In the next year, Luther began to draw out the consequences of the Gospel proclamation for the German Church, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and the ordinary Christian. These appeared in three monumental treatises. The first, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate, called the civil authorities to take the reformation of the church into their own hands on the grounds of their own membership in the Body of Christ. The second, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, spelled out how the Roman Catholic Church amassed its spiritual power and authority. In contrast, Luther appeals to the authority of the Word of God, which knows of only two sacraments of forgiveness—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Finally, On Christian Liberty briefly describes the Christian life as one of sure confidence before God because of Christ’s work of salvation and humble service toward one’s neighbor in following Christ’s example.
The election of a new Emperor, Charles V, brought fresh attention to the “Luther problem.” Already excommunicated by the Pope, Luther was invited to the imperial assembly (Diet) at Worms. Although he had been promised safe passage, Luther could easily recall that Jan Hus (who had also argued against indulgences) had been given the same imperial promise a century before, and he had been burned at the stake as a heretic. When Luther was told to recant of his writings, he refused the ultimatum with the words: “I am bound by the Scriptures which I have quoted; my conscience is bound to the Word of God. I may not and will not recant, because to act against conscience is neither honest nor safe.” As a consequence, he was declared an outlaw—without the protection of imperial law for the rest of his life.
The rest of the 1520’s witnessed further working out of the consequences of Luther’s Gospel rediscovery. Kept in hiding by friends in the Wartburg Castle in 1521, he began to translate the New Testament into German so that all Christians could read the Word of God for themselves. Returning to Wittenberg in 1522, he guided the reformation of Christian worship. He removed unbiblical prayers to the saints and the sacrifice of the mass, but heightened the focus on the reading and preaching of God’s Word. The service could be done in Latin, but a “German mass” was also made available. In all cases, all Christians (not just the clergy) would receive both the host and the wine according to Christ’s institution. Congregational participation increased with a new focus on hymn singing. Luther also manifested the new sense of “service to God” in his marriage to Katharina von Bora in 1525.
1529 saw Luther’s publication of the Large and Small Catechisms. He designed these brief manuals to instruct the laity in the basic tenets of the faith, so that all Christians could live with an understanding of the shape of a Christian life (the Ten Commandments), a knowledge of God (the Creed), confidence in prayer (the Lord’s Prayer), and assurance of God’s gift of salvation (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Luther’s proclamation of the Gospel had gone through Germany, reached the Pope and the emperor, and even extended into the homes of the farmers and townsfolk.
This article is the third in a series of four that comprise the Historic Exhibit of the Reformation displayed at the Breslin Center on October 15, 2017:
Thumann, Paul (1834-1908). Luther at the Diet of Worms (detail). 1872. AKG-images.