Series - Ref500

The Reformation at 500: Luther’s Stay at the Wartburg (Part 2)

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Those who love holding a Bible in their hands—which they can read in their own language—should be aware of and grateful for the monumental importance of Dr. Martin Luther’s 10-month stay at the Wartburg Castle in 1521 and 1522.

It was during this time that Luther first translated the New Testament into German—in just 11 weeks! In so doing, he literally began the modern era of Bible translation.

In the providence of God, Luther was used to launch the Reformation in the wake of two events of inestimable significance. The first was Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, with movable type, in 1450, in Mainz, Germany. The second was the work of a courageous Dutch priest, Desiderius Erasmus, who first published the Novum Instrumentum in 1516, in Basel, Switzerland.

Erasmus compiled the Greek text of the New Testament, using the limited resources available to him, and also provided an original translation of the New Testament into Latin.

We know that Luther probed Erasmus’ text enthusiastically, and had access to it inside the Wartburg.

Erwin Lutzer states of Luther’s time there:

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The Reformation at 500: Luther’s Stay at the Wartburg (Part 1)

Wartburg Castle

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Why should we praise God—or, for that matter, even care—that Dr. Martin Luther has triumphantly “driven the devil away with ink”?1

For the benefit of those who do not follow this column regularly, let me back up and open with a brief word of explanation. Since beginning to write in this format in 2020, I have been producing an ongoing series, in which I follow the events of the Reformation throughout its 500th anniversary. The big event, of course, occurred on Oct. 31, 1517. Its anniversary took place before I began this column, but was just a month after my wife and I were privileged to be on a life-changing Reformation tour of Germany, including a stop at the Castle Church, where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door. There will, of course, continue to be anniversaries of significant Reformation events, 500 years later, for the rest of my life.

I have been away from this topic for just about one year, and that was not by accident. This past year marked 500 years from Luther’s unplanned stay at the Wartburg Castle. He was there from May 4, 1521, to Feb. 29, 1522.2 Although we are late in commemorating his departure, the next six months were quiet for Luther, so I will attempt to catch up and summarize this entire period according to some vitally important themes.

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The Reformation at 500: Luther’s Escape to the Wartburg

Wartburg Castle

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We visited Eisenach and the Wartburg Castle on the Sunday of our 500th anniversary Reformation trip.

The day was gloriously dark and dreary. Fortunately, we felt only a few raindrops. But it was an absolutely perfect day for a ride through the Thuringian Forest.

A young Martin Luther spent several of his most formative years less than three miles from the Wartburg Castle—in Eisenach, where the Cotta family hosted him as a schoolboy preparing to go to the University of Erfurt. We also traced the history of Johann Sebastian Bach that day, and our enthusiastic tour guide—a California transplant—told us excitedly how Eisenach became the source of Western civilization. He seemed to be familiar with every crack in the sidewalk of that city.

The Wartburg Castle is majestically awkward. Consider this fact: It had already been there for nearly 500 years by Luther’s time! The sprawling castle bears evidence of continuous construction, and one can only wonder how many sacrificed their lives in the process of building and maintaining it. The sights from the grounds around the castle, as well as within it, are too magnificent to describe. One can see the majesty of creation looking down from the castle grounds, and the depth of history that this site generates is almost palpable.

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The Reformation at 500: Luther’s Stand at Worms

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One of the most fascinating sights that we saw on our 500th-anniversary Reformation tour was the Luther Monument—sometimes called the Reformation Monument—which is located across the street from the park where Dr. Martin Luther’s famous stand before the Diet of Worms is memorialized.

In fact, this set of bronze sculptures is described as “the world’s largest monument to the Reformation.”1 Here Luther still takes his stand, proudly holding his German Bible at the very center of the monument, enveloped in the words of his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”2 He stands among his colleagues and others who paved the way for his work of Reformation. Looking at these figures, it is almost as if each one “being dead still speaks” (Heb. 11:4)3.

Beneath his feet—as his foundation, as it were—is this famous quote: “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir: Amen!”

The drama that brought Luther to Worms on April 16, 1521, began officially on June 15 of the previous year, when Pope Leo X promulgated a papal bull against Luther that was titled Exsurge Domine, based on Ps. 74:22, in which he charged Luther with 41 false teachings.

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The Reformation at 500: Luther’s Journey to Worms

St. Peter's Cathedral in Worms, before 1901

It was a warm, sunny autumn Wednesday afternoon when our bus rolled into Worms, Germany—the second-to-last stop on the final day of touring on our 500th anniversary Reformation trip.

The town was decorated almost as if Luther himself were returning.

At the side of the road, we saw signs that read “Solus Christus,” “Sola Gratia,” “Sola Fide” and “Sola Scriptura”—like the placards that city residents might post to salute a winning sports team.

I wish that we had had more time in Worms, although there is not much left to see with regard to the place where Luther stood 500 years ago this month and—in the face of absolute power combined with demonic evil—declared his fidelity and commitment to the Word of God alone.

The Bishop’s Palace, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V presided over the Diet of Worms, has been gone for more than 300 years. The spot where Luther is believed to have stood is now part of a sizeable park, and it is commemorated by a large pair of bronze shoes. There is a painting of the palace where Luther faced his accusers, along with some other historical markers.

Luther had preached his way through central Germany over the course of two weeks to get to Worms, and the thronging crowds cheered him exuberantly when he arrived. Humanly speaking, the fact that he had the people on his side was one of the factors that saved him.

His friends had cautioned him against going, fearing that he would be the next Jan Hus. The life stories of Luther and Hus are, in fact, intertwined at several key points.

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The Reformation at 500: The Papal Bull (Part 2)

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“Since God has given us the papacy,” Pope Leo X stated dramatically, “let us enjoy it.”

There was one man standing in the way of such enjoyment, however. Leo had little regard for the priest in Wittenberg, Dr. Martin Luther, who he referred to as “a drunken German.”

“He will feel different when he is sober,” concluded the pope.

His ability to underestimate Luther could not have been more profound.

The movement that would become the Reformation had advanced greatly in 1518 and 1519. Luther’s encounters with church officials at the Heidelberg Disputation (in May of 1518), at the meeting at Augsburg (with Cardinal Cajetan in October of 1518) and at the Leipzig Debate (where he contended with Johann Eck in July of 1519) had forced him to evaluate the true source of authority. Ultimately, he would conclude that it had to be Scripture alone—Sola Scriptura, a term that would later be used to characterize the formal principle of the Reformation. His clash with the Holy Mother Church was quickly coming to a head.

But, in the providence of God, a web of complications kept the church, or even the Holy Roman Empire, from dealing as quickly or as forcefully with Luther as some thought necessary.

For one thing, the empire was without an emperor from the death of Maximilian I on Jan. 12, 1519, until the election of his grandson, Charles V, who began to reign on June 28, 1519.

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The Reformation at 500: The Papal Bull (Part 1)

In September of 2017, my wife Lynnette and I were privileged to visit the land of Germany and tour the sites of the Reformation in celebration of its 500th anniversary.

The trip was memorable—even life-changing—for a number of reasons.

First of all, the trip was given to us by our friends at Grace Bible Church, in Portage, Wis., where I had served as interim pastor for nearly two years. Suffice it to say that we will never forget all that that congregation did for us.

Secondly, the trip took place less than three months after my wife had brain surgery to remove a pituitary tumor. That period, in the late spring, summer and fall of 2017, was one that I would never want to redo—and yet I cannot imagine my life without it. It led directly into our determination to seek to serve in my position with The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.

Thirdly, this was our first experience with international travel. That, in itself, was extremely significant for us.

Finally, this trip took my interest in, and passion for, the Reformation, to an entirely different level. Although I have been fascinated with the Reformation all of my life (being raised a confessional Lutheran) and have preached on it for nearly 30 years, this trip opened my eyes to so many new realities, and brought it all to living color in my mind.

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