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Luther’s Religious Thought

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Source: Editor's Introduction to Luther's First Principles of the Reformation or The 95 Theses and the Three Primary Works of Dr. Martin Luther, ed. Henry Wace and C.A. Buchheim (London: John Murray, 1883).


The present publication is offered as a contribution to the due celebration in this country of the fourth Centenary of Luther’s birth. Much has been written about him, and the general history of his life and work is being sketched by able pens. But no adequate attempt has yet been made to let him speak for himself to Englishmen by his greatest and most characteristic writings. The three works which, together with the 95 Theses, are included in this volume, are well known in Germany as the Drei Grosse Reformations-Schriften, or “The Three Great Reformation Treatises” of Luther; but they seem never yet to have been brought in this character before the English public. The Treatise on Christian Liberty has indeed been previously translated, though not of late years. But from an examination of the catalogue in the British Museum, it would appear that no English translation is accessible, even if any has yet been published, of the Address to the German Nobility or of the Treatise on the Babylonish Captivity of the Church. Yet, as is well understood in Germany, it is in these that the whole genius of the Reformer appears in its most complete and energetic form. They are bound together in the closest dramatic unity. They were all three produced in the latter half of the critical year 1520, when nearly three years’ controversy, since the publication of the Theses, on Oct. 31 1517, had convinced Luther of the falseness of the Court of Rome, and the hollowness of its claims; and they were immediately followed by the bull of excommunication in the winter of the same year, and the summons to the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther felt, as he says at the commencement of his Address to the German Nobility, that “the time for silence had passed, and the time for speech had come.” He evidently apprehended that reconciliation between himself and the Court of Rome was impossible; and he appears to have made up his mind to clear his conscience, whatever the cost. Accordingly in these three works he spoke out with a full heart, and with the consciousness that his life was in his hand, the convictions which had been forced on him by the conduct of the Papacy and of the Papal theologians.

Those convictions had been slowly, and even reluctantly, admitted; but they had gradually accumulated in intense force in Luther’s mind and conscience; and when “the time for speech had come” they burst forth in a kind of volcanic eruption. Their maturity is proved by the completeness and thoroughness with which the questions at issue are treated. An insight into the deepest theological principles is combined with the keenest apprehension of practical details. In the Treatise on Christian Liberty we have the most vivid of all embodiments of that life of Faith to which the Reformer recalled the Church and which was the mainspring of the Reformation. In the Appeal to the German Nobility he first asserted those rights of the laity, and of the temporal power, without the admission of which no reformation would have been practicable, and he then denounced with burning moral indignation the numerous and intolerable abuses which were upheld by Roman authority. In the third Treatise, on the Babylonish Captivity of the Church, he applied the same cardinal principles to the elaborate Sacramental system of the Church of Rome, sweeping away by means of them the superstitions with which the original institutions of Christ had been overlaid, and thus releasing men’s consciences from a vast network of ceremonial bondage. The rest of the Reformation, it is not too much to say, was but the application of the principles vindicated in these three works. They were applied in different countries with varying wisdom and moderation; but nothing essential was added to them. Luther’s genius—if a higher word be not justifiable—brought forth at one birth, “with hands and feet,” to use his own image, and in full energy, the vital ideas by which Europe was to be regenerated. He was no mere negative controversialist, attacking particular errors in detail. His characteristic was the masculine grasp with which he seized essential and eternal truths, and by their central light dispersed the darkness in which men were groping.

It occurred therefore to my colleague and myself that a permanent service might perhaps be rendered to Luther’s name, and towards a due appreciation of the principles of the Reformation, if these short but pregnant Treatises were made more accessible to the English public; and although they might well be left to speak for themselves, there may perhaps be some readers to whom a few explanatory observations on Luther’s position, theologically and politically, will not be unacceptable. My colleague, in the Essay which follows this, has dealt with the political course of the Reformation during his career; and in the present remarks an endeavour will simply be made to indicate the nature and the bearings of the central principles of the Reformer’s life and work, as exhibited in the accompanying translations.

It is by no mere accident of controversy that the Ninty-five Theses mark the starting-point of Luther’s career as a reformer. The subject with which they dealt was not only in close connection with the centre of Christian truth, but it touched the characteristic thought of the Middle Ages. From the beginning to the end, those ages had been a stern school of moral and religious discipline, under what was universally regarded as the divine authority of the Church. St. Anselm, with his intense apprehension of the divine righteousness, and of its inexorable demands, is at once the noblest and truest type of the great school of thought of which he was the founder. The special mission of the Church since the days of Gregory the Great had been to tame the fierce energies of the new barbarian world, and to bring the wild passions of the Teutonic races under the control of the Christian law. It was the task to which the necessities of the hour seemed to summon the Church, and she roused herself to the effort with magnificent devotion. Monks and Schoolmen performed prodigies of self-denial and self-sacrifice, in order to realise in themselves, and to impose as far as possible on the world at large, the laws of perfection which the Church held before their vision. The glorious cathedrals which arose in the best period of the Middle Ages are but the visible types of those splendid structures of ideal virtues, which a monk like St. Bernard, or a Schoolman like St. Thomas Aquinas, piled up by laborious thought and painful asceticism. Such men felt themselves at all times surrounded by a spiritual world, at once more glorious in its beauty and more awful in its terrors, than either the pleasures or the miseries of this world could adequately represent. The great poet of the Middle Ages affords perhaps the most vivid representation of their character in this respect. The horrible images of the Inferno, the keen sufferings of purification in the Purgatorio, form the terrible foreground behind which the Paradiso rises. Those visions of terror and dread and suffering had stamped themselves on the imagination of the medieval world, and lay at the root of the power with which the Church overshadowed it. In their origin they embodied a profound and noble truth. It was a high and divine conception that the moral and spiritual world with which we are encompassed has greater heights and lower depths than are generally apprehended in the visible experience of this life; and Dante has been felt to be in an unique degree the poet of righteousness. But it is evident, at the same time, what a terrible temptation was placed in the hands of a hierarchy who were believed, in whatever degree, to wield power over these spiritual realities. It was too easy to apply them, like the instruments of physical torture with which the age was familiar, to extort submission from tender consciences, or to make a bargain with selfish hearts. But in substance the menaces of the Church appealed to deep convictions of the human conscience, and the mass of men were not prepared to defy them.

Now it was into this world of spiritual terrors that Luther was born, and he was in an eminent degree the legitimate child of the Middle Ages. The turning-point in his history is that the awful visions of which we have spoken, the dread of the Divine judgments, brought home to him by one of the solemn accidents of life, checked him in a career which promised all worldly prosperity, and drove him into a monastery. There, as he tells us, he was driven almost frantic by his vivid realization of the demands of the Divine righteousness on the one hand, and of his own incapacity to satisfy them on the other. With the intense reality characteristic of his nature he took in desperate earnest all that the traditional teaching and example of the Middle Ages had taught him of the unbending necessities of Divine justice. But for the very reason that he accepted those necessities with such earnestness, he did but realize the more completely the hopelessness of his struggles to bring himself into conformity with them. It was not because he was out of sympathy with St. Anselm or St. Bernard or Dante, that he burst the bonds of the system they represented; but, on the contrary, because he entered even more deeply than they into the very truths they asserted. Nothing was more certain to him than that Divine justice is inexorable; no conviction was more deeply fixed in his heart than that righteousness is the supreme law of human life. But the more he realized the truth, the more terrible he found it, for it seemed to shut him up in a cruel prison, against the bars of which he beat himself in vain. In one of his most characteristic passages, in the Introduction to his Latin Works, he describes how he was repelled and appalled by the statement of St. Paul respecting the Gospel, that ‘therein is the righteousness, or justice, of God revealed.’ For, he says, ‘however irreprehensible a life I had lived as a monk, I felt myself before God a sinner, with a most restless conscience, and I could not be confident that He was appeased by my satisfaction. I could not, therefore, love—nay, I hated—a God who was just and punished sinners; and if not with silent blasphemy, certainly with vehement murmuring, I was indignant against God. As if, I said, it were not enough that sinners, miserable and eternally ruined by original sin, should be crushed with all kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, but God by the Gospel must needs add grief to grief, and by the Gospel itself must inflict still further on us His justice and anger. I raged with this savage and disturbed conscience, and I knocked importunately at Paul in that place, with burning thirst to know what St. Paul could mean.’ Such an experience is not a mere revolt against the Middle Ages. In great measure it is but the full realization of their truest teaching. It is Dante intensified, and carried to the inevitable development of his principles.

But if this be the case, what it meant was that the Middle Ages had brought men to a deadlock. They had led men up to a gate so strait that no human soul could pass through it. In the struggle, men had devised the most elaborate forms of self-torture, and had made the most heroic sacrifices, and in the very desperation of their efforts they had anticipated the more vivid insight and experience of Luther. The effort, in fact, had been too much for human nature, and the end of it had been that the Church had condescended to human weakness. The most obvious and easy way out of the difficulty was to modify, by virtue of some dispensing authority, the extreme requirements of Divine justice, and by a variety of half-unconscious, half-acknowledged devices, to lessen the severity of the strait gate and of the narrow way. Such a power, as has been said, was an enormous temptation to unscrupulous Churchmen, and at length it led to the hideous abuses of such preaching of indulgences as that of Tetzel. In this form the matter came before Luther in his office as parish priest and confessor; and it will be apparent from the Theses that what first revolts him is the violation involved of the deepest principles which the Church of his day had taught him. He had learned from it the inexorable character of the Divine law, the necessity and blessedness of the Divine discipline of punishment and suffering; he had learned, as his first Thesis declares, that the law of Christian life is that of lifelong penitence; and he denounced Tetzel’s teaching as false to the Church herself, in full confidence that he would be supported by his ecclesiastical superiors. When he found that he was not—when, to his surprise and consternation, he found that the Papal theologians of the day, under the direct patronage of the Pope and the bishops, were ready to support the most flagrant evasions of the very principles on which their power had originally been based—then at length, though most reluctantly, he turned against them, and directed against the corrupted Church of the close of the Middle Ages the very principles he had learned from its best representatives and from its noblest institutions.

Luther, in the course of his spiritual struggles, had found the true deliverance from what we have ventured to call that deadlock to which the grand vision of Divine righteousness had led him. He realised that the strait gate was impassable by any human virtue; but he had found the solution in the promise of a supernatural deliverance which was offered to faith. To quote again his words in the preface to his Latin works already referred to: ‘At length by the mercy of God, meditating days and nights, I observed the connection of the words namely “therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written: The just shall live by faith.” Then I began to understand the justice of God to be that by which the just man lives by the gift of God, namely, by faith, and that the meaning was that the Gospel reveals that justice of God by which He justifies us beggars through faith, as it is written: “The just shall live by faith.” Here I felt myself absolutely born again; the gates of heaven were opened, and I had entered paradise itself. From thenceforward the face of the whole Scriptures appeared changed to me. I ran through the Scriptures, as my memory would serve me, and observed the same analogy in other words—as, the work of God, that is, the work which God works in us; the strength of God, that with which He makes us strong; the wisdom of God, that with which He makes us wise; the power of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And now, as much as I had formerly hated that word, the Justice of God, so much did I now love it and extol it as the sweetest of words to me; and thus that place in Paul was to me truly the gate of paradise.’ In other words, Luther had realised that the Gospel, while reasserting the inexorable nature of the moral law, and deepening its demands, had revealed a supernatural and divine means of satisfying and fulfilling it. All barriers had thus been removed between God and man, and men had been placed in the position of children living by Faith on His grace and bounty. He offers to bestow upon them the very righteousness He requires from them, if they will but accept it at His hands as a free gift. Their true position is no longer that of mere subjects living under a law which they must obey at their peril. They may, indeed, by their own act remain in that condition, with all its terrible consequences. But God invites them to regard Him as their Father, to live in the light of His countenance, and to receive from Him the daily food of their souls. The most intimate personal relation is thus established between Himself and them; and the righteousness which they could never acquire by their own efforts He is ready to create in them if they will but live with Him in faith and trust. That faith, indeed, must needs be the beginning, and the most essential condition, of this Divine life. Faith is the first condition of all fellowship between persons; and if a man is to live in personal fellowship with God, he must trust Him absolutely, believe His promises, and rest his whole existence, here and hereafter, upon His word. But let a man do this, and then God’s law ceases to be like a flaming sword, turning every way, with too fierce an edge for human hearts to bear. It assumes the benignant glow of a revelation of perfect righteousness which God Himself will bestow on all who ask it at His hands.

This belief is essentially bound up with a distinction on which great stress is laid in the Theses. It touches a point at once of the highest theological import, and of the simplest practical experience. This is the distinction between guilt and punishment; or, in other words, between personal forgiveness, and the remission of the consequences of sins. In our mutual relations, a son may be forgiven by his father, a wrongdoer by the person whom he has injured, and yet it may neither be possible nor desirable that the offender should be at once released from the consequences of his offence. But for all generous hearts, the personal forgiveness is infinitely more precious than the remission of the penalty, and Luther had learned from the Scriptures to regard our relation to God in a similar light. He realized that he must live, here and hereafter, in personal relationship to God; and the forgiveness of God, the removal from him, in God’s sight, of the imputation and the brand of guilt, his reception into God’s unclouded favour—this was the supreme necessity of his spiritual existence. If this were assured to him, not only had he no fear of punishment, but he could welcome it, whatever its severity, as part of the discipline of the divine and loving hand to which he had trusted himself. His deepest indignation, consequently, was aroused by preaching which, under official sanction, urged men to buy indulgence from punishment, of whatever kind, as practically the greatest spiritual benefit they could obtain; and he devoted his whole energy to assert the supreme blessing of that remission from guilt, of which the preachers of indulgences said practically nothing. It is this remission of guilt, this personal forgiveness, which is the essential element in the justification of which he spoke. It involves of course salvation from the final ruin and doom which sin, and the moral corruption of our nature, would naturally entail; but its chief virtue does not consist in deliverance from punishment, nor does it in any way derogate from the truth that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” What it taught men was to accept all God’s judgements and discipline in perfect peace of soul, as being assured of His love and favour.

No divine, in fact, has ever dwelt with more intense conviction on the blessedness of the discipline of suffering and of the Cross. The closing Theses express his deepest feelings in this respect, and a passage in one of his letters, written before the controversy about Indulgences had arisen, affords a most interesting illustration of the manner in which the principles he came forward to assert had grown out of his personal experience. “Away,” he says, in the 92nd and 93rd Theses, “with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘The Cross, the Cross,’ and there is no Cross.” These somewhat enigmatic expressions are at once explained in the letter referred to, written to a Prior of the Augustinian order, on the 22nd of June, 1516.1 He says:—

“You are seeking and craving for peace, but in the wrong order. For you are seeking it as the world giveth, not as Christ giveth. Know you not that God is ‘wonderful among His saints,’ for this reason, that He establishes His peace in the midst of no peace, that is, of all temptations and afflictions.’ It is said ‘Thou shalt dwell in the midst of thine enemies.’ The man who possesses peace is not the man whom no one disturbs—that is the peace of the world; he is the man whom all men and all things disturb, but who bears all patiently, and with joy. You are saying with Israel, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace. Learn to say rather with Christ: ‘The Cross, the Cross,’ and there is no Cross. For the Cross at once ceases to be the Cross as soon as you have joyfully exclaimed, in the language of the hymn,

  • “‘Blessed Cross, above all other,
  • One and only noble tree.’”

One other extract of the same import it may be well to quote from these early letters, as it is similarly the germ of one of the noblest passages in Luther’s subsequent explanation of the Ninety-five Theses.1 The letter was addressed to a brother Augustinian on the 15th of April, 1516. Luther says:—

“The cross of Christ has been divided throughout the whole world, and every one meets with his own portion of it. Do not you therefore reject it, but rather accept it as the most holy relic, to be kept, not in a gold or silver chest, but in a golden heart, that is, a heart imbued with gentle charity. For if, by contact with the flesh and blood of Christ, the wood of the Cross received such consecration that its relics are deemed supremely precious, how much more should injuries, persecutions, sufferings and the hatred of men, whether of the just or of the unjust, be regarded as the most sacred of all relics—relics which, not by the mere touch of His flesh, but by the charity of His most bitterly tried heart and of His divine will, were embraced, kissed, blessed, and abundantly consecrated; for thus was a curse transformed into a blessing, and injury into justice, and passion into glory, and the Cross into joy.”2

The few letters, in fact, in our possession, written by Luther before he came forward in 1517, are sufficient to afford the most vivid proof both of the mature thought and experience in which his convictions were rooted, and of their being prompted, not by the spirit of reckless confidence to which they have sometimes been ignorantly ascribed, but by the deepest sympathy with the lessons of the Cross. The purport of his characteristic doctrine of justification by faith was not to give men the assurance of immunity from suffering and sorrow, as the consequence of sin, but to give them peace of conscience and joy of heart in the midst of such punishments. What it proclaimed was that, if men would but believe it, they could at any moment grasp God’s forgiveness, and live henceforth in the assured happiness of His personal favour and love. Of this blessing His promise was the only possible warrant, and like all other promises, it could only be accepted by Faith. Every man is invited to believe it, since it is offered to all for Christ’s sake; but by the nature of the case, none can enjoy it who do not believe it.

The ground, however, on which this promise was based affords another striking illustration of the way in which Luther’s teaching was connected with that of the Middle Age. Together with that keen apprehension of the divine judgments and of human sin just mentioned, the awful vision of our Lord’s sufferings and of His atonement overshadowed the whole thought of those times. St. Anselm, in the Cur Deus Homo, had aroused deeper meditation on this subject than had before been bestowed upon it; and in this, as in other matters, he is the type of the grand school of thought which he founded. As in his mind, so throughout the Middle Age, in proportion to the apprehension of the terrible nature of the Divine justice, is the prominence given to the sacrificial means for averting the Divine wrath. The innumerable Masses of the later Middle Ages were so many confessions of the deep-felt need of atonement; and formal as they ultimately became, they were in intention so many cries for forgiveness from the terrorstruck consciences of sinful men and women. Luther was a true child of the Church in his deep apprehension of the same need, and it was precisely because he realised it with exceptional truth and depth that he was forced to seek some deeper satisfaction than the offering of Masses could afford. He reasserted the truth that the need had been met and answered once for all by the Sacrifice on the Cross; and by proclaiming the sufficiency of that one eternal offering he swept away all the “Sacrifices of Masses,” while at the same time he provided the answer to the craving to which they testified. The doctrine of the Atonement, as asserted at the Reformation, is the true answer to that cry of the human conscience which the Church of the preceding age had vainly endeavoured to satisfy. The Sacrament, of which the Mass was a perversion, was thus restored to its true character on a pledge and an instrument of blessings bestowed by God, instead of a propitiatory offering on the part of men. The Cross of Christ, the favourite symbol of the mediæval Church, was thus held aloft by the Reformer in still deeper reality, as the central symbol of the Church’s message, and as the one adequate ground for the faith to which he called men.

Now the view of the Christian life involved in this principle of Justification by Faith found its most complete and beautiful expression in the Treatise “On Christian Liberty,” translated in this volume; and a brief notice of the teaching of that treatise will best serve to explain the connection between Luther’s cardinal doctrine and the other principles which he asserted. As is explained at the close of the introductory letter to Leo X. (p. 101), he designed it as a kind of peaceoffering to the Pope, and as a declaration of the sole objects he had at heart, and to which he desired to devote his life. “It is a small matter,” he says, “if you look to its bulk, but unless I mistake, it is a summary of the Christian life in small compass, if you apprehend its meaning.” In fact, it presents the most complete view of Luther’s theology, alike in its principles and in its practice, almost entirely disembarrassed of the controversial elements by which, under the inevitable pressure of circumstances, his other works, and especially those of a later date, were disturbed. Perhaps the only part of his works to compare with it in this respect is the precious collection of his House-postills, or Exposition of the Gospels for the Sundays of the Christian Year. They were delivered within his domestic circle, and recorded by two of his pupils, and though but imperfectly reported, they are treasures of Evangelical exposition, exhibiting in a rare degree the exquisitely childlike character of the Reformer’s faith, and marked by all the simplicity and the poetry of feeling by which his mind was distinguished. It is by such works as these, and not simply by his controversial treatises or commentaries, that Luther must be judged, if we wish either to understand his inner character, or to comprehend the vast personal influence he exerted. But in its essence, the Gospel which he preached, the substance of what he had learned from the temptations, the prayers, the meditations—tentationes, orationes, meditationes—of his life as a monk, is sufficiently embodied in the short Treatise on Christian Liberty.

The argument of the Treatise is summed up, with the antithetical force so often characteristic of great genius, in the two propositions laid down at the outset. “A Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none: A Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” The first of these propositions expresses the practical result of the doctrine of Justification by Faith. The Christian is in possession of a promise of God, which in itself, and in the assurance it involves, is a greater blessing to him than all other privileges or enjoyments whatever. Everything sinks into insignificance compared with this word and Gospel. “Let us,” he says, “hold it for certain and firmly established that the soul can do without everything except the word of God, without which none of its wants are provided for. But, having the word, it is rich and wants for nothing, since it is the word of life, of truth, of light, of peace, of justification, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, of wisdom, of virtue, of grace, of glory, and of every good thing.” If it be asked, “What is this word?” he answers that the Apostle Paul explains it, namely that “it is the Gospel of God, concerning His Son, incarnate, suffering, risen, and glorified through the Spirit, the Sanctifier. To preach Christ is to feed the soul, to justify it, to set it free, and to save it, if it believes the preaching . . . For the word of God cannot be received and honoured by any works, but by Faith alone.” This is the cardinal point around which not merely Luther’s theology, but his whole life turns. God had descended into the world, spoken to him by His Son, His Apostles, the Scriptures, and the voice of the Church, and promised him forgiveness in the present, and final deliverance from his evil in the future, if he would but trust Him. The mere possession of such a promise outweighed in Luther’s view all other considerations whatever, and absolute faith was due to it. No higher offence could be offered to God than to reject or doubt His promise, and at the same time no higher honour could be rendered Him than to believe it. The importance and value of the virtue of Faith is thus determined entirely by the promise on which it rests. These “promises of God are words of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace, and are full of universal goodness, and the soul which cleaves to them with a firm faith is so united to them, nay, thoroughly absorbed by them, that it not only partakes in, but is penetrated and saturated by all their virtue. For if the touch of Christ was health, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul all that belongs to the word? In this way, therefore, the soul through faith alone, without works, is by the word of God justified, sanctified, endued with truth, peace, and liberty, and filled full with every good thing, and is truly made the child of God . . . As is the word, such is the soul made by it; just as iron exposed to fire glows like fire on account of its union with the fire.” Moreover, just as it is faith which unites husband and wife, so faith in Christ unites the soul to Him in indissoluble union. For “if a true marriage, nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages, is accomplished between them—for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage—then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, Christ claims as his . . . Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life and salvation of its husband Christ.”

It is essential to dwell upon these passages, since, the force of the Reformer’s great doctrine cannot possibly be apprehended as long as he is supposed to attribute the efficacy of which he speaks to any inherent quality in the human heart itself. It is the word and promise of God which is the creative force. But this summons a man into a sphere above this world, bids him rest upon the divine love which speaks to him, and places him on the eternal foundation of a direct covenant with God Himself in Christ. As in the Theses, so in this Treatise, Luther reiterates that it in no way implies exemption from the discipline of suffering. “Yea,” he says, “the more of a Christian any man is, to so many the more evils, sufferings, and deaths is he subject; as we see in the first place in Christ the first-born and in all His holy brethren.” The power of which he speaks is a spiritual one “which rules in the midst of enemies, in the midst of distresses. It is nothing else than that strength is made perfect in my weakness, and that I can turn all things to the profit of my salvation; so that even the cross and death are compelled to serve me and to work together for my salvation.” “It is a lofty and eminent dignity, a true and Almighty dominion, a spiritual empire in which there is nothing so good, nothing so bad, as not to work together for my good, if only I believe.”

If we compare this language with those conceptions of spiritual terror by which Luther had been driven into a monastery, and under which, like so many in his age, he had groaned and struggled in despair, we can appreciate the immense deliverance which he had experienced. The Divine promise had lifted him “out of darkness and out of the shadow of death, and had broken his bonds in sunder.” It is this which is the source of the undaunted and joyful faith which marks the whole of the Reformer’s public career. “Whose heart,” he exclaims, “would not rejoice in its inmost core at hearing these things? Whose heart, on receiving so great a consolation, would not become sweet with the love of Christ: a love to which it can never attain by any laws or works? Who can injure such a heart, or make it afraid? If the consciousness of sin, or the horror of death rush in upon it, it is prepared to hope in the Lord, and is fearless of these evils and undisturbed, until it shall look down upon its enemies.” Such a conviction, uttered in such burning language, lifted the same cloud of darkness and fear from the hearts of the common people of that day, and was welcomed as good tidings of great joy by multitudes of burdened and terror-stricken hearts. Nothing is more characteristic of Luther’s preaching, and of the Reformers who follow him, than the sense they display that they have before them souls “weary and heavy-laden.” Their language presupposes the prevalence of that atmosphere of spiritual apprehension and gloom already described, and their grand aim is to lead men out of it into the joy and peace and liberty of the Gospel. The consequence is that a new confidence, hope and energy is infused into the moral and spiritual world of that day. The tone of unbounded joy and hope which marks the earliest Christian literature, particularly in the Apostolic Fathers, re-appears in such a Treatise as we are considering, and in the whole religious thought of the Reformers; and it would almost seem as if the long agony of the Middle Ages had but enhanced the joy of the final deliverance.

It is unnecessary, for our present purpose, to dwell long upon the second point of the Treatise, in which Luther illustrates his second proposition that “a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to every one.” It will be enough to observe that Luther is just as earnest in insisting upon the application of faith in the duties of charity and self-discipline as upon the primary importance of faith itself. The spirit of faith, he says, “applies itself with cheerfulness and zeal” to restrain and repress the impulses of the lower nature. “Here works begin; here a man must not take his ease; here he must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labour, and other reasonable discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and to faith.” Similarly, he will give himself up to the service of others, and it is partly with a view to rendering them such service that he will discipline his body and keep it in due energy and soundness. He starts from the belief that God, without merit on his part, has of his pure and free mercy bestowed on him, an unworthy creature, all the riches of justification and salvation in Christ, so that he is no longer in want of anything except of faith to believe that this is so. For such a Father, then, who has overwhelmed him with these inestimable riches of His, must he not freely, cheerfully, and from voluntary zeal, do all that he knows will be pleasing to Him and acceptable in His sight? “I will, therefore,” he says, “give myself as a sort of Christ to my neighbour, as Christ has given Himself to me; and will do nothing in this life except what I see will be needful, advantageous and wholesome for my neighbour, since by faith I abound in all good things in Christ.” These practical considerations will afford the measure by which a man determines the discipline to which he subjects himself, and the ceremonies which he observes. They will not be observed for their own sake, but as means to an end, and therefore will never be practised in excess, as though there were some merit in the performance of them. They are like the scaffoldings of builders, valuable only as a temporary assistance, in the construction of the building itself. “We do not condemn works and ceremonies; nay, we set the highest value on them. We only condemn that opinion of works which regards them as constituting true righteousness.” In asserting these principles, Luther was certainly putting the axe to the root of the portentous growth of ascetic and ceremonial observances which prevailed in his day, and which were too generally regarded as of the very essence of religion. He enabled men, as it were, to look on such ceremonies from the outside, as a thing external to them, and to reduce or rearrange them with a simple view to practical usefulness. But no more earnest exhortations to due self-discipline, and to true charity, could well be found than are contained in the second part of the De Libertate

It will be evident, however, what a powerful instrument of reformation was placed in men’s hands by the principles of this Treatise. Every Christian man, by virtue of the promise of Christ, was proclaimed free, so far as the eternal necessities of his soul were concerned, from all external and human conditions whatever. Nothing, indeed, was further from Luther’s intention or inclination than the overthrow of existing order, or the disparagement of any existing authority which could be reasonably justified. His letter to Pope Leo, prefixed to the Treatise we have been considering, shows that while denouncing unsparingly the abuses of the Court of Rome, he was sincere in his deference to the See of Rome itself. But the principle of justification enabled him to proclaim that if that See or any existing Church authority, misused its power, and refused to reform abuses, then, in the last resort, the soul of man could do without it. In that day at all events—and perhaps in our own to a greater extent than is sometimes supposed—this conviction supplied the fulcrum which was essential for any effectual reforming movement. As is observed by the Church historian Gieseler, in his admirable account of the early history of the Reformation, the Papacy had ever found its strongest support in the people at large. In spite of all the discontent and disgust provoked by the corruption of the Church and the clergy, an enormous though indefinite authority was still popularly attributed to the Pope and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Pope was believed to be in some sense or other the supreme administrator of spiritual powers which were effectual in the next world as well as in the present; and consequently when any controversy with the Church came to a crisis, men shrank from direct defiance of the Papal authority. They did not feel that they had any firm ground on which they could stand if they incurred its formal condemnation; and thus it always had at its command, in the strongest possible sense, the ultima ratio of rulers. The convictions to which Luther had been led at once annihilated these pretensions. “One thing and one alone,” he declared, “is necessary for life, justification and Christian liberty, and that is, the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ.” As we have seen, he proclaimed it “for certain, and firmly established, that the soul can do without everything except the word of God.” It is the mission of the Christian ministry, in its administration of the Word and Sacraments, to convey this Gospel to the soul, and to arouse a corresponding faith. But the promise is not annexed indissolubly to that administration, and the only invariable rule of salvation is that “the just shall live by faith.” By this principle, that vague fear of the spiritual powers of the hierarchy was removed, and men were endowed with real Christian liberty.

But the principle went still further; for it vindicated for the laity the possession of spiritual faculties and powers the same in kind as those of the clergy. All Christian men are admitted to the privilege of priesthood, and are “worthy to appear before God to pray for others, and to teach one another mutually the things which are of God.” In case of necessity, as is universally recognized, Baptism can be validly administered by lay hands, and English Divines, of the most unimpeachable authority on the subject, have similarly recognized that the valid administration of the Holy Communion is not dependent on the ordination of the minister by Episcopal authority.1 Luther urges accordingly that all Christians possess virtually the capacities which, as a matter of order, are commonly restricted to the clergy. Whether that restriction is properly dependent upon regular devolution from Apostolic authority, or whether the ministerial commission can be sufficiently conferred by appointment from the Christian community or congregation as a whole, becomes on this principle a secondary point. Luther pronounced with the utmost decision in favour of the latter alternative; but the essential element of his teaching is independent of this question. By whatever right the exercise of the ministry may be restricted to a particular body of men, what he asserted was that the functions of the clergy are simply ministerial, and that they do but exercise, on behalf of all, powers which all virtually possess. This principle Luther proceeded to assert in the first of the Treatises translated in this volume, the “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate.” This Treatise is perhaps the one which appealed most widely and directly to the German nation at large. Luther completed it at the very moment when the Bull of excommunication against him was being prepared, and it contributed, perhaps more than anything, to paralyze the influence of that Bull with the mass of the people and their lay leaders. It appeared in August, 1520, and by the 18th of that month more than four thousand copies had been already dispersed—a prodigious circulation, considering the state of literature at that day. The reader, however, will not be surprised at this popularity of the Treatise when he sees with what astonishing vigour, frankness, humour, good sense, and at the same time intense moral indignation, Luther denounces in it the corruptions of the Church, and the injuries inflicted by the Court of Rome on the German people. So tremendous an indictment, sustained with such intense and concentrated force, could hardly be paralleled in literature. The truth of the charges alleged in it could be amply sustained by reference to Erasmus’s works alone, particularly to the Encomium Moriæ; but Erasmus lacked alike the moral energy necessary to rouse the action of the laity, and the spiritual insight necessary to justify that action. Luther possessed both; and it was the combination of the two which rendered him so mighty a force. It is this perhaps which essentially distinguishes him from previous reformers. They attacked particular errors and abuses, and deserve unbounded honour for the protests they raised, and Wycliff in particular merits the homage of Englishmen as one of the chief motive powers in the first reforming movement. But they did not assert, at least with sufficient clearness, the central principle without which all reform was impracticable—that of the equal rights of laity and clergy, and of the soul’s independence of all human power, by virtue of the truth of Justification by Faith. Luther’s doctrine of Christian liberty was the emancipation alike of individuals and of the laity at large. It vindicated for the whole lay estate, and for all ranks and conditions of lay life, a spiritual dignity, and a place in the spiritual life of the Church. It restored a sense of independent responsibility to all natural authorities; and it reasserted the sacredness of all natural relations. Practically, even if not theoretically, the Roman system had disparaged the ordinary relations of life as compared with the so-called “religious” or ecclesiastical. Luther, by placing all men and women on the same spiritual standing ground, swept away any such privileges; and gave men as clear a conscience, and as great a sense of spiritual dignity, in the ordinary duties of marriage, of fatherhood, and in the common offices of life, as in any ecclesiastical order.

The “Address to the Nobility of the German Nation” exhibits these principles, and their application to the practical problems of the day, in the most vigorous and popular form; and if some expressions appear too sweeping and violent, due allowance must be made for the necessity which Luther must have felt of appealing with the utmost breadth and force to the popular mind. But it remains to consider a further aspect of these principles which is illustrated by the third Treatise translated in this volume—that on the “Babylonish Captivity of the Church.” Luther, as has been seen, was appealing to laity and clergy alike, on the ground of their spiritual freedom, to abolish the abuses of the Roman Church. But it became at once a momentous question by what principles the exercise of that liberty was to be guided, and within what limits it was to be exerted. In a very short time fanatics sprung up, who claimed to exercise such liberty without any restrictions at all, and who refused to recognize any standard but that of their own supposed inspiration. But the service which Luther rendered in repelling such abuses of his great doctrine was only second to that of establishing the doctrine itself. The rule of faith and practice on which he insisted was indeed necessarily involved in his primary principle. Faith, as has been seen, was with him no abstract quality, but was simply a response to the word and promise of God. That word, accordingly, in its various forms, was in Luther’s mind the sole creative power of the Christian life. In the form of a simple promise, it is the basis of justification and of our whole spiritual existence; and similarly in its more general form, as recorded in the Holy Scriptures, it contains all truths, alike of belief and of practice, which are essential to salvation here and hereafter. The word of God, in whatever form, whether a simple promise, or a promise embodied in a Sacrament, or a series of revelations made by God’s Spirit to the soul of man, as recorded in the Bible, is the grand reality which, in Luther’s view, dwarfed all other realities on earth. It must needs do so, if it be a reality at all; but no one has ever grasped this truth with such intense insight as Luther. Consequently, in his view, the Anabaptist, who held himself emancipated from the authority of God’s word on the one side, was as grievously in error as the Romanist on the other, who superseded its authority by that of the Church; and in applying his great principle and working out the Reformation, Luther’s task consisted in upholding the due authority of the Scriptures against the extremes on both sides.

Now in the Treatise on the Babylonish Captivity of the Church he applies this rule, in connection with his main principle, to the elaborate sacramental system of the Church of Rome. Of the seven sacraments recognised by that church, he recognizes, strictly speaking, only two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and the connection of this conclusion with the central truth he was asserting is a point of deep interest. Here, too, the one consideration which overpowers every other in his view is the supreme import of a promise or word of God. But there are two institutions under the Gospel which are distinguished from all others by a visible sign, instituted by Christ Himself, as a pledge of the Divine promise. A sign so instituted, and with such a purpose, constituted a peculiarly precious form of those Divine promises which are the life of the soul; and for the same reason that the Divine word and the Divine promise are supreme in all other instances, so must these be supreme and unique among ceremonies. The distinction, by which the two Sarcaments acknowledged by the Reformed Churches are separated from the remaining five of the Roman Church, is thus no question of names but of things. It was a question whether a ceremony instituted by Christ’s own command, and embodying His own promise in a visible pledge, could for a moment be put on the same level with ceremonies, however edifying, which had been established solely by the authority or custom of the Church. It was of the essence of Luther’s teaching to assert a paramount distinction between these classes of ceremonies and to elevate the two Divine pledges of forgiveness and spiritual life to a height immeasurably superior to all other institutions. He hesitates, indeed, whether to allow an exception in favour of Absolution, as conveying undoubtedly a direct promise from Christ; but he finally decides against it, on the ground that it is without any visible and divinely appointed sign, and is after all only an application of the Sacrament of Baptism.

If, moreover, the force of his argument on this subject is to be apprehended, due attention must be paid to the efficacy which he thus attributes to the two Sacraments. The cardinal point on which he insists in respect to them is that they are direct pledges from God, through Christ, and thus contain the whole virtue of the most solemn Divine promises. They are, as it were, the sign and seal of those promises. They are messages from God, not mere acts of devotion on the part of man. In Baptism the point of importance is not that men dedicate themselves or their children to Him, but that He, through His minister, gives them a promise and a pledge of His forgiveness, and of His Fatherly good will. Similarly in the Holy Communion the most important point is not the offering made on the part of man, but the promise and assurance of communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, made on the part of God. It is this which constitutes the radical distinction between the Lutheran and the so-called Zwinglian view of the Sacraments. Under the latter view they are ceremonies which embody and arouse due feelings on the part of men. On the former principle, they are ceremonies which embody direct messages and promises from God.

It may be worth while to observe in passing the position which Luther assumes towards the doctrine of Transubstantiation. What he is concerned to maintain is that there is a Real Presence in the Sacrament. All he is concerned to deny is that Transubstantiation is the necessary explanation of that Presence. In other words, it is not necessary to believe in Transubstantiation in order to believe in the Real Presence. There seems a clear distinction between this view and the formal doctrine of Consubstantiation as afterwards elaborated by Lutheran divines; and Luther’s caution, at least in this Treatise, in dealing with so difficult a point, is eminently characteristic of the real moderation with which he formed his views, as distinguished from the energy with which he asserted them. Another interesting point in this Treatise is the urgency with which he protests against the artificial restraints upon the freedom of marriage which had been imposed by the Roman See. It would have been too much to expect that in applying, single-handed, to so difficult a subject as marriage, the rule of rejecting every restriction not expressly declared in the Scriptures, Luther should have avoided mistakes. But they are at least insignificant in comparison with the value of the principle he asserted, that all questions of the marriage relation should be subjected to the authority of Holy Scripture alone. That principle provided, by its inherent force, a remedy for any errors in particulars which Luther or any individual divine might commit. The Roman principle, on the contrary, admitted of the most scandalous and unlimited elasticity; and of all the charges brought by Roman controversialists against Luther’s conduct, none is marked by such effrontery as their accusations on this point. While there are few dispensations which their Church is not prepared, for what it considers due causes, to allow, Luther recalled men’s consciences to the Divine law on the subject. He reasserted the true dignity and sanctity of the marriage relation, and established the rule of Holy Scripture as the standard for its due control.

Such are the main truths asserted in the Treatises translated in this volume, and it is but recognising an historical fact to designate them “First Principles of the Reformation.” From them, and by means of them, the whole of the subsequent movement was worked out. They were applied in different countries in different ways; and we are justly proud in this country of the wisdom and moderation exhibited by our Reformers. But it ought never to be forgotten that for the assertion of the principles themselves, we, like the rest of Europe, are indebted to the genius and the courage of Luther. All of those principles—Justification by Faith, Christian Liberty, the spiritual rights and powers of the Laity, the true character of the Sacraments, the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures as the supreme standard of belief and practice—were asserted by the Reformer, as the Treatises in this volume bear testimony, almost simultaneously, in the latter half of the year 1520. At the time he asserted them, the Roman Church was still in full power; and the year after he had to face the whole authority of the Papacy and of the Empire, and to decide whether, at the risk of a fate like that of Huss, he would stand by these truths. These were the truths—the cardinal principles of the whole subsequent Reformation, which he was called on to abandon at Worms; and his refusal to act against his conscience at once translated them into vivid action and reality. It was one thing for Englishmen, several decades after 1520, to apply these principles with the wisdom and moderation of which we are proud. It was another thing to be the Horatius of that vital struggle. These grand facts speak for themselves, and need only to be understood in order to justify the unprecedented honours now being paid to the Reformer’s memory.

It may not, however, be out of place to dwell in conclusion upon one essential characteristic of the Reformer’s position, which is in danger at the present day of being disregarded. The general effect of this teaching upon the condition of the world is evident. It restored to the people at large, to rulers and to ruled, to clergy and laity alike, complete independence of the existing ecclesiastical system, within the limits of the revelation contained in the Holy Scriptures. In a word, in Luther’s own phrase, it established Christian Liberty. But the qualification is emphatic, and it would be wholly to misunderstand Luther if it were disregarded. Attempts are made at the present day to represent him as a pioneer of absolute liberty, and to treat it as a mere accident of his teaching and his system that he stopped short where he did. But on the contrary, the limitation is of the very essence of his teaching, because that teaching is based on the supremacy and sufficiency of the Divine word and the Divine promise. If there were no such word and promise, no such Divine revelation, and no living God to bring it home to men’s hearts, and to enforce His own laws, Luther felt that his protest against existing authority, usurped and tyrannical as it might be, would have been perilous in the extreme. But when men shrank from the boldness of his proclamation, and urged that he was overthrowing the foundations of Society, his reply was that he was recalling them to the true foundations of Society, and that God, if they would have faith in Him, would protect His own word and will. The very essence of his teaching is summed up in the lines of his great Psalm:

  • “Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn,
  • Und kein Dank dazu haben,
  • Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan
  • Mit seinem Geist und Gaben.”

Luther believed that God had laid down the laws which were essential to the due guidance of human nature, that he had prescribed sufficiently the limits within which that nature might range, and had indicated the trees of which it could not safely eat. To erect any rules beyond these as of general obligation, to restrict the free play of nature by any other limitations, he treated as an unjust violation of liberty, which would provoke a dangerous reaction. But let men be brought face to face with God, and with His reasonable and merciful laws, let them be taught that He is their Father, that all His restrictions are for their benefit, all His punishments for their reformation, all His restraints on liberty for their ultimate good, and you have then established an authority which cannot be shaken, and under which human nature may be safely left to develop. In this faith, but in this alone, he let loose men’s natural instincts, he taught men that married life, and lay life, and all lawful occupations, were holy and divine, provided they were carried on in faith and in obedience to God’s will. The result was a burst of new life wherever the Reformation was adopted, alike in national energies, in literature, in all social developments, and in natural science. But while we prize and celebrate the liberty thus won, let us beware of forgetting, or allowing others to forget, that it is essentially a Christian Liberty, and that no other Liberty is really free. Luther’s whole work, and his whole power, lay in his recognition of our personal relation to God, and of a direct revelation, promise, and command, given to us by God. Any influences, under whatever colour, which tend to obscure the reality of that revelation, which would substitute for it any mere natural laws or forces, are undoing Luther’s work, and contradicting his most essential principles. If he was a great Reformer, it was because he was a great divine; if he was a friend of the people, it was because he was the friend of God.

[1 ]Letters, edited by De Wette, i. 27.

[1 ]It is a pleasure to be able to refer for this passage to the first volume of the new Critical Edition of Luther’s works, just published in Germany, page 613, line 21. This magnificent edition, prepared under the patronage of the German Emperor, is the best of all contributions to the present Commemoration. It must supersede all other editions, and it ought to find a place in all considerable libraries in England. A translation of the passage in question will be found in the Bampton Lectures of the present writer, p. 186.

[2 ]Letters, edited by De Wette, i. p. 19.

[1 ]See, for instance, Bp. Cosin’s Works, Appendix, vol. i., 31, in the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology.

Last modified April 13, 2016