Up to this point, Luther had contended against Rome and the papacy. Now, he had to contend against a group called the “enthusiasts,” whose name comes from a Greek word meaning “God inside.” The idea behind the name was that God is to be found “inside” the believer. That might seem to be the opposite of medieval Roman Catholicism, but, to Luther, they amounted to the same thing: the pope claims that God speaks through him, and so do the enthusiasts. Both expect direct revelation apart from God’s Word. In doing so, both replace the gospel of Christ with their own works and expect people to save themselves.
A radical enthusiast named Thomas Müntzer claimed that the Holy Spirit told him that Christians should slay the ungodly, that the peasants should overthrow their masters, and that in doing so, Christians would establish the millennial age, causing Christ to return. Thus began the Peasants’ War, in which thousands of peasants murdered landowners and their families, burned farms and homes, and formed armies to attack their rulers. Luther acknowledged the peasants’ legitimate grievances, but he believed that social order is absolutely necessary. God’s spiritual kingdom is not of this world—let alone something Christians must usher in by violence—and yet He also rules His earthly kingdom through lawful authorities. Luther urged the princes to crush the rebellion, and they did.
The rest of Luther’s life would be devoted to defining and shepherding the Reformation. Tragically, that movement itself split over the nature and role of the sacraments. This came to a head in 1529 with the Marburg Colloquy, in which Luther and Huldrych Zwingli debated Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The details of that controversy are beyond the scope of this article, but the way Luther argued reveals much about his veneration of Scripture. He took a piece of chalk and wrote on a table in large letters, “THIS IS MY BODY.” Every time Zwingli would come back with a rational or philosophical argument to the contrary, Luther would simply point to those words.
Luther had a warm and happy family life with his wife Katharina von Bora and their six children. But by the end of his life, Luther was in decline. Physically, he was racked with sickness. Mentally, his writings that had been so brilliant often descended into sheer invective, as with his scurrilous tract On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), which contradicted his defense of the Jews in That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523).
In January 1546, Luther, now sixty-two years old, set off for Eisleben, seventy miles away, in the freezing cold. He was needed to settle a dispute between a nobleman and his brother. For all the big issues of the Reformation that he dealt with, he was always at heart a pastor, and he never neglected the needs of ordinary Christians. After eleven days on the road, Luther arrived. In between counseling with the family, he preached for four Sundays. But he was sick and weak. He took to bed. Luther knew he was dying. On February 18, he passed away.
On a scrap of paper on the desk beside his bed was a brief meditation on how living the Christian life helps us fully understand Scripture and how we should “bow before it, adore its every trace.” Luther concluded, summing up our dependence on God’s grace: “We are beggars. That is true.”