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Century XVI, Chapter I



The Reformation under the conduct of Luther.


J. HE sixteenth century opened with a prospect of all others the most gloomy, in the eyes of every true christian. Corruption both in doctrine and in practice had exceeded all bounds; and the general face of Europe, though the name of Christ was every where professed, presented nothing that was properly evangelical. Great efforts indeed had been made to emancipate the church from the "powers of darkness;" and in consequence many individual souls had been conducted into the path of salvation. Still nothing like a general reformation had taken place in any part of Europe. For it must be confessed, that the labours of Claudius of Turin, of the waldensian barbs, of Wickliff, and of Huss, had not been sufficiently directed against the predominant corruptions in doctrine, though the practical abuses of the popedom had been opposed with ingenuous freedom and disinterested courage. The external branches only, rather than the bitter root itself, which supported all the evils of false religion, being attacked, no permanent or extensive change had ensued. The waldenses were too feeble to molest the popedom; and the hussites, divided among themselves, and worn out by a long series of contentions, were reduced to silence. Among both were found persons of undoubted godliness, but they appeared incapable of making effectual impressions on the kingdom of antichrist. The Roman pontiffs were still the uncontrolled patrons of impiety: neither the scandalous crimes of Alexander VI. nor the military ferocity of Julius II. (pontiffs whose actions it is impertinent to the plan of this history to detail) seem to have lessened the dominion of the court of Rome, or to have opened the eyes of men so as to induce them to make a sober investigation of the nature of true religion.

But not many years after the commencement of this century, the world beheld an attempt to restore the light of the gospel, more evangelically judicious, more simply founded on the word of God, and more ably and more successfully conducted than any which had ever been seen since the days of Augustin. Martin Luther, whom divine Providence raised up for this purpose, was evidently the instrument rather than the agent of this reformation. He was led from step to step, by a series of circumstances, far beyond his original intentions; and in a manner, which might evince the excellency of the power to be of God and not of man.* Even the reformations, which took place in several other parts of Europe, besides Germany, the scene of Luther's transactions, were in a great measure derived from the light, which he was enabled to diffuse among mankind. And as the peculiar excellency of the-revival of godliness now before us lay in this, that it was conversant in fundamentals of doctrine, rather than in correction of mere abuses of practice, hence the history of lutheranism recommends itself in an especial manner to the study of everv theolosrian.

That I may be able to furnish the reader with a clear and satisfactory view of this important part of ecclesiastical history, I shall particularly avail myself of the labours of the learned Seckendorf, who published a Latin translation of Maimbourg'sf history, and who, in a diffusive comment, often corrected and refuted it, and at the same time supplied from the very best materials whatever might be wanted to illustrate the progress of lutheranism. The authentic documents derived from the archives of the royal house of Saxe Gotha, and the original papers of Luther, Melancthon, and other reformers are largely quoted by this author. He adverts also continually to the opposite accounts of the romish writers. In fine, he seems to have examined all the best sources of information on this subject, and to have placed before his readers, whatever might be. needful to inform their judgments. I follow Seckendorf therefore as my principal guide, yet not exclusively; I also make use of father Paul, of Du Pin, of Sleidan, Thuanus, &c. &c. The merely modern writers, who too commonly treat these interesting matters in a superficial manner, content with elegance of style, and an indulgence to the popular taste, afford little service towards the execution of my plan.

* 2 Cor. iv. 7.

f Louis Maimbourg, a learned Jesuit, wrote celebrated histories of Calvinism, lutheranism, arianism, &c. &c.

In a manuscript history, extending from the year 1524 to 1541, composed by Frederic Myconius, a very able coadjutor of Luther and Melancthon, the author describes the state of religion in the beginning of this century in striking terms. " The passion and satisfaction of Christ, were treated as a bare history, like the Odyssey of Homer: concerning faith, by which the righteousness of the Redeemer and eternal life are apprehended, there was the deepest silence: Christ was described as a severe judge, ready to condemn all who were* destitute of the intercession of saints and of pontifical interest. In the room of Christ, were substituted as saviours and intercessors, the virgin Mary, like a pagan Diana, and other saints, who from time to time had been created by the popes. Nor were men, it seems, entitled to the benefit of their prayers except they deserved it of them by their works. What sort of works was necessary for this end was distinctly explained; not the works prescribed in the decalogue, and enjoined on all mankind, but such as enriched the priests and monks. Those. who died neglecting these, were consigned to hell, or at least, to purgatory, till they were redeemed from it by a satisfaction made either by themselves or by their proxies. The frequent pronunciation of the Lord's prayer and the salutation of the virgin, and the recitations of the canonical hours, constantly engaged those who undertook to be religious. An incredible mass of ceremonious observances was every where visible; while gross wickedness was practised, under the encouragement of indulgences by which the guilt of the crimes was easily expiated. The preaching of the word was the least part of the episcopal function: rites and processions employed the bishops perpetually, when engaged in religious exercises. The number of clergy was enormous, and their lives were most scandalous. I speak of those whom I have known in the town of Gothen, Sec." If we add to this the testimony of Pellicanus, another of Luther's followers, " that a Greek testament could not be procured at any price in all Germany,"* what can be wanting to complete the picture of that darkness in which men lived, and in what did the christian nations differ from pagans, except in the name? It may be proper to mention, that even the university of Paris, the first of all the famous schools of learning, could not furnish a single person capable of supporting a controversy againstLuther on the foundation of scripture. And scarcely any christian doctor in the beginning of this century had a critical knowledge of the word of God. The reader may find it useful to be detained a little longer in contemplating the situation of the christian world at the time of Luther's appearance. The observations I have to offer for this purpose shall be arranged under four distinct heads; and they will, I trust, assist us in demonstrating the importance of the reformation, and fully evince that the difference between popery and protestantism is not merely verbal.

* Seckendorf, vol i. page 4.

1. The popish doctrine of indulgences was then in

* Page 132 Id.

severe penance of unpleasant austerities, when they could afford to commute for it by pecuniary payments. The popes, and under them the bishops and the clergy, particularly the dominican and franciscan friars, had the disposition of this treasure; and as the pontiffs had the power of canonizing new saints at their own will, the fund was ever growing; and so long as the system could maintain its credit, the riches of their church, thus secularized under the appear, ance of religion, became a sea without a shore. No impartial examiner of authentic records will say, that 1 have overcharged this account of indulgences. In fact, these were the symptoms of the last stage of papal depravity; and as the moral evils, which they encouraged, were plain to every one not totally destitute of discernment, they were the first objects, assaulted by the reformers.

2. But the views of those wise and holy personages were far more extensive. They saw, that a practice so scandalously corrupt, was connected with the grossest ignorance of the nature of gospel grace. The doctrine of justification, in its explicit form, had been lost for many ages to the christian world. If men had really believed, that by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ salvation was obtained, and that God "justifies the ungodly" through faith alone, how could they have been imposed on by the traffic of indulgences? In whatever manner the papist might subtilize and divide, he was compelled by his system to hold, that by a compliance with the rules of the church, either in the way of indulgences, or by some severer mode, pardon was to be obtained; and that the satisfaction of Christ was not sufficiently meritorious for this end; in other words that the gift of God is not eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.* And in fact the preachers of indulgences, whether popes themselves or their ministers, held out to the people with sufficient clearness, that the inheritance of eternal life was to be purchased by indulgences. Proofs of this have already

* See Rom. vi. end.

appeared in the course of this history, and more will be gjven hereafter. The testimony of Sleidan, one of the most judicious and dispassionate historians, to the nature of indulgences, well deserves to be transcribed in this place. It is contained in the beginning of his excellent history. " Pope Leo X. making use of that power, which his predecessors had usurped over all christian churches, sent abroad into all kingdoms his letters and bulls, with ample promises of the full pardon of sins, and of eternal salvation to such as would purchase the same with money!!!" Even when the traffic of indulgences was checked by the pontiffs, as being carried on in too gross a manner, no clear account was given in what the abuse consisted. In fine, it was evident, that no reformation could take place through the medium of qualifying and correcting abuses of this traffic. The system itself was wholly impious, and the right knowledge of justification was the only remedy adequate to the evil. This, therefore, the reader is to look for, as the most capital object of the reformation: and thus, in the demolition of one of the vilest perversions of superstition, there suddenly arose and revived, in all its infant simplicity, that apostolical doctrine, in which is contained the great mystery of the scriptures.

3. The state of mankind at that time was peculiarly adapted to the reception of so rich a display of gospel grace. God sent a plentiful rain, whereby he did confirm his inheritance, when it was weary.* Men were then bound fast in fetters of iron: their whole religion was one enormous mass of bondage. Terrors beset them on every side; and the fiction of purgatory was ever teeming with ghosts and apparitions. Persons truly serious, and such there ever were and will be, because there ever was and will be a true church on earth, were so clouded in their understandings by the prevailing corruptions of the hierarchy, that they could find no access to God by Jesus Christ. The road of simple faith, grounded on the divine promises, connected always with real humility, and always productive of hearty and grateful obedience, was stopped up with briars and thorns. No certain rest could be afforded to the weary mind, and a state of doubt, of allowed doubt and anxiety, was recommended by the papal system. What a joyful doctrine then was that of the real gospel of remission of sins through Christ alone received by faith! a doctrine, which is indeed to be found every where in the scriptures; but these were almost unknown among the people at the beginning of the reformation.

* Ps. Ixvili. 9.

4. Should the philosophical sceptic, or the pharisaical formalist express his surprise, that I should lay so great a stress on the christian article of justification, and wonder that any person should ever be at a loss to discover the way of obtaining true peace of conscience, it may be useful towards satisfying his scruples, to remind such a character of a Fourth mark of corruption, which much prevailed in the times previous to the reformation. This is, the predominance of the aristotelian philosophy in Europe at that period; a philosophy, which knew nothing of original sin and native depravity, which allowed nothing to be criminal but certain external flagitious actions, and which was unacquainted with the idea of any righteousness of grace, imputed to a sinner. How many in this age, who neither know nor value Aristotle, do yet altogether follow his selfrighteous notions of religion! These are congenial to our fallen nature, and are incapable, while they prevail in the mind, of administering any cure to papal bondage, except that which is worse than the disease itself. They tend to lead men into the depths of atheistic profaneness. But the person, whom God raised up particularly at this time to instruct an ignorant world, was most remarkably eminent for self knowledge. Only characters of this sort are qualified to inform mankind in subjects of the last importance towards the attainment of their eternal happiness. Luther knew himself; and he knew also the scriptural grounds on

which he stood in his controversies with the ecclesiastical rulers. His zeal was disinterested, his courage undaunted. Accordingly, when he had once erected the standard of truth, he continued to uphold it with an unconquerable intrepidity, which merits the gratitude and esteem of all succeeding ages.

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