“I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8).
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The Reformation was one of the great historical periods of the church. Men like the Spaniard Michel Servetus wrote against the doctrine of the trinity and was burned at the stake by Calvin for it. William Tyndale in England worked tirelessly to bring us a modern English translation of the Bible. Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland came to understand that the Lord’s supper was a memorial, not the sin-canceling ritual of the mass.
Michael Sattler, one of the early leaders of the Anabaptists, understood that infant baptism was wrong. Rather, baptism was a symbol of consecration, not a ritual that guaranteed an individual’s place in heaven. Each of these brethren possessed threads of truth that have come together as a harmonious whole in the harvest message we enjoy today.
Many of the concepts and doctrines espoused by the reformers had been preached for hundreds of years prior to the Reformation. This new direction for Christianity had its foundation laid by the “Pre-Reformers,” men like Wycliffe, Huss and Savonarola (see caption, end of previous column). They kept many truths alive until the reformers were ready to pick them up and bring about important and needed change.
The Protestant Reformation was just that, a protest against Papacy as the antichrist. On October 31, 1517, the Reformation began with one nail, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against indulgences to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
When Luther received a bull (Papal edict) demanding that he retract his statements, Luther, in almost a ceremonial setting, burned the bull, saying, “As for me, the die is cast; I despise alike the favor and fury of Rome; I do not
wish to be reconciled with her; or even to hold any communication with her. Let her condemn and burn my books; I, in turn, unless I can find no fire, will condemn and publicly burn the whole pontifical law, that swamp of heresies.”
Two great scriptural principles were to become the pillars of the Reformation. (1) The rediscovery of Christ and his salvation. (2) The discovery of the identity of antichrist.
“The entire Reformation rested on this twofold testimony. The reformers were unanimous in its acceptance. And it was this interpretation of prophecy that lent emphasis to their reformatory action. It led them to protest against Rome
with extraordinary strength and undaunted courage. It nerved them to resist to the utmost the claims of the apostate church. It sustained them at the martyr’s stake. Verily, this was the rallying point and the battle cry that made the Reformation unquenchable” (Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, Volume 2, pages 243, 244).
Any study of the Reformation must naturally include the work of Martin Luther. Many Christians did not appreciate the corrupt practices of Papacy, but when Luther began to openly proclaim his criticisms others eagerly
When Luther was a law student at the German University of Erfurt, he discovered a Latin Bible on the library shelf. All he had known about the Bible to this point was learned from his Catholic prayer book and the sermons given
by the local priests.
It is uncertain what drove him to join the monastery. One suggestion is that the idea of dying and facing God’s judgment seat was awakened in Luther when a close friend of his died suddenly. Another suggestion is that during a terrible storm, a lightning bolt struck near him and he exclaimed, “St. Ana, help me and I will become a monk.” Luther also had a difficult childhood so it may have been a combination of factors that convinced him to enter monastic life where he could work, do penance, and try to make himself acceptable to God.
Monastery life was difficult. Monks were allowed only five hours of sleep and were required to attend seven prayer services each day beginning at 2:00 am. They slept on narrow slabs of stone with straw for bedding and only two course blankets. Their rooms were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Monks in training were allowed to own only two things, a crucifix and a begging bowl, used to support the monastery.
Luther was tormented by his personal sense of guilt. By doing menial works and acts of self-debasement he felt his guilt could be absolved before God. But even such a lifestyle did not ease Luther’s conscience. That sense of guilt likely drove him to search the Scriptures until he came to understand the concept of justification by faith. As he poured over the pages of the Bible, he came to Romans 1:17. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed … the just shall live by faith.”
Luther would later write, “The whole Scripture revealed a different countenance to me. God’s mercy is freely given. But the flesh must die that the spirit may live. Only when we are lowest will He reach down and raise us through His grace. Not by payments of alms or performing good works, but through faith alone. This passage of Paul opened to me the gates of paradise. I
felt I was born again” (From an article titled “Justification by Faith: The Lutheran-Catholic Convergence,” by John Reumann).
The 95 Theses
As Luther was coming to this wonderful truth, the Pope was busy with plans to raise money — a great deal of money. Pope Leo X had authorized the selling of indulgences for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Johann Tetzel was hired to do the work.
Luther, an Augustinian friar, was quickly at odds with the Dominican friar Tetzel, whose Dominican motto was “Via Antiqua” (the ancient way). Being more inclined toward reform and open mindedness, the Augustinian motto was “Via Moderna” (the modern way). It was said of the “Via Antiqua” that they guarded the traditional faith and hounded heretics. They were the ones who had laid the mounds of straw around Huss when he was burned at the stake.
Tetzel paraded into a town near Luther’s home to the ringing of bells. He planted the Papal banner in the town square and displayed the Papal edict for selling indulgences on scarlet and gold velvet. With stacks of printed letters of indulgences on the table, he began preaching that the dead souls of their loved ones were crying out from purgatory, pleading for their children’s
alms to release them. The catch slogan he used was, “As the coin in the coffer rings, so the soul from purgatory springs.”
When Luther heard of this and saw his parishioners carrying letters of indulgence he was outraged and threatened to “knock a hole in his [Tetzel’s] drum” (www.reformation.org/luther.html). That was the motivation that drove Luther to write his 95 Theses against the selling of indulgences.
The door of the castle church where Luther nailed his 95 Theses was the college bulletin board. The posting of the Theses was actually an invitation to discuss the issue of indulgences. (www.historylearningsite.co.uk/the-reformation/the-95-theses/)
Written in Latin, Luther’s invitation began by saying, “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther,
Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology” (www.christian-history.org/95-theses).
Coming up with a hundred arguments on a theme was a standard student exercise. In fact, the University of Wittenberg paid bonuses to faculty who took part and even fined those who did not. But the debate over indulgences never occurred. Little did Luther realize the impact his invitation to debate would have on all of Europe!
The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, the Theses had spread throughout Germany, and within two months it had spread throughout Europe. Luther was amazed by the effect his stand was having.
To stop Tetzel, Luther sent a copy of his Theses to an Archbishop by the name of Albrecht. He urged Albrecht to stop the sale of indulgences, reminding him that the Gospel message was the true treasure of the church. But there was a hidden scandal Luther had stepped into. Albrecht had secretly bribed his way into the position of archbishop. To do so, he had borrowed money from a group of European bankers connected with the Vatican. To help pay off his debt, Pope Leo had agreed to give him half the money collected from Tetzel’s sale of indulgences.
When Luther innocently appealed to Albrecht for help, he was not aware of Albrecht’s conflict of interest. But the response from the Papacy was slow. Albrecht never responded to Luther’s letter. Instead, he sent the Theses to Rome, suggesting it was heresy.
Pope Leo eventually sent a series of Papal theologians to convince Luther of the error of his ways. Then, in 1518, he simply dismissed Luther as “a drunken German” who when sober will change his mind.”
Opposition from Rome
Finally, on August 7, 1518, Luther was summoned to Rome to recant his beliefs. He had one great advantage that was undoubtedly providential. Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was a supporter of Luther. In the Roman Empire of that time an Elector was a member of the Electoral College, similar to America’s Electoral College. Their job was to elect the emperor. These individuals carried a great deal of influence and were given a great deal of latitude in their districts.
When Luther was summoned to Rome, Frederick intervened and arranged for a peaceful meeting between Luther and Rome’s representatives in Augsburg, Germany. There they reached a somewhat peaceful conclusion. Tetzel’s work was stopped and Luther agreed to ask the Pope’s pardon and not to encourage people to separate from the church. However, in the end, that would not happen. Sometime after their meeting at Augsburg, Luther wrote the following in a pamphlet titled, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.”
“Now that Italy is sucked dry, they come to Germany and begin very quietly; but we shall see that Germany is soon to be brought into the same state as Italy. … There is a buying
and selling, a changing, exchanging, and bargaining, cheating and lying, robbing and stealing, debauchery and villainy, and all kinds of contempt of God that Antichrist himself could not rule worse. All these excessive, over-presumptuous and most wicked claims of the Pope are the invention of the Devil, with the object
of bringing in Antichrist in due course, and to raise the Pope above God” (From Luther, Schriften, Volume 10, page 51).
Luther’s writings continued to circulate widely, reaching France, England, and Italy as early as 1519. As his popularity grew, students came to Wittenberg to hear him speak. On June 15, 1520, the Pope finally warned Luther with a papal bull that unless he recanted his 95 Theses and 41 other points found in
his writings within 60 days, he risked excommunication.
In a famous act of defiance, Luther burned the papal bull. With it he also burned volumes of Catholic cannon law. He did this as a reaction to the church’s action of burning his own
books. As he burned his copy of the bull, Luther is reported to have said, “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!”
Luther was excommunicated on January 4, 1521. His response was to focus on the prophecies that dealt with Antichrist. He saw the four universal empires of Daniel 2 and 7 in much
the same way as we see them today, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
He saw Papacy as the “little horn” of Daniel 7 coming out of the divisions of Rome, growing powerful and speaking great things. He identified the Papacy and the Pope himself as the “mystery of iniquity” from 2 Thessalonians 2.
As Edwin Froom writes, “He broadened the foundation of the Reformation and placed it on the sure ground of prophetic
faith” (Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, Volume 2, page 261).
His words became more than the opinion of one excommunicated man. They were founded on biblical prophecy, giving the message real authority. Such support eventually led to the Papacy’s counter-reformation, where alternative explanations of prophecy were proposed. The message we hear from conservative Protestant sources today identifies the Antichrist, the Man of Sin, as an individual who has yet to appear on the earth. This was espoused by a Catholic priest, Francisco Ribera, during the counter-reformation to divert attention away from the Reformers’ message that the Papacy was the Antichrist. Liberal Protestants, to the extent they study Revelation, say that the Antichrist had its fulfillment in pagan Rome, a teaching initiated by Jesuit priest, Luis Alcazar, ca. 1600. Either teaching avoids identifying the Antichrist with Papal Rome.
Luther was then summoned by the Roman Emperor. However, Frederick the Wise intervened once again and said he would deliver Luther to the Counsel at Worms, Germany, if the emperor would guarantee him safe passage. After receiving such assurance, Luther attended the Diet of Worms.
Luther went to the assembly with the intent of explaining his position that the Papacy fulfilled the prophecies of Antichrist. Emperor Charles V conducted the meeting, and Luther was expected to recant his views. But Luther’s response has echoed through history as a one of the great voices of Christian conscience:
“Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the counsels alone, it being evident that they have
often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound by the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything,
since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand, God help me!” (History of the Christian Church, Phillip Schaff, Volume 6, page 303).
Froom comments on this saying, “The moral courage involved in thus standing alone before such a brilliant assembly — vindicating long-lost truth against the ancient and almost
universal opinion of mankind, fearless of any reproach but his own conscience, and unafraid of any disapproval but that of God — is truly imposing. It is one of the heroics of history. Verily
Luther was God’s chosen instrument for the time” (Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, Froom, Volume 2, page 262).
While Charles V conferred with other members of the counsel, Luther left Worms. Knowing that Luther’s life was greatly at risk, Frederick the Wise arranged for Luther to be brought to Wartburg Castle where he remained hidden for the next 11 months. His time there was extremely productive as he translated the New Testament into German. Luther’s Bible
was to go through 17 editions and 50 reprints in the next 12 years.
With such powerful opposition, it is surprising that Luther died a natural death. If not for the protection of Frederick the Wise, and later his brother John, Luther’s fate would certainly have been different and the Reformation may have been stopped. Others were not spared horrible deaths. However, Luther was still needed for the ongoing work of the Reformation.
As stated earlier, the Reformation was much broader than Luther’s work in Germany. But Luther ignited the flame of passion for reform all across Europe. The text quoted at the beginning of this article is so appropriate to the work of the Reformation: “I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little
strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8).1
The Reformation was truly a time of opening doors. No longer would Papacy be allowed to keep the doors of doctrine closed. It is so appropriate that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a University church. That door came to symbolize how Jesus was opening the understanding of great truths to the common man. It was the beginning of the “cleansing of the sanctuary.” It was a door the Lord himself opened and no man could shut.
Two additional important teachings of Luther were that “Jesus Christ died for every man” (Hebrews 2:9), and the sleep of the soul (taught from 1523). Luther said, “All that is said concerning the immortality of the soul …is nothing else, but the invention of antichrist to make his pot boil.”2 Luther also “objected to and rather avoided the terms Dreifaltigkeit, Dreiheit, unitas, trinitas (threefoldness, threeness, oneness, trinity).”3
Our lives are so different than what these saints experienced. But we need to make a spiritual connection with the heart that can say “Sola Sciptura,” “Only Scripture,” and be willing, if necessary, to die for our convictions. We can join Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Tyndale, Servetus, and others and say, “I will not recant my faith.”
May the Lord help each of us identify with our brethren of the Gospel Age. This is our heritage. Someday we may be working with them, seeking to honor the Lord and bringing him fully into the social fabric of society.
(1) Editor’s Note: Another view regarding the timing of this verse is that the phrase “open door” describes the expansion of the Protestant ethic to the new world across the seas and that the Reformation was the church of Sardis, whose hope of white robes links to the doctrine of Justification that was the hallmark of the Reformation. The command to “repent” (reform) marks the work of Luther and others of his day. The “morning star” of church four has a veiled tie in to Wycliffe as the “morning star” of the Reformation.
(2) Bayles Historical and Critical Dictionary, Volume 3, page 2067.
(3) Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma, Volume VII, pages 225-226.