Three 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
By Dr. Herb Samworth
There are 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.
To understand 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 1520.
The Indulgence 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.
Having come 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 teaching.
Thus when 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.
In Germany, 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.
In January 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 soil.
In June 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.
In October 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
However, 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 his hands.
The months 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 against him.
Whatever 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.
Although 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.
On August 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.
The writing 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.
The Pope’s 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 was needed.
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.
Toward the 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.
In The 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 biblical authority.
How did 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.
Concerning 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, etc.
Concerning 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.
In this 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.
Luther agreed 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.
Accompanying 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!
In The 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.
There were 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.
This final 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.”