing the heart of resentful man to grateful man, changing doubt into assurance, and fear into love.

Question: Did you limit the importance of these matters to mere criticism of the veniality of the medieval church?

Luther: No. These questions, of how our sins are remitted and dealt with by God, are grave matters of conscience. They were grave matters of conscience for me. In fact, by comparison, nothing else is serious. How we stand before God is not the most important question; it is the only question.

Question: You had a concern for the laity, to whom this marketing campaign for indulgences was being presented?

Luther: Yes. The people were being misled. Purchasing an indulgence did not grant them favor with God. Nothing else but the shed blood of Christ purchased complete righteousness. It did, it does, it shall. Our duty is to believe God’s promise, to trust God’s promise, to have faith in God to keep his promise.

Question: In posting the Ninety-Five theses, you were inviting a debate on the issue, is that correct?

Luther: Yes, at Heidelberg. I developed certain theses for that disputation, as we called it.

Question: Can you elaborate?

Luther: I contrasted the law of God, which brought us not to perfection, but to a knowledge of our sins, with the grace of God. I asserted that the works of man, done in self-confidence and without regard to Christ, were altogether mortal sins. To say that man’s works without Christ are dead, but not deadly – meaning that these so-called good works have some actual merit in God’s eyes for the grant of eternal salvation – was a dangerous surrender of the fear of God.

Question: You began to address the question of ‘free will?’

Luther: Yes, Free will has the potential to achieve good only in theory – it can never be realized. We may wake up in the morning, quite determined to live the rest of our lives, beginning on that very day, holy, good, perfect and sinless. But by the time we have our morning eggs – which decision, eggs or pancakes, is within our free will, but to no eternal effect – we will have failed in our morning vow of a pure and perfect interior life for the rest of the day. Not to mention, for all eternity.

Question: Sounds depressing. Did you offer a remedy?

Luther: The remedy is a cause for humility. Not to rely on our works, but to eagerly seek out the work and grace of Christ.

Question: Is there a name for this approach?

Luther: It is called the theology of the cross. The law shows us our shortcomings, severe, inescapable and deadly. In our despair, we seek out Christ and the atoning death he suffered on the cross. This remedy is infinitely superior to our best efforts. Indeed, it is our best efforts which so mislead and blind us. The law does not perfect us at all, and when we rely on our works, we foolishly rely on the law. We are all like criminals, properly indicted and convicted for a thousand crimes, and studiously looking for those loopholes in the law which never appear. When we rely on grace, Christ releases us from this prison. The indictment of the law is true, but the satisfaction of the judgment by Christ’s blood is full.

Question: There was a response to your theological assertions?

Luther: Yes, essentially two. The German people took an unexpected interest in what I was writing. My writings were widely circulated and attracted attention. The Pope got wind of my writings, and my writing, and then my person were placed under Papal ban.

Question: How did you respond?

Luther: To the Pope, I responded that he had no ultimate power with respect to a man’s relation to God. The Pope then wanted me to appear in Rome to respond to charges of heresy. But the ruler of our area of Germany, Elector Frederick, intervened to make certain than I was examined in Germany, rather than traveling to Rome. Thereafter, a debate was held in Leipzig between myself and one John Eck.

Question: What do you think the most important result of the Leipzig debate was?

Luther: It became evident that there was a fundamental difference of opinion between Herr Eck and myself with respect to the power of the papacy.

Question: What were the next series of events?

Luther: There was considerable debate. That led to a convocation of political and ecclesiastical power, you would call a kind of congress. We called it a ‘diet’ and this diet was to take place at Worms – hence, the Diet of Worms.

Question: Had you further formulated your views by then?

Luther: Yes. The only acceptable rule of faith and practice for the Church was to be found in the Scriptures. I rejected the notion that the Pontiff could not err in regard to scripture, and rejected the premise that the Pope alone could interpret scripture.

Question: Did you arrive at the Diet of Worms to give an account of your theology and faith?

Luther: Yes, in 1521.

Question: Was John Eck there?

Luther: Yes he was. He said ‘ You do nothing but renew the errors of Wycliff and Hus. Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? I ssk you, Martin – do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?

Question: That was a serious question, was it not? Wycliff and Hus had been both executed for heresy?

Luther: Yes, they had. Nevertheless, I replied as follows: “Since then your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

Question: Was that your full reply?

Luther: I added the words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

Question: Was there more?

Luther: I had been speaking in German, the language of the people. They asked me to repeat it in Latin, which I did. In those days, all educated people read and spoke Latin. My friend Erasmus was quite fluent in it.

Question: What was the outcome of all this?

Luther: I was condemned by the Emperor as a heretic. It was a death sentence, but God intervened. The fate of Huss and Wycliffe, to be executed for heresy, would not be mine.

Question: In what way did God intervene?

Luther: I was taken by friends to Wartburg Castle. It was a kind of protective custody. There I began translating the scriptures into German, so that ordinary people could read the beauty of it for themselves. For of old, in dark times, what a treasure it would have been, if a man could rightly understand a single Psalm, reading or hearing it in simple German, his own language of hearth and home, of wife and children. I commenced other types of writings as well.

Question: You did a great deal of writing in your life, about faith in Christ?

Luther: Yes. I spilled much ink. So much that waking up in a dream, I threw an inkwell at the devil. That accuser assailed me with many doubts and many fears. My writing – it wasn’t perfect. But I was working on the first complete Bible in German in the castle. I strove with all my might – what can any mortal man do? What was right, was to the glory of God. What was wrong – for that, I trusted God to send someone to correct my mistakes.

Question: And what was your central theme?

Luther: Faith justifies us apart from any works. Works of the right kind are outward signs, which proceed from an interior and free faith. Faith produces works which breathe peace, joy, assurance, love, hope, courage, and certainty. Our natures are by disposition selfish and self-centered. They resist and resent the strictness and restraints of the law. The more the law is applied to our conduct in the absence of grace, the more we inwardly hate it and comply reluctantly, if at all, under threats of punishment and fear. When we are under God’s grace, our natures our changed – that which was done reluctantly, out of fear or even out of hope of personal rewards and advancement – is now done through a new nature. All advancements and rewards have already been given. In Christ we have them all already. All penalties have already been exacted, because Christ bore them on the cross. We are now free altogether, to simply love God and one another. Not for a reward. The Devil’s cynical question about Job found in the Old Testament – ‘does Job serve God for nothing?’ – is met with the response of the Holy Spirit in our New Testament. ‘Yes, for nothing, because all was already freely given, by faith in Christ.’

Question: You became deeply concerned with the idea of the freedom of a Christian?

Luther: I wrote a short pamphlet called The Freedom of a Christian. It was actually dedicated to the Pope as a token of peace and good hope.

Question: In a sense, it was addressed to the Pope? Or was that a literary device?

Luther: Yes, and yes. I was defending myself, because I had challenged the power and authority of the Pope, and was being ferociously attacked for that reason. I was not willing to attribute to the Pope the sole right of interpreting Scriptures. Enormous, limitless claims were being made for the power of the Pope by various delegates in matters both religious and secular. My little book was published in Latin and German. The Latin version was dedicated to the Pope and prefaced by an open letter to him.

Question: What did you mean by power?

Luther: The power of which I spoke primarily was spiritual. It is the power to remit sins. Only Christ has that power, and it is exercised through faith. In our lives, it is a power made perfect in weakness. That is the power and liberty of a Christian. Faith alone exercises this power and liberty.

Question: What did you teach about this power and liberty of a Christian?

Luther: We Christians are all kings and priests and lords of all. Christ has made it possible for us, provided we believe in him, to be not only his brethren, co-heirs and fellow king, but also his fellow priest. Therefore we boldly come into the presence of God in the spirit of faith. And a Christian is the servant of all. He is made subject to all. And insofar as he is a servant, he does all kinds of works. We become like Adam in the garden of Eden. Adam was created righteous, without sin. Now we may be like Adam, now that faith has done its work and exchanged our sin for Christ’s righteousness, in a great wedding ceremony. Moved by the Word and the Spirit of the Lord and the circumstances we find ourselves, we accomplish the tasks set before us – and those are the works we accomplish for the benefit of our brothers and all mankind. We are ordained by faith, and then act in the office to which we were introduced and anointed by this same faith. All workmen do the same. The carpenter proceeds by faith to build the house, which is his work. The house does not build the carpenter.

Question: And this would apply to secular, civil authority?

Luther: Yes, Christians are subject to the governing authorities. They are ready to do every good work. Not that they are going to be justified in this way. They have already been made righteous through faith. In the liberty of the Spirit they serve others and the authorities themselves, and obey freely and out of love.

Question: Would this apply to religious authority?

Luther: Yes, as long as nothing is requested contrary to the Word of God. I may fast, pray, do this and that as men command, not because it is necessary to my righteousness or salvation, but that I may show respect to the pope, bishops, the community, a magistrate, or my neighbor. I may do and suffer all things, just as Christ did and suffered more for me, although he needed nothing of it all for himself. He was made under the law for my sake, although he was not under the law.

Question: In the same year you wrote another treatise, called the Babylonian Captivity of the Church?

Luther: Yes. I found fault with the system of indulgences, which had become a money-making device. I wanted the common people to be able to participate in the Lord’s supper. The arguments were tangled and obscure then, and more so now. At bottom, it was a question of spiritual right and power. What that power committed to the Church alone, or was it inherent in Christ and through faith, directly to the people? I was being confronted with some very foolish arguments, and from many directions. Writing against Luther was a popular indoor sport in the 16th century. I was criticized for my harsh language in response. But few have thought to criticize the utter absurdity of the arguments which were used to assault my presentation of the Christian faith.

Question: Was the dispute over who could take the cup in the Lord’s Supper?

Luther: That was one of them.

Question: And why was it disputed?

Luther: It was being denied to the common people, and only given to the priests. I was criticizing the entire sacramental system of the Church of my day. My criticisms were far-reaching.

Question: You don’t like a religious system based on sacramental observances?

Luther: What God requires, and what Christ instituted, is a system based on faith.

Question: That could involve sacraments?

Luther: It could and it should. But not to replace faith, ignore faith, or to the exclusion of faith. Everything relies on faith, or it is all sin. That fundamental truth was obscured, confused, and subverted for the purpose of making money, by the Church, at the time I wrote.

Question: Was there a common theme to all these disputes?

Luther: The authority of the Pope. The primacy of God’s Word.

Question: Some of these issues became disputed with other Christians as well? What is the answer there, if two people read the Bible differently?

Luther: The authority of God’s Word goes beyond the capacity of our mind. Opinions may differ. No one is entitled to compel his opinion on another. We all are obligated to proceed as our faith and conscience dictate. But it cannot be a moneymaking operation. Jesus asked from time to time of those who questioned him, ‘How do you read the scriptures?’ But he cleared the Temple of the money changers without asking anyone’s opinion. When something becomes a market, it passes out of the jurisdiction of conscience.

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