Reformed Youth Seminar: The Life of Martin Luther

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Ps 46:1


During the recent Reformed Youth Seminar, Professor Hanko (or “Prof”, as we affectionately call him) gave us a sermon outlining the major points of the life of Martin Luther, one of the key persons who shaped the Protestant Reformation which brought us out of the evils of apostate Roman Catholicism. He also illustrated the blessedness of being able to see God’s hand behind every step of our lives through reviewing the life of Luther and his own, and emphasized on the importance of being faithful to God’s Word no matter the cost.

Comparing his own life and work to that of Luther’s and of the other Reformation fathers, Prof refers to himself as a pygmy in the presence of giants. But as corrected by his colleague, he states that although we might seem to be pygmies, we stand on the shoulders of those spiritual giants and therefore are able to see further than they could. He refers to the development of doctrinal truths throughout the years, which God has beautifully refined through history in order that biblical truths are preserved, and heresies pinpointed and thrown out.

The life of Luther shows how God prepared him for his life’s work at each step of the way: the death of his friend which made him think more about his purpose in life, his experience in the terrible storm in which he swore an oath to become a monk if God spared his life, his struggle with being right with God, and his steadfastness before the Roman Catholic empire where he held on to what he was convinced was the truth. Now, there are certain doctrines here that we can take note of and apply to our lives, and I would elaborate by first highlighting the key points of Luther’s life as spoken by Prof.

Luther, in his early years, was a bright student and was on his way to being a lawyer, which by his father’s thinking was the ticket to a luxurious life and retirement for Luther’s parents. It was going well until he was caught in a storm which seemed to him was the end of his life. There, he begged God through Saint Anne to spare his life with a promise to become a monk if he survived the storm. He survived, and had to keep his promise despite the protests of his friends and of his father.

After entering the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg and being convinced of the graveness of his sins, Luther sought to seek redemption from God by doing every work of penance ever prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church. The source of what troubled him is found in Romans 1:17 which states, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” His struggle was with the phrase “the righteousness of God”.

While Luther interpreted the phrase to mean that a man has to be righteous on his own in order that he could be right with God, his attempts to placate God through his acts of penance and by confessing every single sin to the head of his monastery did not seem to be working as he still found no peace within himself. It was only on one particular day of his preparation for being a priest, studying deep into Scripture alone in a tower of the monastery, known to us as the “Tower experience”, when Luther finally realised that the term the “righteousness of God” did not describe an attribute of God in which He is so holy and thus wishes to punish every sinner, but instead is the free gift of righteousness – granted through faith – imputed by Christ’s death on the cross unto believers. Christ’s death washes away all the sins of His people, and that is what makes sinners righteous before God. This is what the prophet means by “the just shall live by faith” in Habakkuk 2:4.

A few years on, Luther had to deal with the orator and defender of Catholicism, Johann Eck, publicly debating on the issue of how they judged the truth. Eck’s stand was that the truth was to be determined by the church passed down from the councils of earlier times, the tradition of popes, and by the church which made decrees regarding various items of Scripture. This meant that one could live his life as he pleased, committing various gross sins while still being a member of the church – but if one deviated even a little from the doctrines of the church, he would face the wrath of the church. Luther, at that time, still believed in the traditions and the authority of the church in all various matters, but held on to the truth of being justified by faith alone. Eck then accused Luther of being a follower of John Hus, implying that Luther was teaching heresy and was worthy of being burnt at the stake. John Hus was an early reformer who believed in the authority of Scripture over the authority of the church. Luther, after reviewing the writings of John Hus, maintained that God’s Word, Scripture, is the authority of all doctrine and all of life – justi cation by faith alone, apart from the works of the law! This gave Johann Eck complete victory over Luther in the debate by being able to brand Luther as a heretic.

Nonetheless, the debate with Johann Eck was the starting point of Luther’s conviction and maintenance of his stand of being justified by faith alone and Scriptures as the only authority. From there, he went on back to Wittenberg to drive away teachers of mysticism – heretics which took over Luther’s place whilst he was away – by just preaching a series of eight sermons. Also, the conviction gained from the debate gave Luther courage to stand alone defending the truth before the Imperial Diet of Worms, which is the council of the Holy Roman Empire. Present were the Emperor, his servants and princes, and other powerful men including the elite of the Roman Catholic Church, each of them having the authority to end the life of whoever ticked them off. Luther had to face the Diet alone as none of his colleagues were permitted to attend the trial.

Luther was strongly advised by all his colleagues not to go to the Diet as the danger of Luther being taken away as a heretic and being killed was very great due to the immense combined power of the Diet. But Luther was convinced of the truth of God and the dangers which awaited him did not deter him from his conviction for the cause of Christ. The reply to his friends was that he had a mighty defender, God Himself. This courage to face imminent doom undoubtedly came from God.

During Luther’s trial, he was given opportunity to recant his teachings before the Diet passed a verdict. Luther, after reviewing his past works in the books he wrote placed before him, was convinced that what he wrote and had been teaching over the years was indeed truth, and held on to his stand. The Catholic Church wanted him killed immediately, but by the Emperor’s promise of safe conduct, Luther made it out of Worms.

God indeed is our refuge and strength! The words in this statement are found in Psalm 46:1, out of Luther’s favourite Psalm of which he composed the well- known hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. One who looks at Luther’s life and sees God’s hand behind it, preparing Luther every step of the way, will not find it a mystery where Luther got his inspiration to write the hymn.

This truth of God reminds me of the theme for our recent Covenant Keepers camp, 1 Thessalonians 5:24, which states, “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.” God, as Author of all that is in existence, not only determines the pathway of our lives, but, as Prof rightly states, also grants us the vigour and enthusiasm to do His work!

Nearing the end of the sermon, Prof quoted from Matthew 24:12-13, “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved.” Prof emphasised the use of two words in the text – “many”, being plural, and the word “he”, a singular. It is evident in Scripture and thus we can expect that, like Luther, we will one day stand alone in contending for the truth. Are we ready for it?

God’s grace is greater than any human resistance, piercing through the hard outer shells of our stubbornness and disbelief, and softens our hearts with the grace that brings us to faith in Christ. The grace that brought Luther to Christ bound his conscience to the Word of God and with the courage which ows directly from God, Luther stood his ground in many instances in order to defend the truth. Can, and will, you and I do the same to defend the truth which we love?

One of the ending words of Prof in his sermon was a quote from Luther, saying that the busier we get, the more we need to seek God in our devotions. We as servants of the living God require very much the direction of our Master, lest we go astray and fall into the cunning pits and snares of the devil, enticing us to embrace earthly comforts and to forget our purpose and calling as sojourners to lead godly lives and to gather the church. Will we dedicate our time to constant prayer and the reading and meditation of God’s Word?

May we embrace our calling with joy and courage, knowing that God is our ever-present aid and guide. Let us, like Luther, put on the whole armour of God and our battle cry echo the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:31: “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?”

Defend the truth of the Bible, and spread the good news of the righteousness of God imputed to believing sinners through Jesus Christ crucified on the cross, and we will be able to sing the words of the versi cation of Psalm 46 in Psalter 126 with meaning:

“God is our refuge and our strength, our ever present aid, And, therefore, though the earth remove, We will not be afraid.”

Written by: Milton Ho | Issue 6