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Life of Luther—1520


In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues
with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.

At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther would be asked to recant what he had written about the Catholic Church. Several of those writings important to the Reformation were written in 1520.

To the Christian Nobility of
the German Nation

Earlier in his life Luther had defended the pope, believing that the pope was unaware of the abuses and false teachings promoted by his underlings. By 1520 Luther was convinced that the pope was at the heart of the problem. In To the Christian Nobility, Luther attacked the church hierarchy of Rome, asserting that it had established a threefold wall around itself to immunize it against any reform.

The first wall was the papacy’s claim that it was supreme over all earthly authorities. Luther argued for the “priesthood of all believers” as taught in Scripture (see I Peter 2:9). Since all Christians were on an equal footing before God, Catholic clergy had no authority over others beyond God’s Word, to which all are subject.

The second wall protecting the papacy was the claim that only the pope could interpret Scripture. Luther countered that the power of the keys, that of forgiving and retaining sins, was something owned by the entire priesthood of believers, not exclusively the pope. He held, too, that the pope himself was capable of error. And a pope capable of error could not claim infallibility when it came to interpreting Scripture.

The third wall guarding the papacy was the claim that only the pope could convene a church council. If indeed the pope was capable of error, then it was not only the right but also the duty of the church to apply church discipline, as prescribed in Matthew 18. Action taken against a pope may require that a council of Christians convene for such a purpose.

In this pamphlet Luther was providing the German civil authorities ammunition to refuse submission to papal authority, and to rise up as leaders of church reform. Papal courts, indulgences, expensive masses, and unnecessary bureaucracy all drained the wealth of Germany. Luther sought to decentralize the Roman church and support greater German independence. Luther also condemned the pompous ceremonies centered on the pope, pilgrimages to Rome, monasticism, the required celibacy of priests, the canonizing of new “saints,” and mendicant begging.

Babylonian Captivity of
the Church

In this treatise Luther compared what the Catholic Church was saying about its seven sacraments with what the Bible teaches. Luther believed the church was being held in exile by the pope just as the Israelites of the Old Testament were held in exile by Nebuchadnezzar during the Babylonian Captivity. Luther openly denied that there were seven sacraments.

Luther regarded Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as true sacraments. Nevertheless, the Lord’s Supper was being abused by three false teachings: the refusal to share Christ’s blood with the laity, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and, above all, by the teaching that the Lord’s Supper was a sacrifice offered by the priest to atone for the sins of the living and the dead.

Confirmation, marriage, ordination (Holy Orders), and extreme unction (Last Rites) could not be established as sacraments by Scripture. Luther believed a true sacrament needed to have a divine promise that calls forth faith with a visible sign attached to it. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper clearly have that. In view of all these false teachings Luther, in Babylonian Captivity, forthrightly accused the pope of being the Antichrist.

On the Freedom of a Christian (November)

In the last of the 1520 treatises, Luther expounded on the truth that Christians fully forgiven by God are no longer under compulsion to keep His law in order to be saved. Rather, as a fruit of their faith, they will freely and willingly serve God and their neighbor. In this sense he could state, “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.”

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.