“There is no lighter nor more easy work on earth than the upright and true service of God, to do what God commandeth in his Word; we should only believe and speak, but then certain it is that we shall suffer and be humbled with persecutions; but Christ hath promised to be with us, and to help us.” - Martin Luther
Luther’s opposition to the Church of Rome
Martin Luther was a German Augustinian monk God used greatly to bring about reformation in the church. Seeking the true gospel, he discovered the grace and mercy of God, not in works or ritual, but in the humility of a heart truly seeking God. He opposed the religious constructs engineered by men to make people dependent and fearful of their salvation. He challenged powerful Catholic Church doctrines, changing history forever. It was not an easy road. He was charged with heresy for teaching that people were saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
He began his dissent by tacking the Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenburg.
A New Understanding
Though Luther never sought a public stage, the Ninety-Five Theses spread widely, creating both support by the people and great opposition from religious leaders. The Catholics and followers of Luther (Lutherans) disagreed on many things; chiefly the roles of justification by faith alone, unmerited grace, and good works as a means of salvation.
Luther’s understood justification: “...God in His grace was making available to those who would receive it passively, not those who would achieve it actively, but that would receive it by faith, and by which a person could be reconciled to a holy and righteous God” (R.C. Sproul). The Catholic Church taught salvation required obedience to the church, deference to the Pope, sacraments, good works and other traditions were required for salvation.
Romans 5:8 describes the grace only can God give that we cannot earn, unmerited grace. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is the Word that freed Luther from his pursuit of perfection and good works he believed was required before a Holy God.
In 1518, Luther was called to Heidelberg, Germany to defend charges of heresy. He challenged the doctrine of good works explaining, “The person who believes he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds to his sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.” He agreed with the Bible and Augustine: “Those who hope to attain forgiveness for their sins through works obscure the grace of God.”
At Leipzig, in 1519, he questioned the supremacy and authority of the church over the Scriptures. He believed: “all the popes were usurping the role and position of Christ.” Accused of following John Wycliffe and the martyr, John Hus, Luther said, “I am a Christian theologian and I am bound not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and death. I want to believe freely and be a slave to the authority of no one, of a council, a university, or pope.” Eighteen days of debate finalized a break from the Catholic Church. Luther was further convinced Scripture alone was the ultimate authority.
Three separate times, in Augsburg, he was asked if he would recant. Would he agree: the Pope was above Scripture; the Pope had the right to dispense indulgences; and faith alone was not sufficient for justification? He refused to recant, and was sent away.
Luther began to challenge the biblically corrupt traditions and foundational beliefs of the Catholic church. In an Address to a German Nobility (1520) Luther wrote, “The time for silence is gone, and the time for speaking has come.” He challenged the three specific areas:
- A priest must not be held in higher esteem. All people sharing faith, baptism, and the Spirit are the same in God’s eyes.
- The Bible should be accessible to all people. Luther rejected the teaching that only the Pope could translate the Bible calling it an “outrageous, fancified, fable.”
- Luther disputed the idea that only the Pope could convene a council, citing Matthew 18:16. He further said the Pope should return to simplicity and dispense with fripperies like triple crowns, toe-kissing, and so on. (Lutzer. 59).
Additionally, Luther asserted the clergy should be allowed to marry.
In his book, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther asserts the sacraments do not confer grace, but rather, the Last Supper, our Sabbath communion, and Baptism are things Jesus commanded us to observe. This book was based on Luther’s belief that, “the Pope actually chained people to the church as captives by using the sacraments to control the populace and withhold salvation from whoever the priests wished” (Rescuing the Gospel, E.W Lutzer).
By 1520, Pope Leo concluded the “wild boar in the vineyard of Lord” had gotten out of control and was causing too much of a disruption in the church. A papal bull (edict) was sent to Luther outlining the grief he was causing. He was asked to recant forty-one errors the Pope identified in Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, or risk excommunication from the church. Luther’s response to the bull, in part was, “It is better that I should die a thousand times than that I should retract one syllable of the condemned articles.” Since his books were being burned in many cities, Wittenburg reacted by burning the papal bull.
Luther appealed to the Pope in, The Freedom of a Christian, to clean up the corruption in the church. When Pope Leo ignored this request, Luther turned to Emperor Charles V to appeal his case. Emperor Charles was a devout Catholic. He extended an invitation to Luther, in 1521, for a hearing in Worms, Germany.
Diet of Worms
Anticipating a death sentence while traveling to the hearing (diet), Luther said, “My head is worth nothing compared to Christ.” Responding to the invitation, Luther replied, I will not come just to recant, I can do that from here, but if he is inviting me to my death, I will come. At Worms, Luther was asked if he was willing to defend his writings. Asking for time to think over his response, he went to his lodgings and prayed. “...I am ready to lay down my life for Thy Truth…”.
All the powerful leaders of Germany were present for the hearing, including the Emperor. Luther said if his books were contrary to Scripture he would renounce them. His examiner, an official of the archbishop of Trier, said heretics, like Hus and Wycliffe, defend their writings with Scripture, and how could he (Luther) assume he was able to interpret Scripture. He asked, “I ask you, Martin---answer candidly and without horns---do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” Luther replied, “...I do not accept the authority of popes and councils...my conscience is captive to the Word of God...Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” He refused to recant regardless of the pressure.
Frederick the Wise, a friend of Luther’s, sent masked riders to capture Luther and bring him to Wartburg Castle, in Eisenbach Germany, for his protection. There, Luther was given a room with one window, a stone floor, and a table. Using Erasmus’ new edition of the Greek New Testament, which was closest to the original manuscripts, Luther translated the New Testament into German in eleven weeks, writing about 1500 words per day! Others helped him complete the Old Testament which took the rest of his life. This great work would unite the German people and transform Christianity in Germany.
Diets in Speyer
As opposition to the Catholic Church grew throughout the empire, Emperor Charles V tried to appease the growing Lutheran movement. Two diets (assemblies) were held in the City of Speyer.
In 1526, a decision called the territorial principle, was made to allow a ruler of a territory to choose whether he would be Lutheran or Catholic and the people would follow that religion. The cities of Strasburg, Augsburg, and Constance became Lutheran. Three years later, the Emperor called a second diet hoping to change the previous law and restore the empire to Catholicism. The law was changed to allow Catholics living in Lutheran territories to continue in the Catholic faith. Lutherans living in Catholic lands were forced to move to Lutheran areas. The name Protestant comes from their protest of this unfair law.
Diet of Augsburg
Hoping to turn his empire back to the Catholic faith, and reign in the “wild boar”, Emperor Charles called another Diet in Augsburg in 1530. Martin Luther was unable to attend, but sent an associate, Philipp Melanchthon to represent him. The agreement, Apologia (Augsburg Confession) presented to the Emperor denied transubstantiation (bread becomes flesh) and asserted justification by faith alone. The Emperor rejected the Apologia. Melanchthon asserted the Lutherans could not recant because their doctrine was based on the Scriptures alone.
The Roman Catholic position of Infusion where grace was understood as a God-given ability to do good works which was infused into the person, could not be reconciled or negotiated with the Lutheran position of imputation: men cannot be justified by they own strength merit or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins” (Augsburg Confession/Book of Concord).
The Diet of Augsburg of 1555 reversed the original ruling at the second Diet of Speyer making Lutherans legally equal to Catholics ending the universal church. Lutheranism continued to spread and grow. People were eager to be rid of papal taxes and allegiance to Rome.
Luther shared the great truths he discovered in Scripture with the whole world through his writings. He wrote hymns we still sing today, like A Mighty Fortress is our God and All Glory Be To God Alone. He was not a perfect man, but he had great courage. Giving God all the credit for using Scripture to bring about the Reformation, Luther said, “The Word did it all.” Like Luther, we can trust the Word. As he said, “The Word did (does) it all.”
Martin Luther, once a monk who took a vow of celibacy, married Katherine von Bora, a former nun. Their story will be explored in a later blog.