A Life of Martin Luther

 by Roland H Bainton

The New American Library;
NY, NY 10019

Copyright 1978; 336 pages

Spiritually speaking, the
Reformation was a glorious,
much needed revolution.
Religiously and politically there
were some aspects of the
upheaval that troubled Luther
deeply. He lamented the
practical reality that it was
"easier to convince men that the
pope was Antichrist than that the
just shall live by faith."

A stand for Truth


      History can by no means provide all the answers to the human dilemma. It can, however, recall for us some significant watershed moments and events that drastically altered the course of mankind and affected the lives of multiplied millions. I think of that fateful day, October 19, 1781, when the seemingly impossible became a reality. The representative of a mighty European power was defeated by a relatively insignificant colonist. In Yorktown, Virginia on that date General Cornwallis surrendered to our own George Washington and the military band played The World Turned Upside Down. More than two and a half centuries earlier, not long after the Americas were first discovered, another historic event took place in the German city of Worms. The date was April 18, 1521. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and Catholic priest, a respected doctor of theology and professor of Sacred Scripture at the newly-founded University of Wittenberg, the author of numerous books and tracts that severely criticized the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, stood in a large, packed hall. A number of church and imperial officials were in attendance. Luther stood alone before the awesome presence of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Spain. This impressive gathering was not a church convocation. Rather, it was an official imperial legislative assembly called a diet (or Reichstag) composed of electors, princes and representatives of imperial cities. This monk of minor importance, but now of major concern, was summoned here to be examined about the contents of his writings, teachings and sermons - whether or not they were heretical. After two days of argument and debate; in an atmosphere charged with apprehension, bitterness and hostility, the puny David faced the towering Goliath and fearlessly uttered his Gospel witness in these historic words. "Since then your Majesty and your lordships demand a simple reply, I will answer (candidly). Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other my conscience is captive to the Word of God.. I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen." (Emphasis mine.).

Roland Bainton's excellent study of Martin Luther centers around this momentous civil confrontation over religious issues. It's spiritual implications rocked the very foundations of medieval society, split the apparently seamless robe of Christendom and brought to light sparkling gems of Gospel truth that had been long buried in the deep, dark, tortuous mines of papal perversion and monastic murk.

Along with the concomitant social and cultural movements of nationalism and the Renaissance, the religious movement known as the Reformation effectively turned a good part of the then inhabited world "upside down". HERE I STAND describes the gradual, almost sluggish, stages that led up to Luther's dangerous, courageous public protestation in the face of almost certain death. The author tells of his birth, boyhood and early education. Three crises precipitated and led up to the deep spirituality that developed in the life of this troubled, searching soul. All three had to do with an increasing spiritual awareness of God's true nature. On a country road, a thunder and lightning storm so terrified him that he feared for his bodily survival.

As a newly ordained priest, his religious belief in God's sacramental presence agitated his soul to the point of temporary, but literal, paralysis. In a lonely tower, pouring over the Holy Scriptures, Martin's spirit at last came alive to God. He had unsuccessfully sought to "make his peace" with God for many long years of intense study, rigorous religious practices, and agonizing self-examination. Down deep he realized the Scriptures held the key to true salvation. "Night and day", he confesses, "I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that 'the just shall live by his faith'. Then I grasped that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the Justice of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven ..."

The program of penitential practices that inflicted pain on the body and provided nothing more than a fleeting catharsis or temporary purging for the soul became a sad mockery for one who had come to know God in a personal way. The selling of indulgences, "the bingo of the 16th century", as the author describes it, became a cruel hoax that deceived gullible religionists into thinking that their sins were completely absolved by merely making a measly donation. Luther, a zealous young Christian, a somewhat naively sincere pastor and professor challenged his religious peers to explore the truth of and examine spiritual reality when he posted his 95 theses (theological propositions) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. What was intended as a scholarly debate among a small group of responsible leaders turned into a tempestuous tide that swept over the teeming masses of Europe. After the declaration at Worms, the author focuses on the rapid results that stemmed from Luther's challenge to authority. Spiritually speaking, the Reformation was a glorious, much needed revolution. Religiously and politically there were some aspects of the upheaval that troubled Luther deeply. He lamented the practical reality that it was "easier to convince men that the pope was Antichrist than that the just shall live by faith." The "apostle to the Germans" was also amazed and somewhat disturbed that God did not allow him to suffer martyrdom. This ultimate witness was the price for spiritual freedom he would willingly pay, as so many of his colleagues did. Later in life Luther was consoled by the realization that the Apostle John was also denied this honor. "And he", said Martin, "wrote a much worse book against the papacy (The Book of Revelation) than ever I did." Most distressing and hurtful of all were the numerous interlopers who distorted gospel truth and wrecked havoc throughout the reform movement. Chief among these agitators was one Thomas Muntzer of Zwickau, a city noted for its so-called prophets. These religious radicals were purveyors of a doctrine that repudiated the Bible and relied solely on "the spirit". Muntzer and his fanatical firebrands did more to discredit the true mission of the Holy Ghost than even the good works doctrine of the papacy and the penances of the monks did. It is only a supposition, but this writer feels that many modem evangelicals and fundamentalists - certainly most teachers of Reformed Theology - still shy away from full spiritual submission owing to the horrible heresies promoted by Muntzer and his crazy false-charismatics. As for the place of good works, the teaching of Luther has been greatly maligned. In no way did he disparage the necessity for good works, but rather simply and soundly stated: "Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good "works."

It is to Luther's everlasting credit that he not only stood up for his beliefs but that he took responsibility for the consequences of his doctrine and practices. Bainton devotes the major part of his book to a detailed presentation of Luther's religious leadership. The author's assessment of this reformer states that because of him "men cared enough for the faith to die for it and to kill for it."

If there is any sense remaining of Christian civilization in the West, this man Luther in no small measure deserves the credit." As I indicated at the beginning of this review, historical evaluations have little value when taken by themselves. To be truly meaningful, history has to be linked to prophecy. Bainton's, or any other reliable historian's hindsight, however accurate, will have no lasting worth unless it is accompanied by spiritual insight. The Lord Jesus truly meant what He said when He both warned us to "take ye heed" and at the same time assured us: "Behold, I have foretold you all things" (Mark 13:23). Whatever judgment history has passed on Luther and the other Protestant reformers, that estimation is overridden by the prophetic Word itself. In Revelation 3:1-7, the risen and glorified Lord Jesus addresses the church in Sardis which represents the Church of the Reformation. He pictures Himself as the One who sends the Holy Ghost and the One who has complete control over every aspect of church life, past, present and future. He goes from describing His personal, unalterable specifics to Sardis' ambiguous characteristics. Jesus bluntly tells this reformed church that though they have a name for being alive that they are really dead. Reformation can validly apply to changes in certain practices and even teachings, but, as far as man's nature is concerned, reform is absolutely worthless. Without regeneration - ''Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus3:5)-salvation is impossible; any and all forms of reformation are futile. But God is pleased with the church of Sardis if it remembers, and holds fast to the very truth that was revealed to Luther - "the just shall live by his faith". A live, active faith in the atonement accomplished by our Savior on Calvary's cross and personally appropriated is the only claim to true righteousness symbolized by undefiled garments that translate into "the fine linen of the saints clean and white  ... the righteousness of saints' (Revelation 19:8)

From a purely carnal, natural, historical point of view mass movements and upheavals are always confusing and never accurately understood even in the light of reliable reporting. Goals are ambivalent, motives are questionable and results are a mixture of good and evil. But from a spiritual standpoint matters become increasingly meaningful and clear. Past, present and future remain distinct, yet mysteriously merge to complement and confirm one another. When you truly believe that "the Father of glory" gave the Lord Jesus a position "Far above ... every name that is named not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. And hath put all things under his feet, and have him to be head over all things to the church" (Ephesians 1 :21-22); then we see not only God's providential care for us but also that exquisite irony He so wisely employs in shaping the events of history and framing the unforeseeable future. Luther's religious founder and mentor, Augustine, was mightily used to prepare the theological foundations for the papal church. More than a millennium later that same loving God allowed and employed Augustine's religious descendant to undermine those very foundations! How can such apparently contradictory events come to pass? How can God allow His Church to be built up and then torn down? The answer, even more ironically, is found in a question. "But how then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? (Matthew 26:54).