God’s true witnesses
“Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me” ().
In every age of the world’s history, God has had faithful messengers as witnesses to represent His divine character. They were to proclaim the truth expressed in His word—the Holy Scriptures. They raised their voices against the prevailing corruptions, inviting the ungodly to turn to God. The plan of salvation had to be presented to all people. The Lord never allowed the truth to be obliterated or totally forgotten. Even in the period of greatest ignorance of God’s will, He raised up faithful messengers to show the people the message of salvation. So it was also in the Dark Ages, when the truths of the Word of God were unknown by the great majority of those who called themselves Christians.
In the 16th century, during the time of the Dark Ages, God chose faithful witnesses to dispel the prevailing darkness and ignorance. One of the outstanding witnesses was Martin Luther.
“Foremost among those who were called to lead the church from the darkness of popery into the light of a purer faith, stood Martin Luther. Zealous, ardent, and devoted, knowing no fear but the fear of God, and acknowledging no foundation for religious faith but the Holy Scriptures, Luther was the man for his time.”1
Martin Luther was ordained into the priesthood in 1508. In 1512 he went to visit Rome. When he beheld the seven-hilled city, he exclaimed: “Holy Rome, I salute thee!” But great was his disappointment when he arrived there.
“[Luther] entered the city, visited the churches, listened to the marvelous tales repeated by priests and monks, and performed all the ceremonies required. Everywhere he looked upon scenes that filled him with astonishment and horror. He saw that iniquity existed among all classes of the clergy. He heard indecent jokes from prelates, and was filled with horror at their awful profanity, even during mass. As he mingled with the monks and citizens he met dissipation, debauchery. Turn where he would, in the place of sanctity he found profanation.”2
“An indulgence had been promised by the pope to all who should ascend upon their knees ‘Pilate’s staircase.’ . . . Luther was one day [in 1512] devoutly climbing these steps, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to say to him: ‘The just shall live by faith.’ 3. He sprang to his feet and hastened from the place in shame and horror. That text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time he saw more clearly than ever before the fallacy of trusting to human works for salvation, and the necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ.”
Luther teaching at Wittenberg
After Luther’s return from Rome, in 1512, he received from the University of Wittenberg the degree of doctor of divinity, and was given the duty of teaching at the university. Here he began to question some of the doctrines of the Roman Church. He changed his ideas regarding penance, righteousness, justification and salvation.
While at Wittenberg, “[Luther] applied himself to the study of the Scriptures in the original tongues. He began to lecture upon the Bible; and the book of Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles were opened to the understanding of crowds of delighted listeners. Staupitz, his friend and superior, urged him to ascend the pulpit and preach the word of God. Luther hesitated, feeling himself unworthy to speak to the people in Christ’s stead. It was only after a long struggle that he yielded to the solicitations of his friends. Already he was mighty in the Scriptures, and the grace of God rested upon him. His eloquence captivated his hearers, the clearness and power with which he presented the truth convinced their understanding, and his fervor touched their hearts.”4
“Luther saw the danger of exalting human theories above the word of God. He fearlessly attacked the speculative infidelity of the schoolmen and opposed the philosophy and theology which had so long held a controlling influence upon the people. He denounced such studies as not only worthless but pernicious, and sought to turn the minds of his hearers from the sophistries of philosophers and theologians to the eternal truths set forth by prophets and apostles.
“Precious was the message which he bore to the eager crowds that hung upon his words. Never before had such teachings fallen upon their ears. The glad tidings of a Saviour’s love, the assurance of pardon and peace through His atoning blood, rejoiced their hearts and inspired within them an immortal hope. At Wittenberg a light was kindled whose rays should extend to the uttermost parts of the earth, and which was to increase in brightness to the close of time.”5
The doctrine of indulgences
One of the greatest controversies he encountered was the doctrine of indulgences—by which the church offered to remove punishment and grant full forgiveness of sins of the past, present, and even that would be committed in the future. In 1517 Luther became outraged when he saw that his own congregation began to present indulgences they had purchased in a nearby town from Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar. Tetzel was selling a paper which contained the doctrine of indulgences, to raise funds for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. What was the content of the document? We read about it thus:
“As Tetzel entered a town, a messenger went before him, announcing: ‘The grace of God and of the holy father is at your gates.’ . . . The infamous traffic was set up in the church, and Tetzel, ascending the pulpit, extolled the indulgences as the most precious gift of God. He declared that by virtue of his certificates of pardon all the sins which the purchaser should afterward desire to commit would be forgiven him, and that not even repentance is necessary. . . . More than this, he assured his hearers that the indulgences had power to save not only the living but the dead; that the very moment the money should clink against the bottom of his chest, the soul in whose behalf it had been paid would escape from purgatory and make its way to heaven.”6
“As Tetzel continued his traffic and his impious pretensions, Luther determined upon a more effectual protest against these crying abuses. An occasion soon offered. The castle church of Wittenberg possessed many relics, which on certain holy days were exhibited to the people, and full remission of sins was granted to all who then visited the church and made confession. Accordingly on these days the people in great numbers resorted thither. One of the most important of these occasions, the festival of All Saints [November 1, 1517], was approaching. On the preceding day, Luther, joining the crowds that were already making their way to the church, posted on its door a paper containing ninety-five propositions against the doctrine of indulgences. He declared his willingness to defend these theses next day at the university, against all who should see fit to attack them.”7
We reproduce here a few points taken from Luther’s 95 theses:
“6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission. . . .
“7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
“8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying. . . .
“10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory. . . .
“21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved. . . .
“32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.
“33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him. . . .
“36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon. . . .
“52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it. . . .
“76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned. . . .
“79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences] is of equal worth with the cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
“80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render. . . .
“86. Again: – ‘Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?’. . .
“92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!”8
Publishing further truth
Besides writing these 95 theses or propositions, Martin Luther was also involved in the publication of material about justification, pardon of sins through Jesus Christ, and other important aspects of the gospel. These theses and his publications had a powerful influence upon the people. We read about it thus:
“His propositions attracted universal attention. They were read and reread, and repeated in every direction. Great excitement was created in the university and in the whole city. By these theses it was shown that the power to grant the pardon of sin, and to remit its penalty, had never been committed to the pope or to any other man. The whole scheme was a farce—an artifice to extort money by playing upon the superstitions of the people—a device of Satan to destroy the souls of all who should trust to its lying pretensions. It was also clearly shown that the gospel of Christ is the most valuable treasure of the church, and that the grace of God, therein revealed, is freely bestowed upon all who seek it by repentance and faith.”9
Luther in the presence of the Diet
As result of his words at Wittenberg, a great work of reformation was introduced. The pope and prelates tried to destroy the truths presented by Luther. He had to face the Council at Worms, where he would be questioned, yet he was prepared to give an answer:
“With his mind stayed upon God, Luther prepared for the struggle before him. He thought upon the plan of his answer, examined passages in his own writings, and drew from the Holy Scriptures suitable proofs to sustain his positions. Then, laying his left hand on the Sacred Volume, which was open before him, he lifted his right hand to heaven and vowed ‘to remain faithful to the gospel, and freely to confess his faith, even should he seal his testimony with his blood.’
“When he was again ushered into the presence of the Diet, his countenance bore no trace of fear or embarrassment. Calm and peaceful, yet grandly brave and noble, he stood as God’s witness among the great ones of the earth. The imperial officer now demanded his decision as to whether he desired to retract his doctrines. Luther made his answer in a subdued and humble tone, without violence or passion. His demeanor was diffident and respectful; yet he manifested a confidence and joy that surprised the assembly.”10
When he was urged to give a short and clear answer to the question put to him, whether he would retract his doctrines, his answer was:
“‘I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen.’”11
Martin Luther was not alone in condemning the doctrine of indulgences and defending the truth. The princes of Germany and many protesters united with him against the doctrine of indulgences. They publicly gave their testimony for the truth presented by Luther, and their testimony reached other lands and ages.
“A solemn declaration was therefore drawn up and presented to the Diet:
“‘We protest by these presents, before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Saviour, and who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and for our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to His holy word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our souls.’”12
“One of the noblest testimonies ever uttered for the Reformation was the Protest offered by the Christian princes of Germany at the Diet of Spires in 1529. The courage, faith, and firmness of those men of God gained for succeeding ages liberty of thought and of conscience. Their Protest gave to the reformed church the name of Protestant; its principles are ‘the very essence of Protestantism.’”13
The pledge that was made by the protesters reads:
“‘We are resolved, with the grace of God, to maintain the pure and exclusive preaching of His only word, such as it is contained in the biblical books of the Old and New Testaments, without adding anything thereto that may be contrary to it. This word is the only truth; it is the sure rule of all doctrine and of all life, and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand against all the powers of hell, while all the human vanities that are set up against it shall fall before the face of God.’”14
Advancing in reformation
Today Protestantism is not the same as it was in the 16th century. Most of the Protestant churches today have turned away from Bible truths. Many do not accept the Old Testament as valid now, especially the Ten Commandments, and they declare instead that this moral law was given only for the Jews. Neither do they obey the word of God as the only source of truth. They have accepted and conformed to traditions and innovations that have been introduced into the Christian church. These they inherited from paganism. Spiritual Babylon, the mother of confusion, has made all her daughters drunken with the wine of error. The two main doctrines that stand out to cause confusion are the teaching of Sunday sacredness and the immortality of the soul.
Although Martin Luther did not understand the complete truth of the Bible—for he still believed in some traditions (such as the existence of purgatory, as can be seen in his 95 theses)—he had the correct understanding that forgiveness of sins comes only through Jesus Christ, which the Lord offers to all who accept Him as their personal Saviour.
That voice which spoke at Wittenberg, and defended the work of Reformation, should continue sounding until the very end of time. The Spirit of Prophecy makes it clear in the following words:
“The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world’s history. Luther had a great work to do in reflecting to others the light which God had permitted to shine upon him; yet he did not receive all the light which was to be given to the world. From that time to this, new light has been continually shining upon the Scriptures, and new truths have been constantly unfolding.”15
We should be very thankful to God for the shining truths that are continuously unfolding on our pathway. Today we have truths that were not known in the past. Together, these doctrines constitute the present truth for our time. May we be faithful to that part of the truth that we already know, and the Lord will add more light until we are perfected in obedience to the truth.
“But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” ().