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Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word: The 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 1522 Return to Wittenberg

Rev. S. Piet Van Kampen

2022 Synod Convention Essay

Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.

Curb those who fain by craft and sword

Would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son,

And set at naught all He hath done.

– Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #589.

The “Black Bear”

What a thunderstorm!1 That’s all Johannes could think. He and Marcus2 his traveling companion, were both drenched to the bone. The late winter-early spring storm had come upon them suddenly and fiercely while they were on the road. Now that they had arrived at the city of Jena, Johannes and Marcus were looking for a place to dry out.

“Typical,” Marcus spoke up as they walked. “During the storm there was no shelter to be had at all,” he said, “but the minute we get to town, sure enough, the rain stops.”

Johannes smiled in agreement. Looking up, he noticed the clouds didn’t look nearly as threatening now as they had an hour earlier, and the torrential rainfall they’d been making their way through had slowed to a gentle sprinkle. “We should have planned a little better,” Johannes finally answered. “At this time of the year the weather can turn in a moment.”

Johannes and Marcus were a long way from Saint Gall, Switzerland, where they were students at the university. The city of Jena would provide just the opportunity they needed for some much-needed rest. Johannes and Marcus shared a look when they saw the name on the sign outside the local tavern and inn: “Der Schwarze Bär”—“The Black Bear.” Marcus grinned as he shook his head. “A ridiculous name,” he said.

“Perhaps,” Johannes said, “but at least we can get out of the wet!”

The two of them entered the Black Bear and immediately collapsed onto the bench by the door. As they began to relax, Johannes and Marcus began chatting about their journey, where they were going from here, and so on, when all of a sudden they heard a voice: “Don’t just sit there in the entryway! Come and sit down!”

They turned and saw that the voice had come from a dark-haired knight seated at a table in the back of the room. At least he was dressed as a knight. He wore the baggy breeches and doublet of a knight, along with a red beret on his head, a knight’s sword at his side, his hand resting on the hilt. But there was something different about this man, something wasn’t quite… knightly. Maybe it was the small book that was open in front of him. In all his life Johannes had never met a knight who could read.

The man’s bearded face smiled as he gestured at the empty seats at his table, inviting them once more to sit down. When they took their seats, the man introduced himself. “You can call me Jörg,” he said.

“I am Johannes Kessler,” Johannes replied, “and this is my friend, Marcus.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said the knight. “The two of you are Swiss, are you not?”

“Why yes, we are, sir,” Johannes said.

“I’ve met some of your countrymen before,” the knight said. “You must be thirsty! Let me get you something to drink.” Before they could protest, the knight had already called the host over and ordered a beer for himself, and some wine for his new Swiss friends. “So, where in Switzerland are you from?” he asked.

Johannes answered, “We are students from the university at Saint Gall, in Basel.”

“Basel!” the knight exclaimed. The host returned to the table with the ordered beverages. As he turned to head back to the counter, the knight asked, “So, what brings you all the way to Jena?”

Johannes excitedly said, “We are headed to Wittenberg, to visit the university. We’ve heard so much about Luther and Melanchthon, and all the reforms in the Wittenberg church, that we wanted to see and hear for ourselves. We know that Luther’s been in hiding these past several months, but with all the recent news coming out of Wittenberg, we hope for the opportunity to see him. By any chance, sir, do you know if Luther has returned to Wittenberg?”

“It won’t be long until Martin Luther is again in Wittenberg. In fact, he is expected soon,” Jörg said with a coy little smile. Changing the subject ever so slightly, the knight asked, “So, what are they saying about Luther in Switzerland these days?”

“Well, sir,” Johannes said, “Some laud him to the skies as a great reformer.”

“Others,” Marcus chimed in, “especially the priests, denounce him as an intolerable heretic.”3

At Marcus’s words, the knight warmly chuckled to himself. They three of them spent the afternoon in conversation. Later two merchants came to the Black Bear and joined the knight and the students. There was much to talk about. Eventually, the host brought supper for the men. At the end of the evening, when they were about to leave, the two students went to pay the host for their drinks and their dinner. The host waved them off and told them it was taken care of, gesturing toward the knight. That strange knight had paid their bill! Before they turned to leave, Johannes heard the knight call to them once more. “When you arrive in Wittenberg,” Jörg said, “greet Jerome Schurf, the lawyer. He is your compatriot from Saint Gall, and will be most pleased to meet you. But when you see him, greet him also for me. And when he asks you who I am, simply call me, ‘the one who is to come.’”

As they headed back out onto the road, Johannes and Marcus shared a look. “The one who is to come,” Marcus moaned, waving his hands mysteriously.

Johannes answered, “What a strange knight!” And he meant it in the kindest possible way.


Strange as this knight was, Johannes Kessler and his traveling companion followed his instructions, and in doing so, they had the surprise of their lives. Upon their arrival in Wittenberg a few days later, on Saturday, March 8,1522, the students came to the home of attorney Jerome Schurf to present him with their greetings and letters of recommendation from Saint Gall. Yet when Schurf invited them in, they were greeted by that strange knight from the Black Bear in Jena! Only now his beard was gone, and instead of the clothing of a knight, he wore the robes of an Augustinian monk! The knight’s name was different too: no longer Junker Jörg, but Martin Luther!4

It must have been quite the surprise for the young Johannes Kessler. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the pace at which Luther was traveling. In fact, Luther had already arrived in Wittenberg the previous Thursday, days ahead of the two Swiss students with whom he had dined in Jena. Departing from the Wartburg castle on February 28, Luther made the roughly 200 kilometer journey to Wittenberg on horseback, arriving on the evening of Thursday, March 6. Though he had not set any land-speed records, Dr. Luther had obviously ridden like a man on a mission.

One might also regard Luther’s return to public life as a surprise. “Kidnapped” by elector Frederick’s men on May 4, 1521, Luther had managed to avoid drawing attention to himself, at least outside of his writings. During the intervening months at the Wartburg, he had adopted the new identity of Junker Jörg, letting his tonsure (the “hair-do” of a monk) grow out and his beard grow in. To reveal himself now was risky. Since the Edict of Worms went into effect on May 25, 1521, Luther was a wanted man, an outlaw subject to arrest if discovered. The road from the Wartburg to Wittenberg passed through the heart of Ducal Saxony, the territory of Duke George, who would have gladly done the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the favor of removing Martin Luther from circulation.

So, what drove Luther to leave the relative safety and security of the Wartburg to risk coming back to Wittenberg? In a word, it was love: love for the people of Wittenberg, who Luther regarded as his flock; love for souls for whom Christ died. The congregation there was in trouble. From Luther’s point of view, the wolf was in the sheep pen.5 Radical reformers had stirred up the townspeople in the name of furthering the Reformation, leading to civil unrest. The Augustinian monastery was in upheaval, the university at Wittenberg was losing students left and right, and the entire town was on edge. Luther needed to return so he could set things right. In his love for his parishioners, Luther could not stand by and let his flock be torn apart, even at the great risk of harm to himself.

Yet perhaps most surprisingly of all was the manner in which Luther chose to lovingly rescue his flock: not with the force of law, nor with harsh demands, but with the Word of God. In the short term Luther would preach the Word to lead his flock to repentance and faith, and in the longer term Luther hoped to put the Scriptures themselves directly into the hands of the people.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s return to Wittenberg and the events that followed. True, much has transpired between 1522 and 2022. However, one can still see many parallels between Luther’s day and the present age. The Reformation brought about a time of swift changes and social upheaval not unlike the change and upheaval that we have experienced within our own lifetimes, even of recent years. From the Reformer and his times we can gain an appreciation for how the Lord keeps us steadfast in the true faith by calling us to repentance when we stray and comforting us with the promises of the gospel, and that He also preserves the truth of His Word among us.

Part 1: Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word—Steadfast in True Faith

Carrying on with the Reformation in Luther’s absence

Luther did not much care for the idea of going into hiding at the Wartburg. He understood it was for the best, but he regretted not being on the front lines anymore. In a May 12, 1521 letter to his friend and coworker Philip Melanchthon, Luther expressed that he wanted nothing more than to meet the fury of his enemies head on.6 He understood that the university as well as the congregation in Wittenberg would face serious challenges in the coming months. The Reformation Luther had began would have to proceed without him. So, in that same letter, he sought to build Melanchthon up as a leader in his absence. Luther writes, “You, therefore, as minister of the Word, be steadfast in the meantime and fortify the walls and towers of Jerusalem until [the enemy] also attack you. You know your call and your gifts. I pray for you as for no one else, if my prayer can accomplish something—which I do not doubt.”7

Melanchthon did his best to fill that leadership role. Thankfully, the Lord aided Melanchthon by providing fresh faces on the university faculty and in the local congregation. Justus Jonas, a lawyer from Erfurt, had taken a teaching position on the legal faculty, only to soon exchange it for a position in the theology department. Aurogallus arrived to teach Hebrew. Johann Bugenhagen also arrived earlier in the same year.8 In addition to others like John Agricola, Nicholas von Amsdorf and local leaders like artist and mayor Lukas Cranach, these men served the cause of the Reformation faithfully.

Yet Melanchthon’s ability and opportunity to lead had its limits. A gifted theologian, Philip Melanchthon in September of 1521 published his Loci Communes, the first Lutheran systematic theology, organizing the doctrines of the Christian faith around the central article of justification by grace through faith in Christ.9 Still, Melanchthon had a somewhat timid soul and was not fond of confrontations. In a July letter from the Wartburg that year, Luther chides his friend Philip, saying that he is “just too gentle.”10 Luther also had hoped that Philip could take Luther’s place in the local pulpit in Wittenberg, but since Melanchthon was not ordained (and married, to boot), the All Saints Foundation (the group responsible for making sure the city church had a preacher) refused to grant him a call to preach. In the end, Melanchthon saw his sphere of influence confined to the university lecture hall.

Instead, the duty of replacing Luther in the pulpit fell to two men: Gabriel Zwilling and Andreas Karlstadt; Zwilling at the Augustinian monastery, and Karlstadt at the city church. So, who were these men? According to one of Luther’s colleagues from the local Augustinian cloister, Zwilling was a powerful preacher, passionate in his presentation of the Word of God.11 (Zwilling definitely had a unique appearance. Luther biographer Heinrich Bornkamm refers to Zwilling as “the little one-eyed Augustinian.”12) Andreas Karlstadt, a few years Luther’s senior as a professor of theology, was also capable in the pulpit. Yet Karlstadt tended to have an erratic personality. Karlstadt had accompanied Luther to Leipzig in July of 1519 to debate the substance of the Ninety-Five Theses. Yet when it came time to debate, Karlstadt came off as disorganized and unprepared. Historian Philip Schaff in his history of the Reformation summarized Karlstadt as “a man of considerable originality, learning, eloquence, zeal and courage, but eccentric, radical, injudicious, ill-balanced, restless, and ambitious for leadership.”13

Through the Wittenberg pulpit, Zwilling and Karlstadt influenced the townspeople as well as their fellows in the university and the local Augustinian cloister. Eventually, the preaching of Karlstadt and Zwilling would put them at the heart of the controversy necessitating Luther’s return.

Change leads to problems in Wittenberg

Big problems often start off small. Such was the case in Wittenberg as the reform-minded believers there began to implement changes based on Luther’s writings. In Luther’s absence Karlstadt began to see himself as the leader of the “Wittenberg Movement.”14 So, on June 21, 1521, Karlstadt took the lead in proposing a disputation, an academic debate, over vows of celibacy, and published a set of theses dealing with the topic. The time was right for such a debate since already by this time some priests were choosing to break their vow of celibacy and marry. In his theses, however, Karlstadt claimed on the basis of 1 Timothy 3:2 (“It is necessary, then, for the overseer to be above reproach, the husband of only one wife…”)15 that every priest should be married. Furthermore, according to 1 Timothy 5:9 (“Let a widow be put on the list if she is over sixty years old, has been a wife of one husband…”), he argued that the monastic vow of celibacy was not binding before age sixty.16

Luther generally approved of Karlstadt’s diligence in the matter, but was not happy with Karlstadt’s exegesis. In his August 3 letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther picked apart some of the weaknesses of Karlstadt’s position. With regard to 1 Timothy 5:9, Luther rightly pointed out that the passage has nothing to do with regulating celibacy in the church.17 Nor did Luther see in 1 Timothy 3 a requirement that all priests be married. “They will not push a wife on me!” Luther exclaimed with his trademark wit.18 In the end Luther’s solution to whether or not monastic vows or vows of celibacy in the priesthood ought to be kept rested on the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone. In Christian freedom, anyone can make a vow to serve the Lord, provided that the person understands that there is no righteousness to be gained by it. If someone takes a vow with the intention of seeking righteousness or salvation by it, the vow must be annulled. Since no one can really know what was in another person’s heart when they took their vows, however, the decision to abandon a vow must be left to the individual’s conscience.19 In early October Luther published two sets of theses, which formed the basis for Luther’s famous study On Monastic Vows, published November 21, 1521.

Luther’s theses caused quite the stir, superseding the writings of others on the subject, including Karlstadt’s. Gabriel Zwilling began actively criticizing monasticism and encouraging others to leave the monastery. Brecht writes, “On 12 November, thirteen Augustinian hermits took that step.”20 The debate over monastic vows also highlighted the difference in approach between Luther and Karlstadt. A sincere man, much of Karlstadt’s preaching and teaching was in accord with Luther. Yet he sometimes stretched the meaning of Bible passages to include things that were never intended. He tended toward legalism, replacing old rules (such as celibacy and monastic vows) with new rules (requiring all priests to marry), violating the principles of Christian freedom and charity.21 Luther, on the other hand, took a more deliberative tack. Luther believed that one’s doctrine and life needed to be based on clear, unambiguous passages of Scripture. In matters where the Word of God is silent, the faithful may be left to follow their conscience, so that fruits of faith may flow freely.

While the debate over celibacy and vows mattered to priests, monks, and nuns, it did not directly impact the life of the average Christian. The Catholic mass however, was a different story. The mass, and especially the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, was the central element of church life, touching the life of every believer.22 For this reason, the mass became “the second big issue in Wittenberg among the proponents of church renewal.”23

In mid-July the subject of the mass came up in some theses Karlstadt had prepared for a baccalaureate disputation. In those theses, he stated that receiving only bread in communion was a sin. While Luther agreed that the time had come to put an end to withholding the cup from the laity, he believed it went too far to say that those who receive communion in only “one kind” commit sin. In his August 1 letter to Melanchthon, Luther points out that pious believers who receive only the bread at the Lord’s altar do so without their consent.24 The average parishioners receiving communion in one kind are not sinning because they are the victims, not the perpetrators.

By the end of September, the city of Wittenberg saw the first changes in the practice of the mass. On the Feast of St. Michael, September 29, Melanchthon and some of his students participated in a private mass at his home where communicants received both the chalice as well as the bread. On October 6, Gabriel Zwilling began preaching against the celebration of private masses without communicants, and against the veneration of the consecrated host. Soon after, the Augustinian monastery began to celebrate the mass with the distribution of both earthly elements. When the prior of the monastery forbade this practice, the monastery stopped celebrating the sacrament entirely. Elector Frederick the Wise formed a committee of university professors including Jonas, Karlstadt, attorney Jerome Schurf, and Melanchthon to negotiate with the Augustinians so that they would not introduce startling changes to the mass. On October 17, Karlstadt held another public disputation. The committee agreed on the need for administering both the bread and the cup in the Supper and that the canon of the mass (the language that made the mass into a re-sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood) be abolished along with private masses, and on October 20 they reported their findings to the elector. At this time the elector, however, for financial and political reasons, rejected any changes to the mass in Wittenberg.25

In November tensions began to arise. From that time on the committee of professors and the monastery found it difficult to reach a decision. The elector continued to field complaints from the Catholic canons and the Augustinian prior about the innovators (those who brought changes to the mass), those who were leaving the monastery, and Zwilling’s fire and brimstone preaching.26 By November 30 even Zwilling had discarded his monk’s cowl and left Wittenberg to preach elsewhere.27 Luther himself weighed in on the dispute with his lengthy treatise, The Misuse of the Mass, though it would not appear in print until January of 1522.

On December 4, hearing reports about some of the rebellious activities going on, Luther made a secret visit to Wittenberg to see the situation for himself. Traveling as Junker Jörg, he stayed at the home of Philip Melanchthon for six days. After his return to the Wartburg, Luther wrote A Sincere Admonition… to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion, in which he expressly acknowledged the institution of government and reminded his readers that God would accomplish his judgment without insurrection or the work of human hands.28

Luther felt the need to write because, even though his general evaluation about events in Wittenberg was positive, he could see that civil unrest was beginning to brew. On December 3 students armed with knives under their coats disrupted the mass in the city church, drove the priests from the altar, and took away the missals. When the rector of the university and the city council wanted to punish those responsible, they were met with opposition from a large group of citizens with a list of demands: all masses were to be abolished, the Lord’s Supper was to be given in both kinds to anyone who asked for it, close the taverns and brothels, and do not punish the students who disrupted the mass. My mid-December the elector asserted his authority once more in handling the perpetrators of the student uprising, and on December 19 reiterated the decision that forbade any changes to the mass.29

The December 19 announcement by the elector moved Karlstadt to act. On Christmas Day 1521, Karlstadt celebrated the mass without wearing the traditional vestments, conducted the liturgy in German, and at the Supper distributed both the bread and the wine to Christmas worshipers.30 In addition, Karlstadt placed the bread and the chalice into the hand of each communicant.31 Some saw the change as a sign of freedom; to others it was sacrilege. The mood turned dangerous. Mobs disturbed the worship at every congregation during the Christmas midnight mass.32

Two days after Christmas, more trouble arrived. Three men claiming special revelations from God came to Wittenberg from Zwickau in the south: Nicholas Storch, Thomas Drechsel, and Melanchthon’s former student Marcus Thomae (also known as Marcus Stübner). Quickly given the catchy nickname, “The Zwickau Prophets,” they stirred up the crowds with apocalyptic tales of events to come, while at the same time denying the efficacy of infant baptism. In Bornkamm’s biography of Luther, he summarizes some of the “prophesying” of Marcus Thomae and Nicholas Storch in particular:

Soon, [Thomae] claimed, the Turks would be coming and kill all the priests, including those who had married. And, he went on, after a revolution in five or seven years the devout people would still be alive and one faith and one baptism would be supreme… [Storch] was a fantastic agitator, skilled in capturing people’s attention with ever more amazing tales about himself. One of them told that the angel Gabriel had appeared to him and promised that Storch would sit on Gabriel’s throne.33

From that point things quickly slid from bad to worse. On New Year’s Day, Zwilling introduced a new form of worship at the Castle Church in which leading local officials participated. Suddenly, prior confession was no longer required to receive the Lord’s Supper. A few days after the Augustinian chapter in January, under Zwilling’s influence, people rushed the sanctuary of the monastery to burn the paintings and destroy the side altars in the church.34

Karlstadt himself married the daughter of a poor nobleman on January 19, 1522. Seeing himself as the leader of a burgeoning social movement, he began to make pronouncements on all manner of things:

He denounced pictures and images as dumb idols… He assailed the fasts, and enjoined the people to eat meat and eggs on fast-days. He repudiated all titles and dignities… He cast away his priestly and academic robes, put on a plain citizen’s dress, afterwards a peasant’s coat, and had himself called brother Andrew.35

On January 25, to prevent things from getting further out of hand, the city council passed an inclusive ordinance governing both church and civil society in Wittenberg. The ordinance, based partially on Luther’s ideas but written mostly under Karlstadt’s influence, attempted to combat poverty and immorality and provide the city church with a new order of worship. In essence the order codified much of Karlstadt’s legalism, especially with regard to the order of service and the prohibition on images in the churches. In light of the new ordinance, and spurred on by the preaching of Karlstadt and Zwilling, the townspeople took it upon themselves to break into the churches and destroy a number of the pictures.36

In the danger and confusion of the time, students began to flee from the university. They could no longer support themselves since the new ordinance had outlawed begging. Besides, what purpose was there for higher education, especially since Karlstadt and Zwilling were taking it upon themselves to ask simple townspeople—to their own astonishment—what certain Bible passages meant?37

Luther’s Return—Back in Black

By mid-February the city fathers in Wittenberg were more than ready for Luther to return, and told him so.38 The elector had again stepped in and removed Karlstadt and Zwilling from their preaching positions and installing Luther’s friend Nicholas Amsdorf as the preacher at the City Church. He also annulled the ordinance passed by the city council. Yet tensions continued to run high, so much so that Melanchthon even considered leaving the university. Around February 22, Martin Luther sent a letter off to Frederick the Wise, announcing his intention to leave the Wartburg and return to Wittenberg. In the letter, Luther alludes to Frederick’s collection of Christian relics that he had acquired over the years, and declares that God is now sending him a new relic: “a whole cross, together with nails, spears, and scourges.”39 Luther entreats his elector to not be afraid of this cross, and to stretch out his arms and let the nails go deep. For the cross that Frederick was about to receive was the cross of having to deal with Luther’s return to public life.

The elector sent the Eisenach bailiff to try to dissuade Luther from leaving. The bailiff met with Luther the evening of February 28. Luther departed the next day. Luther made most of the trip unaccompanied, stopping at the Black Bear Inn in Jena along the way. Only for the final stage, through the territory of Duke George (who was hostile to the Reformation), did Luther welcome the company of a few knights for protection.40

Luther arrived in Wittenberg on the evening of Thursday, March 6. His first order of business upon returning was to write another letter to the elector. The elector had to deal with the political blowback that was sure to come from Luther’s return. So, he had contacted attorney Jerome Schurf to have Luther write a letter which could be sent to the Imperial Council of Regency, “stating the reasons that he had returned against the elector’s wishes and giving his assurance that he had no desire to cause trouble for anyone.”41 The letter had to be carefully crafted to state in no uncertain terms that the elector had nothing to do with Luther’s return. With some help, Luther’s letter was so persuasive that even the elector’s cousin, Duke George believed it.42

On the first Sunday in Lent, March 9, 1522, Martin Luther returned to the pulpit of the City Church. No longer wearing the doublet of a knight, a clean-shaven Luther appeared before the parish “back in the black cowl of an Augustinian monk.”43 Beginning Sunday Luther preached a series of eight sermons throughout the following week in an effort to call his erring flock to repentance and set their hearts once more on the grace of Christ. These sermons would eventually become known as the “Invocavit Sermons.”

The “Invocavit Sermons”

Right away at the beginning of his first sermon, Luther aims for the heart of the matter: being able to stand before God, which is impossible for us apart from Christ and His saving work.44 Here is how Luther starts:

The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but every one must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me. Therefore every one must himself know and be armed with the chief things which concern a Christian.45

In all of their arguing back and forth over external issues, the people of Wittenberg had forgotten the whole point of the religious exercise. Luther had come back to remind them. He goes on to restate those “chief things that concern a Christian.” First comes the law: “In the first place, we must know that we are children of wrath, and all our works, intentions, and thoughts are nothing at all.”46 Next comes the gospel: “Secondly, that God has sent us his only-begotten Son that we may believe in him and that whoever trusts in him shall be free from sin and a child of God.”47

In reference to the Gospel Lesson for Invocavit Sunday, Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness, Luther makes the point that when it comes to these two chief teachings of law and gospel, “Here we should all be well versed in the Bible and ready to confront the devil with many passages.”48 This was one of the problems that Luther had seen from afar for several months. Karlstadt and Zwilling had so convoluted the Scriptures and confused people by basing doctrines on weak passages of Scripture and focusing on external rules that people were beginning to forget God’s grace in Christ.

Next, Luther addresses love: “Thirdly, we must also have love and through love we must do to one another as God has done to us through faith.” He quotes Paul’s eloquent words from 1 Corinthians 13 before going on to rebuke his flock:

If I had the tongues of angels and could speak of the highest things in faith, and have not love, I am nothing. And here, dear friends, have you not grievously failed? I see no signs of love among you… God does not want hearers and repeaters of words [Jas 1:22], but followers and doers, and this occurs in faith through love.49

Faith and love also leads to the fruit of patience:

Fourthly, we also need patience. For whoever has faith, trusts in God, and shows love to his neighbor, practicing it day by day, must needs suffer persecution… But patience works and produces hope [Rom. 5:4], which freely yields itself to God and vanishes away in him.50

The Rev. Timothy Buelow, in his 2017 ELS General Pastoral Conference paper on the “Invocavit Sermons,” draws our attention to Luther’s call for patience here: “This is a key word and theme for Luther at this stage in the Reformation. Later, Luther will be less patient… But for now, Luther wants patience with the weak to be the rule of the day and no force to be used in bringing about the Gospel’s reign.”51 For Luther patience means that “one must not insist upon his rights, but must see what may be useful and helpful to his brother.” Luther then illustrates the kind of patience he seeks with the picture of a mother weaning her child. She does not immediately start her child on a diet of solid food, but slowly transitions her child through various soft foods first. In the same way God’s people need to slowly bring others along, beginning with the milk of the gospel until they are strong enough in the faith, “and thus we do not travel heavenward alone, but bring our brethren, who are not now our friends, with us.” In a rather pointed way Luther offers this assessment: “I would not have gone so far as you have done, if I had been here. The cause is good, but there has been too much haste. For there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won.”52 Patience and love requires looking to the needs of the other first, so that those who are weak in faith and yet attempt to follow the strong may not be destroyed by the devil on their deathbed.

Towards the end of the first sermon, Luther calls his hearers’ attention to the important distinction between “must” and “free.” “The ‘must’ is that which necessity requires, and which must ever be unyielding… But ‘free’ is that in which I have choice, and may use or not, yet in such a way that it profit my brother and not me.” Believers have an obligation to not make a “must” out of something that is “free,” either with heavy-handed legalism or with “the loveless exercise of liberty.”53

Luther closes the first sermon by restating the goal of winning others through the teaching of the Gospel. It is a goal, Luther points out, that will not be won without showing love to our neighbors:

For there are many who are otherwise in accord with us and who would gladly accept this thing, but they do not yet fully understand it—these we drive away. Therefore, let us show love to our neighbors; if we do not do this, our work will not endure.54

As long as love requires it, and as long as no harm is done to faith, patience can be practiced with those who are weak in faith.

In his second sermon, given on Monday night, Luther deals with the “musts” that he introduced in the first sermon, by chiefly addressing the issues surrounding the mass. Luther told the gathered assembly:

Thus the mass is an evil thing, and God is displeased with it, because it is performed as if it were a sacrifice and a work of merit. Therefore it must be abolished. Here there can be no question or doubt, any more than you should ask whether you should worship God. Here we are entirely agreed: the private masses must be abolished.55

Abolishing the language of the mass that turned the Lord’s Supper into a sacrifice was an utter necessity. Yet even in matters of necessity, Luther argues that Christian love never uses force or undue constraint. So, how does the Christian proceed in dealing with a matter where Scripture has spoken clearly? Luther’s answer in this second sermon is: leave the matter to God and let the Word of God work! One person cannot change or put faith into the heart of another. “That is God’s work alone, who causes faith to live in the heart… We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure.” A little later in the sermon, Luther explains further, “We must first win the hearts of the people. But that is done when I teach only the Word of God, preach the gospel.”56

Luther argues that God can accomplish more with His Word than all human authority heaped up. In fact, this second sermon gives us perhaps Luther’s most memorable saying about the power of the Word of God to change hearts—and to change the world:

In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.57

Tuesday evening, in his third sermon, Luther moves from “must” to “free.” He begins by agreeing once more that private masses be abolished, but also reiterates the point that “no one should be dragged to them or away from them by the hair, for I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club.”58

From there he moves into a discussion of those things that are left by God as free choices for each person, such as entering into marriage or choosing to leave the cloister. In the end, each individual has to stand before God and the world. Luther reminds his flock that the devil will not leave them alone in the hour of death:

It is not enough to say: this man or that man did it, I followed the crowd, according to the preaching of the dean, Dr. Karlstadt, or Gabriel, or Michael. Not so; every one must stand on his own feet and be prepared to give battle to the devil. You must rest upon a strong and clear text of Scripture if you would stand the test.59

Luther directs those priests who have taken wives and nuns who have married husbands to rest their consciences on the “strong and clear text” of 1 Timothy 4:1–3:

The Spirit clearly says that, in later times, some will fall away from the faith, because they devote themselves to deceitful spirits and the doctrines of demons, in connection with the hypocrisy of liars, whose own consciences have been seared. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

Luther asserts that the devil cannot overthrow this text, but rather this passage will overthrow and devour the devil. By the same token, choosing to remain in the monastery or convent is not a sin either. “The cowl will not strangle you,” Luther says, “if you are already wearing one.”60 Chastity needs to remain a liberty and not compulsive.

Another “free” that Luther addresses is the matter of images in the churches. Karlstadt had argued that images should be removed on the basis of Exodus 20, since God forbade the Israelites to fashion graven images. According to his line of reasoning, to reverence an image such as a painting or a statue was to have an idol in one’s heart. Yet Luther plays “devil’s advocate” with Karlstadt’s argument, pointing out examples in the Old Testament when God’s people were told to fashion images. In Numbers 21, the Lord told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent. In Exodus 37, the Lord told the Israelites to erect two golden cherubim for the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. He pointed out how the problem was never with the images themselves, but with the worship of images. Luther also questioned the tactic of breaking down altars and burning images. “Do you really believe that you can abolish the altars in this way? No, you will only set them up more firmly.”61

At the beginning of his fourth sermon, on Wednesday, Luther picks up the subject of images once more. Only he brings up a reason for abolishing images that everyone else has missed: works righteousness. Almost everyone understands that the crucifix on the altar is not God, but simply a sign. Yet whoever donated the crucifix imagines to themselves, “I’ve done something for God!” Luther calls it “downright idolatry,” but even that fine idolatry is not a good enough reason to remove paintings, altars, and crosses from the churches. “Why? Because we must admit that there are still some people who hold no such wrong opinion of them, but to whom they may well be useful.”62 In the end, the image is not the enemy; the enemy is our own human heart.

Luther then transitions to the observance of fast-days, particularly those that involved the consumption of meat. His first point was that fasting should not be a detriment to your health. If a person is sick, he should eat whatever he needs to eat. Secondly, if the pope says that no one can eat meat on Friday, then the Christian should eat meat on Friday just “to spite him.” Thirdly, treat well-meaning people who are weak in their faith differently than those who are stubborn:

We must bear patiently with these people and not use our liberty; since it brings no peril or harm to body or soul; in fact, it is rather salutary, and we are doing our brothers and sisters a great service besides. But if we use our liberty unnecessarily, and deliberately cause offense to our neighbor, we drive away the very one who in time would come to our faith.63

Luther exhorts his hearers to use their liberty at the proper time, so that neither Christian liberty may suffer injury, nor offense be given to weaker brothers and sisters who yet have no knowledge of this liberty for themselves.64

In connection with the correct use of Christian liberty, Luther’s Thursday night sermon dealt with the observance of the Sacrament of the Altar. One of the central controversies in Wittenberg dealt with the practice Karlstadt instituted on Christmas Day of placing the host and the chalice into the very hands of the parishioners, something that had never been done before and was highly offensive to many tender hearts. Luther begins by addressing this practice.

He starts off by pointing out the folly in the canon law whereby the pope winks at priests sleeping with their maids, but at the same time cries foul when a woman touches the altar linens or (the horror!) the host.65 Then Luther goes on to say this:

But you now go ahead and become as foolish as the pope, in that you think that a person must touch the sacrament with his hands. You want to prove that you are good Christians by touching the sacrament with your hands, and thus you have dealt with the sacrament, which is our highest treasure, in such a way that it is a wonder you were not struck to the ground by thunder and lightning. All the other things God might have suffered, but this he cannot allow, because you have made a compulsion of it.66

In the end, though Luther was convinced that the disciples of the Lord took the sacrament in their own hands, and that the Wittenbergers may do the same without sinning, he could not defend what they did by turning the practice into a “must” when it ought to remain a “free.” “Although I must acknowledge that you committed no sin when you touched the sacrament with your hands,” Luther said, “nevertheless I must tell you that it was not a good work, because it caused offense everywhere.” He urged the congregation to serve those who are weak in faith by abstaining from their liberty and voluntarily giving up the practice of receiving both the bread and the cup in their own hands.67

Luther had similar advice for receiving both the bread and wine in the Sacrament, that the church must not compel people to partake of the Supper in both kinds without prior instruction in the Word of God. “We must rather promote and practice and preach the Word, and then afterwards leave the result and execution of it entirely to the Word, giving everyone his freedom in this matter.” Luther felt so strongly about this that, if the congregation were not willing to give up their practice of receiving “both kinds” in communion, Luther threatened to leave, saying, “I shall regret that I ever preached so much as one sermon in this place.”68

Luther’s sixth sermon strives to define the proper reception of the Eucharist, fore­shadowing what he would write in his Small Catechism eight years later. It has nothing to do with whether one receives the bread and the cup in their hands. Nor does it have to do with whether one receives only the bread or both the bread and the cup. Faith alone makes one’s reception of the Sacrament worthy and acceptable before God. So, what is faith? It is “a firm trust that Christ, the Son of God, stands in our place and has taken all our sins upon his shoulders and that he is the eternal satisfaction for our sin and reconciles us with God the Father.”

This is why laws that command Christians to attend the Sacrament, such as at Easter, are foolish. They drive people to the sacrament regardless of faith. “He who has such faith has his rightful place here and receives the sacrament as an assurance, or seal, or sign to assure him of God’s promise and grace. But, of course, we do not all have such faith; would God one-tenth of the Christians had it!”69 Luther goes so far as to even tell his parishioners not to attend the Lord’s Supper if they were not properly prepared:

This food demands a hungering and longing man, for it delights to enter a hungry soul, which is constantly battling with its sins and eager to be rid of them.

He who is not thus prepared should abstain for a while from this sacrament, for this food will not enter a sated and full heart, and if it comes to such a heart, it is harmful. Therefore, if we think upon and feel within us such distress of conscience and the fear of a timid heart, we shall come with all humbleness and reverence and not run to it brashly and hastily, without all fear and humility…

Therefore those who are most worthy, who are constantly being assailed by death and the devil, and they are the ones to whom it is most opportunely given, in order that they may remember and firmly believe that nothing can harm them, since they now have with them him from whom none can pluck them away; let come death, devil, or sin, they cannot harm them…

For this bread is a comfort for the sorrowing, a healing for the sick, a life for the dying, a food for all the hungry, and a rich treasure for all the poor and needy.70

The sermon reflected one of Luther’s central themes for the week: “true reformation must start in the heart, not in outward practices.”71

In his seventh sermon, Luther turns his attention to the fruit of the sacrament, namely love. He asserts that he does not see much love among his people in Wittenberg. Luther compares his congregation to the standard the apostle Paul sets forth in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and know all the mysteries and have all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I give up my body that I may be burned but do not have love, I gain nothing.

He tells them, “Not yet have you come so far as this, though you have received great and rich gifts from God, the highest of which is a knowledge of the Scriptures.” He critiques the city’s attempt to fix poverty by outlawing begging. “No one as yet has given his goods to the poor, no one has yet been burned, and even these things would be nothing without love.” Luther observed:

You are willing to take all of God’s goods in the sacrament, but you are not willing to pour them out again in love. Nobody extends a helping hand to another, nobody seriously considers the other person, but everyone looks out for himself and his own gain, insists on his own way, and lets everything else go hang. If anybody is helped, well and good; but nobody looks after the poor to see how you might be able to help them. This is a pity.72

Luther closed the sermon with a warning about what will happen if the people refuse to love one another: “God will not have his Word revealed and preached in vain.” Though they had received the greatest blessing of all, the gift of God’s pure Word, they were not listening. Instead they were “playing around with all kinds of tomfoolery which does not amount to anything.”73

After that seventh sermon on Saturday night, the people of God in Wittenberg were probably ready to confess their sins on Sunday morning. (Or at least they should have been after that powerful law preaching.) Fittingly for his final sermon in this series, Luther addressed the practice of auricular private confession. Luther distinguishes between three kinds of confession. The first, outlined by Christ in Matthew 18, is what we would call “church discipline” today, beginning with one Christian addressing another about his or her sin, and eventually bringing in witnesses, all the way up to the point of addressing the matter before the congregation, all with the goal of leading the sinner to repent. The second kind of confession is personal confession, where individuals by themselves wrestle with God in prayer over their sins. The third kind of confession is the sort of confession where “one takes another aside and tells him what troubles one, so that one may hear from him a word of comfort.”74

The pope made a “free” into a “must” when he commanded mandatory confession. “Nevertheless,” Luther says, “I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me.”75 Luther recognized the unique blessings that come from confessing one’s sins and hearing the word of absolution and forgiveness for the sake of Christ. We do not have all the answers for ourselves, so it makes sense that we take a brother aside and tell him our troubles. Not to mention the promise of the absolution, which is the reason why someone comes to private confession in the first place: that the word of forgiveness spoken is as valid as from God himself.76

The more absolutions, the better! Luther hits on an idea in this sermon that would permeate many of his other writings and even find its way into the Smalcald Articles. God has not left us with one absolution, comfort, or strength for our conscience:

[B]ut we have many absolutions in the gospel and we are richly showered with many absolutions… Another comfort we have in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses,” etc. A third is our baptism, when I reason thus: See, my Lord, I have been baptized in thy name so that I may be assured of thy grace and mercy. Then we have private confession, when I go and receive a sure absolution as if God himself spoke it, so that I may be assured that my sins are forgiven. Finally, I take to myself the blessed sacrament, when I eat his body and drink his blood as a sign that I am rid of my sins and God has freed me from all my frailties.77

In light of all those gospel forms, all those “absolutions,” which God has given us in our battle with the devil, why would we ever allow any of those weapons to be taken away? Luther leaves his hearers with that thought as he moves toward his conclusion.

Luther concludes this last sermon with the voice of one who in his own life has fought with Satan. The commanding quality of his sermons grew out of the fact that he knew the devil’s wiles.78 “I have eaten a bit of salt or two with him,” Luther says. “I know him well and he knows me well, too.” At that point the good Doctor commends his people to God and says, “Amen.”79

Message Received

Luther’s message was well-crafted, and at the same time delivered with the passion of a shepherd for his flock. According to eyewitnesses, “Luther had spoken with unsurpassed eloquence, solemnity, and passion, outdoing himself.”80 Early 20th century Luther biographer Henry Jacobs notes that even though Luther may have been tempted to go after Karlstadt, Zwilling, and others personally, “neither a word of denunciation, nor the least reference to the leaders of the agitation, escaped his lips.”81 One of Luther’s students, Albert Burer, in his famous letter describing the experience of seeing and hearing Luther preach that week shared the following:

Judged by his face, Luther is a kind man and appears mild and good-natured. His voice is pleasant and sonorous, and one must marvel at his winsome gift of speech. What he says, teaches, and does is quite pious, even though his godless opponents claim the opposite. Whoever has heard him once—unless he is a stone—would gladly hear him again and again, for he drives home his points, like nails, into the minds of his hearers.82

More than anything else, the sermons conveyed a distillation of what Luther learned and wrote during his time at the Wartburg. “Without months of preparation in seclusion he could hardly have given such straightforward and compelling answers to the questions that had plunged the Wittenbergers into conflict.”83

So, how did his congregation respond? “The Wittenberg congregation, who flocked to hear him, submitted immediately to Luther’s authority.”84 The lawyer, Jerome Schurf, wrote to Elector Frederick to say that “great joy and exultation among the learned and the uneducated has sprung from Dr. Martin’s return and from his sermons.”85 Melancthon was glad to subordinate himself once more to Luther’s leadership. Even Gabriel Zwilling realized the harm he was causing, repented, and fell in line with Luther.86

Karlstadt alone was resentful. Over time, he persisted in trying to bring about reforms without concern for those who adhered to the old way. From this time on, he was isolated—partially his own doing, and partially the doing of others. After 1523 Karlstadt took a call to pastorate in a nearby village, slowly moving further away from the university and his responsibilities there.87

In Wittenberg Luther instituted a one year moratorium on changes to the worship service. On Easter, the City Church celebrated communion without the cup, in Latin, and with the usual vestments and liturgy. They removed the offensive language from the mass that turned the Lord’s Supper into a sacrifice. “But for those who desired it, there was also a special celebration of the Lord’s Supper in which the communicants received both the bread and the wine.”88 Later that spring he distilled his sermons into a generally usable form entitled, Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament.

Luther’s strategy of letting the Word work on people’s hearts may have been correct, but it was not always the easiest to implement, especially in the case of the stubborn who refuse to hear the Word. When Luther brought a similar message to Erfurt as he had spoken at Wittenberg, things did not go as well there.89 Even in Wittenberg itself, some problem areas persisted. In particular, the clergy at the Castle Church were resistant to any changes in the mass whatsoever. Two and a half years later in early December of 1524, faced by the town council, the university, and the majority of citizens, the dean of the Castle Church would finally acquiesce to removing the Roman mass.90

Part 2: Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word—by Preserving the Truth of Your Word Among Us

In addition to straightening things out in Wittenberg, Luther had another reason to return home in early March of 1522. He had been working on something special, something which, when completed, would finally put the Scriptures into the hands of the people—not just in Wittenberg, but all over Germany: a translation of the Bible from the original languages of Greek and Hebrew into German.

The Postils

During his visit to Wittenberg in December of 1521, his friends helped to settle in his mind the decision to translate the Bible, beginning with the New Testament.91 Yet it was something Luther had been considering for a long time. His solitude at the Wartburg made his months there wonderfully productive and served to prepare him for the task. Throughout May of 1521 during his first weeks at the Wartburg, before Luther received any of his unfinished work from Wittenberg, the only books he had with him to read were his copies of the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Bible.92 On May 26 Luther completed an exposition of Psalm 68. That summer he finished a commentary on Psalm 22, concluding a series on the Psalms that he had been working on over the three years prior.93 He also finished his commentary on the Magnificat which he had begun prior to the Diet of Worms and, later in the year, he wrote a devotional exposition of Psalm 37.94

Yet it was Luther’s work on his German postils for Advent and Christmas where we see the wheels beginning to turn in Luther’s mind around the need for people to know and have the Scriptures for themselves. A “postil,” by the way, is a book of model sermons based on the Gospel lessons for the various Sundays of the church year. Before Luther had left Wittenberg, he had already begun composing his postils in Latin. At the Wartburg, he decided instead to publish these model sermons in German. In early June, Luther began translating and expositing the Gospel lessons for the Christmas season. By the middle of September he had covered the twelve days of Christmas and reached the Feast of Epiphany. Then Luther went back and completed his postil for the Advent season. His Christmas and Epiphany sermons were published in early March, followed the Advent sermons six weeks later.95

These were sermons that Luther never preached himself, but were expositions that followed the thread of the Scripture text much the same way as homilies in the ancient church. “They were in the main intended for private reading, whether to stimulate the preacher or to edify the faithful.”96 While they counteracted false teaching and works righteousness, they also gave the laity a plain explanation of Scripture and provided pastors, who for the most part were poorly trained, material for their sermons.97

At various points in his postils, Luther makes a concerted effort to direct his readers to the main point of Scripture, namely, Christ himself. In the conclusion of his sermon for the festival of Epiphany, Luther expresses the hope that his postil would serve as nothing more than a “scaffold” to aid in “the construction of the true building” of faith and understanding “so that we may ourselves grasp and taste the pure and simple word of God and abide in it.”98 Luther prefaced his Christmas postil with an introduction entitled A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels. Many of the thoughts he set down in that introduction Luther would later reiterate in his preface to the New Testament. In it Luther wanted his readers to know that “the main thing in Scripture is the gospel and its basis in Christ as the one gift God gives to everyone… This is the center around which the entire Bible revolves.”99 He included similar thoughts in his Advent postil, in which he “exhorted all Christians to make daily use of the Bible, for it alone gave patience and comfort.”100 In his mind already by the end of the year was the notion of a German Bible to make the fulfillment of that exhortation possible.

Eleven Weeks

Fourteen other German editions of the Bible already existed by Luther’s day, but most were wooden translations, and none of them were based on the original languages, only the Latin Vulgate.101 Early in the summer of 1521, Luther’s friend and fellow monk from Erfurt, John Lang, translated the Gospel of Matthew from Erasmus’s edition of the Greek New Testament.102 Somewhere along the way Luther heard about his friend’s accomplishment. That December, after returning to the Wartburg from his secret visit to Wittenberg, Luther wrote Lang and announced his own intent to begin translating the entire New Testament into German.103 He did not, however, want Lang to cease his own translating work. In the same letter Luther told Lang, “I wish every town would have its interpreter, and that this book alone, in all languages, would live in the hands, eyes, ears, and hearts of all people.”104

Love both for his people and for the Scriptures themselves were the motivating factors for Luther. The Bible had made Luther what he was; so it was only natural that his career as a reformer would extend to translating it into the common language of his countrymen. “It was through the Bible that he had learned how to escape the confinement of scholastic theology, and it was in the Bible that he had rediscovered the heart of the gospel. The Bible was his sole companion during his hours of loneliness, the one weapon in his struggle against a thousand-year-old system.”105

With that desire to put the Word of God into people’s hands and hearts, Luther began the task of translating the New Testament into German. He used Erasmus’s second edition of the Greek New Testament, published in Basel in 1519.106 Luther would have preferred to begin with the Old Testament, but since he was alone and had limited grammatical and lexical helps available to him, it made sense for Luther to start with the New Testament.107 He had two helpful resources that aided his translation: his personal copy of the Latin Bible and Erasmus’s own Latin translation of his own edition of the Greek New Testament, complete with grammatical notes.108 In addition to helpful resources for handling the Greek, Luther also relied on his facility with the German language. All the polemical and devotional literature that he had written in the past were a great help to him in expressing the thoughts and words of Scripture in his mother tongue.109 Beginning almost immediately upon his return to the Wartburg in December, Luther finished his rough draft by the middle of February. It only took eleven weeks.110

The September Testament

When Luther departed for Wittenberg at the beginning of March, in addition to coming to the aid of his flock, he wanted the opportunity to polish his translation with the help of his friends. In addition, there were also resources in Wittenberg that were unavailable to him at the Wartburg.111

When Luther arrived at Wittenberg, he enlisted the help of especially Philip Melanchthon and George Spalatin. Together, they carefully went over Luther’s translation. Luther’s friends proved extremely helpful when they encountered perplexing “bumps in the road.” Spalatin’s connections allowed them access to the elector’s treasury, where they borrowed precious stones to provide a clearer rendering of the heavenly Jerusalem’s appearance in Revelation 21. Melanchthon delightfully dipped his toe into the “enigmatic field” of numismatics (coin-collecting) so that he could find information on the current value of coins mentioned in the Bible. Spalatin, a scholar in his own right, was big help in translating difficult passages.112

The book was completed on September 20, 1522, hence the nickname the September Testament.113 Lucas Cranach and Christian Döring were listed as publishers, with Cranach contributing twenty-one full-page woodcut illustrations for the Book of Revelation. Melchior Lotther served as the printer. Luther himself wrote a preface for the entire work, and also prefaces for each of the individual books. “Luther intended that his introductory words provide the reader with the key to seeing the New Testament in its wholeness as well as its diversity.”114 As he picked up some of his thoughts from the Brief Instruction he had included in his postils, Luther characterized the whole New Testament as a gospel-book, “that is, ‘a good message [Botschaft], good tidings [Mär], good news [Zeitung], a good report [Geschrei],’ and the telling of that story.”115 His preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans stands in a class by itself as a summary of Luther’s theology, specifically of his doctrine of justification.116 Luther sincerely wanted people to read their Bibles, and to understand what they read in the light of Christ.

Given how successful everyone knew the book was going to be, one might think Luther would have received a hefty honorarium for the work he and his friends had done. One would be mistaken. “Just as for all his other writings, Luther asked for no honorarium for the translation, and he received none. The printers and publishers did a good business with the Bible translation. Luther, to his irritation, did not even receive enough free copies.”117

A True German Translation

Luther did not slavishly hold to a particular theory of translation, occasionally taking astonishing liberties with the text. Brecht summarizes Luther’s approach to the task:

He simplified the ponderous Hebrew use of nouns by employing more verbs and adjectives. Where it appeared theologically necessary to him, however, he chose the literal rendering over the better German formulation. Even today, in significant passages like John 3:16 or 1 Tim. 1:15–16, one can hear the depth of Luther’s concern for a well-spoken sentence with a moving cadence. This contributed considerably to the ease with which central Bible passages could be remembered.118

Luther’s rendering of John 3:16 reads as follows:

“Also hat Gott die Welt geliebet, daß er seinen eingeborenen Sohn gab, auf daß alle, die an ihn glauben, nicht verloren werden, sondern das ewige Leben haben.”119

Here is the recently published Evangelical Heritage Version of the same for comparison:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

For Luther the gospel was meant for the ear as much as the eye. The result yielded a true German translation in all respects. In his translation he used forceful words, a brevity of expression, and simple declarative sentences. He utilizes proper German grammar and word order, placing the predicate almost always at the end of the sentence.120He also invented words that found their way into the German vocabulary: “Expressions such as scapegoat (Sündenbock), decoy (Lockvogel), stopgap (Lückenbüsser), or eaves trough (Dachrinne) were his creations.”121 Luther even imported German vocabulary for biblical weights and measures:

He turned the Hebrew shekel into a Silberling, the Greek drachma and Roman denarius into a German Groschen, the quadrans into a Heller, the Hebrew measures into Scheffel, Malter, Tonne, Centner, and the Roman centurion into a Hauptmann. He substituted even undeutsch (!) for barbarian in 1 Cor. 14:11.122

Using the dialect of the Saxon court which was also employed for diplomatic intercourse between the emperor and his various estates, Luther found a way to a form of German that most Germans could understand.123 According to Brecht, “At least some eighty or ninety percent of Luther’s linguistic expressions, substantially more than in the earlier translation, could be understood in both southern and northern Germany.”124 Schaff describes Luther’s translation as “an idiomatic reproduction of the Bible in the very spirit of the Bible.”125 In fact, Luther’s New Testament helped to unify and create the modern German language.126 Brecht opines that connecting Luther’s role with the development of High German “only hints at the significance of his Bible translation for the history of literature. Its place in literature is solely the result of the masterful linguistic and theological achievement reflected in the translation itself.”127

And the Old Testament too!

The first edition of three thousand copies of the New Testament sold out. By December, Luther published his second edition, already slightly improved over the first.128

Even before the New Testament was printed, however, Luther had started in on the Old Testament. As time went by, they involved more men in the work. Luther “founded a Collegium Biblicum, or Bible club, consisting of his colleagues Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Cruciger, Justas Jonas, and Aurogallus. They met once a week in his house, several hours before supper.”129 The work took substantially longer. In the end, the Old Testament took another ten years to produce. In 1534 the entire German Bible finally came off the press.130

Though the book was officially banned by Duke George of Saxony, Duke William of Bavaria, and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, nothing could stop the spread of God’s Word. “Hans Lufft at Wittenberg printed and sold in forty years (between 1534 and 1574) about a hundred thousand copies—an enormous number for that age—and these were read by millions.”131 Luther’s Bible “spoke the language of the entire people, from the studies of the learned to the huts of the common folk, and thanks to its unprecedented spread through print it reached all levels of society.”132

Controversy over “by faith alone

One of the tests of a Bible translation is how well it stands up to criticism over time. Immediately after its publication, opponents of Luther seized on his translation of Romans 3:28: “So halten wir es nun, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben.”133 Translation: For we conclude that a person is justified by faith alone without the works of the law. “Allein”—“alone”—does not appear in St. Paul’s original Greek.

In Martin Luther: Creative Translator, Heinz Bluhm explored Luther’s defense of his translation of Romans 3:28, which Luther had written in 1530. In essence, as Brecht summarizes it, Luther argued that “it was in accord with good German style to place ‘alone’ in apposition to a negative order to strengthen the force.”134 After establishing the essential meaning of the text, Luther went on to render it “in the best German he was capable of writing. “And the best German… required the insertion of allein.”135 Luther contended that German uses the word allein when two statements are being made which declare the opposite of one another, as is the case in Romans 3:28.136 In the end, does Luther’s defense hold up? Grammatically, it does so. Bluhm’s analysis of Luther’s translation hits on three main points:

  1. Luther was a careful translator. He might have taken liberties when quoting Scripture in his writings, “However, when he undertook the formal and official translation of the Bible late in 1521, there was a major change in his fundamental approach. He did not take any liberties with the text unless German linguistic usage… allowed or even called for some modification.137
  2. Romans 3:28 is the climax in a whole series of verses, containing a “grand summary” of everything that preceded it, and anticipating everything to follow. A good translation demanded that the reader pay special attention to the passage. “Small wonder then that Luther went out of his way to render this crucial verse in the clearest and strongest way” by adding allein.138
  3. As a concerned translator and as someone who had lectured on the letter to the Romans for years, Luther “was fully aware of the peculiar place of this particular verse in the larger whole.” Therefore, “Luther’s version of Rom. 3:28 is manifestly the creation of a mind at once aflame with one of the greatest self-revelations of Paul and at the same time wondrously able to express what he felt at the moment of affective reading.”139

For these reasons one could argue that Luther was well justified in his translation on justification in Romans 3:28. Bluhm praises Luther as the “translator’s translator:” “In sheer mastery of language, he is easily the equal of Jerome. In religious insight, he is at least the equal of Augustine.”140


At the beginning of Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament, Luther’s treatise which summarized the main points of his Invocavit Sermons, he warns that the world’s hatred and persecution is the least of our troubles:

Even Satan is not satisfied with that; he plans to exercise his malice within our own ranks. If outwardly we are too strong for his stooges… he will rend and destroy us inwardly through ourselves… So henceforth we must have regard to ourselves rather than to our enemies from without.141

In the town of Wittenberg in Luther’s day, Satan used people’s zeal and impatience for ecclesiastical and societal change to turn those who would be offended by innovative practices away from hearing the truth of God’s Word. The consciences of the strong were seared and hardened against the plight of the weak in the conviction that “what we’re doing is right.” The spirit of legalism that formed around whether or not a person received the Lord’s Supper in “both kinds”—or even in both hands—led people to a false piety and self-righteousness before God. Instead of focusing on the needs of their neighbor, the argument was over “my rights.” Instead of looking to Satan as the enemy, people saw each other as the enemy. Instead of putting their faith in the Word of God to do its work, leaders put their faith in rules, laws and ordinances.

So, where is the devil trying to rend and destroy us inwardly through ourselves? Where does he see opportunities among us to plant stumbling blocks that will turn people off to the gospel? Where is our Adversary rubbing his hands together at the opportunity to foment self-righteous attitudes in our midst? Where have we demanded and insisted upon our rights instead of showing love to our brothers and sisters in Christ whose consciences may be weak? In what areas of our own life and the life of our church have we placed our trust in the rules and ordinances of human beings instead of in the Word of God? Where do Luther’s words to his own flock hit home for us personally, for our congregations, and for our synod? How true is it for you and I when Luther says, “You are willing to take all of God’s goods in the sacrament, but you are not willing to pour them out again in love”.142

As Luther says, we must have regard to ourselves. Only, once we get a good look at ourselves, it is not a pretty picture. We have failed to trust the Word of God, just as we have failed to pour the gifts of Christ’s love into our lives.

Yet we are not without hope. In the fifth of his Invocavit Sermons, Luther says, “Therefore, dear friends, we must be on firm ground, if we are to withstand the devil’s attack,”143 alluding to these latter verses of Ephesians 6:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can stand against the schemes of the Devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. For this reason, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to take a stand on the evil day and, after you have done everything, to stand (Eph 6:10–13).

In the end, as we think about the challenges that the church faces, the real challenge and struggle takes place in each individual human heart in the evil day, that is, the day of our death, when the devil will tempt us to question everything we have ever done. On our own that fight cannot be won. In the evil day, when the devil comes with the full force of his accusations, it will not take much for him to knock us down for all eternity.

Yet the Word of God is where our help is found! It is the solid foundation on which we stand in that evil day, the protective armor that repels and withstands Satan’s accusations and temptations. For the Word of God gives us Christ, who fought the fight and won—for us! Jesus Christ defeated Satan once and for all at the cross with His holy death in our place, setting us free from the devil’s accusations in the power of His resurrection. Christ has declared us righteous through the power of His resurrection from the dead, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit which He has poured out on us in His Word and Sacraments. Through the Holy Scriptures, the Savior armors us with His own righteousness that He won for us, the righteousness that can stand in the face of any attack or accusation.

This is the armor that Martin Luther wanted everyone to have. His love for God’s people and his desire to share the good news of the Savior who had done so much for him drove him in many of his endeavors. That love and that desire made his preaching so engaging as he taught the law and the gospel from the pulpit. That love and that desire also formed his patience in dealing with those who were still on the fence about the Reformation. Ultimately, it moved Luther to put the Bible into the language of his own people.

You and I are the recipients of lasting blessings from the legacy of Luther’s love for souls and for the gospel. It’s estimated that there are more than six billion Bibles currently in print, with a hundred million more being printed every year around the world.144 The Scriptures are freely available to us whenever and wherever we want, in a form that we can understand. We owe a debt of gratitude to God for preserving His Word for us through faithful translators like Martin Luther.

We owe an even greater debt of gratitude for the gospel message itself. In this world full of temptations and struggles, God has kept us in His kingdom of grace through the good news that we are saved by God’s grace alone apart from the works of the law through faith in Jesus Christ.

So, use the Word. Read and study the Bible. Make use of the “scaffolding” of sound Lutheran and Christian commentary and instruction that points you to Christ in the Scriptures. Teach the Word.

Most importantly, trust the Word. Trust that the Word will work—on your heart, and on the hearts of those around you. Trust that the Word will enable you and I to stand in the evil day, apart from our own efforts, by redirecting us to Christ. Trust that the Word will help your neighbor to stand, when you speak that Word in love. Luther nailed it when he said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word… I did nothing; the Word did everything.” The Lord will keep you steadfast in His Word—now and always. Amen.


Bluhm, Heinz. 1965. “The Original’s Intent and the Modern Idiom.” Chap. 6 in Martin Luther: Creative Translator, by Heinz Bluhm, 125–137. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Bornkamm, Heinrich. 1983. Luther in Mid-Career, 1521–1530. Edited by Karin Bornkamm. Translated by E. Theodore Bachmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Brecht, Martin. 1990. Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532. Translated by James L. Schaaf. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Buelow, Timothy H. 2018. “Luther’s Invocavit Sermons: The Wittenberg Professor’s Pastoral Perspective in Preaching.” Lutheran Synod Quarterly (Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary) 58 (4): 327–355.

E. G. Schweibert, Ph. D. 1950. Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

2019. Holy Bible, Evangelical Heritage Version. Milwaukee: Wartburg Project, Inc., Northwestern Publishing House.

Jacobs, Henry Eyster. 1910. Martin Luther: The Hero of the Reformation, 1483–1546. New York: The General Council Publication House, via G. P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press.

Jones, Ken Sundet. 2022. 500th Anniversary: Luther’s Invocavit Sermons (Part 1). March 8. Accessed March 22, 2022.

—. 2022. 500th Anniversary: Luther’s Invocavit Sermons (Part 2). March 9. Accessed March 22, 2022.

Kittelson, James M. 1986. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.

Luther, Martin. 1959. “Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, 1522.” In Luther’s Works, Volume 51: Sermons I, edited by John W. Doberstein and Helmut T. Lehmann, translated by John W. Doberstein, 69–100. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Luther, Martin, trans. 1545. Luther Bibel. Public domain.

—. 1963. Luther’s Works, Volume 48: Letters I. Edited by Gottfried G. Krodel and Helmut T. Lehmann. Translated by Gottfried G. Krodel. Vol. 48. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Luther, Martin. 1959. Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament. Vol. 36, in Luther’s Works, Volume 36: Word and Sacrament II, edited by Abdel Ross Wentz and Helmut T. Lehmann, translated by Abdel Ross Wentz, 231–267. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press.

Preus, James S. 1974. Carlstadt’s Ordinaciones and Luther’s Liberty: A Study of the Wittenberg Movement 1521–22. Boston: The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Rizzo, Nicholas. 2022. 32 Bible Sales Statistics [2022]. February 2. Accessed May 30, 2022.

Schaff, Philip. 1910. History of the Christian Church. Second Edition, Revised. Vol. VII. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing House.


1 What follows is a fictionalized account of a chance meeting that took place in the early days of March 1522 between two students and a mysterious “knight” at the “Black Bear,” a tavern and inn in the city of Jena.

2 A made up name for Johannes’ traveling companion, whose name the major Luther biographies do not disclose.

3 Schaff, Philip. 1910. History of the Christian Church. Second Edition, Revised. Vol. VII. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing House. 385–386.

4 Brecht, Martin. 1990. Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532. Translated by James L. Schaaf. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. 42–43.

5 Brecht, 57.

6 Luther, Martin. 1963. Luther’s Works, Volume 48: Letters I. Edited by Gottfried G. Krodel and Helmut T. Lehmann. Translated by Gottfried G. Krodel. Vol. 48. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. (LW 48:215).

7 LW 48:216.

8 Jacobs, Henry Eyster. 1910. Martin Luther: The Hero of the Reformation, 1483–1546. New York: The General Council Publication House, via G. P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press. 204.

9 LW 48:298.

10 LW 48:257.

11 Bornkamm, Heinrich. 1983. Luther in Mid-Career, 1521–1530. Edited by Karin Bornkamm. Translated by E. Theodore Bachmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 24.

12 Bornkamm, 24.

13 Schaff, 378.

14 Buelow, Timothy H. 2018. “Luther’s Invocavit Sermons: The Wittenberg Professor’s Pastoral Perspective in Preaching.” Lutheran Synod Quarterly (Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary) 58 (4): 327–355. 327.

15 2019. Holy Bible, Evangelical Heritage Version. Milwaukee: Wartburg Project, Inc., Northwestern Publishing House. All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the Holy Bible, Evangelical Heritage Version (EHV).

16 E. G. Schweibert, Ph. D. 1950. Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 524.

17 LW 48:283–284.

18 LW 48:290.

19 LW 48:299, 301.

20 Brecht, 23.

21 Schaff, 379.

22 Brecht, 25.

23 Bornkamm, 23.

24 LW 48:280.

25 Brecht, 26–27.

26 Brecht, 27.

27 Bornkamm, 37.

28 Brecht, 27, 29, 31.

29 Brecht, 30–31.

30 Kittelson, 179.

31 Bornkamm, 51.

32 Bornkamm, 52.

33 Bornkamm, 60.

34 Bornkamm, 59–60.

35 Schaff, 379–380.

36 Bornkamm, 60–61.

37 Bornkamm, 62.

38 Kittelson, 180.

39 LW 48:387.

40 Brecht, 42–43.

41 Brecht, 44.

42 Kittelson, 182.

43 Kittelson, 182.

44 Buelow, 331.

45 Luther, Martin. 1959. “Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, 1522.” In Luther’s Works, Volume 51: Sermons I, edited by John W. Doberstein and Helmut T. Lehmann, translated by John W. Doberstein, 69–100. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. LW 51:70.

46 LW 51:70.

47 LW 51:71.

48 LW 51:71.

49 LW 51:71.

50 LW 51:71.

51 Buelow, 333.

52 LW 51:72.

53 LW 51:74.

54 LW 51:74.

55 LW 51:75.

56 LW 51:76.

57 LW 51:77.

58 LW 51:79.

59 LW 51:80.

60 LW 51:80–81.

61 LW 51:83.

62 LW 51:84.

63 LW 51:87.

64 LW 51:88.

65 Buelow, 344.

66 LW 51:89.

67 LW 51:90.

68 LW 51:91.

69 LW 51:93.

70 LW 51:94–95.

71 Buelow 348.

72 LW 51:96.

73 LW 51:96.

74 LW 51:97–98.

75 LW 51:98.

76 LW 51:98–99.

77 LW 51:99.

78 Bornkamm, 73.

79 LW 51:100.

80 Brecht, 61.

81 Jacobs, 216.

82 Bornkamm, 74.

83 Bornkamm, 73.

84 Brecht, 61.

85 Bornkamm, 74.

86 Bornkamm, 75.

87 Brecht, 65.

88 Bornkamm, 78.

89 E. G. Schweibert, 543.

90 E. G. Schweibert, 544.

91 Bornkamm, 38–39.

92 Bornkamm, 3.

93 Bornkamm, 3, 5–6.

94 Bornkamm, 12.

95 Bornkamm, 33.

96 Bornkamm, 34.

97 Jacobs, 200–201. Brecht, 17.

98 Bornkamm, 34–35.

99 Brecht, 16–17.

100 Brecht, 46.

101 Jacobs, 206.

102 Brecht, 46.

103 Brecht, 46–47.

104 LW 48:356.

105 Bornkamm, 44.

106 Schaff, 356.

107 Bornkamm, 43–44.

108 Bornkamm, 45.

109 Brecht, 49.

110 Bornkamm, 45. Brecht, 47.

111 Bornkamm, 79–80.

112 Bornkamm, 80.

113 Bornkamm, 80.

114 Bornkamm, 81.

115 Brecht, 51.

116 Brecht, 51–52.

117 Brecht, 47.

118 Brecht, 50.

119 Luther Bibel 1545.

120 Bornkamm, 47.

121 Brecht, 49.

122 Schaff, 359.

123 Schaff, 358.

124 Brecht, 49.

125 Schaff, 359.

126 Kittelson, 175.

127 Brecht, 49.

128 Bornkamm, 85.

129 Schaff, 347.

130 Bornkamm, 87.

131 Schaff, 350.

132 Bornkamm, 49–50

133 Emphasis added.

134 Brecht, 50.

135 Bluhm, Heinz. 1965. “The Original’s Intent and the Modern Idiom.” Chap. 6 in Martin Luther: Creative Translator, by Heinz Bluhm, 125–137. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 129.

136 Bluhm, 129.

137 Bluhm, 135.

138 Bluhm, 136.

139 Bluhm, 136–137.

140 Bluhm, 137.

141 Luther, Martin. 1959. Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament. Vol. 36, in Luther’s Works, Volume 36: Word and Sacrament II, edited by Abdel Ross Wentz and Helmut T. Lehmann, translated by Abdel Ross Wentz, 231–267. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press. 237.

142 LW 51:96.

143 LW 51:90.

144 Rizzo, Nicholas. 2022. 32 Bible Sales Statistics [2022]. February 2. Accessed May 30, 2022.

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