Sabbath School Reflections: Faith Against All Odds

Reflections on The Great Controversy chapters 7–11

Daniela Pusic
Sabbath School Reflections: Faith Against All Odds
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Throughout The Great Controversy, Ellen G. White provides relatively brief biographies of several notable Christians that have made significant contributions to our knowledge of God. [i] Her telling of their stories highlights the fact that, although they all lived in different times and places, many came from humble origins, frequently demonstrated unique intellectual abilities in their youth, and most importantly, all manifested an admirable devotion to truth that is worthy of our emulation. (Consider, for instance, her introductions to the lives of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and William Miller, in chapters 7, 9, and 18.) Of all the individuals described, she devotes the most pages to Martin Luther, who she refers to as the “foremost” of the Protestant Reformers (p. 120). It is, therefore, worth taking a deeper look at what lessons Ellen White wanted us to learn from his life.

A Reluctant Reformer

Today there is a tendency to think of Luther as a revolutionary figure who launched his attack against the papacy with his 95 Theses, and to speak of his “boldness” as an inherent personality trait. That is not, however, the image of Luther that White presents. Her early descriptions of Luther stress his humility and sensitivity as he “sprang from the ranks of poverty” and endured “hardship, privation, and severe discipline” (p. 120). She adds that “the gloomy, superstitious ideas of religion then prevailing filled him with fear” and he viewed God “as a stern, unrelenting judge” and “cruel tyrant” (p. 121). Even as Luther’s image of God improved, White stresses that he still felt a sense of his own unworthiness even to preach, although he was encouraged by friends to do so and was already “mighty in the Scriptures” (p. 124).

Part of what White’s description of Luther’s early life and ministry reveals is that he was a much more reluctant Reformer than people tend to think. This does not at all take away from his contributions to church history. Instead, his natural timidity and self-consciousness make what he eventually accomplished, or what God accomplished through him, in White’s telling, all the more remarkable. White uses Luther’s story to remind us that God often uses humble, imperfect people to do great things. Luther’s feelings of inadequacy led him to have “an abiding sense of … dependence on divine aid” that drove him to prayer (p. 122). White encourages us to have the same response if we feel overwhelmed by what God asks us to do.

From Enthusiast to Critic

Another sometimes overlooked aspect of Luther’s life that White rightly emphasizes was his ardent and long-lasting devotion to the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was born into a devout Catholic home, was baptized the next day, was named after a saint, and was catechized as soon as he was old enough to learn. As an adult, he dedicated himself to the Church in every way possible by becoming a monk, priest, and professor of theology. Later in life, Luther also reflected on the fact that he had once been “a most enthusiastic papist.”[ii]

Even as he composed his 95 Theses, White points out that Luther was “still a papist of the straitest sort” (p. 128). Luther himself wrote that his theses were actually composed “to the pope’s honor,” adding: “I certainly thought that … I should have a protector in the pope, on whose trustworthiness I then leaned strongly, for in his decrees he most clearly blamed the immoderation of the quaesters, as he called the indulgence preachers.”[iii] When Luther wrote his theses (and for some time after), he thought he and the pope were on the same side.

Eleven months before his death, however, he felt very differently. He spoke of the pope as “the enemy of God and man, the destroyer of Christendom,” “Satan’s bodily dwelling,” and “the damned antichrist.”[iv] He said the priests of his time were “lost, desperate children of the devil,” and “shameless blockheads that instigated, consciously and knowingly, the loathsome, blasphemous, idolatrous papacy against the strong witness of their conscience.”[v] He stressed that no man could believe “what an abomination the papacy is.”[vi] In Luther’s estimation, the papacy had become so corrupt that “if the devil himself were to rule in Rome he could not make it worse.”[vii]

Luther is infamous for this kind of harsh rhetoric, particularly in later life, but it is difficult to overstate what a massive shift in his thinking this represents. The “most enthusiastic papist” did not become an outspoken critic of the Church overnight and he did not make his eventual public denunciations of the papacy lightly. It is difficult for us to fathom what it must have been like for him to identify the religious institution he had devoted his life to as the prophetically foretold enemy of God. White records some of his internal struggle in his own words:

Oh, how much pain it has caused me, though I had the Scriptures on my side, to justify it to myself that I should dare to make a stand alone against the pope, and hold him forth as antichrist! What have the tribulations of my heart not been! How many times have I not asked myself with bitterness that question which was so frequent on the lips of the papists: “Art thou alone wise? Can everyone else be mistaken?” (p. 143).

When, after a long struggle, Luther came to terms with his identification of the papacy as the biblical Antichrist, his conflict with the papacy entered a new phase. White describes the once timid and reluctant Reformer as thereafter fearless and steadfast. What made the difference? Luther wrote that his internal struggle raged, “till Christ, by His own infallible word, fortified my heart” (p. 143). This was the true ground of Luther’s famous boldness as exhibited in later life: faith in God’s Word and deep conviction of its truth. Luther was sure “that the word of God [was] with [him]” (p.142). That meant he was on the right side even if he had to stand alone.

Pressing On

Considering the severity with which he was treated as a child, the flagrant sin and rampant corruption he later witnessed in the church of his time, and the slow progress of reform, it is a wonder that Luther did not give in to despair (although he was certainly tempted, at times). Instead, despite living “under so many and so great discouragements, [he] pressed resolutely forward to the high standard of moral and intellectual excellence which attracted his soul” (p. 121). This does not mean that Luther always lived up to the ideal, but his commitment to forward progress in the cause of truth despite facing great challenges is remarkable. In her first chapter on Luther’s life, White states that “there is an irrepressible conflict” between truth and error because “to uphold and defend the one is to attack and overthrow the other” (p. 126). She warns that this conflict will only become more pronounced as we near the end of time, and those who choose to live a life of commitment to truth as Luther did will encounter similar opposition and discouragements. This seems to be why she spends so much time telling his story—so that we can learn from his experience and be better prepared to face similar trials. The overarching lesson is that “the fear of the Lord dwelt in the heart of Luther, enabling him to maintain his steadfastness of purpose” (p. 122). If we ask him, God is able to do the same for us.

[i] Portions of this article are adapted from Daniela Pusic’s master’s thesis: “Following the Stench of the Devil: How Luther Came to Identify the Papacy as Antichrist” (Westminster Seminary California, 2021).

[ii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, eds., Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher Boyd Brown, 75 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955–), 34:328. Future references to Luther’s Works will be abbreviated LW.

[iii] LW 34:329, 330.

[iv] LW 41:274, 278.

[v] LW 41:288.

[vi] LW 41:273.

[vii] LW 41:339.

Daniela Pusic

Daniela Pusic is a doctoral student specializing in Reformation history at Andrews University.