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  • Writer's pictureVic Bernales

The Beginning of Reformation in Germany

The work of reformation in Germany began when the monk Johann Tetzel decided to sell his indulgences in Saxony of Germany where the news of it came to the attention of another monk, an Augustinian, named Martin Luther.

Luther, convinced in his own soul of the evil of indulgences, decided to open the subject to debate among the monks of the Augustinian Order of which he was a part.

To invite others to the debate, he posted 95 theses on the efficacy of indulgences at the chapel door of the church of Wittenburg as notice to anyone wishing to participate what the subject of the debate would be.

It became evident from this time on that the Reformation was indeed the work of God, not the work of Luther. God took the 95 theses and through the marvel of the printing press, caused them to be distributed through the whole of Europe where they shook Europe to its foundations. The theses were the germ of the gospel of salvation in Christ alone, a truth for which Europe hungered.

Although the upheavals in Europe over Luther's theses soon came to the attention of the pope, Rome was not immediately perturbed by these events and dismissed the whole matter as "a monks' quarrel."

But it was far more than that, and even Luther did not know the extent of it. But when the seriousness of it all became evident, some important events took place.

What were these events that caused the progress of the Reformation and Luther's eventual separation from the Roman Catholic Church?

The first one was the Heidelberg Disputation, held in April of 1518, less than a half year after the theses came to public attention. It was a conference and debate within the Augustinian Order over Luther's views.

The Roman Catholic prelates appealed to papal authority and thought that would end the matter. Luther took the opportunity to get behind the indulgence question to expose various theological errors: the merit of good works and the free will of man. Nothing much came of it all except that Luther gained many for his views, including Martin Bucer, later reformer of Strassburg.

The second was the Leipzig Disputation. Luther was ordered to appear in Rome to have his views examined, and Frederick, Elector of Saxony, was ordered to turn Luther over. Frederick refused and became Luther's protector throughout the Reformation.

The Leipzig Disputation, held from June 27 to July 15, 1519, was one of the great debates of all time. The main debaters were Martin Luther and John Eck, the latter a skilled orator and debater and a man devoted heart and soul to Romish orthodoxy.

From a purely formal point of view, Luther lost the debate. He was charged with Hussitism (after John Huss) and was forced to admit it. Eck proved to be the more skilled in debating techniques and drove Luther to positions he had not originally held.

But these positions were the positions where God wanted Luther to stand. Under the pressures of Eck's skillful attack, Luther was, step by step, forced to deny the infallibility of church councils, the supreme authority of the papacy, the idea of priestly mediation, and the silly notion that the morality of monks in monasteries was superior to the morality of God's people.

And so, finally, he stood where God wanted him to stand: The sole authority of Scripture; the truth that only that which is of faith is good in God's sight; the principle of the priesthood of all believers.

The third one was the Diet of Worms. In June of 1520 the bull of excommunication for Luther was issued in Rome at Eck's instigation. Because the German people were behind Luther, it was difficult to deliver the bull to Luther personally.

When finally it was done, Luther publicly burned the bull in the street of Wittenberg in December of the same year. It was the complete break between Luther and the Roman church.

The next year, on April 18, 1521, Luther was summoned to appear on trial before the Diet of Worms. The Diet itself was a convocation of all the princes which ruled the different provinces of Germany.

Present were also high and mighty officials from the Romish Church decked in all their splendid robes and mitres, determined to force the will of the pope of the Imperial Diet. Charles V, chosen by the princes to be ruler of the Holy Roman Empire which included Germany was there with his court. The meeting was to settle, if possible, "the German problem."

At crucial times God arranges affairs in his church in such a way that just one man alone, among the multitudes, is called upon to stand for the cause of God and truth.

So it was at Worms. Luther against the entire Romish Church. Luther threatened by the cruelties of the Inquisition. Luther against the might of the Empire. Luther alone.

At that gathering, Luther was not given opportunity to defend his position, but was asked whether the books lying before him on the table were his. When he acknowledged that they were, he was asked whether he would recant what he taught.

It was a solemn moment. Luther was awed by the assembly, nervous and excited, unprepared to be confronted with a question which could mean his life without any opportunity to defend himself. And so he asked for a day to consider his answer. After a brief consultation, the emperor granted it.

The next day had to be the most important day of his life. After some preliminary discussion, and when finally instructed to make clear his position without equivocation, he uttered those words which have so many times moved the souls of the heirs of the Reformation, though they filled the enemies with consternation and dismay:

"Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils 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 in 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. I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen."

(This article is an adaptation of Herman Hanko's chapter on Martin Luther in his book, "Portraits of Faithful Saints," pages 121-132)


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