Instead of a city of prayers and alms, of contrite hearts and holy lives, Rome was full of mocking hypocrisy, defiant skepticism, jeering impiety, and shameless revelry. Borgia had lately closed his infamous Pontificate, and the warlike Julius II was now reigning. A powerful police patrolled the city every night. They were empowered to deal summary justice on offenders, and those whom they caught were hanged at the next post or thrown into the Tiber. But all the vigilance of the patrol could not secure the peace and safety of the streets. Robberies and murders were of nightly occurrence. “If there be a hell,” said Luther, “Rome is built over it.”
And yet it was at Rome, in the midst of all this darkness, that the light shone fully into the mind of the Reformer, and that the great leading idea, that on which his own life was based, and on which he based the whole of that Reformation which God honored him to accomplish — the doctrine of justification by faith alone — rose upon him in its full orbed splendor. We naturally ask: How did this come about? “What was there in this city of Popish observances to reveal the reformed faith? Luther was desirous of improving every hour of his stay in Rome, where religious acts done on its holy soil, and at its privileged altars and shrines, had a tenfold degree of merit: accordingly he busied himself in multiplying these, that he might nourish his piety, and return a holier man than he came: for as yet he saw but dimly the sole agency of faith in the justification of the sinner.
One day he went, under the influence of these feelings, to the Church of the Lateran. There is the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs, which tradition says Christ descended on retiring from the hall of judgment, where Pilate had passed sentence upon Him. These stairs are of marble, and the work of conveying them from Jerusalem to Rome was reported to have been undertaken and executed by the angels, who have so often rendered similar services to the Church — Our Lady’s House at Loretto for example. The stairs so transported were enshrined in the Palace of the Lateran, and everyone who climbs them on his knees merits an indulgence of fifteen years for each ascent. Luther, who doubted neither the legend touching the stairs, nor the merit attached by the bulls of the Popes to the act of climbing them, went thither one day to engage in this holy act. He was climbing the steps in the appointed way, on his knees namely, earning at every step a year’s indulgence, when he was startled by a sudden voice, which seemed as if it spoke from heaven, and said, “The just shall live by faith.” Luther started to his feet in amazement. This was the third time these same words had been conveyed into his mind with such emphasis, that it was as if a voice of thunder had uttered them. It seemed louder than before, and he grasped more fully the great truth which it announced. What folly, thought he, to seek an indulgence from the Church, which can last me but a few years, when God sends me in His Word an indulgence that will last me forever! How idle to toil at these performances, when God is willing to acquit me of all my sins not as so much wages for so much service, but freely, by believing in His Son ! “The just shall live by faith.”
Luther’s stay in Rome did not extend over two weeks, but in that short time he had learned lessons not to be forgotten all his life long. The grace he had looked to find at Rome he had indeed found there, but in the Word of God, not in the throne of the Pope. The latter was a fountain that had ceased to send forth the Water of Life: so, turning from this empty cistern, he went back to Wittenberg and the study of the Scriptures. The year of his return was 1512. It was yet five years to the breaking out of the Reformation in Germany. These years were spent by Luther in the arduous labors of preacher, professor, and confessor at Wittenberg. A few months after his return he received the degree of Doctor in Divinity, and this was not without its influence upon the mind of the Reformer. On that occasion Luther took an oath upon the Bible to study, propagate, and defend the faith contained in the Holy Scriptures. He looked upon himself henceforward as the sworn knight of the reformed faith. Taking farewell of philosophy, from which in truth he was glad to escape, he turned to the Bible as his lifework. A more assiduous student of it than ever his acquaintance with it daily grew, his insight into its meaning continually deepened, and thus a, beginning was made in Wittenberg and the neighboring parts of Germany, by the evangelical light which he diffused in his sermons, of that great work for which God had destined him. He had as yet no thought of separating himself from the Roman Church, in which, as he believed, there resided some sort of infallibility. These were the last links of his bondage, and Rome herself was at that moment unwittingly concocting measures to break them, and set free the arm that was to deal the blow from which she should never wholly rise.
We must again turn our eyes upon Rome. The warlike Julius II., who held the tiara at the time of Luther’s visit, was now dead, and Leo X. occupied the Vatican. Leo was of the family of the Medici, and he brought to the Papal chair all the tastes and passions which distinguished the Medicean chiefs of the Florentine republic. He was refined in manners, but sensual and voluptuous in heart, he patronized the fine arts, affected a taste for letters, and delighted in pomp and shows. His court was perhaps the most brilliant in Europe. No elegance, no amusement, no pleasure was forbidden admission into it. The fact that it was an ecclesiastical court was permitted to be no restraint upon its ample freedom. It was the chosen home of art, of painting, of music, of revels, and of masquerades.
The Pontiff was not in the least burdened with religious beliefs and convictions. To have such was the fashion of neither his house nor his age. His office as Pontiff, it is true, connected him with “a gigantic fable” which had come down from early times: but to have exploded that fable would have been to dissolve the chair in which he sat, and the throne that brought him so much magnificence and power. Leo was, therefore, content to vent his skepticism in the well-known sneer, “What a profitable affair this fable of Christ has been to us!” To this had it come! Christianity was now worked solely as a source of profit to the Popes.
Melanchthon, Vita Mart. Luth., pp. 12, 13. Seckendorf, Hist. Lutheran., lib. i., p. 21.
Seckendorf, Hist. Lutheran., lib. i., p. 23
“He played”says Michelet, “the part of the first King of Europe” (Life of Luther, chap. 2, p. 19.) Polano, after enumerating his qualities and accomplishments, says that ” he would have been a Pope absolutely complete, if with these he had joined some knowledge of things that concern religion.” (Hist. Counc. Trent, lib. i., p. 4.).
Paul of Venice says that this Pope laboured under two grievous faults: ignorance of religion, and impiety or atheism (ignorantia religionis, et impietate sive atheismo). — Seckendorf, Hist. Lutheran., lib. i., sec. 47, p. 190.