Luther's room at Wartburg

Luther's Disappearance

With the disappearance of Luther, Aleander and his partisans rejoiced. The fate of the Reformation seemed sealed. But God had not withdrawn His servant merely to preserve him from the wrath of his enemies. As men rejoice in the freedom that truth brings to them, they are inclined to view the instrument who is the channel of truth as the origin, and in so doing, place a man where only God should be. In His providence, God removed Luther for a time that he might not only have time to reflect and grow in his knowledge of truth, but that men might be led to realize their dependence upon God and be led to trust Him. The light of truth was yet to shed its light in even brighter radiance.

At first Luther rejoiced at being released from the heat of the battle; but after a time, he became restless and criticized himself for his idleness. Even as his enemies congratulated themselves that he had been silenced, a host of tracts began to issue from his pen and be circulated throughout Germany. In addition to his other writing, Luther began his translation of the New Testament into the German language.

Luther had a weakness that, if not checked, threatened to endanger the work that he was doing. He assumed that others should see the points of truth as readily as he himself did. Eager to advance the cause of truth, he would not only defy the strong, but at times, lacking a consideration for their infirmities, he tended to walk on the weak. In his enforced seclusion, he was now led to examine his heart and distinguish between that which had been the work of passion and that which properly represented the working of the Holy Spirit of God. As he was led to the Bible, not only was his theological understanding expanded, but his nature was sanctified and enriched. “The study of the Word of God revealed to him likewise, what he was apt in his conflicts to overlook, that there was an edifice to be built up as well as one to be pulled down, and that this was the nobler work of the two.” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 1, 476.

No more had Luther disappeared from view in Wartburg than the political sky of Europe became overcast with dark and foreboding clouds. The states had been about to unsheathe their sword over Luther’s head when suddenly some hundred thousand Turkish scimitars were unsheathed over theirs! Soliman, whom thirteen battles had rendered the terror of Germany, suddenly appeared on the scene. Quickly gaining many small tows and castles, it was but a short time before they had also taken Belgrade. The states of the Empire had sufficient work to do contending with Soliman and his hordes without troubling themselves about the Reformer.

While this danger threatened the East, news from Spain told of seditions that had broken out in the emperor’s absence. For the time, Charles was forced to return home in order to quell the dissension and secure his hereditary dominions.

To complicate matters more, war next broke out between Charles and Francis I. With the aid of the papal arms of Leo X, the French were driven from the Duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Milan, which they had held for six years. To their even greater humiliation, they were driven from Lombardy.

Great was Leo’s delight at having the Papal States returned. Coming as it did on the back of the emperor’s edict proscribing Luther; it was enough to make joy complete. He received the news in his country seat at Mallina. Amidst the popular celebration, he returned to Rome, reaching it before the festivities ended. His hour of victory was short-lived, however. Scarcely had he entered his palace when he was seized with a sudden illness. The malady ran its course so quickly that he died without the Sacrament. Leo had reigned with magnificence but died deeply in debt. The Romans never forgave him for dying without the Sacrament, and he died among manifest contempt.

The nephew of the deceased pope, Cardinal Guilio de Medici, aspired to take the place of his uncle. The political scene was shifting, however, and the monarch of Spain was a more potent factor in the affairs of Europe than the rich merchants of Florence. The conclave to elect a new pope lasted long; and Guilio de Medici, despairing of gaining the throne for himself, proposed that the Cardinal of Tortosa, who had been Charles’ tutor, should be elevated to the pontificate. He was an elderly man and entirely without ambition. Avoiding all show, he occupied himself with his religious duties. He was in every way the exact opposite of Leo.

Attempts to Reform the Church

Assuming the title Adrian VI, the new pope, who was in Spain on the emperor’s business, made his way to Rome. He viewed with indifference, if not displeasure, the magnificence of the papal palace. The humble and pious Adrian believed that a more profitable way to counteract the Reformation was to originate another. He began with a startling confession: “It is certain that the pope may err in matters of faith in defending heresy by his opinions or decretals.” Ibid., 477. This admission, meant to be the start of a moderate reform, became even more inconvenient in later years than it was at the time that he spoke it, when in the Encyclical and Syllabus of Pius IX and the Infallibility Decree, issued in July 18, 1870, he stated exactly the opposite to be true when he said that in matters of faith and morals, the pope cannot err. If Adrian spoke the truth, it follows that the pope may indeed err. If he did not, it leaves the church in a very difficult position to explain the matter, as the decree of the Vatican Council of 1870, which looked both backwards and forwards, declares that error is impossible on the part of the pope.

Wherever Adrian turned to effect reform, he found himself faced by insurmountable obstacles. If he touched an abuse, all who were interested in its maintenance would rise in arms to defend it. He found that were he to purge Rome of all but the virtuous, it would leave few but himself. He was finally forced to recognize that a middle path was impossible to follow and that his only choice lay between Luther’s reform on the one hand, and the policies of Charles V on the other. He chose the latter.

While Luther was in seclusion and the princes of the empire were occupied with political considerations, the progress of the reform moved forward. As with any reformation, however, Satan was not idle. In the place of true reform, fanaticism began to move in. “A few men, deeply affected by the excitement in the religious world, imagined themselves to have received special revelations from Heaven and claimed to have been divinely commissioned to carry forward to its completion the Reformation which, they declared, had been but feebly begun by Luther. In truth, they were undoing the very work which he had accomplished. They rejected the great principle which was the very foundation of the Reformation—that the Word of God is the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice; and for that unerring guide they substituted the changeable, uncertain standard of their own feelings and impressions. By this act of setting aside the great detector of error and falsehood, the way was opened for Satan to control minds as best pleased himself.” The Great Controversy, 186.

Luther Preaching

These men found followers in Wittenberg. The students of the university left their studies, considering them useless in the presence of an internal illumination which promised to teach them all that they needed to know without having to experience the toil of study. The enemies of the Reformation were overjoyed, deeming that they were about to witness its speedy disorganization and ruin. News of what was taking place in Wittenberg reached Wartburg, and Luther was filled with dismay and grief. He was torn between his desire to complete his translation of the New Testament and his desire to return to Wittenberg and meet the new fanaticism. At last, to his great joy, he completed his German version of the New Testament on March 3, 1522. The disorganization that was reigning at Wittenberg was a greater danger to the Reformation than the sword of Charles. The crisis was a serious one, and Luther immediately set out for Wittenberg.

On the first Sunday morning after his arrival, Luther entered the parish church. Intense excitement, yet deep stillness reigned in the audience. Never had Luther appeared more truly great. As did the apostle, he reminded his hearers that the weapons of their warfare were not carnal but spiritual. The Word, he said, must be freely preached and left to work upon the heart. While he was against the abuses and errors of Rome, the heart of man must never be forced but won by the power of the Word. He pointed to the mighty victory that had already been won in weakening the power of the papacy to a degree that no prince or emperor had ever before been able to break it. And yet, as he pointed out, this had all been accomplished by the power of God’s Word.

Luther continued his series of discourses through the entire week. Every day the church was filled as many flocked from the surrounding villages to receive the bread of life. Without mentioning them by name, the Reformer was able to meet and defeat the various fanatical groups. By his wisdom and moderation, he carried the day; and the Word of God was restored to its supremacy. It was a great battle—greater in some respects than that which had been fought at Worms. Without tumult and without offense to anyone, Luther safely guided the Reformation through the crisis and again established it on the Word of God.

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