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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Protestantism vs. The Holy Roman Empire, The Monk And The Monarch

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

AMONG the actors that now begin to crowd the stage there are two who tower conspicuously above the others, and fix the gaze of all eyes. The one wears a frock of serge, the other is clad in an imperial mantle.

The Reformation is utterly dwarfed in the presence of a colossal Empire. Luther's friends were falling away, or growing timid. "If God do not help us, we shall all perish," exclaimed Melancthon. Even Luther himself was made at times to know depression. But a number of Knights began to rally behind him One of these Francis of Sickingen offered Luther the asylum of his castle. Also from afar the great scholar Erasmus defended Luther to affirm the disturbance which his doctrines had created, was owing solely to those whose interests, being bound up with the darkness, dreaded the new day that was rising on the world.

Frederick refuses the crown

When the danger was at its height, the Emperor Maximilian died (January 12th, 1519). There were two candidates in the field-Charles I. of Spain, and Francis I. of France. Pope Leo X. feared the power of Charles of Spain overgrown by the discoveries of Columbus. If the master of so many kingdoms should be elected to the vacant dignity, the Empire might overshadow the mitre. But the Pope was no more favourably inclined towards the King of France. Leo dreaded his ambition would carry his arms farther into Italy. On these grounds, Leo chose neither and sent his earnest advice to the electors to choose Frederick of Saxony. The result was that Frederick was chosen. We behold the imperial crown offered to Luther's friend!

But Frederick shrank from the task. Ought he to have become emperor? Most historians have lauded his declinature as magnanimous. We (says Wylie rightly) take the liberty most respectfully to differ from them. It would be the Reformation without glory and without power were another Constantine to shelter it into being.

Charles of Spain

Frederick of Saxony had declined what the two most powerful sovereigns in Europe were so eager to obtain. On the 28th of June, 1519, the electoral conclave, in their scarlet robes, met in the Church of St. Bartholomew, in Frankfort-on-the-Main. The votes were unanimous in favour of Charles of Spain. It was more than a year (October, 1520) till Charles arrived in Germany to be crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle; and meanwhile the regency was continued in the hands of Frederick, and the shield was still extended over the little company of workers at Wittenberg and they laboured industriously. Great light shone from the Word of God. New proofs of the falsehood and corruption of the Roman system continually crowded in. At last Luther secured a copy of the treatise of Laurentius Valla and Luther was now fully satisfied that the donation of Constantine to the Pope was a fiction. He also read Hussite treatises and realised that "Paul, Augustine, and myself are Hussites".

Luther  on the Galatians

In the same year Luther published his Commentary upon the Galatians, "his own epistle" as he termed it setting vividly forth the truth of justification through faith alone. Luther also published his famous appeal to the emperor, the princes, and the people of Germany, on the Reformation of Christianity. He draws a masterly picture of Roman tyranny. Has Rome not, Luther asked, placed the throne of her Pope above the throne of kings, so that no one dare call him to account? By her assumed sole and infallible right of interpreting Holy Scripture, Rome had enslaved the people. She had put out their eyes; she had bound them in chains of darkness, that she might make them bow down to any god she was pleased to set up, and compel them to follow whither she was pleased to lead-into temporal bondage, into eternal perdition.

Rome, he said, had ruined Italy; for the decay of that fine land, completed in our day, was already far advanced in Luther's. And now, the papal vampire having sucked the blood of its own country, a locust swarm from the Vatican had alighted on Germany. The Fatherland, the Reformer told the Germans, was being gnawed to the very bones.

The instant remedies which he urged were the same with those which his great predecessor, Wicliffe, a full hundred and fifty years before, had recommended to the English people, and happily had prevailed upon the Parliament to adopt. The Gospel alone, which he was labouring to restore, could go to the root of these evils.

Instead of enforcing the bulls of the Pope, they ought to throw his ban, seal, and briefs into the Rhine or the Elbe. Archbishops and bishops should be forbidden, by imperial decree, to receive their dignities from Rome. All causes should be tried within the kingdom, and all persons made amenable to the country's tribunals. Festivals should cease, as but affording occasions for idleness and all kinds of vicious indulgences, and the Sabbath should be the only day on which men ought to abstain from working. No more cloisters ought to be built for mendicant friars, whose begging expeditions had never turned to good, and never would. The law of clerical celibacy should be repealed, and liberty given to priests to marry like other men; and, in fine, the Pope, leaving kings and princes to govern their own realms, should confine himself to prayer and the preaching of the Word. "Hearest thou, O Pope, not all holy, but all sinful? Who gave thee power to lift thyself above God and break His laws? The wicked Satan lies through thy throat.-O my Lord Christ, hasten Thy last day, and destroy the devil's nest at Rome. There sits the man of sin of whom Paul speaks, the son of perdition."

God's free grace

Truth he ever employed as the only effectual instrumentality for expelling error. Accordingly, underneath Rome's system of human merit and salvation by works, he placed the doctrine of man's inability and God's free grace. This it was that shook into ruin the Papal fabric of human merit. By the same method of attack did Luther demolish the Roman kingdom of bondage. He penetrated the fiction on which it was reared. Rome takes a man, shaves his head, anoints him with oil, gives him the Sacrament of orders, and so infuses into him a mysterious virtue. The whole class of men so dealt with form a sacerdotal order, distinct from and higher than laymen, and are the divinely appointed rulers of the world. This falsehood, with the grievous and ancient tyranny of which it was the corner-stone, Luther overthrew by proclaiming the antagonistic truth. All really Christian men, said he, are priests. Had not the Apostle Peter, addressing all believers, said, "Ye are a royal priesthood?" It is not the shearing of the head, or the wearing of a peculiar garment, that makes a man a priest. It is faith that makes men priests, faith that unites them to Christ, and that gives them the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, whereby they become filled with all holy grace and heavenly power. This inward anointing-this oil, better than any that ever came from the horn of bishop or Pope-gives them not the name only, but the nature, the purity, the power of priests; and this anointing have all they received who are believers on Christ.

Thus did Luther not only dislodge falsehood, he filled its place with glorious truth, lest, if left vacant, error should creep back. The fictitious priesthood of Rome-a priesthood which lay in oils and vestments, and into which men were introduced by scissors and the arts of necromancy-departed, and the true priesthood came in its room. Men opened their eyes upon their glorious enfranchisement. They were no longer the vassals of a sacerdotal oligarchy, the bondsmen of shavelings; they saw themselves to be the members of an illustrious brotherhood, whose Divine Head was in heaven. Never did patriot; or orator address his fellow-men on a greater occasion than this. Never did orator or patriot combat so powerful an antagonist, or denounce so foul a slavery, or smite hypocrisy and falsehood with blows so terrible. Never did patriot or orator show greater courage.

A thousand perils

This appeal was made in the face of a thousand perils. On these Luther did not bestow a single thought. He saw only his countrymen, and all the nations of Christendom, sunk in a most humiliating and ruinous thraldom, and with fearless intrepidity and Herculean force he hurled bolt on bolt, quick, rapid, and fiery, against that tyranny which was devouring the earth. The man, the cause, the moment, the audience, all were sublime. And never was an appeal more successful. Like a peal of thunder it rang from side to side of Germany. And though emperor never deigned the doctor of Wittenberg a reply it sounded the death knell of Roman domination in the land.

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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