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Martin Luther, Part 3: The Reformer

During the months that followed the posting of the theses, Luther quietly continued to do his work as teacher and pastor. He knew that his theses were being read and discussed throughout Europe, but little did he realize that soon he would have to contend and do battle with the most powerful organization on earth—the Roman Catholic Church.

Reaction from the Church Leaders

Luther expected that the church leaders, especially the pope, would support him in his effort to correct the abuses in the sale of indulgences and in other practices of the church. At the time he had posted the theses, he also wrote a letter to Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz. In this letter he pointed out how Tetzel was misleading the people. A copy of the Ninety-five Theses was enclosed with the letter. Luther was hopeful that the archbishop would stop Tetzel. He sincerely hoped that the leaders in the church would discuss with him the abuses to which he referred in his theses. But the archbishop was not about to oppose a good source of income for the church and for himself. Instead of encouraging Luther, the archbishop wrote  to the pope in Rome. He asked the pope to order Luther to stop speaking and writing against the sale of indulgences.

Leo X had recently become the new pope of the Catholic Church. At first he was not much concerned about Luther and his theses. He regarded the whole matter as a harmless squabble between two German monks. He said, “A drunken German must have written this. He’ll change his mind when he becomes sober.” He thought that the problem could easily be taken care of by John Staupitz, Luther’s superior in the Augustinian Order. He wrote to the general of the Augustinian order and told him to ask Staupitz to speak to the young monk and convince him that the Ninety-five Theses were not in agreement with the teachings of the church. That certainly was not what Luther had expected. He said, “I had hoped that the pope would support me. I had so fortified my theses with proofs from the Bible and papal decrees that I was sure he would condemn Tetzel and bless me. But where I expected benediction from Rome, there came thunder and lightning instead, and I was treated like the sheep that had roiled the wolf ’s water.”

In April a general meeting of the Augustinian order was held in Heidelberg, about two-hundred-seventy miles west of Wittenberg. Luther and Staupitz attended the meeting. As it turned out, the main topic of discussion was not the sale of indulgences, but the doctrine of the church pertaining to good works. The Heidelberg professors were friendly and respectful to Luther even though they were not in complete agreement with his teachings. They listened attentively to his presentations and were impressed with his knowledge of the Scriptures and his sound judgments. The conference did not order Luther to discontinue his preaching and teaching. Before this conference adjourned a resolution was passed asking Luther to write a detailed explanation of his theses and to give the pamphlet to John Staupitz. Staupitz, in turn, was to forward it to the pope. Luther was pleased with the Heidelberg meeting. He had not been told to keep silent, and he sensed that many of his Augustinian brothers were in sympathy with his views.

On May 15, 1518, Luther returned to Wittenberg. The next morning he preached a strong sermon in the castle church on the power of excommunication. Some enemies of Luther from the Dominican order were in church and heard Luther say, “Not every person who is excommunicated will be eternally lost.” Later they prepared a set of false theses in which they twisted and changed Luther’s words and thoughts in order to make him appear to be a most dangerous heretic. These forged theses were spread throughout Germany under Luther’s name. A copy was sent to Cardinal Cajetan. On August 5 Cajetan sent the theses together with an imperial letter to the pope. In this letter the emperor asked the Curia, the pope’s court, to ban Luther for his heretical teachings.  The Curia agreed. Leo X authorized Cajetan to arrest Luther at once and to bring him to Rome to stand trial. The pope also asked the Elector of Saxony and the general of the Augustinians to deliver the “son of perdition” to Cajetan.

The papal summons reached Luther on August 7th. He was to appear in Rome in 60 days. Luther was in grave danger. His friends were greatly concerned about his safety. They and Luther knew what the church had done to Huss and Savanarola. If the church found him guilty of heresy, he would be condemned to death. An Augustinian brother wrote to Luther, “You are right. You speak the truth, but you will not accomplish anything. Go back to your cell and pray God for protection and mercy.” Martin Luther was concerned, but did not lose courage. He said, “The more they threaten, the greater becomes my confidence in God. Wife, children, fields, house, money, possessions I have not. My fame and my name are already torn to bits. All that I have left of me is my frail body. If they deprive me of that too, they will shorten my life, but my soul they can not take from me.”

The Friendly Elector

A number of capable and learned men had become Luther’s staunch supporters. One of them was Philip Melanchthon, who arrived at Wittenberg in August 1518. He was to be an instructor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg. He soon became one of Luther’s best friends and aides. Luther also had gained the respect and admiration of the elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. When Luther received the summons to come to Rome to be tried, he appealed to his elector for help. Prince Frederick feared that Luther would not receive a fair hearing in Rome. Therefore he requested that Luther be examined in Germany.

Elector Frederick was one of the most influential electors in Germany and had also found favor with the pope by promising his support in the war with the Turks. Saxony was also a good source of income for the church. Furthermore, an election of a new emperor was about to take place, and there was a good possibility that Frederick might be elected. The good will of the elector therefore was most important to the pope at this time. He could ill afford to deny the elector’s request to have Luther examined in Germany. So Leo X informed Elector Frederick that arrangements would be made to try Luther in Germany. Here again we see the hand of God steering the course of history.

Elector Frederick requested that Cardinal Cajetan have Luther examined in Augsburg, Germany. This was agreeable to the pope. At first Luther was to be tried by a jury, but Cajetan suggested  that he first meet personally with Luther. The pope agreed, but told Cajetan not to debate church doctrine with Luther. He was to accuse Luther of false teaching and then order him to recant. If he refused to recant, Cajetan was to condemn him as a false teacher and heretic, but not to arrest him—not yet.


150376_featuredFrom The Life and Faith of Martin Luther, by Adolph F. Fehlauer. © 1981 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.