Reformation moments

Diet of Worms

Already in June of 1520, Pope Leo X wrote a bull condemning Luther for heresy and giving him sixty days to retract his statements. “Rise up, O Lord, and judge your cause,” the bull began. “A wild boar invades your vineyard.” When Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, read the bull, he wondered just what Luther had done to warrant such condemnation. He put this question to the leading scholar of the time, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had also written quite critically about conditions in the church. Erasmus, noted for his sly humor, replied that Luther was guilty of two crimes: he had attacked the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks. In December of 1520, Luther, accompanied by fellow professors and students, built a bonfire on the edge of Wittenberg and burned the papal bull. In January 1521 another bull officially excommunicated Luther.

In April of 1521 the “Luther case” was taken up at the Diet of Worms. The new emperor, twenty-one-year-old Charles V, was under pressure from Rome to enforce the papal excommunication of Luther, and he was inclined to do so, since he valued his friendship with the pope. On the other hand, he needed the support of the German princes who backed Luther, since Charles saw war with France and with the Turks on the horizon.

Hoping to iron things out, Charles invited Luther to Worms, promising safe-conduct from Wittenberg and back. Luther’s friends reminded him just how “safe” the conduct had been for Hus at the Council of Constance in 1415. But Luther insisted on going, saying he would do so “even if there were as many devils in Worms as tiles on the roofs.”

Called before the council on April 17, Luther was asked if the books on the table before him were his and if he would recant what he had written in them. After reading the titles, Luther acknowledged the books as his, but asked for one more day to make up his mind about recanting.

The thrust of this book has been to show that the Reformation of the church involved a long process. It was preceded by numerous other responses to church decadence. Then about 1100, as we see the responses intensify and multiply, a corner is turned from mere responses to Reformation.

This makes the Reformation about 400 years old when Luther appears, though it is Luther who brings the Reformation to its high point. Some would say that high point is the date now before us, Thursday, April 18, 1521, the date for the total break with the past and the forceful turn to the future.

Standing before the Diet and speaking clearly and carefully, Luther declared somewhat as follows (the exact words are unknown): “Unless I am refuted by Scripture or clear arguments, not by popes or councils whose judgment I do not accept, I cannot recant. My conscience is bound to the Word of God in Scripture. Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me. Amen.”

The papal examiner wanted to continue the discussion, but the emperor said no. Since Luther didn’t recognize the decisions of councils anyway, more discussion would be a waste of time. He dismissed Luther from his presence but honored his promise of safe-conduct. However, he issued an edict: after twenty-one days the safe-conduct would expire, and Luther would be considered an outlaw subject to arrest and punishment. On the way back to Wittenberg, Frederick the Wise arranged to have Luther kidnapped and hidden at the Wartburg Castle for his own protection, until the heat was off.

In less than four years’ time, from the end of 1517 to the middle of 1521, Luther’s basic response to the crisis in the church had been made, and he had put his life on the line at Worms to defend his position. Such a strong impact had justification in God’s sight by faith made on Luther, and such a high regard did he have for the place where he discovered this doctrine, Holy Scripture, that whatever seemed to be at cross-purposes with this source of truth had to go.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

Luther’s music

It was through the sermons in regular worship services that most people who had left Roman Catholicism encountered the teaching of salvation by grace through faith. And yet over the centuries the main worship service itself, the mass, had been infiltrated by all kinds of unscriptural errors which in effect pitted the service against God’s Word. This situation couldn’t go on. Other reformers saw this and set about making the medium fit the message, with uneven success.

Luther hesitated to change anything. He had a high appreciation for the basic structure of the liturgy. He knew that changes, even good ones, disturbed people, and he didn’t want to lay down rules for worship, since Scripture left the form of worship a free matter.

But finally, prompted by reformer friends, Luther responded to the errors and unintelligibility of the Roman worship service. Asserting that “it is not now nor ever has been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use” (LW 53:20), Luther published a revision of the mass, An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg, in 1523. (The word mass comes from the last phrase in the Roman Catholic Latin mass and means, roughly, “You are dismissed.”) The service stayed in Latin, but there were German hymns and the sermon was preached in German. Luther took out the prayers to Mary and the saints, and above all he revised Holy Communion. Over the years it had been turned into a sacrifice, an offering to God to earn God’s forgiveness. Luther made it a true sacrament once again, a sacrament where God offered his forgiveness to sinners through the body and blood of Christ present in the bread and wine in a real but unexplainable way.

Luther wanted the Latin service retained wherever people still knew Latin, such as in university towns and large cities. Most people, however, lived in small towns and villages and knew only German. So, for their sake, Luther wrote The German Mass and Order of Service and published it in 1526. The entire service was in the language of the people. The pastor chanted all his parts (including prayers and Scripture readings), and the people sang their responses.

Hymns for the people replaced some parts of the service (for example, “We All Believe in One True God” replaced the Nicene Creed), and other hymns were interspersed at fitting places. Luther summed up his philosophy of worship by saying, “Among Christians the whole service should center in the Word and sacrament.”

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

God’s word for the people

Luther was repeatedly appalled by the lack of basic Bible knowledge on the part of both children and adults. As early as 1516 he tried to correct this with sermons on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. In April of 1529 he published his German or Large Catechism containing the three subjects just mentioned, plus Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, adding a section on Confession later that year. Less than a month later, in May 1529, Luther published his Small Catechism. To the six sections of the Large Catechism and the Small Catechism he added morning and evening prayers, prayers before and after eating, and a table of “duties,” that is, instructions on living drawn from the New Testament.

Though the Large Catechism preceded the Small Catechism, Luther seems to have envisioned that the people would begin with the Small Catechism. It appeared first in chart form that could be hung on walls for regular viewing. Pastors were to use it with children, and the head of the family was directed to teach it to his household. Its question-and-answer format made this task easier. Then, said Luther, “after you have taught this brief catechism, take up a large catechism [others besides his were in existence] so that the people may have a richer and fuller understanding” (Tappert, 340). Both catechisms then were intended for all people. They were to use them according to their level of ability and previous knowledge. This response to spiritual ignorance led to further improvements in the general education of all people, young and old, girls as well as boys—a rather progressive idea at that time.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.

Luther’s death

When a person thinks of Luther, it’s common to picture him dashing off treatises and books against his opponents. This is partly true, especially between 1517 and 1530. What’s often forgotten is that Luther was, after all, a college professor, lecturing to students in the classroom and evaluating their progress via the debates which served as their examinations. His title, in terms of a modern college, would probably have been “professor of Scripture” or maybe even “professor of Old Testament,” since he lectured more on the Old Testament than on the New. Genesis occupied him almost exclusively the last ten years of his life. Many of his lectures were published in the form of commentaries on various biblical books. Besides leading a team of Bible translators, he also wrote prefaces to all the books of the Bible. These were intended to help people understand each book’s content. In addition, over 2,000 of his sermons have survived, many copied down by listeners and taken to the printers without Luther’s permission.

Late in 1545 Luther was asked to help settle a dispute between two brothers who were princes of Mansfeld. Luther was hesitant to make the trip of eighty-some miles, since it was winter, and he wasn’t in the best of health. In modern medical terms, he had either gall or kidney stones and a heart condition. But he felt close to these princes since they ruled the area where he had been born. So with several associates and his two teenage sons, he set out for Eisleben in late January 1546.

The talks with the two brother-princes went well and the dispute was settled on February 17. That evening Luther felt a sharp pain in his chest near his heart. The pain passed, and he was able to get to sleep. About two a.m. on the morning of the eighteenth, the pains returned but once again passed. A third attack a few minutes later proved fatal. Martin Luther, at age sixty-two, was dead.

In the closing moments of Luther’s life, an old friend, Justus Jonas, put a simple but awesome question to him: “Are you willing to die in the name of the Christ and the doctrine which you have preached?” In a few moments Luther knew he would stand before his Lord. Did he at this last moment want to retreat for safety into the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church? Or did he want to stand by what he had said about salvation by God’s grace through faith alone? With his last bit of strength Luther uttered a firm “Yes.” It was his final response.

Excerpt from Martin Luther and the Long Reformation by James Kiecker, used with permission of Northwestern Publishing House.