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How Luther Sought and Found

Luther’s voice through four hundred years still sounds in the ears of men, and quickens our pulses like the beat of a drum in martial music: he lives because he was a man of faith.

I would like to illustrate this by describing certain incidents of Luther’s life. Gospel light broke by slow degrees upon the reformer’s life. It was in the monastery that, in turning over the old Bible that was chained to a pillar, he came upon this passage: “The just shall live by his faith.” This heavenly sentence stuck to him; but he hardly understood all its significance. He could not, however, find peace in his religious profession and monastic habits. Knowing no better, he persevered in so many penances and such arduous mortifications that sometimes he was found fainting through exhaustion. He brought himself to death’s door. He must make a journey to Rome, for in Rome there is a fresh church for every day, and you may be sure to win the pardon of sins and all sorts of benedictions in these holy shrines. He dreamed of entering a city of holiness; but he found it to be a haunt of hypocrites and a den of iniquity. To his horror he heard men say that if there was a hell, Rome was built on top of it, for it was the nearest approach to it that could be found in this world; but still he believed in its Pope and he went on with his penances, seeking rest but finding none.

One day he was climbing upon his knees the Scala Sancta, which still stands in Rome. I have stood amazed at the bottom of the staircase to see poor creatures go up and down on their knees in the belief that it is the very staircase that our Lord descended when he left Pilate’s house, and certain steps are said to be marked with drops of blood; these the poor souls kiss most devoutly. Well, Luther was crawling up these steps one day, when that same text which he had met with before in the monastery sounded like a clap of thunder in his ears, “The just shall live by faith.” He rose from his prostration, and went down the steps never to grovel upon them again. At that moment the Lord brought him a full deliverance from superstition, and he saw that he was to live not by priests, nor priestcraft, nor penances, nor by anything that he could do, but that he must live by his faith.

No sooner did he believe this than he began to live, in the sense of being active. Tetzel was going about all over Germany selling the forgiveness of sins for so much ready cash. No matter what your offence, as soon as your money touched the bottom of the box your sins were gone. Luther heard of this, grew indignant, and exclaimed, “I will make a hole in his drum,” which assuredly he did, and in several other drums. The nailing up of his Theses on the church door was a sure way of silencing the indulgence music. Luther proclaimed pardon of sin by faith in Christ without money and without price, and the pope’s indulgences were soon objects of derision. Luther lived by his faith, and therefore he who otherwise might have been quiet, denounced error as furiously as a lion roars upon his prey. The faith that was in him filled him with intense life, and he plunged into war with the enemy.

After a while they summoned him to Augsburg, and to Augsburg he went, though his friends advised him not to go. They summoned him, as a heretic, to answer for himself at the Diet of Worms, and everybody urged him to stay away, for he would be sure to be burned; but he felt it necessary that the testimony should be borne, and so in a wagon he went, from village to village and town to town, preaching as he went, the poor people coming out to shake hands with the man who was standing up for Christ and the gospel at the risk of his life. You remember how he stood before that august assembly, and though he knew, as far as human power went, that his defense would cost him his life, for he would probably be committed to the flames like John Huss, yet he stood for the Lord his God. That day in the German Diet, Luther did a work for which ten thousand times ten thousand mothers’ children have blessed his name, and blessed yet more the name of the Lord his God.

To put him out of harm’s way for a while a prudent friend took him prisoner, and kept him out of the strife in the castle of Wartburg. There he had a good time of it, resting, studying, translating, making music, and preparing himself for the future which was to be so eventful. He did all that a man can do who is outside of the fray; but “the just shall live by his faith,” and Luther could not be buried alive in ease, he had to be getting on with his life-work.

He sent word to his friends that he would soon be with them, and then he appeared at Wittenberg. The prince meant to have kept him in retirement somewhat longer; and when the Elector feared that he could not protect him, Luther wrote: “I come under far higher protection than yours; nay, I hold that I am more likely to protect your Grace than your Grace to protect me. He who has the strongest faith is the best protector.” Luther had learned to be independent of all men, for he cast himself upon his God. He had all the world against him, and yet he lived happily—if the Pope excommunicated him, he burned the bull; if the Emperor threatened him, he rejoiced because he remembered the word of the Lord: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together … He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh” (Psa 2:2, 4). When they said to him, “Where will you find shelter if the Elector does not protect you?” he answered, “Under the broad shield of God.”

Luther could not be still; he had to speak, and write, and thunder; and oh, with what confidence he spoke! Doubts about God and Scripture he abhorred. Melanchthon says he was not dogmatical. I rather differ from Melanchthon there, and reckon Luther to be the chief of dogmatics. He called Melancthon the “soft treader,” and I wonder what we should have done if Luther had been Melanchthon, and had trodden softly too. The times needed a firmly assured leader, and faith made Luther all that for years, notwithstanding his many sorrows and infirmities. He was a Titan, a giant, a man of splendid mental calibre and strong physique: and yet his main life and force lay in his faith. He suffered greatly in exercises of the mind and through diseases of body, and these might well have occasioned a display of weakness; but that weakness did not appear; for when he believed, he was as sure of what he believed as of his own existence, and therefore he was strong. If every angel in heaven had passed before him and each one had assured him of the truth of God he would not have thanked them for their testimony, for he believed God without the witness of either angels or men: he thought the word of divine testimony more sure than anything that seraphim could say.

This man was forced to live by his faith, for he was a man of stormy soul and only faith could speak peace to him. Those stirring excitements of his brought on him afterwards fearful depressions of spirit, and then he needed faith in God. If you read a spiritual life of him you will find that it was hard work sometimes for him to keep his soul alive. Being a man of like passions with us, and full of imperfections, he was at times as despondent and despairing as the weakest among us; and the swelling grief within him threatened to burst his mighty heart. But both he and John Calvin frequently sighed for the rest of heaven, for they did not love the strife in which they lived, but would have been glad peacefully to feed the flock of God on earth and then to enter into rest. These men dwelt with God in holy boldness of believing prayer, or they could not have lived at all.

Luther’s faith laid hold upon the cross of our Lord, and would not be stirred from it. He believed in the forgiveness of sins, and could not afford to doubt it. He cast anchor upon Holy Scripture, and rejected all the inventions of clerics and all the traditions of the fathers. He was assured of the truth of the gospel, and never doubted that it would prevail, though earth and hell were leagued against it. When he came to die his old enemy assailed him fiercely, but when they asked him if he held the same faith his “yes” was positive enough. They need not have asked him, they should have been sure of that. And now today the truth proclaimed by Luther continues to be preached, and will be till our Lord himself shall come. Then the holy city will need no candle, nor the light of the sun, because the Lord himself will be the light of his people; but till then we must shine with gospel light to our utmost.

Spurgeon, C. H. (2009). Advice for Seekers (pp. 32–35). Logos Bible Software. (Public Domain)

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