The Gospel Brings About Reformation By Dr. Philip Ryken

Series: On This Day in Christian History

 Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms – April 17, 1521 – By *Dr. Philip Ryken

It is customary to date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to October 31, 1517, the day on which a young German monk and Bible scholar named Martin Luther nailed his famous “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of Wittenburg.

Luther’s document attacked the common Roman Catholic practice of allowing people to reduce the punishment for their sin by buying indulgences. His “ninety-five-Theses” also gave the first inkling of his major personal and theological breakthrough: the doctrine of justification by faith alone (If you’re not familiar with them, I have posted Luther’s 95 Theses on this website under the Category Church History).

Luther needed a breakthrough because he had long been troubled by his sins. How could an unrighteous man like himself serve a righteous God? As he later wrote:

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan [vols. 1-30] and Helmut T. Lehmann [vols. 31-55], Minneapolis: Fortress and Concordia, 1955-76, 34:336-37).

What especially troubled Luther was Paul’s announcement at the beginning of his epistle to Romans: “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17). This verse was a terror to Luther because the only righteousness he ever heard of was the kind that destroyed sinners like himself.

Then Luther had his breakthrough:

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which a merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who’s faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates (Luther’s Works, 34:336-37).

That was the beginning of the Reformation, but only the beginning. Luther soon attracted the attention of the pope, not so much for his doctrine of justification as for his criticism of the church. But during the next several years it would still have been possible for the church to have been reformed without being divided. It was not until the Diet of Worms (“Diet” here is a meeting – not the process of losing weight) that the break between the Reformers and the Catholics became final, which is why that meeting, which took place on April 17, 1521, was the most significant event in the church history of the sixteenth century.

Luther had been summoned to Worms by the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Charles V. When the Reformer entered the imperial chamber, he found his writings spread out on the table. These were the writings the emperor wanted Luther to recant, declaring publicly that everything he had ever written about the gospel and the church was mistaken.

Luther hardly knew what to say. Some of his works were devotional writings which no one would wish to recant. Others contained criticisms of the Roman Catholic church which no one could deny. Yet Luther was aware that some of his other writings contained harsh criticisms he perhaps ought to recant. But this he would only do on one condition, namely, that someone exposes his errors “by the writings of the prophets and the evangelists.” “Once I have been taught,” Luther went on to say, “I shall be quite ready to renounce every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire.”

This was hardly the answer the emperor and his counselors were looking for, especially since they did not have the theological expertise to refute Luther themselves. Again they pressed him to repudiate his doctrine. Finally, Luther spoke his famous words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise (For the full account of Luther’s trial, see Luther’s Works 32:103-31).

With these words, Luther staked all his theological claims on the second great principle of the Reformation: Scripture alone (sola scriptura). For the churches of the Reformation, the Bible and the Bible alone was the final authority for Christian faith and practice.

When Luther refused to place the authority of the church on par with the authority of Scripture, he was taking a stand that would end up dividing the church. And rightly so! The church can only be the church when it preaches the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as is taught in Scripture alone.

The great doctrines of the Reformation are as badly needed today as they were in the sixteenth century. Pope John Paul II announced that would grant an indulgence to anyone who made a pilgrimage to Israel in the year 2000. This is just one example of the way the Roman Catholic Church still encourages its members to pay for their sins by doing good works. For this and many other reasons, the world still needs to hear the voice of Martin Luther, who wrote the following paraphrase of Psalm 130:

From trouble deep I cry to thee,

Lord God, hear thou my crying;

Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me,

Open it to my sighing.

For if thou mean’st to look upon

The wrong and evil that is done,

Who, Lord, can stand before thee?

With thee counts nothing but grace

To cover all our failing.

The best life cannot win the race,

Good works are unavailing.

Before thee no one glory can,

And so must tremble every man,

And live by thy grace only (Luther’s Works 53:223).

About the Author: *Philip Graham Ryken (D.Phil., University of Oxford) is the 8th president of Wheaton College and, prior to that, served as senior minister at Philadelphia’s historic Tenth Presbyterian Church. He has written several books for Crossway, and has lectured and taught at universities and seminaries worldwide. Dr. Ryken and his wife, Lisa, live in Wheaton and have five children. The article above is adapted from Chapter 41 in his book He Speaks To Me Everywhere, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004. Historical details of this article were drawn chiefly from Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 151-74; among the best biographies of Martin Luther is Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New York: Abingdon, 1950.

*Significant Events on April 17th in Church History:

326: St. Alexander died. He was appointed to the patriarchate of Alexandria instead of Arius, who denied Christ’s divinity. Alexander was kind to Arius, even while supporting Athanasius, the defender of the Trinity.

341: Simeon, bishop of Seleucia, Ktesiphon (located south of Baghdad), was executed for refusing to levy an extra war tax on his church people. He was one of many Persian martyrs.

858: Pope Benedict III died. Emperors Lothaire and Louis II had confirmed Anastasius in his place, but popular protest brought Benedict back.

1640: Robert Torkillus of Sweden became the first Lutheran pastor to arrive in the American colonies when they landed in Delaware.

1713: William Law was suspended from his pulpit for nonconformist views. He is famed as the author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and a later book entitled The Power of the Spirit.

1912: The International Conference of the Negro began. Although not explicitly Christian, out of it came a renewed interest to reach Africa for Christ.

*Adapted from This Day In Christian History, edited by A Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications.

John Harper – The Unsung Hero of The Titanic – April 15, 1912

Series: On This Day in Christian History

 “John Harper’s Last Words as the Titanic Sank”

John Harper was born in Scotland in 1872 to a Christian family. When he was presented with the message of John 3:16 at the age of thirteen, he believed in Jesus and received everlasting life. When he was eighteen, he had a powerful vision of the cross of Christ. At that moment he committed his life to bringing the message of the cross to others. The very next day he began to preach in his village, urging all his hearers to be reconciled to God. He made every street corner his pulpit.

His desire to win souls to Christ was unmatched, becoming his all-consuming purpose. An evangelist friend, W.D. Dunn, recalled often seeing Harper lying on his face before God, pleading with him to “give me souls, or I die,” sobbing as if his heart would break.

At the age of thirty-two he had a near-drowning experience when he was caught on a leaky ship in the Mediterranean. He said of the experience, “The fear of death did not for one minute disturb me. I believed that sudden death would be sudden glory.”

In 1911 he spent three months preaching at Moody Memorial Church in Chicago during a revival and received an enthusiastic response. He was asked to return for three months of meetings beginning in April 1912. Originally scheduled to sail on the Lusitania, he sailed on the Titanic after a schedule change.

When he informed his church of intent to return to Chicago, a parishioner begged him not to go, saying that he had been praying and felt strongly that something ominous would happen if he went. He pleaded with Harper but to no avail. Harper felt there was a divine purpose for his trip, and Harper went ahead with his plans. The night before the ship sank, Harper was seen leading a man to Christ on the deck. Afterward, he looked to the west, and seeing a glint of red in the sunset he said, “It will be beautiful in the morning.”

The clear April night sky was filled with sparkling stars as the largest and finest steamship in the world sped through the calm waters of the icy North Atlantic. Many of the passengers had gone to bed, but some were still in the lounges, enjoying the Titanic’s many luxuries. No one was alarmed by the slight jar felt around 11:15 p.m., but many noticed when they no longer felt the vibration of the engines.

The crew of the Titanic had ignored iceberg warnings and had the ship steaming full speed ahead. Suddenly, the great vessel struck a large iceberg, which ripped the ship’s side open. Within fifteen minutes the captain realized the danger of the situation, and he had the wireless operator put out a call for assistance. Lifeboats were quickly made ready, and women and children were ordered to get to them first (Christian culture had stamped the ideas of chivalry into men, making them willing to give up their lives for women and children). There were twelve honeymooning couples aboard the ship. Though all of the new wives were saved, only one of the husbands survived.

The captain ordered the band to play to keep up the spirits of the passengers. It began playing a ragtime tune, but the musicians soon changed to playing hymns.

There were only twenty lifeboats on the huge ocean liner—barely enough for one-third of the passengers and crew. Not even all of them could be lowered. All eighty-five of the ship’s engineers continued to work to keep the ship afloat as long as possible. At the end, many people knelt together in prayer until the waters covered them.

Throughout the mournful evacuation, as loved ones were tearfully separated, the band continued to play. There is some dispute about what they played that night. Several people in the lifeboats heard “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

One of the passengers traveling on the ship was evangelist John Harper. He put his six-year-old daughter into a lifeboat and then ran through the ship warning others of the danger and talking to them about the eternal destiny of their souls. When he was finally forced to jump into the icy water, he clung to a piece of wreckage and asked another man, “Are you saved?” When the man answered “no,” Harper said to him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (quoting Acts 16:31). The man did not respond, and they lost sight of each other. Harper asked the same question again, urging the man to believe in Jesus, and received the same answer again. Harper then slipped beneath the water, never to resurface. The man did put his faith in Jesus Christ and was later rescued by a lifeboat. He testified that he was John Harper’s last convert.

When the Titanic sank early in the morning on this day in 1912, Harper was among the 1,522 people who died. The band went down with the ship. The last hymn they played was “Autumn,” which concludes with this prayer:

Hold me up in mighty waters

Keep my eyes on things above

Righteousness, divine Atonement,

Peace, and everlasting Love.

After the sinking of the ship, relatives and friends of the passengers gathered outside the White Star office in Liverpool, England. As news came in about the passengers, names were placed on one of two lists, “Known to Be Saved” or “Known to be Lost.” The voyage had begun with three classes of passengers, but now it was reduced to only two—saved or lost. John Harper’s name was placed on the list for those “Known to Be Lost,” but it was on the “Saved” list in heaven.

For Reflection:

John Harper faced death heroically and without fear because he never lost sight of his passionate purpose in life—to win souls for Christ. Imagine those last horrifying moments aboard the Titanic. If you had been there, what do you think you would have done?

“Perfect love expels all fear…” -1 John 4:18


*Significant Events on April 15th in Church History:

1729: Johann Sebastian Bach produced his St. Matthew Passion for its first and only performance during his lifetime (unless it was also performed in 1727 as some scholars think). The piece is considered his greatest work, possibly the pinnacle of Baroque music because it fused spirituality and art. Even Nietzche praised it for having the power to convey the gospel afresh to one who had forgotten it.

1950: Thirty-six leading members of religious orders in Hungary sent a protest letter to their government for abuses done to their orders.

1958: Dayuma, An Auca woman, was baptized. Her people had killed the missionaries who came to bring them the gospel.

1983: Corrie Ten Boom died on this day, her ninety-first. She protected Jews from the Nazis and was incarcerated in a concentration camp. After the war, she became an internationally known evangelist.

*Adapted from the April 15th entries in This Day In Christian History, edited by A Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications. And Mike and Sharon Rusten, The One Year Book of Christian History, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003.