While Martin Luther had formulated the theology of justification from 1515 to 1519, his theological opponents within the papal court called for an ecclesiastical trial for his “false teaching.” Political circumstances in Europe had distracted his theological enemies and the papacy from Luther’s growing popularity. In 1520, Pope Leo X condemned many of Luther’s teachings and threatened him with excommunication. During that year, Luther wrote against papal authority and called upon the German princes to reform their own territories. [Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis 1985) 369-379.]
Additionally, in 1520 he began to explain the proper relationship between justification by faith in Christ and the daily life of the Christian. His Treatise on Good Works explained how genuine good works flow from someone justified by faith alone. As he had done since 1516, Dr. Luther also explicitly rejected the scholastic theologians’ notions of the disposition (habitus) to form a perfect faith. [Luther on Scholastic Theologians ] He particularly sought to distinguish those who practiced outwardly religious works toward justifying themselves before God with those who trusted in God’s promises. Someone may only fulfill the First Commandment by faith in Christ. [Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, Luther’s Works, vol. 44, 23-31.] He summarized this idea in the following manner:
If righteousness consists of faith, it is clear that faith fulfils [sic] all commandments and makes all its works righteous, since no one is justified unless he does all the commandments of God. Or again, works can justify no man before God without faith. So utterly and roundly does the holy Apostle reject works and praise faith that some have taken offense at his words and said, ‘Well then, we shall do no more good works.’ He condemns such men as erring and foolish. [LW 44: 31-32.]
In The Freedom of the Christian (a devotional work dedicated to Pope Leo X in 1520) Luther described the origin and nature of faith in Christ and its effects on the believer. First, the Word of God saves those who receive it by faith alone. In this manner, God justifies the sinner and unites the Christian to Christ. Second, true faith in the Gospel liberates the Christian from seeking after outwardly pious acts in order to earn divine favor. Finally, this freedom from sin and self-justification allowed the Christian to serve his or her neighbor through genuine good works based on faith because “Christian liberty…does not induce us to live in idleness or wickedness but makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation.” [Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, LW 31:343-350, quote on pp. 349-50.]
By 1521 the pope had excommunicated Luther. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, summoned Martin Luther to testify before the Imperial Diet in Worms in his own defense against the decree of excommunication. On April 18, he gave his famous speech before this gathering in which he refused to recant his writings and affirmed his teaching of justification before God by faith alone. During his journey to Worms, he preached at Erfurt on the first Sunday after Easter. In this sermon, he emphasized the significance of Christ’s redemptive act through his death and resurrection. Clearly, he wanted to emphasize faith in Christ as the means by which God grants his righteousness to sinners when he proclaimed:
Our Lord Christ says: I am your justification. I have destroyed the sins you have upon you. Therefore, only believe in me; believe that I am he who has done this; then you will be justified…righteousness is identical with faith and comes through faith. [Martin Luther, Sermons at Leipzig and Erfurt, LW 51:63.]
In the same sermon, Luther repeated his refutation of the scholastic teaching of justification and emphasized that true good works follow faith. When Martin Luther departed from Worms as a condemned heretic (a crime in the sixteenth century), his future seemed quite precarious. However, Dr. Luther had articulated his teaching on justification by faith in Christ clearly before the most powerful secular rulers and church officials of his time.