The Decisive Documents of 1520
Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation
Trumpet Blast For Reform
Since the Roman curia would not reform the church, Luther said, the German princes had that right and responsibility. Playing on the German leaders’ sense of national pride, he urged them to implement some two dozen church reforms. In the process, Luther set forth the famous doctrine that every Christian is a priest. The work’s large first printing sold out in two weeks.
In the excerpt here, Luther explains how the “Romanists” have barricaded themselves from reform—and he then demolishes their barricades.
The time for silence is past, and the time to speak has come. ...
The Romanists have very cleverly built three walls around themselves. Hitherto they have protected themselves by these walls in such a way that no one has been able to reform them. As a result, the whole of Christendom has fallen abominably.
In the first place, when pressed by the temporal power, they have made decrees and declared that the temporal power had no jurisdiction over them, but that, on the contrary, the spiritual power is above the temporal.
In the second place, when the attempt is made to reprove them with the Scriptures, they raise the objection that only the pope may interpret the Scriptures.
In the third place, if threatened with a council, their story is that no one may summon a council but the pope. ...
Attacking the First Wall
Let us begin by attacking the first wall. It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate, while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate. This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need he intimidated by it, and for this reason: All Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 [vv. 12–13] that we are all one body, yet every member has its own work by which it serves the others. This is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people.
The pope or bishop anoints, shaves heads, ordains, consecrates, and prescribes garb different from that of the laity, but he can never make a man into a Christian or into a spiritual man by so doing. He might well make a man into a hypocrite or a humbug and blockhead, but never a Christian or a spiritual man. As far as that goes, we are all consecrated priests through baptism, as St. Peter says in 1 Peter 2 [v. 9] .
Attacking the Second Wall
The second wall is still more loosely built and less substantial. The Romanists want to be the only masters of Holy Scripture, although they never learn a thing from the Bible all their life long. ... Their claim that only the pope may interpret Scripture is an outrageous fancied fable. They cannot produce a single letter [of Scripture] to maintain that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone. They themselves have usurped this power. And although they allege that this power was given to St. Peter when the keys were given him, it is clear enough that the keys were not given to Peter alone but to the whole community.
Further, the keys were not ordained for doctrine or government, but only for the binding or loosing of sin. Whatever else or whatever more they arraogate to themselves on the basis of the keys is a mere fabrication. But Christ’s words to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith fail not” [Luke 22:32], cannot be applied to the pope, since the majority of the popes have been without faith, as they must themselves confess. Besides, it is not only for Peter that Christ prayed, but also for all apostles and Christians, as he says in John 17 [vv. 9, 20], “Father, I pray for those whom thou hast given me, and not for these only, but for all who believe on me through their word.” Is that not clear enough?
Attacking the Third Wall
The third wall falls of itself when the first two are down. ... The Romanists have no basis in Scripture for their claim that the pope alone has the right to call or confirm a council. This is just their own ruling, and it is only valid as long as it is not harmful to Christendom or contrary to the laws of God. Now when the pope deserves punishment, this ruling no longer obtains, for not to punish him by authority of a council is harmful to Christendom.
Thus we read in Acts 15 that it was not St. Peter who called the apostolic council but the apostles and elders. ... Even the Council of Nicaea, the most famous of all councils, was neither called nor confirmed by the bishop of Rome, but by the emperor Constantine. Many other emperors after him have done the same, and yet these councils were the most Christian of all. But if the pope alone has the right to convene councils, then these councils would all have been heretical. Further, when I examine the councils the pope did summon, I find that they did nothing of special importance.
Therefore, when necessity demands it, and the pope is an offense to Christendom, the first man who is able should, as a true member of the whole body, do what he can to bring about a truly free council. ...
God give us all a Christian mind, and grant to the Christian nobility of the German nation in particular true spiritual courage to do the best they can for the poor church. Amen.
On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
“Attacking a difficult matter”
Luther’s friend Georg Spalatin asked him to write about the sacraments. Luther did, quickly reducing the traditional seven sacraments to three; he rejected confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and extreme unction. By the end of his work, Luther even made penance, though useful, less than a sacrament. That left only baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Luther then challenged traditional understandings of the Lord’s Supper: * that lay people should not receive the cup; * that the elements undergo transubstantiation into Christ’s body and blood; * that the Mass is a sacrifice.
The work’s title refers to the captivity of the Jewish nation under the Babylonian Empire (in the sixth century B.C. ). So in his day, Luther argued, Christians had been carried away from the Scriptures and made subject to the papacy. If the papacy did not free the churches from sacramental abuses, then it “is identical with the kingdom of Babylon and the Antichrist itself.”
In the work, Luther not only attacked abuses of the sacraments, but totally redefined them. He called the book a “little song about Rome and the Romanists. If their ears are itching to hear it, I will sing and pitch it in the highest key!”
To begin with, I must deny that there are seven sacraments, and for the present maintain that there are but three: baptism, penance, and the bread [Communion]. All three have been subjected to a miserable captivity by the Roman curia, and the church has been robbed of all her liberty.
Now concerning the sacrament of the bread first of all ... the first captivity of this sacrament, therefore, concerns its substance or completeness, which the tyranny of Rome has wrested from us. Not that those who use only one kind sin against Christ, for Christ did not command the use of either kind, but left it to the choice of each individual, when he said: “As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me” [1 Cor. 11:25]. But they are the sinners, who forbid the giving of both kinds to those who wish to exercise this choice. The fault lies not with the laity, but with the priests. The sacrament does not belong to the priests, but to all men. The priests are not lords, but servants in duty bound to administer both kinds to those who desire them, as often as they desire them. ...
When the Evangelists plainly write that Christ took bread and blessed it, ... we have to think of real bread and real wine, just as we do of a real cup (for even they do not say that the cup was transubstantiated). Since it is not necessary, therefore, to assume a transubstantiation effected by divine power, it must be regarded as a figment of the human mind, for it rests neither on the Scriptures nor on reason.
Perhaps they will say that the danger of idolatry demands that the bread and wine should not be really present. How ridiculous! The laymen have never become familiar with their finespun philosophy of substance and accidents, and could not grasp it if it were taught to them.
The third captivity of this sacrament is by far the most wicked of all, in consequence of which there is no opinion more generally held or more firmly believed in the church today than this, that the Mass is a good work and a sacrifice. And this abuse has brought an endless host of other abuses in its train, so that the faith of this sacrament has become utterly extinct and the holy sacrament has been turned into mere merchandise, a market, and a profit making business. Hence participations, brotherhoods, intercessions, merits, anniversaries, memorial days and the like wares are bought and sold, traded and bartered, in the church. On these the priests and monks depend for their entire livelihood.
I am attacking a difficult matter, an abuse perhaps impossible to uproot, since through centuries—long custom and the common consent of men it has become so firmly entrenched that it would be necessary to abolish most of the books now in vogue, and to alter almost the entire external form of the churches and introduce, or rather reintroduce, a totally different kind of ceremonies. But my Christ lives, and we must be careful to give more heed to the Word of God than to all the thoughts of men and of angels.
On the Freedom of a Christian
The heart of the Christian life
This treatise, the most conciliatory of the three, was, Luther admitted, “a small book if you regard its size.” However, “it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form. ” He sent it with an open letter to Pope Leo X, since, he wrote, “I am a poor man and have no other gift to offer.” It proved to be Luther’s final attempt to be reconciled to Rome.
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together, they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in 1 Corinthians 9 [v. 19], “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” and in Romans 13 [v. 8], “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was “born of woman, born under the law” [Gal. 4:4], and therefore, was at the same time a free man and a servant, “in the form of God” and “of a servant” [Phil 2:6–7]
Let us start, however, with something more remote from our subject, but more obvious. Man has a twofold nature, a spiritual and a bodily one. ... [and] these two men in the same man contradict each other, “for the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh,” according to Galatians 5 [v. 17].
First, let us consider the inner man to see how a righteous, free, and pious Christian, that is, a spiritual, new, and inner man, becomes what he is. It is evident that no external thing has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or freedom. ... One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ. ...
To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching. ... Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith....
Since, therefore, this faith can rule only in the inner man, and since faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man. ... Wherefore it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all confidence in works and increasingly to strengthen faith alone and through faith to grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus. CH
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #34 in 1992]
Colorful Sayings of Colorful Luther
A sample of the reformer’s wit and wisdom.Mary Ann Jeffreys
Martin Luther’s Early Years: Christian History Timeline
Chronology of events related to Luther's life and the Reformation.Ken Schurb
Preaching From the Print Shop
If Luther hadn’t used the new printing technology, would there have been a Reformation?Perry Brown
Luther suffered from them, too.Perry Brown