Cry for Reform
Tracts by Martin Luther Written in 1520: To the Christian Nobility
of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,
and The Freedom of a Christian
Dr. Herb Samworth
many who know of Martin Luther solely by the words that he spoke
at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, "My conscience is captive
to the Word of God, here I stand, I can do no other, God help me."
These are stirring words and lose nothing by their retelling. However,
these words, as thrilling as they are, cannot alone capture the
full essence of Luther and what he believed.
Luther, it is necessary to know the background that brought him
to utter those words. To do this, we will review the major historical
events previous to the Diet of Worms, the reactions against Luther,
and three major tracts that he wrote during the crucial year of
Controversy of 1517 was more the occasion rather than the cause
of the Reformation. The true cause of the Reformation was Luther's
conversion to faith in Christ prior to 1517. Through his personal
struggles with sin and the study of the Word of God, Luther came
to realize that the righteousness of God that could assure him of
God's acceptance was not an impossible standard to which he had
to attain but God's free gift in Christ.
to faith in Christ and being assured of his standing with God, Luther
began to compare his conversion with what the Church had taught.
As a faithful monk, Luther had done everything, and more, that the
Church commanded. Rather than bringing a settled peace, his attempts
only heightened his despair. The understanding that salvation was
a gift graciously bestowed by God rather than something earned by
his own merits opened Luther's eyes to the nature of the Church's
John Tetzel came to Mainz, Germany proclaiming the indulgence, Luther's
ire was aroused. The Ninety-five Theses that he attached to the
door of the Castle Church on October 31, 1517 rapidly circulated
throughout Europe. News of his action quickly reached Rome. Papal
officials were caught between feelings of outrage over the audacious
actions of a monk and incredulity that someone would dare question
the authority of the Church. Rather than attempting to suppress
Luther, Rome remained undecided as to whether his actions were heretical
or merely mistaken.
events continued to progress. In April 1518, Luther defended his
teachings at Heidelberg before members of the Augustinian order.
As a result, Martin Bucer and Johannes Brenz were won to the cause
of the Reformation. Luther's interview with Cardinal Cajetan (Thomas
de Vio) failed to bring a retraction from Luther.
1519 the entire situation was thrown into confusion by the death
of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Attention was now diverted
from Luther to the task of electing a new Emperor. In June of that
year, after months of intrigue and bribery, Maximilian's grandson,
Charles V, was elected as the new Holy Roman Emperor. However, the
Papacy had incurred a great debt to the German elector, Frederick
the Wise, and Pope Leo X had to agree to his demand that Luther
not be sent to Rome for trial but that he would be tried on German
1519, Rome sent its foremost German theologian, John Eck of Ingolstadt,
to crush Luther at Leipzig. However, the Augustinian monk refuted
the arguments of Eck and stood his ground. It became apparent that
the Papacy was facing a true "German Hercules" as Luther
was now called. The Papacy paused to regroup and this gave a time
of respite to Luther.
1519 Charles V was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor five months
after his election. There was no doubt as to where Charles stood
on the issues regarding Luther. He was determined to crush the heretic
and restore the true faith to his territory. However, before he
could move against Luther, events in Spain caused him to absent
himself from Germany for over a year. It would be in late 1520 before
Charles would have opportunity to return to Germany.
Luther appealed to the Pope explaining his actions and asking Leo
to assist with the reformation of the church. However, rather than
receiving assurances of the Pope's support, the Pope responded with
the promulgation of the bull Exurge Domini that
begins with the words, "Rise up, Lord, rise up, Peter, rise
up, Paul, rise up, all saints, for a wild boar has invaded your
vineyard… there has reached our ears, yes, what is worse,
alas, we have seen and read with our own eyes the many and various
errors of which several were already condemned by councils…"
Luther was given sixty days in which to recant or be condemned.
it was one thing to promulgate the bull, it was another thing to
have it placed in Luther's hands. It was October 1520 before the
Papal bull finally reached Luther. Luther had heard of its issuance,
but it could not be enforced until it had actually been placed in
after the issuance of the Papal Bull were the most difficult of
Luther's life. There was no reason to believe that Luther had started
with the intention of rebelling against the Church. He was not interested
in rending its unity. However, he did believe that reformation was
imperative and that Pope Leo X would be the first to call for it
if he but realized the gravity of the situation. It was a crushing
disappointment to Luther to hear that the bull had been pronounced
may have been Luther's personal feelings at this turn of events,
there was no doubt that these months were among the most productive
in his life. Tract after tract flowed from his pen defending the
reform of the church. However, there were three tracts that merit
special attention. They were entitled To the Christian Nobility
of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,
and The Freedom of a Christian. Luther's works occupy numerous
volumes in their various editions. A strong case could be made that
these three tracts, about three hundred pages in their modern reprints,
may be the most important things that he ever wrote. They were written
in August, October, and November of 1520. They summarized Luther's
reasons for the reformation.
written nearly five hundred years ago in German and Latin, even
in their English translation, they exhibit a vigor and passion that
cannot be denied. Luther opened his heart concerning the need for
reformation and, at whatever cost to himself, nailed his flag to
the mast as he had previously nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the
Castle Church door. If the greatest gift Luther gave to the Church
was the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith, these
three treatises aid us to understand how Luther applied the doctrine.
Luther believed that the doctrine of justification by faith was
the mark of a standing or falling church. By that he meant that
where this doctrine was taught and believed, the church was standing,
i.e. true to the teaching of God's Word. Where this doctrine was
not taught or obscured, the church was departing from the grace
of God. Luther believed that the church of his day was falling.
His desire was to have it restored to the purity of the Gospel.
The three tracts outlined this belief and how he planned to apply
it to the church situation.
It is impossible
in the confines of this paper to do more than just give a summary
of their contents. However, they deserve to be read and reread as
one individual’s concern for the Church of Jesus Christ and
for his nation. In these tracts, Luther did not forget that he was
a German and Germany had suffered greatly from the Papacy.
18, 1520 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation
was published. The tract was addressed to the nobility because Luther
believed that any reformation of the Church was directly dependent
on their support. In this broadside against the teachings of the
Church, Luther destroyed the three lines of defense that the Church
had erected to justify its teachings. Those three walls included
the distinction between the clerical and the lay members of the
Church, the claim that the Pope was the supreme interpreter of Scripture,
and the teaching that the Pope was the supreme authority in the
Church. In the second and third parts of the treatise Luther dealt
with particular offenses against the people of Germany and gave
practical proposals for reform of these abuses.
was controlled indignation against Rome's treatment of the German
nation, religiously and politically. However, Luther's basic thesis
stood out on every page: the priesthood of all believers. Rome claimed
exclusive power over the priesthood that had been transformed into
a sacrificial system by the Mass. In contrast, Luther demonstrated
time and time again that the true priesthood was the one Christ
conferred on every believer. Before the teaching of the priesthood
of the believer, Rome's false claims of spiritual superiority had
to give way.
claim that he alone had the authority to interpret correctly the
Scriptures also fell to the ground. There was no biblical justification
for such a claim. The same was true for the superiority of the Pope
over Church Councils. Any Christian had the right, even the responsibility,
to call council of the Church when it became evident that reformation
From a vantage
point of five hundred years, Luther's teaching about the priesthood
of the believer may appear to be commonplace. However, at a time
when Rome held political and religious power over the nations, such
teaching was revolutionary.
end of the treatise, Luther hinted that this was but the opening
salvo in his campaign against Rome's claims. True to his word in
October 1520, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,
Luther attacked the citadel of Roman power. The title of his second
tract was taken from the Babylonian conquest of Judah in the sixth
century B.C. As Babylon took Judah into captivity, so Rome had taken
the sacraments into captivity. In his first treatise, he had demolished
the walls of Rome's defenses, now he went to the center of the power
that Rome held over the souls of men. That power was concentrated
in the Sacramental system by which the grace of God was conferred
upon men. All people recognized that a sinful man could not approach
a Holy God by his own merits. All were in need of the grace of God.
Rome taught that God had given all grace to the Church and it was
the function and prerogative of the Church exclusively to dispense
that grace to the faithful by means of the sacraments.
Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther discussed the seven
sacraments. However, the majority of the book dealt with the sacraments
of the Eucharist and Baptism. These were dominical sacraments, having
been ordained by the Lord Himself. As a result, there was biblical
justification for them. However, Rome had perverted their true purpose
and used them to wield spiritual power over men. Luther was in favor
of retaining the sacrament of penance but not in the manner in which
it was administered. The sacraments of Holy Orders, Confirmation,
Marriage, and Extreme Unction were eliminated because they lacked
Luther correct these abuses of the sacraments? He cited the Word
of God to demonstrate the true nature of a sacrament. A true sacrament
was comprised of two elements: a word of institution or promise
by the Lord and a visible sign that accompanied it.
the Eucharist, Luther's first complaint was that the cup was withheld
from the laity. This was in direct contradiction of the words of
Christ that participants were to partake of both kinds. However,
this was subordinate to Luther's denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation.
This doctrine taught that the elements of the Eucharist were changed
into the body and blood of the Lord by the priest's act of consecration.
Luther equated his teaching on the Eucharist with the position of
John Wyclif and John Hus, whose teachings had been condemned by
the Church as heresy. Luther boldly stated that the doctrine of
transubstantiation had never been taught in the church for the first
twelve hundred years of its existence. While controversy still continues
regarding Luther's exact understanding of the Eucharist, there was
no doubt that he rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation.
In his third
complaint regarding the Eucharist, Luther charged Rome with teaching
that participation in the Eucharist was a good work and a sacrifice
of the Lord. As a result, the necessity of faith had been banished
from the sacrament. All manner of evil had resulted from this perversion
including the celebration of private masses, masses for the dead,
Baptism, Luther complained that the manner of its administration
also took away the necessity of faith. The Church taught that Baptism
saved the person. However, Luther stated that, apart from faith,
no spiritual blessings were received. Although there was biblical
justification for the sacrament of baptism and the promise of spiritual
blessings attached to its proper administration, these had been
taken captive by the Church for the purpose of making merchandise
of the souls of men.
tract, Luther attacked the Church at its central teaching. As a
result, there could be no turning back. The choice was between a
complete recantation and casting himself on the mercy of the Pope
or continuing forward toward what appeared to be certain destruction.
However, not everyone was convinced that these were the only available
options. Karl of Miltitz, a Saxon nobleman who previously had attempted
to reconcile the two sides, made one final effort. Through the influence
of Johann von Staupitz and Wenceslaus Link, the heads of the Augustinian
order, Miltitz persuaded Luther to write a conciliatory letter to
Pope Leo and to include a devotional tract especially written to
explain his teachings on the Christian life.
to this and in November he wrote a letter to Pope Leo X. In the
letter, Luther distinguished between the Pope, whom he believed
was a captive of the Roman Curia, and Church officials. Although
the letter was written in a respectful tone, Luther did not hesitate
to remind the Pope that he was responsible for the reformation of
the Church. This was not the humble submission that Leo had demanded
in his bull against Luther. Whether Leo ever received the letter
is unknown to this day.
the letter was a tract entitled The Freedom of a Christian.
It was one of the most irenic of Luther's writings. It was the application
of Luther's theology to the Christian life. One of the charges made
against Luther's teaching was that it would lower the moral condition
of the people. If Luther's doctrine of justification by faith were
true, people no longer would be required to obey the law of God.
This charge is ironic when one considers that the moral conditions
in Rome could not have gotten any worse!
Freedom of a Christian, Luther made a distinction between the
law and the gospel. The law showed a person his need of salvation.
Once the person had received salvation, he was free from the penalty
of the Law. However, he was not free to live as he pleased and to
ignore God's laws. On the contrary, he had been set free from sin
to serve others with an attitude of gratitude and love. Thus the
Christian was both enslaved and free. He had been freed from sin
and had become the servant of all.
a number of persons in the Papal Court who commented favorably on
the teaching of this tract. However, undergirding it was a theology
that differed greatly from the theology of Rome. It was evangelical
and, while Luther demonstrated that his theology would not lead
to lawlessness, it was a theology based on personal faith in Christ
and not on the Church. Although he wrote in a conciliatory tone,
Luther did not retreat from his evangelical position.
attempt at reconciliation proved futile. Luther finally received
the Bull on October 10, 1520 and was given sixty days to submit.
He gave his answer on December 10 when he burned the Papal bull,
the canon law and other books. Thus the road was opened to the Diet
of Worms where, in April 1521, Luther uttered this noble declaration,
"Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen."