Luther Returns to Wittenberg
On the third of March, 1522, ten months after his capture and imprisonment, Luther bade adieu to the Wartburg, and through the gloomy forests pursued his journey toward Wittenberg.
He was under the ban of the empire. Enemies were at liberty to take his life; friends were forbidden to aid or even shelter him. The Imperial Government, urged on by the determined zeal of Duke George of Saxony, were adopting the most stringent measures against his adherents. So great were the dangers threatening the Reformer's safety, that notwithstanding the urgent demand for his return to Wittenberg, the elector Frederick wrote entreating him to remain in his secure retreat. But Luther saw that the work of the gospel was imperiled, and, regardless of his own safety, he determined to return to the conflict.
Upon arriving at the town of Borne, he wrote to the elector, explaining his course in leaving the Wartburg. "I have sufficiently shown my deference to your highness," he said, "in withdrawing from the public gaze for a whole year. Satan knows that it was not from cowardice that I did so. I would have entered Worms, though there had been as many devils in the town as there were tiles upon its roofs. Now Duke George, whom your highness mentioned as if to scare me, is much less to be dreaded than a single devil. If what is passing at Wittenberg were occurring at Leipsic [the usual residence of Duke George], I would instantly mount my horse, and repair thither, even though--your highness will, I trust, pardon the expression--it should rain Duke Georges for nine days together, and every one should be nine times as fierce as he! What can he be thinking of in attacking me? Does he suppose that Christ my Lord is a man of straw? May God avert from him the awful judgment that hangs over him!
"Be it known to your highness that I am repairing to Wittenberg under a protection more powerful than that of an elector. I have no thought of soliciting the aid of your highness; and am so far from desiring your protection, that it is rather my purpose to protect your highness. If I knew that your highness could, or would, take up my defense, I would not come to Wittenberg. No secular sword can advance this cause; God must do all, without the aid or co-operation of man. He who has most faith, is the most availing defense; but, as it seems to me, your highness is as yet very weak in faith.
"But since your highness desires to know what to do, I will humbly answer: Your electoral highness has already done too much , and should do nothing whatever. God neither wants nor will he endure, that you or I should take thought or part in the matter. Let your highness follow this advice.
"In regard to myself, your highness must remember your duty as elector, and allow the instructions of his imperial majesty to be carried into effect in your towns and districts, offering no impediment to any one who would seize or kill me; for none may contend against the powers that be, save only He who has ordained them.
"Let your highness accordingly leave the gates open, and respect safe-conducts, if my enemies in person, or by their envoys, should come to search for me in your highness' States. Everything may take its course without trouble or prejudice to your highness.
"I write this in haste, that you may not feel aggrieved by my coming. My business is with another kind of person from Duke George, one who knows me, and whom I know well ."
It was not to war against the decrees of earthly rulers, but to thwart the plans and resist the power of the prince of darkness, that Luther returned to Wittenberg. In the name of the Lord he went forth once more to battle for the truth. With great caution and humility, yet with decision and firmness, he entered upon his work, maintaining that the word of God must be the test of all doctrines and all actions. "By the word," said he, "we must refute and expel what has gained a place and influence by violence. I would not resort to force against the superstitious, nor even the unbelievers. Whosoever believeth, let him draw nigh, and he that believeth not, let him stand afar off. Let there be no compulsion. I have been laboring for liberty of conscience. Liberty is the very essence of faith."
The Reformer had no desire to meet the deluded men whose fanaticism had been productive of so great evil. He knew them to be men of hasty and violent temper, who while claiming to be especially illuminated from Heaven would not endure the slightest contradiction, or even the kindest admonition. Arrogating to themselves supreme authority, they required every one, without a question, to acknowledge their claims. Two of these prophets, Stubner and Cellarius, demanded an interview with Luther, which he deemed it best to grant. He determined to expose the pretensions of these impostors, and, if possible, rescue the souls that had been deceived by them.
Stubner opened the conversation by showing how he proposed to restore the church and reform the world. Luther listened with great patience, and finally replied, "Of all you have been saying, there is nothing that I see to be based upon Scripture. It is a mere tissue of fiction." At these words Cellarius in a violent passion struck his fist upon the table, and exclaimed against Luther's speech as an insult offered to a man of God.
"Paul declared that the signs of an apostle were wrought among the Corinthians is signs and mighty deeds," said Luther. "Do you likewise prove your apostleship by miracles?" "We will do so," answered the prophets. "The God whom I serve will know how to bridle your gods." rejoined Luther. Stubner now fixed his eyes upon the Reformer, and said, in a solemn tone, "Martin Luther, hear me while I declare what is passing at this moment in your soul. You are beginning to see that my doctrine is true."
Luther was silent for a moment, and then said, "The Lord rebuke thee, Satan."
The prophets, losing all self-control, shouted in a rage, "The Spirit! the Spirit!" Luther answered, with cool contempt, "I slap your spirit on the mouth."
Hereupon the outcries of the prophets were redoubled; Cellarius, more violent than the others, stormed and raged until he foamed at the mouth. As the result of the interview, the false prophets left Wittenberg that very day.
The fanaticism was checked for a time; but a few years later, it broke out with greater violence and more terrible results. Said Luther, concerning the leaders in this movement: "To them the Holy Scriptures were but a dead letter, and they all began to cry, 'The Spirit! the Spirit!' But most assuredly I will not follow where their spirit leads them. May God in his mercy preserve me from a church in which there are none but saints. I wish to be in fellowship with the humble, the weak, the sick, who know and feel their sins, and sigh and cry continually to God from the bottom of their hearts to obtain comfort and deliverance."
Thomas Munzer, who was the most active of these fanatics, was a man of considerable ability, which, rightly directed, would have enabled him to do good; but he had not learned the very first lessons of Christianity; he had not a knowledge of his own heart, and greatly lacked true humility. Yet he imagined himself ordained of God to reform the world, forgetting, like many other enthusiasts, that the reform should begin with himself. Erroneous writings which he had read in his youth had given a wrong direction to his character and his life. Furthermore, he was ambitious of position and influence, and unwilling to be second, even to Luther. He charged the Reformers with establishing, by their adherence to the Bible alone, a species of popery, and with forming churches that were not pure and holy.
"Luther," said he, "has liberated men's consciences from the papal yoke; but he has left them in carnal liberty, and has not led them to depend on the Spirit, and look directly to God for light." He considered himself as called of God to remedy this great evil, and held that manifestations of the Spirit were the means by which this was to be accomplished, and that he who had the Spirit possessed the true faith, though he might never have seen the written word. "The heathen and the Turks" said he, "are better prepared to receive the Spirit than many of those Christians who call us enthusiasts."
It is easier to tear down than to build up. It is far easier to trig the wheels of reform than to draw the chariot up the steep ascent. Men are still to be found who will accept just enough truth to pass as reformers, but who are too self-sufficient to be taught by those whom God is teaching. Such are always leading directly away from the point to which God is seeking to bring his people.
Munzer taught that all who would receive the Spirit must mortify the flesh, wear tattered clothing, neglect the body, be of a sad countenance, and, forsaking all their former associates, retire to desert places, and there entreat the favor of God. "Then, said he, "God will come and speak with us as formerly he spoke with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he were not to do so, he would not deserve our attention." Thus was this deluded man, like Lucifer himself, making terms for God, and refusing to acknowledge his authority unless he should comply with these terms.
Men naturally love the marvelous and whatever flatters their pride, and Munzer's ideas were received by a considerable part of the little flock over which he presided. He next denounced all order and ceremony in public worship, and declared that to obey princes was to attempt to serve both God and Belial. Then marching at the head of his followers to a chapel which was the resort of pilgrims from all quarters, he demolished it. After this act of violence, being compelled to leave that region, he wandered from place to place in Germany, and even went as far as Switzerland, everywhere exciting a spirit of rebellion, and unfolding his plan for a general revolution.
The minds of men, already beginning to throw off the yoke of the papacy, were also becoming impatient under the restraint of civil authority. Munzer's revolutionary teachings, claiming divine sanction, led them to break away from all restraint and to give loose rein to their prejudices and passions. The most terrible scenes of sedition and strife followed, and the fields of Germany were drenched with blood.
The anguish which Luther had so long before experienced in his cell at Erfurth, now pressed with redoubled power upon his soul as he saw the results of fanaticism charged upon the Reformation. The princes constantly repeated, and many believed, that Luther's doctrine had been the cause of the rebellion. Although this charge was without the slightest foundation, it could but cause the Reformer great distress. That the work of Heaven should be thus degraded by being classed with the basest fanaticism, seemed more than he could endure. On the other hand, Munzer and all the leaders in the revolt hated Luther because he had not only opposed their doctrines and denied their claims to divine inspiration, but had pronounced them rebels against the civil authority. In retaliation they denounced him as a base pretender. He seemed to have brought upon himself the enmity of both princes and people.
The Romanists exulted, expecting to witness the speedy downfall of the Reformation, and they blamed Luther even for the errors which he had been most earnestly endeavoring to correct. The fanatical party, by falsely claiming to have been treated with great injustice, succeeded in gaining the sympathies of a large class of the people, and as is usually the case with those who take the wrong side, they came to be regarded as martyrs. Thus the ones who were exerting every energy to tear down the work of the Reformation were pitied and lauded as the victims of cruelty and oppression. All this was the work of Satan, prompted by the same spirit of rebellion which was first manifested in Heaven.
It was Satan's desire for the supremacy that caused discord among the angels. The mighty Lucifer, "son of the morning," claimed the right to honor and authority above the Son of God; and this not being accorded him, he determined to rebel against the government of Heaven. He therefore appealed to the angelic host, complaining of God's injustice, and declaring himself deeply wronged. His false representations won to his side one-third of all the heavenly angels; and so strong was their delusion that they would not be corrected; they clung to Lucifer, and were expelled from Heaven with him.
Since his fall Satan has continued the same work of rebellion and falsehood. He is constantly laboring to deceive the minds of men, and lead them to call sin righteousness, and righteousness sin. How successful has been his work! How often are censure and reproach cast upon God's faithful servants because they will stand fearlessly in defense of the truth! Men who are but agents of Satan are praised and flattered, and even looked upon as martyrs, while those who should be respected and sustained for their fidelity to God, are left to stand alone, under suspicion and distrust. Satan's warfare did not end when he was expelled from Heaven; it has been carried on from century to century, even to the present year of our Lord 1883.
The fanatical teachers gave themselves up to be governed by impressions, calling every thought of the mind the voice of God; consequently they went to great extremes. "Jesus," said they, "commanded his followers to be as little children;" therefore they would dance through the streets, clap their hands, and even tumble one another in the sand. Some burned their Bibles, at the same time exclaiming, "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life." Ministers indulged in the most violent and unbecoming behavior in the desk, sometimes leaping from the pulpit into the congregation. Thus they gave practical illustration of their teaching, that all forms and order proceeded from Satan, and that it was their duty to break every yoke, and to act just as they felt.
Luther boldly protested against these extravagances, and declared to the world that the Reformation was wholly distinct from that disorderly element. These abuses, however continued to be charged upon him by those who wished to stigmatize his work. Fearlessly did Luther defend the truth from the attacks which came from every quarter. The word of God proved itself a weapon mighty indeed in every conflict. With that word he warred against the usurped authority of the pope, and the rationalistic philosophy of the schoolmen, while he stood firm as a rock against the fanaticism that sought to ally itself with the Reformation.
Each of these opposing elements was in its own way setting aside the sure word of prophecy, and exalting human wisdom as the source of religious truth and knowledge. Rationalism idolizes reason, and makes this the criterion for religion. Roman Catholicism claims for her sovereign pontiff an inspiration descended in unbroken line from the apostles, and unchangeable through all time, thus giving ample opportunity for every species of extravagance and corruption to be concealed under the sanctify of the apostolic commission. The inspiration claimed by Munzer and his associates proceeded from no higher source than the vagaries of the imagination, and its influence was subversive of all authority, human or divine. True Christianity receives the word of God as the great treasure-house of inspired truth, and the standard and test of all inspiration.