“Let us…commit the affairs of men to God in faithful prayer, and be calm. What can they do? Will they kill [me]? Will they revive [me] again in order to kill [me] again? Will they brand me [me] a heretic? Christ was condemned with the wicked, with the seducers and the cursed men. Whenever I meditate on the Lord’s Passion, I really burn to think that my tribulation is not only considered to be ‘something’ by such prominent people, and so many, but even a most important ‘something,’ when it reality it is just nothing. We are completely unaccustomed to suffering and evil, that is, to the Christian life. Therefore let it be; the more powerfully they rise up, the more securely I laugh at them. I am determined to fear nothing in this and defy everything.” Martin Luther, Letter 50 to George Spalatin (January 14, 1520), Luther’s Works 48:147-48.
This statement displayed the beginning of a shift in Luther’s attitude that would conclude in a theological turning point for the Western Christian world in 1520. In this year, Dr. Martin Luther published a number of significant texts that demonstrated that theologically he had turned a metaphorical corner and was not looking back. The papacy reopened Luther’s case about the same time as he wrote that letter to Spalatin. Pope Leo X condemned 41 theological errors in Luther’s writings in the papal bull: Exsurge Domine on June 15, 1520. After his reception of this document in early October, Martin Luther would have the choice to recant or face punishment as a heretic.
By the time he received the papal bull, Luther had written two definitive works that demonstrated his decision to defy everything: The first work, To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, appeared in August. It represented a definitive break with the late medieval papacy and a direct attack on the authority of the “Romanists,” as Luther now referred to his main theological opponents. The entire treatise was quite long and addressed theological, ecclesiastical, and social reform.
Martin Luther published the the second work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in early October. Luther began the work with the bold assertion that the Church had only three sacraments: baptism, penance, and the Lord’s Supper. And he stated at the end of the treatise that penance lacked a divinely-instituted sign. He rejected confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction as sacraments. To be clear, he did not reject these as practices, but he rejected them as divinely-ordained signs that give the forgiveness of sins. The Western Church had accepted seven sacraments since the 12th century. This was a momentous change.
Luther followed his intention expressed in the letter to Spalatin. In 1520, he definitively and publicly rejected papal authority in the church and refined sacramental theology based on his study of Scripture. The papal bull arrived in Wittenberg in early October. While Luther agreed to write a conciliatory letter to the pope, he would never agree at this point to recant his teachings.
On October 30, 1520, Luther wrote a letter to the young Duke John Frederick (later Elector of Saxony). In this letter he reiterated the same attitude that he had in January. He explained in the following manner: “As the bull in no way frightened me, I intend to preach, lecture, and write in spite of it.”* In November he published The Freedom of A Christian, which he sent to Pope Leo X with a open letter. Therein, he elucidated how a sinner could obtain true freedom from sin through Christ’s righteousness and express this freedom in love for one’s neighbor with these two propositions: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”**
Dr. Luther stated that these two sentences seemed to be contradictory. However, in the incarnate Christ, they are bound together. While he is Lord, Christ becomes a fully human servant. How does one obtain this freedom? Luther explained:
“One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11 [:25], ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he lives’ [sic]; and Matt. 4 [:4], ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ”***
However, one receives the Word by faith alone in Christ’s promise. Dr. Luther concludes: “The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching. Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God.”****
*Martin Luther, Letter 65 to Duke John Frederick, LW 48:183.
**Luther, The Freedom of A Christian, LW 31: 344