Celebrating the Modern World of Martin Luther

Travis Rogers, Jr.

Celebrating the Modern World of Martin Luther

6 mins
November 2, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

In Jeremiah and Romans and the Gospel reading of John, it is about freedom—not just political liberty but being free to live our lives without the constraint of legalism and rules of religious law. What fitting Scriptures to celebrate Reformation Day.

And it is 500 years since Luther brought us into the Modern World. Yes, it was Luther. On this day, we celebrate Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Yes, that started it all. Luther started questioning church practices and, frankly, superstitions. It got him in all kinds of trouble, of course.

He defended his position in the Leipzig Debate. He was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo X and Luther burned the document of excommunication. Now it was on.

In 1520, Luther wrote the Three Treatises, as the have come to be collectively called.

To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation

The book To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation produced the most instantaneous, widespread, and powerful effect of anything Luther wrote. In it he applies the principles given in the shorter treatise, Concerning Christian Liberty, to the reformation of the political society. He declares the true God-ordained and holy characteristic of every human relationship of the family, home, trade, or profession for people from all levels of society. In other words, no occupation is to be considered more “holy” than any other. Furthermore, he appeals to the mass of the German people by exposing the greatest source of the evils that oppress them: the Roman Catholic system and the pope himself.

Then Luther indicts the pope himself:

It is a horrible and frightful thing that the ruler of Christendom, who boasts himself vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter, lives in such worldly splendor that in this regard no king nor emperor can equal or approach him, and that he who claims the title of “most holy” and “most spiritual” is more worldly than the world itself. 

This address to the nobility concludes with twenty-seven suggestions for reform. If carried into effect, these would produce a German National Church and would completely abolish the supremacy of the pope over the state. Luther also sought to restrict the mendicant, or begging, orders. He said that all who wished to leave the convents should be allowed to do so, for only voluntary service is pleasing to God. He would give up the saints' days and festivals, which had become merely occasions for gluttony and debauchery, and would observe only the Lord’s Day.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther declares that the one test and the one authority for everything is the Word of God itself, whereas the papacy has held the church of God captive under the traditions and commandments of men. This is where he strikes home with Solo Scriptura argument. Only Scripture is the foundation for our doctrine and theology, he declares. He points out that according to Scripture the church should have only two observances: baptism and the Lord's supper. The other so-called sacraments are merely ceremonies instituted by man. Luther is particularly indignant over the Roman degradation of the whole concept of marriage. Nothing in Scripture or in the practice of the early church forbids the marriage of any believers, yet the Roman church interfered with marriages for a variety of reasons. 

On Christian Liberty

On Christian Liberty is a short treatise, free from theological jargon, concerning the priesthood of all believers as a result of justification by faith. It begins with an antithesis: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone,” a paraphrase of Paul's word in I Corinthians 9:19. Luther expounds this by proving that no outward works can produce Christian righteousness or liberty; faith alone or solo fidei is the effectual way to use the Word of God for salvation.

It does not profit the soul to wear sacred vestments or to dwell in sacred places, nor does it harm the soul to be clothed in [common] raiment, and to eat and drink in the ordinary fashion. The soul can do without everything except the Word of God…. This gives the liberty of the Christian person; no dangers can really harm them, no sorrows utterly overwhelm them, for they are always accompanied by the Christ to whom they are united by faith.  

The Diet of Worms

“The past and the future met together in 1521 at the Parliament at Worms.” – Roland Bainton

In January of 1521, the Emperor convened the Diet, the law-making body of the Holy Roman Empire, in the town of Worms. There was talk of summoning Luther before the Diet to answer the charges brought against him in Rome. Luther voiced his determination to go:

You ask me what I shall do if I am called by the emperor. I will go even if I am too sick to stand on my feet. If Caesar calls me, God calls me. If violence is used, as well it may be, I commend my cause to God. He lives and reigns who saved the three youths from the fiery furnace of the king of Babylon, and if He will not save me, my head is worth nothing compared with Christ. This is no time to think of safety. I must take care that the gospel is not brought into contempt by our fear to confess and seal our teaching with our blood.  

Luther reached Worms on April 16, 1521, and was called before the Diet on the following afternoon. He stood before the Emperor, the six Elector-Princes, and a great assembly of laymen and clergy. In the midst was a table piled with Luther's books. Luther had never seen such a meeting before. He was asked whether the books on display were his writings and, if so, whether he would recant. Luther requested time to consider his answer. He was given until the following day.

In the evening of the following day, when he was called in again and he was ready to answer. His voice was clear and his expression calm and fearless. Luther spent two hours discussing his books, dividing them into several categories. Firstly, his books concerning faith and morals should have been approved by friends and foes alike, so he could not retract those. Secondly, his books against the papacy and its ruinous influence on Christendom must not be retracted because to do so would strengthen the tyranny that should be torn down. Thirdly, there were his books against the supporters of the Roman tyranny. He admitted that he might have been too vehement in his charges, yet he would not retract these books, either. Still, he said, he would listen to anyone who would show him from the Scriptures that he had erred. His entire answer was given in German, the language of the people.

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

Johann Eck, the interrogator, challenged Luther on several points and added this:

Martin, you have not sufficiently distinguished your works. The earlier were bad and the latter worse. Your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wycliffe and Hus.  

Luther responded to Emperor Charles V:

Since your Imperial Majesty requires a plain answer, I will give one without horns or hoof! It is this: that I must be convinced either by the testimony of Scripture or by clear arguments. I cannot trust the pope or councils by themselves, since it is as clear as daylight that they have not only erred but contradicted themselves. 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.  

After a pause he added in German: “I can do nothing else; here I stand; so help me God! Amen.

A vigorous debate followed, but no case was proved against Luther. Nonetheless, the Emperor was persuaded by the Church’s emissaries to issue a ban against Luther. After twenty days safe-conduct, everyone in the empire was forbidden “to give the aforesaid Luther house or home, food, drink, or shelter, by words or by deeds.”  The only thing that remained was to burn Luther as a heretic.

As Luther was spirited out of Worms during the night, he was kidnapped by two knights with five horsemen. A hood was placed over Luther’s head and he was taken away from those who were accompanying him back home. Later, when the hood was removed, Luther realized that he was safely tucked away in the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Prince Frederick of Saxony.

He assumed the identity of “Knight George” and remained in safe custody, with his whereabouts unknown to the rest of the world, for the next 10 months. During that time, Luther began his intense translation work of the New Testament into German and would follow with his German translation of the Old Testament.

It was this German translation of the Bible that became the basis for the modern German language. The language that Luther created is still the parent language of over 120 million people in the world. The transformation from Gothic German to Modern German was a remarkable feat. How extraordinary that the basis of a modern language should be a translation of the Bible.

Furthermore, what happened at Worms was the beginning of the collapse of Medievalism wherein church and state were, at best, conflated or, at worst, where the state was subservient to the church in Rome. It was the beginning of what would become known as the separation of church and state. It was indeed the birth of the modern world and today we can celebrate 500 years of that transformation.

In the Second Vatican Council, 1963-65, the Roman Catholic Church adopted many of the reforms that Luther had put forward: The scriptures we're now in the common language, the language of the mass was changed from Latin to the common language, and congregational singing replaced choirs of monks and nuns. The one thing not accepted in the Roman Catholic Church was marriage of the clergy. It remains one point of disagreement but it is not a cause for hostility between the two branches of the church. Find points of theology put forward by Luther have been restated by the Roman Catholic Church and, again, Catholics and Lutherans find themselves in so much clear agreement.

Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before him have both said that, if they were living when Luther did, they would have agreed with Luther.

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is a contributor in religion and entertainment.