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OUR MARTIN > Reformer at Work



PART III - REFORMER AT WORK

PEOPLE IN PLACES OF HIGH AUTHORITY DON'T LIKE BEING TOLD THEY'RE WRONG

Luther had burned the pope's order of excommunication. He had stood courageously before the emperor and refused to renounce his writings. Now what? Would he be put to death like a common criminal?

UNDER THE BAN OF THE EMPEROR

After Luther left the city of Worms to return to his Wittenberg home, the emperor issued a proclamation. In this imperial edict, Charles forbade anyone to have any dealings with Luther the outlaw. He called on his loyal subjects to seize Luther and bring him to the proper authorities. He made buying, selling, printing, reading, or possessing Luther's writings a crime. Anyone guilty of disobeying these laws would be punished by death.

Luther was saved from harm through the unexpected intervention of the ruler of Saxony, Frederick the Elector. Luther lived in Wittenberg, which was in Saxon territory and Frederick would not permit one of his subjects to be treated cruelly by the emperor or anyone else. Further, not fully trusting the emperor, he feared that something "unfortunate" might happen to Luther.

Quickly and quietly Frederick developed a plan. As Luther and his friends were riding back to Wittenberg, a band of the Elector's soldiers hid in a forest along the way. When Luther came by, they attacked his party. Dragging him roughly from the wagon in which he was riding and mounting him on a horse, they carried him away. Deep into the Thuringian mountains, the soldiers rode in silence. Luther thought he was going to be killed. Finally, just before midnight, they rode up a high, wooded hill to Wartburg Castle. The castle was to be Luther's haven, a good hiding place until the opposition to this young professor and his challenging ideas, died down.

During his confinement in Wartburg Castle Luther dressed like a knight, grew a beard, and was called "Junker George." He kept himself busy by studying and writing. One of his greatest projects was translating the New Testament into German.

LUTHER AND THE BIBLE

Luther was a man of the Bible. Actually, it was his belief that the Bible was the source of all the church's authority that had brought him into conflict with the church. He sincerely believed that whenever the teachings and practices of the church conflicted with the Bible the church was wrong.

Luther disagreed vehemently with the idea that only the church could interpret the Bible properly. He was convinced that every man should have the privilege of reading it for himself. This meant that the Bible had to be available to everyone in his own language. With speed and great zeal he worked; and within three months, he had translated the New Testament into German. (The Old Testament would take longer; he needed help with the Hebrew language from scholarly friends. The translation of the whole Bible was not completed until 1534.)

To Luther, the Bible was central to Christian faith and life. He immersed himself in the Bible, absorbing its teachings. The people of the Bible were his friends, people with whom he was acquainted. He knew God as they did. In the pages of the Bible, he had made the greatest discovery of his life: the discovery that God reached down to him in Jesus Christ.

There was little time to rest in the secluded castle. He was constantly confronted with problems. Many people, admiring his courageous support of truth, looked to him for leadership. Reports were coming in describing the rapid changes taking place in Wittenberg. A fellow professor named Carlstadt was guiding the people in developing new practices. Some changes were good: German was being used in church services instead of Latin; priests, monks, and nuns were now allowed to marry and live normal lives. Other changes were not so good: Mobs were breaking into churches overturning altars, smashing pictures, and destroying images; pictures, statues, images, even music and organs in churches were being condemned; vestments for the clergy were being discarded.

LUTHER RETURNS TO WITTENBERHG

Finally, Luther could no longer stand his isolation. He returned to Wittenberg on March 6, 1522, and immediately went to work. In his sermons, he emphasized that the most important task of the church was proclaiming the Word of God. God's Word would change the hearts of men. Other concerns of the church, such as orders of worship, language, monastic vows, were matters of personal choice. To Luther, these were the nonessentials.

Through his preaching and pastoral ministry, Luther showed that he was not a radical who wanted to discard all the traditions of the church just for the sake of beginning anew. He suggested that all customs and practices should be analyzed carefully in the light of faith in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. If any practices in the church conflicted with this faith then, of course, the practices must be changed. However, if there were no conflict, then those customs and practices which had values in the Christian life should be retained.

THE SERVICE

Luther's point of view can be illustrated by looking at the changes that were made in the chief service of worship, "the Mass." The word "Mass" means "body." When the priest lifted the bread and the wine at the altar during the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Roman Catholic church believed he was repeating Christ's sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross. Further, they believed that the bread and the wine actually became Christ's body and blood in the service. Consequently, because of the danger of spilling Christ's precious blood, the wine was not given to laymen. They received only bread when they communed. Generally, the layman was a spectator at the worship service. The liturgy was all in Latin. The priest and the choir, if there was one, did all the singing. But going to Mass was believed to be a good work which would help save a man, so the average person went regularly.

Luther and his friends began to make changes in the Mass so that it would reflect more accurately the teachings of the New Testament. Since we believe that Christ sacrificed his life willingly on Calvary, making one sacrifice for all of mankind, then no man -- not even a priest -- can ever sacrifice Christ again. Therefore, this part of the service was dropped - and the wine, as well as the bread was given to every worshiper. Luther carefully pointed out, that although the person who eats the bread and drinks the wine receives the real presence of Jesus Christ in his heart, the bread and wine remain bread and wine. The changing of the elements is a symbolic one; there is no magic involved. And because Luther believed that every person should know and understand what was going on in the service, he made sure that all services would be translated into the language of the people.

Under Luther's guidance, preaching became a more prominent part of the service. He said, "The chief and greatest aim of any service is to preach and teach God's Word." He believed that God speaks through sermons. Luther himself was a great preacher, and twenty-three hundred of his sermons are still in print today.

Another change Luther made was in the use of music. He wanted all the worshipers to sing God's praises. To this end, in 1524, he published a collection of hymns. His most famous hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," is known and loved by Christians everywhere. An African in Tanganyika once said of Luther, "He must have been a powerful man; one can feel it in his hymns."

Many parts of the service, however, were not changed. Today your church still uses pre-Lutheran songs, such as the Gloria Patri, the Kyrie, and the Gloria in Excelsis; and pre-Lutheran prayers such as the collects. These have been elements of Christian worship since very early times. Some reformers, in other countries, removed them from worship saying that they wanted nothing at all to remind them of the old church. But Luther saw many valuable things in the old church, and it had never been his intention to start a new only. He wanted to purify the old church, to reform it. His whole purpose was to direct the church to the Bible that it might serve Jesus Christ and call all people to a faith in him.

NEW WAYS OF CHRISTIAN LIVING

In his preaching and writing, Luther tried to help people see what Christian living really means. No one justifies himself before God by what he does; he cannot bribe God into saving him by doing good deeds. He is in a right relationship with God only if he trusts in what Jesus Christ has done for him. Therefore, the Christian life is nothing more than living a Christlike life out of love and thanksgiving and gratitude. You don't go to church to impress God with your holiness or because you think he will punish you if you don't attend. You go to church to worship God because you know he has reached down into your life and has given you his forgiveness, his help, and his love.

The old idea, that the best way of serving God is through such spiritual exercises as prayer, masses, and vigils, was too narrow. There is no division between spiritual and secular parts of life. All of life belongs to God. As a matter of fact he first serves us through worship and prayer before we serve him in this way. Most of all he wants us to serve him by helping our neighbors. Luther's comment, "I will give myself as a little Christ to my neighbor as Christ gave himself for me," is worth memorizing. This is the essence of Christian living.

The old idea that priests had a favored position with God could not be true. Didn't Jesus teach everyone the Lord's Prayer? Didn't John say that "whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life"? All Christians are, therefore, equal before the God of love. No one is especially favored; no one is greater than another. Luther carried this idea a step further to say that all Christians are priests of God, privileged to come to him directly, seeking forgiveness and help in prayer, and also obligated to witness to their fellowmen by leading a holy life. Luther and the other reformers believed in having ministers of the gospel, but these men were set apart only in terms of their specialized service -- they held no favored position with God. If all men were equal before God, then all human work was sacred.

LUTHER'S MARRIAGE AND HOME

Luther challenged the church in another way. He was convinced that it was no holier to remain unmarried than to marry. After all, Jesus himself blessed marriage as God's plan for the world. The family is the building block of society and the church. In support of his belief, Luther thought he should set an example, and on June 13, 1525, he married a former nun, Katharine von Bora. They lived happily together in the "Black Cloister," formerly a part of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg. In time their daughters and sons made the big, high-ceilinged rooms ring with noise and laughter. The Luthers were a friendly family, having guests so often that Katie never knew how many people would be at the dinner table. Luther was always inviting people to share his hospitality. Meals in the Luther's home were high spots in the day. Along with the happy-hearted fellowship there were serious moments, too, when Luther taught his family and guests the truths of God's Word. Luther's Table Talk is a record of many of the fascinating statements he made on these occasions.

THE CATECHISMS

Luther continued to teach and preach. As he traveled about the countryside, he saw that superstition and ignorance still among many of the people. They seemed to have no knowledge of Christian doctrine. Luther realized that more Christian education and instructions was needed, and that the people themselves wanted some guide for understanding Christian truths. To meet this need, Luther prepared two books which would help the people to understand the Christian faith. They were titled the Large and Small Catechisms, and were published in 15429.

The Large Catechism was intended for pastors and adults. The Small Catechism was intended for children, and Luther expected that it would be studied in the home under the guidance of parents. Both books were based on Roman catechisms offering interpretations of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Luther added sections on the two sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion, as well as some other items.

AFTER FREDERICK'S DEATH

One of the surprising things in Martin Luther's story is the large amount of freedom he had. As a man living under the ban of both the church and the emperor, you might expect that he would have been put to death, or at the very least hindered in his work.

In a sense, he made his own freedom by his determination, courage, and faith. He was not easily silenced or frightened. Another reason is that, after the
Diet of Worms, Charles V was busy with other problems in the various sections of his huge empire. Duke Frederick, who had arranged for Luther to be taken to the Wartburg Castle, also protected him when he returned to Wittenberg. By the time Frederick died in 1525, other electors in several German provinces had become friendly to Luther and his ideas and were willing to protect him.

In 1526, at the Diet of Speyer, it was agreed that each prince was free to determine the religious affairs of his territory "as he would have to answer to God and the emperor."

Three years later, in another diet at Speyer, the Roman Catholic leaders were stronger. They forced repeal of the decision of 1526 and adopted stern measures unfavorable to the "heretics," as the followers of Luther were then called. Those who followed Luther's teachings protested against being forbidden to worship as they thought God wanted them to. They said, "We fear God's wrath more than we fear the emperor's ban." It was this protest which earned for the electors and princes the name "Protestant."

Finally, in 1530, Charles V was free enough from other responsibilities to return to Germany. He resolved to do something definite about the Lutheran heresy and settle it once and for all.
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