On 15 June 1520, Pope Leo X signed the Bull excommunicating Luther. Describing Luther’s teaching as: “heretical”, “scandalous”, “false”, “offensive” and “seducing”, the Bull called upon all Christians to burn Luther’s books and forbid Luther to preach. All towns or districts that sheltered him would be placed under an interdict.
In response, Luther wrote: “Against the Execrable Bull of AntiChrist.” On 10 December 1520, surrounded by a large crowd of students and lecturers, he burned the Papal bull, along with books of canon law, outside the walls of Wittenberg.
Having exhausted all ecclesiastical means to bring Luther to heel, Pope Leo now appealed to the Emperor to deal with Luther.
SUMMONED TO WORMS
Previously, in 1518, when the Pope had summoned Luther to Rome, Prince Frederick had brought all his influence to have this Papal summons cancelled. When Luther had been summoned to Augsburg and Leipzig, Prince Fredrick had arranged for safe conduct guarantees. But now, that the Emperor Maximilian had died, Charles V of Spain had been elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Prince Frederick himself had been a serious contender for this position, and still held tremendous influence. So he prevailed upon Charles V to guarantee safe conduct for Luther as he was summoned to Worms for a Council of German rulers.
In the year before his summons to the Diet of Worms, Luther published some of his most powerful and influential treatises. In the Address to the German Nobility (August 1520) he called on the Princes to correct the abuses within the church, and to free the German church from the exploitation of Rome.
In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520), Luther argued that Rome’s sacramental system held Christians captive. He attacked the papacy for depriving individual Christians of their freedom to approach God directly by faith – without the mediation of unBiblical priests and sacraments. To be valid, a sacrament had to be instituted by Christ and be exclusively Christian. By these tests, he could find no justification for five of the Roman Catholic sacraments. Luther retained only Baptism and The Lord’s Supper and placed these within the community of believers, rather than in the hands of a church hierarchy. Indeed, Luther dismissed the traditional view of the church as the sacred hierarchy headed by the Pope and presented the Biblical view of the Church as a community of the regenerate in which all believers are priests, having direct access to God through Christ.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
In The Liberty of a Christian Man (November 1520), Luther presented the essentials of Christian belief and behaviour. Luther removed the necessity of monastism by stressing that the essence of Christian living lies in serving God in our calling, whether secular or ecclesiastical. In promoting this Protestant Work Ethic, Luther laid the foundation for free enterprise and the tremendous productivity it has inspired. He taught that good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works. Fruit does not produce a tree, but a tree does produce fruit. We are not saved by doing good works, but by grace alone. However, once saved, we should expect good works to flow as the fruit of true faith.
FACING CERTAIN DEATH
Summoned to Worms, Luther believed that he was going to his death. He insisted that his co-worker, Philip Melanchthon, remain in Wittenberg. “My dear brother, If I do not come back, if my enemies put me to death, you will go on teaching and standing fast in the truth; if you live, my death will matter little.” Luther at Worms was 37 years old. He had been excommunicated by the Pope. Luther would have remembered that the Martyr, John Hus, a Century before had travelled to Constance with an imperial safe conduct, which was not honoured. Luther declared: “Though Hus was burned, the truth as not burned, and Christ still lives… I shall go to Worms, though there be as many devils there as tiles on the roofs.”
Luther’s journey to Worms was like a victory parade. Crowds lined the roads cheering the man who had dared to stand up for Germany against the Pope.
BEFORE THE EMPEROR
At 4 o’ clock on Wednesday 17 April, Luther stood before the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled all the Austrian domains, Spain, Netherlands, a large part of Italy and the Americas. At 21 years old, Charles V ruled over a territory larger than any man since Charlemagne.
Amidst the pomp and splendor of this imperial gathering, stood the throne of the Emperor on a raised platform. It was flanked by Spanish knights in gleaming armour, 6 Princes, 24 Dukes, 30 Archbishops and Bishops, and 7 Ambassadors.
Luther was asked to identify whether the books on the table were his writings. Upon Luther’s confirmation that they were, an official asked Luther: “Do you wish to retract them, or do you adhere to them and continue to assert them?” Luther had come expecting an opportunity to debate the issues, but it was made clear to him that no debate was to be tolerated. The Imperial Diet was ordering him to recant all his writings. Luther requested more time, so that he might answer the question without injury to the Word of God and without peril to his soul. The Emperor granted him 24 hours.
The next day, Thursday 18 April, as the sun was setting and torches were being lit, Luther was ushered into the august assembly. He was asked again whether he would recant what he had written. Luther responded that some of his books taught established Christian doctrine on faith and good works. He could not deny accepted Christian doctrines. Other of his books attacked the papacy and to retract these would be to encourage tyranny and cover up evil. In the third category of books, he had responded to individuals who were defending popery and in these Luther admitted he had written too harshly.
The examiner was not satisfied: “You must give a simple, clear and proper answer… will you recant or not?”
“HERE I STAND”
Luther’s response, first given in Latin and then repeated in German, shook the world: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by clear reasoning that I am in error – for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves – I cannot recant, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against ones conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me God. Amen.”
Amidst the shocked silence, cheers rang out for this courageous man who had stood up to the Emperor and the Pope. Luther turned and left the tribunal. Numerous German nobles formed a circle around Luther and escorted him safely back to his lodgings.
The Emperor was furious. However, Prince Frederick insisted that Charles V honour the guarantee of safe conduct for Luther. Charles V raged against “this devil in the habit of a monk” and issued the edict of Worms, which declared Luther an outlaw, ordering his arrest and death as a “heretic.”
As Luther travelled back to Wittenberg, preaching at towns on the route, armed horsemen plunged out of the forest, snatched Luther from his wagon and dragged him off to Wartburg Castle. This kidnapping had been arranged by Prince Frederick amidst great secrecy in order to preserve Luther’s life. Despite the Emperor’s decree that anyone helping Luther was subject to the loss of life and property, Frederick risked his throne and life to protect his pastor and professor.
For the 10 months that Luther was hidden at Wartburg Castle, as Knight George (Junker Jorg), he translated The New Testament into German and wrote such booklets as: “On Confession Whether the Pope Has the Authority to Require It; On the Abolition of Private Masses” and “Monastic Vows.” By 1522, The New Testament in German was on sale for but a week’s wages.
In Luther’s absence, Professor Andreas Karlstadt instituted revolutionary changes, which led to growing social unrest. In March 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg, and in 8 days of intensive preaching, renounced many of Karlstadt’s innovations, declaring that he was placing too much emphasis on external reforms and introducing a new legalism that threatened to overshadow justification by faith and the spirituality of the Gospel. Luther feared that the new legalism being introduced would undermine the Reformed movement from within.
THE PEASANTS REVOLT
When the peasants’ revolt erupted, Luther was horrified at the anarchy, chaos and bloodshed. He repudiated the revolutionaries and wrote “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.” Aghast at the devastation and massacres caused by the peasants revolt, Luther taught that the princes had the duty to restore social order and crush the insurrection.
Also in 1525, on 13 June, Luther married Katherine von Bora, a former nun from a noble family. Luther called home life: “the school of character” and he stressed the importance of the family as the basic building block of society. Luther and Katie were blessed with 6 children.
THE BONDAGE OF THE WILL
Also in 1525, Luther wrote one his most important books: “On the Bondage of the Will.” This was in response to Desiderius Erasmus’s book on The Freedom of The Will, published in 1524. Luther responded scathingly to Erasmus’s theories on free will, arguing that man’s will is so utterly in bondage to sin, that only God’s action could save. Luther articulated the Augustinian view of predestination and declared that he much preferred that his salvation be in God’s Hands, rather than in his own.
As a result of the exchange between Luther and Erasmus, many Renaissance Humanist scholars ceased to support Luther.
A TIME OF CHANGE
The Reformation not only brought about sweeping changes in the church, but dramatic changes in all of society. First of all the Reformation focused on bringing doctrines, forms of church government, and of worship and daily life into conformity with the Word of God. But this of course had tremendous implications for political, economical, social and cultural life as well.
GOD’S WORD ABOVE ALL THINGS
Luther revised the Latin liturgy and translated it into German. Now the laity received the Communion in both bread and wine, as the Husites had taught a Century earlier. The whole emphasis in church services changed from the sacramental celebration of the Mass as a sacrifice, to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Luther maintained that every person has the right and duty to read and study the Bible in his own language. This became the foundation of the Reformation: a careful study of the Bible as the source of all truth and as the only legitimate authority, for all questions of faith and conduct.
THE TRUE CHURCH
The Church is a community of believers, not a hierarchy of officials. The Church is an organism rather than an organisation, a living body of which each believer is a member.
Luther stressed the priesthood of all believers. We do not gain salvation through the church, but we become members of the Church when we become believers.
REFORMATION BASIC PRINCIPLES
Luther dealt with many primary issues, including:
1. Authority – the Bible alone is our authority and not the councils or leaders of the Church. The Bible is above tradition.
2. Salvation – is by the grace of God alone, accomplished by the atonement of Christ alone, received by faith alone. Grace comes before sacraments.
3. The Church – the true Church is composed of the elect, those regenerated by God’s Holy Spirit. Regenerate Church membership.
4. The Priesthood – consists of all true believers. The priesthood of all believers.
THE BATTLE CRIES OF THE REFORMATION
The Protestant Reformation mobilised by Luther rallied around these great battle cries:
Sola Christus – Christ alone is the Head of the Church.
Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone is our authority.
Sola Gratia – Salvation is by the grace of God alone.
Sola Fide – Justification is received by faith alone.
Soli Deo Gloria – Everything is to be done for the glory of God alone.
Despite Luther being declared an outlaw by the Emperor, he survived to minister and write for 25 more years, and died of natural causes, 18 February 1546.
In spite of many illnesses, Luther remained very active and productive as an advisor to princes, theologians and pastors, publishing major commentaries, producing great quantities of books and pamphlets, and he completed the translation of The Old Testament into German by 1534. Luther continued preaching and teaching to the end of his life. He frequently entertained students and guests in his home, and he produced beautiful poems and hymns, including one hymn that will live forever: “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott”(A Mighty Fortress Is Our God).
Luther also did a great deal to promote education. He labored tirelessly for establishment of schools everywhere. Luther wrote his Shorter Catechism in order to train up children in the essential doctrines of the faith.
It has been common to portray Luther as a simple and obscure monk, who challenged the pope and emperor. Actually Luther was anything but simple or obscure. He was learned, experienced and accomplished far beyond most men of his age. He had lived in Magdeburg, Eisenach and was one of the most distinguished graduates of the University of Erfurt. Luther travelled to Cologne, to Leipzig, and had crossed the Alps, and travelled to Rome. Luther was a great student, with a tremendous breadth of reading, who had excelled in his studies, and achieved a Master of Arts and Doctorate in Theology in record time. He was an accomplished bestselling author, one of the greatest preachers of all time, a highly respected theological professor, and one of the first professors to lecture in the German language, instead of in Latin.
Far from being a simple monk, Luther was the Prior of his monastery and the district vicar over 11 other monasteries. Luther was a monk, a priest, a preacher, a professor, a writer, and a Reformer. He was one of most courageous and influential people in all of history. The Lutheran Faith was not only adopted in Northern Germany, but also throughout Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland.
Luther was a controversial figure in his day and has continued to be considered controversial to this very day. There is no doubt that Luther’s search for peace with God changed the whole course of human history. He challenged the power of Rome over the Christian Church, smashed the chains of superstition and tyranny and restored the Christian liberty to worship God in spirit and in truth.
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes …For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16 – 23
Dr. Peter Hammond
The Reformation Society
P.O. Box 74
Cape Town, South Africa
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