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The diet at which Martin Luther made his stand concluded with the Edict of Worms, which declared Luther to be a heretic, banned his works, forbade anyone from giving him food or shelter, and called for his arrest.
Luther was allowed to travel back to Wittenberg under the safe conduct promised by the emperor, but he must have remembered what happened to Jan Hus, who, despite his safe conduct to the Council of Constance, was arrested and burned at the stake under the official church maxim that “faith is not to be kept with heretics.” That certainly flashed through Luther’s mind when the covered wagon in which he and his friends were traveling was attacked by a swarm of horsemen armed with crossbows. They pulled Luther from the wagon, threw him on a horse, and rode off with him.
But they were not the emperor’s men enforcing the Edict of Worms. They served Frederick the Wise, who ruled Luther’s Saxony. They spirited Luther away to an isolated castle known as the Wartburg. Exchanging his monk’s robe for the garb of a knight, he grew out his tonsure, grew a beard, and went by the name “Junker [a title of minor nobility] George.”
In hiding, Luther was bored out of his mind. The keepers of the castle took him hunting, but Luther identified with the animals. His forced isolation, though, freed him from his busy schedule of lecturing, preaching, and engaging in theological polemics. He took on a big project to occupy his time: translating the Bible into German.
Luther’s vernacular translation of the Word of God was the most important result of the Diet of Worms, made possible not by his success at that gathering but by his apparent failure. Up to that time, the only version of the Bible allowed by Rome was the Vulgate, the Latin translation made by Jerome in 382–405. Luther’s contribution was not only to make the Word of God accessible in the language of the common people but to do so by working from the original biblical languages, resulting in a more accurate rendition of God’s Word.
The classical scholarship of the Renaissance had recovered ancient Greek for Western Europe. As a professor at the University of Wittenberg—a center of Renaissance learning—Luther knew both Greek and Hebrew. Working from Erasmus’ scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament, Luther saw that the Vulgate was not completely in accord with the original text. For example, the Vulgate translates Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 as “do penance [poenitentiam agite], for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” But the Greek word is metanoeite, which comes from a prefix meaning “change” added to the word for “mind” or “heart” and is translated better as the equivalent of “repent.”
Luther’s German translation would be emulated throughout Europe, not only in translating the original Greek and Hebrew into the vernacular languages but in terms of Luther’s understanding of the text. William Tyndale, for example, actually studied at Luther’s Wittenberg, where he carried out his English translation. His renditions would shape subsequent English versions from the KJV to the ESV.
It later took forty-seven scholars seven years to complete the King James Version. Luther finished the New Testament, by himself, in eleven weeks. In September 1522, it was published, and thanks to the recent printing press technology, it was mass-produced. Soon virtually every household in Germany, high and low, possessed one.
While Luther was translating the Word of God at the Wartburg, chaos was breaking out in Wittenberg. The people were exhilarated at the gospel and the freedom it brought them. Not yet having the Word of God in their language and lacking theological leadership, they went berserk. Mobs assaulted priests, monks, and nuns. Rioters attacked churches, smashing stained glass windows and burning crosses.
But even more destructive was the theology that was emerging. In Luther’s absence, another Wittenberg professor, Andreas Karlstadt, tried to fill the void. He had started as a defender of Rome, turned to Luther’s side, but then became more and more radical. He questioned the value of pastors, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Then some self-styled “prophets” from the town of Zwickau began to question the value of the Bible, teaching that since the Holy Spirit indwells believers, the Bible is no longer necessary.
When Luther heard what was happening in Wittenberg, he was appalled. On March 5, 1522, he came out of hiding, at great risk to his life. He returned to Wittenberg and dealt with the chaos, not by force but simply by preaching God’s Word. At the City Church, he preached every day for a week to a packed congregation. And though Luther could thunder, this time he was gentle. The fruit of faith is not destruction, he said, but love. We must deal with controversies not with violence but with the Word of God. The populace was chastened, and even some of the leaders of the riots repented (but not Karlstadt or the prophets, who fled the city).
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.”