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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Rome comes too close to Luther

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

THE great red cross, the stentorian voice of Tetzel, and the frequent chink of money in his iron chest, had compelled the nations of Germany to think about the issue of Indulgences.

Rome had now come too near to the teutonic nations. So far but a few murmurs might be heard. No powerful voice had yet spoken. So Tetzel continued travelling from town to town, eating of the best at the hostelries, and paying his bills in drafts on Paradise; pressing carriers and others into his service for the transport of his merchandise, and recompensing them for the labour of themselves and their mules by letters of indulgence, approached within four miles of Luther.

He little suspected how dangerous the ground on which he was now treading! The Elector Frederick, shocked at this man's trade, and yet more at the scandals of his life, had forbidden him to enter Saxony; but he came as near to it as he durst; and now at Juterbog, a small town on the Saxon frontier, Tetzel set up his red cross, and opened his market. Wittenberg was only an hour and a half's walk distant, and thousands flocked from it to Juterbog, to do business with the pardon-monger. When Luther first heard of Tetzel, which was only a little while before, he said, "By the help of God, I will make a hole in his drum." He might well have added, "and in that of his master, Leo X." Tetzel was now almost within ear-shot of the Reformer.

Moral havoc

Luther, who acted as confessor as well as preacher, soon discovered the moral havoc which Tetzel's pardons were working. For we must bear in mind that Luther still believed in the Church, and in obedience to her commands exacted confession and penance on the part of his flock. However he told them that these were only preparatives, and not the price, of that free salvation which he taught comes through the merit of Christ, and is appropriated by faith alone.

One day, as he sat in the confessional, some citizens of Wittenberg came before him, and confessed having committed thefts, adulteries, and other heinous sins. "You must abandon your evil courses," said Luther, "otherwise I cannot absolve you." To his surprise and grief, they replied that they had no thought of leaving off their sins; that this was not in the least necessary, inasmuch as these sins were already pardoned, and they themselves secured against the punishment of them. The deluded people would thereupon pull out the indulgence papers of Tetzel, and show them in testimony of their innocence. Luther could only tell them that these papers were worthless, that they must repent, and be forgiven of God, otherwise they should perish everlastingly.

Tetzel's rage

Denied absolution, and sore at losing both their money and their hope of heaven, these persons hastened back to Tetzel, and informed him that a monk in Wittenberg was making light of his indulgences, and was warning the people against them as deceptions. Tetzel literally foamed with rage, and bellowing more loudly than ever, poured out a torrent of anathemas against the man who had dared to speak disparagingly of the pardons of the Pope. To energetic words, Tetzel added significant acts. Kindling a fire in the market-place of Juterbog, he gave a sign of what would be done to the man who should obstruct his holy work. The Pope, he said, had given him authority to commit all such heretics to the flames.

Luther condemns Tetzel

Nothing terrified by Tetzel's angry words, or by the fire that blazed so harmlessly in the market-place of Juterbog, Luther became yet more strenuous in his opposition. He condemned the indulgences in his place in the university. He wrote to the Prince Archbishop of Mainz, praying him to interpose his authority and stop a proceeding that was a scandal to religion and a snare to the souls of men. He little knew that he was addressing the very man who had farmed these indulgences. He even believed the Pope to be ignorant, if not of the indulgences, of the frightful excesses that attended the sale of them. From the pulpit, with all affection but with all fidelity, he warned his flock not to take part in so great a wickedness. God, he said, demands a satisfaction for sin, but not from the sinner; Christ has made satisfaction for the sinner, and God pardons him freely. Offences against herself the Church can pardon, but not offences against God. Tetzel's indulgences cannot open the door of Paradise, and they who believe in them believe in a lie, and unless they repent shall die in their sins.

In this Luther differed more widely from his Church than he was then aware of. She holds with Tetzel rather than with Luther. She not merely remits ecclesiastical censures, she pardons sin, and lifts off the wrath of God from the soul.

Two systems face to face

 We have here a narrow stage but a great conflict. From the pulpit at Wittenberg is preached a free salvation. Already Protestantism has obtained a territorial foothold, where it is unfurling its banner and enlisting disciples. At Juterborg stands the red cross, where heaven is sold for money. Within a radius of a few miles is fought the same battle which is soon to cover the face of Christendom. The two systems - salvation by Christ and salvation by Rome - are here brought face to face; the one helps sharply to define the other, not in their doctrines only, but in their issues, the holiness which the one demands and the licentiousness which the other sanctions, that men may mark the contrast between the two, and make their choice between the Gospel of Wittenberg and the indulgence-market of Juterborg.

The Text of a Sermon on Indulgences by Johann Tetzel

What are you thinking about? Why do you hesitate to convert yourself? Why don't you have fears about your sins? Why don't you confess now to the vicars of our Most Holy Pope?

Don't you have the example of Lawrence, who, compelled by the love of God, gave away his inheritance and suffered his body to be burned? Why do you not take the example of Bartholomew, Stephen, and of other saints who gladly suffered the most gruesome deaths for the sake and salvation of their souls? You, however, do not give up great treasures; indeed you give not even a moderate alms. They gave their bodies to be martyred, but you delight in living well and joyfully. You priest, nobleman, merchant, wife, virgin, you married people, young person, old man, enter into your church which is for you, as I have said, St. Peter's, and visit the most holy Cross. It has been placed there for you, and it always cries and calls for you. Are you perhaps ashamed to visit the Cross with a candle and yet not ashamed to visit a tavern? Are you ashamed to go to the apostolic confessors, but not ashamed to go to a dance? Behold, you are on the raging sea of the world in storm and danger, not knowing if you will safely reach the harbour of salvation. Do you not know that everything which man has hangs on a thin thread and that all of life is but a struggle on earth? Let us then fight, as did Lawrence and the other saints, for the day it is well, but ill tomorrow. Today alive and tomorrow dead.

You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins. If they visit, after confession and after the Jubilee, the Cross and the altar every day they will receive that indulgence which would be theirs upon visiting in St. Peter's the seven altars, where complete indulgence is offered. Why are you then standing there? Run for the salvation of your souls! Be as careful and concerned for the salvation of your souls as you are for your temporal goods, which you seek both day and night. Seek the Lord while he may be found and while he is near. Work, as St. John says, while it yet day, for the night comes when no man can work.

Don't you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.' Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter . . ., ‘We have created you, fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.' You may have letters which let you have, once in life and in the hour of death . . . full remission of the punishment which belongs to sin.

Oh, those of you with vows, you usurers, robbers, murderers, and criminals - Now is the time to hear the voice of God. He does not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live. Convert yourselves then, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, to the Lord, thy God. Oh, you blasphemers, gossippers, who hinder this work openly or secretly, what about your affairs? You are outside the fellowship of the Church. No masses, no sermons, prayers, sacraments, or intercession help you. No field, vineyard, trees, or cattle bring fruit or wine for you. Even spiritual things vanish, as many an illustration could point out. Convert yourself with all you heart and use the medicine of which the Book of Wisdom says, ‘The Most High has made medicine out of the earth and a wise man will not reject it.'

(Source: W. Köhler, Dokumente zum Ablassstreit, pp. 125-26.)

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

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