It is hard to take in the depth and magnitude of what is called The Great Reformation. It stands out in history like a range of Himalayan mountains, whose roots reach down into the heart of the world and whose summits pierce beyond the clouds.
To Bossuet and Voltaire it was a mere squabble of the monks; to others it was the cupidity of secular sovereigns and lay nobility grasping for the power, estates, and riches of the Church. Some treat of it as a simple reaction against religious scandals, with no great depths of principle or meaning except to illustrate the recuperative power of human society to cure itself of oppressive ills. Guizot describes it as “a vast effort of the human mind to achieve its freedom—a great endeavor to emancipate human reason.” Lord Bacon takes it as the reawakening of antiquity and the recall of former times to reshape and fashion our own.
Whatever of truth some of these estimates may contain, they fall far short of a correct idea of what the Reformation was, or wherein lay the vital spring of that wondrous revolution. Its historic and philosophic centre was vastly deeper and more potent than either or all of these conceptions would make it. Many influences contributed to its accomplishment, but its inmost principle was unique. The real nerve of the Reformation was religious. Its life was something different from mere earthly interests, utilities, aims, or passions. Its seat was in the conscience. Its true spring was the soul, confronted by eternal judgment, trembling for its estate before divine Almightiness, and, on pain of banishment from every immortal good, forced to condition and dispose itself according to the clear revelations of God. It was not mere negation to an oppressive hierarchy, except as it was first positive and evangelic touching the direct and indefeasible relations and obligations of the soul to its Maker. Only when the hierarchy claimed to qualify these direct relations and obligations, thrust itself between the soul and its Redeemer, and by eternal penalties sought to hold the conscience bound to human authorities and traditions, did the Reformation protest and take issue. Had the inalienable right and duty to obey God rather than man been conceded, the hierarchy, as such, might have remained, the same as monarchical government. But this the hierarchy negatived, condemned, and would by no means tolerate. Hence the mighty contest. And the heart, sum, and essence of the whole struggle was the maintenance and the working out into living fact of this direct obligation of the soul to God and the supreme authority of His clear and unadulterated word.
How Luther came to these principles, and the fiery trials by which they were burnt into him as part of his inmost self, is one of the most vital chapters in the history.
His father had designed him for the law. To this end he had gone through the best schools of Germany, taken his master’s degree, and was advancing in the particular studies relating to his intended profession, when a sudden change came over his life.