by Rev. Anthony Dodgers
On Invocavit Sunday (the First Sunday in Lent), 1522, Martin Luther began a series of eight short sermons in which he taught the people of Wittenberg how the reformation of the Church should be carried out. It must be based on God’s clear Word and it must care for the conscience of the Christian. But before we hear from the preacher of Wittenberg, we need to back up to the previous year.
When Luther was called before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he refused to recant and boldly confessed, “Here I stand. God help me.” He was the voice of truth, the inspiring leader of the Reformation. But then Luther was hidden away by Elector Frederick in the remote fortress, the Wartburg. Exiled from Wittenberg for his own safety, this solitary castle became his “Patmos.” However, the Reformation did not stop, and in Wittenberg his colleagues pushed forward with their ideas for change.
The professors and ministers of Wittenberg certainly knew Luther’s plans for reform through three of his most important writings: An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; and On the Freedom of a Christian. Both Luther and the Wittenbergers realized that there were many concrete conclusions to be made for the Christian life based on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. So even if Luther was in hiding, his ideas were put into practice quickly.
But while the formal reformation of the church got under way, Luther lamented that he was not directly involved. Furthermore, Luther was not only concerned with the acceptance of new forms and regulations in church practice, but also with the consciences of those experiencing the reforms. As Luther had testified at Worms, his conscience was captive to the Word of God. A good conscience, free from anxiety over God’s judgment, must rest upon the work and word of Christ. Therefore, in order to obtain such a conscience, the Christian must be properly instructed in God’s Law and Gospel. Luther’s concern was for the individual’s faith and appropriation of the Gospel. It was for this reason that Luther’s pen was busy in the Wartburg. During his 10 month stay, Luther wrote influential tracts on the necessary reforms that would most affect the lives of his brother monks and his people, including On Confession: Whether the Pope Has Power to Require It; then, The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows; and finally, The Misuse of the Mass. Luther assumed that his advice and direction would be heeded as the University faculty and City Council took steps to implement reform. But that did not prove to be the case.
Philip Melanchthon, one of Luther’s closest colleagues, attempted to take up the mantle of leadership. Unfortunately, he did not prove equal to the task. Three self-proclaimed “prophets” came to Wittenberg from the town of Zwickau, causing quite a disturbance. They claimed special, direct revelation from God and disregarded the Bible, the office of preaching, and infant baptism. When Melanchthon attempted to dispute with them he was personally shaken and unable to answer their arguments.
Another leading voice in the Wittenberg reforms was Gabriel Zwilling, the preacher for the Augustinian monastery where Luther had lived. Zwilling persuaded several of the monks to leave the monastery and forsake their vows. He also led the remaining Augustinians to burn the monastery’s altars and images. While Luther agreed that it was sinful for monks to trust in their obedience to monastic vows for salvation, his primary fear was that the monks who so quickly threw off their cowls did so without good Biblical reasons and so lacked good consciences. He worried that they would come to regret their decisions, and not fully comprehending the Gospel, they would fall into despair.
The main instigator for these early reforms was another professor, Andreas Carlstadt. Like Zwilling, Carlstadt also argued that all man-made vows should be abolished, and that all images, including crucifixes, should be removed, by force if necessary. He also addressed the Roman abuses of the Mass. On Christmas Day 1521, Carlstadt celebrated the Mass without vestments, in German, only speaking the Words of Institution. He omitted the sign of the cross at the consecration, and he distributed the Sacrament in both kinds. Those in attendance communed without prior confession or fasting, and took the chalice in their own hands. While some of these changes were in accordance with Christ’s institution, we must realize what a radical departure this was from the centuries of the medieval church. What’s more, mobs were stirred up by these dramatic changes and disturbed the “traditional” services, breaking lamps and yelling insults at the priests.
When Luther heard about these disturbances he was shocked. While he didn’t object in principle to most of these changes, he seriously objected to the spirit in which they were carried out. He rejected the use of coercion and saw in these measures the beginning of a new legalism. While Luther desired to throw off the shackles of papal tyranny, he would fight any attempt from his “own side” to set up new man-made laws. The Gospel and its gifts are free and they create freedom. Luther saw the need to return to Wittenberg and by mid-February he was asked by the City Council to do so. Luther had a challenge set before him and it was one he took up as soon as he stepped back into his pulpit at St. Mary’s, the City Church, on Invocavit Sunday. For the next week, each day, Luther preached. He called the people of Wittenberg to repentance for their rash acts, and he instructed their consciences from the Word of God so that they might find comfort and confidence in Christ.
The Rev. Anthony Dodgers is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Charlotte, Iowa.