Emperor Charles V of Europe had decreed that Martin Luther must die. And then Luther disappeared, as it were, from the face of the earth. Who had taken him? his friends or his enemies? Had the great reformation, which he had begun, come to a sudden stop?
Read how God stepped in and not only saved Luther from certain death - but through him gave the Bible to the people.
Luther's mysterious disappearance excited consternation throughout all Germany. Inquiries concerning him were heard everywhere. Even his enemies were more agitated by his absence than they could have been by his presence. The wildest rumors were circulated, and many believed that he had been murdered. There was great lamentation, not only by his avowed friends, but by thousands who had not openly taken their stand with the Reformation. Many bound themselves by a solemn oath to avenge his death.
The Romanists saw with terror to what a pitch had risen the feeling against them. Though at first exultant at the supposed death of Luther, they now desired to hide from the wrath of the people. Those who were enraged against him when he was at large, were filled with fear now that he was in captivity. "The only way of extricating ourselves," said one, "is to light our torches and go searching through the earth for Luther, till we can restore him to a nation that will have him." The edict of the emperor seemed to fall powerless. The papal legates were filled with indignation as they saw that it commanded far less attention than did the fate of Luther.
The tidings that he was safe, though a prisoner, calmed the fears of the people, while it still further aroused their enthusiasm in his favor. His writings were read with greater eagerness than ever before. Increasing numbers joined the cause of the heroic man who had, at such fearful odds, defended the word of God. The Reformation was constantly gaining in strength. The seed which Luther had sown sprung up everywhere. His absence accomplished a work which his presence would have failed to do. Other laborers felt a new responsibility, now that their great leader was removed. With new faith and earnestness they pressed forward to do all in their power, that the work so nobly begun might not be hindered.
But Satan was not idle. He now attempted what he has attempted in every other reformatory movement, - to deceive and destroy the people by palming off upon them a counterfeit in place of the true work. As there were false christs in the first century of the Christian church so there arose false prophets in the sixteenth century.
A few men, deeply affected by the excitement in the religious world, imagined themselves to have received special revelations from Heaven and claimed to have been divinely commissioned to carry forward to its completion the Reformation but feebly begun by Luther. In truth, they were undoing the very work which he had accomplished. They rejected the fundamental principle of the Reformation, - the word of God as the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice; and for that unerring guide they substituted the changeable, uncertain standard of their own feelings and impressions. By this act of setting aside the great detector of error and falsehood, the way was opened for Satan to control minds as best pleased himself.
One of these prophets claimed to have been instructed by the angel Gabriel. A student who united with him abandoned his studies, declaring that he had received from God himself the ability to explain the Scriptures. Others who were naturally inclined to fanaticism united with them. The proceedings of these enthusiasts created no little excitement. The preaching of Luther had aroused the people everywhere to feel the necessity of reform, and now some really honest persons were misled by the pretensions of the new prophets.
The leaders of the movement repaired to Wittemberg, and urged their claims upon Melanchton and his co-laborers. Said they: "We are sent by God to teach the people. We have received special revelations from God Himself, and therefore know what is coming to pass. We are apostles and prophets, and appeal to Doctor Luther as to the truth of what we say." The Reformers were astonished and perplexed. This was such an element as they had never before encountered, and they knew not what course to pursue. Said Melanchton: "There are indeed spirits of no ordinary kind in these men: but what spirits?" "On the one hand, let us beware of quenching the Spirit of God, and on the other, of being seduced by the spirit of Satan."
The fruit of the new teaching soon became apparent. The minds of the people were diverted from the word of God, or decidedly prejudiced against it. The schools were thrown into confusion. Students, spurning all restraint, abandoned their studies. The men who thought themselves competent to revive and control the work of the Reformation, succeeded only in bringing it to the very brink of ruin. The Romanists now regained their confidence, and exclaimed exultingly, "one more effort, and all will be ours."
Luther at the Wartburg, hearing of what had occurred, said with deep concern, "I always expected that Satan would send us this plague." He perceived the true character of those pretended prophets, and saw the danger that threatened the cause of truth. The opposition of the pope and the emperor had not caused him so great perplexity and distress as he now experienced. From the professed friends of the Reformation had risen its worst enemies. The very truths which had brought peace to his troubled heart had been made the cause of dissension in the church.
In the work of reform, Luther had been urged forward by the Spirit of God, and had been carried beyond himself. He had not purposed to take such positions as he did, or to make radical changes. He had been but the instrument in the hands of infinite power. Yet he often trembled for the result of his work. He had once said, "If I knew that my doctrine had injured one human being, however poor and unknown, - which it could not, for it is the very gospel, - I would rather face death ten times over than not retract it."
And now a whole city, and that city Wittemberg itself was fast sinking into confusion. The doctrines taught by Luther had not caused this evil; but throughout Germany his enemies were charging it upon him. In bitterness of soul he sometimes asked, "Can such be the end of this great work of the Reformation?" Again, as he wrestled with God in prayer, peace flowed into his heart. "The work is not mine, but thine own," he said, "Thou wilt not suffer it to be corrupted by superstition or fanaticism." But the thought of remaining longer from the conflict in such a crisis, became insupportable. He determined to return to Wittemberg.
Without delay he set out on his perilous journey. He was under the ban of the empire. Enemies were at liberty to take his life; friends were forbidden to aid or shelter him. The imperial government was adopting the most stringent measures against his adherents. But he saw that the work of the gospel was imperiled, and in the name of the Lord he went forth once more to battle for the truth.
With great caution and humility, yet with decision and firmness, he entered upon his work. "By the word," said he, "we must refute and expel what has gained a place and influence by violence. I would not resort to force against the superstitious and unbelieving." "Let there be no compulsion. I have been laboring for liberty of conscience. Liberty is the very essence of faith." Ascending the pulpit, he with great wisdom and gentleness instructed, exhorted, and reproved, and by the power of the gospel brought back the misguided people into the way of truth.
Luther had no desire to encounter the fanatics whose course had been productive of so great evil. He knew them to be men of hasty and violent temper, who, while claiming to be especially illuminated from Heaven, would not endure the slightest contradiction, or even the kindest admonition. Arrogating to themselves supreme authority, they required every one, without a question, to acknowledge their claims. But as they demanded an interview with him, he consented to meet them; and so successfully did he expose their pretensions, that the imposters at once departed from Wittemberg.
The fanaticism was checked for a time; but several years later it broke out with greater violence and more terrible results. Said Luther, concerning the leaders in this movement: "To them the Holy Scriptures were but a dead letter, and they all began to cry, 'The Spirit! the Spirit!' But most assuredly I will not follow where their spirit leads them. May God in His mercy preserve me from a church in which there are none but saints. I wish to be in fellowship with the humble, the feeble, the sick, who know and feel their sins, and who sigh and cry continually to God from the bottom of their hearts to obtain His consolation and support."
Thomas Munzer, the most active of the fanatics, was a man of considerable ability, which, rightly directed, would have enabled him to do good; but he had not learned the first principles of true religion. He imagined himself ordained of God to reform the world, forgetting, like many other enthusiasts, that the reform should begin with himself. He was ambitious to obtain position and influence, and unwilling to be second, even to Luther. He charged the Reformers with establishing, by their adherence to the Bible alone, a species of popery. He considered himself called of God to remedy the evil, and held that manifestations of the Spirit were the means by which this was to be accomplished, and that he who had the Spirit possessed the true faith, though he might never see the written word.
The fanatical teachers gave themselves up to be governed by impressions, calling every thought of the mind the voice of God; consequently they went to great extremes. Some even burned their Bibles, exclaiming. "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life." Men naturally love the marvelous, and whatever flatters their pride, and many were ready to accept Munzer's teachings. He soon denounced all order in public worship, and declared that to obey princes was to attempt to serve both God and Belial.
The minds of the people, already beginning to throw off the yoke of the papacy, were also becoming impatient under the restraints of civil authority. Munzer's revolutionary teaching, claiming divine sanction led them to break away from all control, and give the rein to their prejudices and passions. The most terrible scenes of sedition and strife followed, and the fields of Germany were drenched with blood.
The agony of soul which Luther had so long before experienced in his cell at Erfurth, now pressed upon him with redoubled power as he saw the results of fanaticism charged upon the Reformation. The papist princes declared, and many believed that Luther's doctrine had been the cause of the rebellion. Although this charge was without the slightest foundation, it could not but cause the Reformer great distress. That the work of Heaven should he thus degraded by being classed with the basest fanaticism, seemed more than he could endure. On the other hand, the leaders in the revolt hated Luther because he had not only opposed their doctrines and denied their claims to divine inspiration, but had pronounced them rebels against the civil authority. In retaliation they denounced him as a base pretender. He seemed to have brought upon himself the enmity of both princes and people.
The Romanists exulted, expecting to witness the speedy downfall of the Reformation; and they blamed Luther even for the errors which he had been most earnestly endeavoring to correct. The fanatical party, by falsely claiming to have been treated with great injustice, succeeded in gaining the sympathies of a large class of the people, and, as is usually the case with those who take the wrong side, they came to be regarded as martyrs. Thus the ones who were exerting every energy in opposition to the Reformation were pitied and lauded as the victims of cruelty and oppression. This was the work of Satan, prompted by the same spirit of rebellion which was first manifested in Heaven.
Satan is constantly seeking to deceive men, and lead them to call sin righteousness, and righteousness sin. How successful has been his work! How often are censure and reproach, cast upon God's faithful servants because they will stand fearlessly in defense of the truth! Men who are but agents of Satan are praised and flattered, and even looked upon as martyrs, while those who should he respected and sustained for their fidelity to God, are left to stand alone, under suspicion and distrust.
Counterfeit holiness, spurious sanctification, is still doing its work of deception. Under various forms it exhibits the same spirit as in the days of Luther, diverting minds from the Scriptures, and leading men to follow their own feelings and impressions rather than to yield obedience to the law of God. This is one of Satan's most successful devices to cast reproach upon purity and truth.
Fearlessly did Luther defend the gospel from the attacks which came from every quarter. The word of God proved itself a weapon mighty in every conflict. With that word he warred against the usurped authority of the pope, and the rationalistic philosophy of the schoolmen, while he stood firm as a rock against the fanaticism that sought to ally itself with the Reformation.
Each of these opposing elements was in its own way setting aside the Holy Scriptures, and exalting human wisdom as the source of religious truth and knowledge. Rationalism idolizes reason and makes this the criterion for religion. Romanism, claiming for her sovereign pontiff an inspiration descended in unbroken line from the apostles, and unchangeable through all time, gives ample opportunity for every species of extravagance and corruption to be concealed under the sanctity of the apostolic commission. The inspiration claimed by Munzer and his associates proceeded from no higher source than the vagaries of the imagination, and its influence was subversive of all authority, human or divine. True Christianity receives the word of God as the great treasure-house of inspired truth, and the test of all inspiration.
Upon his return from the Wartburg, Luther completed his translation of the New Testament, and the gospel was soon after given to the people of Germany in their own language. This translation was received with great joy by all who loved the truth; but it was scornfully rejected by those who chose human traditions and the commandments of men.
The priests were alarmed at the thought that the common people would now be able to discuss with them the precepts of God's word, and that their own ignorance would thus be exposed. The weapons of their carnal reasoning were powerless against the sword of the Spirit. Rome summoned all her authority to prevent the circulation of the Scriptures; but decrees, anathemas, and tortures were alike in vain. The more she condemned and prohibited the Bible, the greater was the anxiety of the people to know what it really taught. All who could read were eager to study the word of God for themselves. They carried it about with them, and read and re-read, and could not be satisfied until they had committed large portions to memory. Seeing the favor with which the New Testament was received, Luther immediately began the translation of the Old, and published it in parts as fast as completed.
Luther's writings were welcomed alike in city and in hamlet. At night the teachers of the village schools read them aloud to little groups gathered at the fireside. With every effort, some souls would be convicted of the truth, and, receiving the word with gladness would in their turn tell the good news to others.
The words of inspiration were verified: "The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple." Psalms 119:130. The study of the Scriptures was working a mighty change in the minds and hearts of the people. The papal rule had placed upon its subjects an iron yoke which held them in ignorance and degradation. A superstitious observance of forms had been scrupulously maintained; but in all their service the heart and intellect had had little part. The preaching of Luther, setting forth the plain truths of God's word, and then the word itself, placed in the hands of the common people, had aroused their dormant powers, not only purifying and ennobling the spiritual nature, but imparting new strength and vigor to the intellect.
Persons of all ranks were to be seen with the Bible in their hands, defending the doctrines of the Reformation. The papists who had left the study of the scriptures to the priests and monks, now called upon them to come forward and refute the new teachings. But, ignorant alike of the Scriptures and of the power of God, priests and friars were totally defeated by those whom they had denounced as unlearned and heretical. "Unhappily," said a Catholic writer, "Luther had persuaded his followers that their faith ought only to be founded on the oracles of Holy Writ." Crowds would gather to hear the truth advocated by men of little education, and even discussed by them with learned and eloquent theologians. The shameful ignorance of these great men was made apparent as their arguments were met by the simple teachings of God's word. Women and children, artisans and soldiers, had a better knowledge of the Scriptures than had learned doctors or surpliced priests.
As the Romish clergy saw their congregations diminishing, they invoked the aid of the magistrates, and by every means in their power endeavored to bring back their hearers. But the people had found in the new teaching that which supplied the wants of their souls, and they turned away from those who had so long fed them with the worthless husks of superstitious rites and human traditions.
When persecution was kindled against the teachers of the truth, they gave heed to the words of Christ. "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another." Matthew 10:23. The light penetrated everywhere. The fugitives would find somewhere a hospitable door opened to them, and there abiding they would preach Christ, sometimes in the church, or, if denied that privilege, in private houses or in the open air. Wherever they could obtain a hearing, was a consecrated temple. The truth, proclaimed with such energy and assurance, spread with irresistible power.
In vain were both ecclesiastical and civil authorities invoked to crush the heresy.
In vain they resorted to imprisonment, torture, fire, and sword. Thousands of believers sealed their faith with their blood, and yet the work went on. Persecution served only to extend the truth; and the fanaticism which Satan endeavored to unite with it, resulted in making more clear the contest between the work of Satan and the work of God.
HISTORICAL DATING OF THIS CHAPTER
Events in this chapter span 18 months from April 1521 to September 1522. Following his famous "Here I stand" speech at Worms in April 18, 1521, Luther was taken to the Wartburg Castle, but left in March 1522 because of the rise of fanaticism. The fanatics came to Wittenburg in December 1521. Fanaticism resulted in the Peasants' Revolt (1524-1525). Luther's German New Testament was published in September 1522.
CHAPTER SUPPLEMENT - THE ROMAN CHANNEL OF GRACE
"[Mary is] the first steward in the dispensing of all graces". Pius X, quoted in F.J. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, p.132.
"We have no greater help, no greater hope than you. O Most Pure Virgin; help us, then. For we hope in you, we glory in you. We are your servants, do not disappoint us". Novena Prayers in Honor of Our Mother of Perpetural Help (published by Sisters of St. Basil, with imprimatur).
"Christ has taken His seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high... and Mary as Queen stands at His right hand". Pius X, Mary Mediatrix, in Encyclical: Ad Diem Illum.
"Mary is Our Lady and Queen because she, the new Eve, has shared intimately in the redemptive work of Christ, the new Adam, by suffering with Him and offering Him up to the Eternal Father". Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p.211 (1974).
Alphonsus de Liguori wrote two books in lavish praise of Mary (The Glories of Mary; 1750) and Catholic priests (The Duties and Dignities of the Priest). He was rewarded with sainthood. Because he was canonized, his statements are infallible:
"With reason does an ancient writer call her 'the only hope of sinners'; for by her help alone can we hope for the remission of sins". De Liguori, The Glories of Mary (ed. Eugene Grimm: Redemptorist Fathers, 1931) p.83
"'Many things,' says Nicephorus, 'are asked from God, and are not granted; they are asked from Mary, and are obtained'". p.137.
"If God is angry with a sinner, and Mary takes him under her protection, she withholds the avenging arm of her Son, and saves him". p.124.
"[Prayer of St. Ephram:] 'O Immaculate Virgin, we are under thy protection... we beseech thee to prevent thy beloved Son, who is irritated by our sins, from abandoning us to the power of the devil'". p.273.
"'At the commmand of Mary all obey - even God'. St. Bernardine fears not to utter this sentence; meaning indeed, to say that God grants the prayers of Mary as if they were commands... Since the Mother, then, should have the same power as the Son, rightly has Jesus, who is omnipotent, made Mary also omnipotent". p.82.
"Because men acknowledge and fear the divine Majesty, which is in Him [Christ] as God, for this reason it was necessary to assign us another advocate, to whom we might have recourse with less fear and more confidence, and this advocate is Mary, than whom we cannot find one more powerful with His divine majesty, or one more merciful towards ourselves... A mediator, then, was needed with the mediator Himself". p.180-182.
"Nothing whatever of that Immense treasure of all graces, which the Lord brought us... is granted to us save through Mary, so that, just as no one can come to the Father on high except through the Son, so almost in the same manner, no one can come to Christ except through His Mother". Leo XIII, Magnae Dei Matris.
"She [Mary] remains forever associated to Him [Christ], with an almost unlimited power, in the distribution of the graces which flow from the Redemption. Jesus is King throughout all eternity by nature and by right of conquest through Him, with Him and subordinate to Him, Mary is Queen by grace, by divine relationship, by right of conquest and by singular election. And her kingdom is as vast as that of her Son and God, since nothing is excluded from her dominion". Pius XII, quoted in E.R. Carrol (ed.), Mariology, Vol.1, p.49 (1955).
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