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Luther Translates the Bible, the Start of the Reformation


Luther challenged the Church’s practices, angering the pope. The Holy Roman Emperor gave Luther a hearing, at which Luther, who wouldn’t recant, was declared a heretic. Luther went into hiding and translated the Bible into German for the masses.

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Luther’s bold ideas resonated with the masses: “Christ is found not in the bones of saints but in your love for each other, in the sacraments, and in the Holy words." "God's forgiveness cannot be purchased like a sack of potatoes. The pope needs more prayer than money."

Meanwhile, the news of Luther's theology, attacks on the Church, and growing popularity reached Rome. The new pope, Leo X, called Luther a heretic and sent him a papal bull threatening excommunication. This formal document gave Luther sixty days to recant or be kicked out of the Church.

Luther, not cowed by the pope's bull, responded with a flurry of new pamphlets — further challenging Church practices. Things escalated. In a legendary tit-for-tat, the pope ordered the burning of Luther's books and Luther burned the papal bull. The more the Church opposed Luther, the bolder Luther became.

The two most powerful leaders in Europe back then were the pope (based in Rome) and the Holy Roman Emperor (whose empire spanned much of Europe). The pope was furious. And the emperor, Charles V, being a devout Catholic, wanted to support his pope.

The emperor could have crushed Luther easily. But Charles had a bigger problem. The Turks were threatening Europe from the east — closing in on Vienna. Much of Charles’ Empire was made of German states so, to defend Europe, he needed German support. Knowing Martin Luther had powerful German friends, the emperor had to deal with Luther cautiously.

He agreed to give Luther a hearing and summoned him to the imperial diet — that's like a congressional hearing — in the city of Worms on the Rhine River. The Holy Roman Emperor himself traveled to Worms to arbitrate.

Luther’s challenge to Rome’s authority was cheered by Germans. Traveling to Worms, Luther was greeted with a hero's welcome at each stop. Pamphlets showed him with a halo and accompanied by a dove — symbol of the Holy Spirit.

It’s said that in one town, sixty horsemen escorted Luther to a church so packed with people eager to hear him preach that the balcony groaned and nearly collapsed.

Imagine the showdown at Worms: Papal representatives, princes, Imperial troops — all power-dressing. The emperor himself — sitting high on his throne. The crowds craning to see the action. In the center of the room, Martin Luther stood alone…beside a table stacked with his rabble-rousing books and pamphlets.

The prosecutor insisted Luther was a heretic. Summing up his case, he asked "who are you to go against 1500 years of Church doctrine?" He demanded that Luther renounce his writings. Luther would not budge. Perhaps as never before in European history, one ordinary person stood up to authority for what he believed. He said: "Unless you can convince me by scripture or by clear reasoning, I am bound by my beliefs… I cannot and I will not recant. May God help me. Amen."

Luther was declared a heretic and left Worms essentially an outlaw. Now "outside the protection of the law," Luther could be captured and killed by anyone. On his way home to Wittenberg, he was kidnapped and dropped out of sight. Many thought Luther had been killed.

In fact, Luther had been kidnapped — but by friends for his own safety. He was given refuge in the Wartburg Castle by his benefactor, Prince Frederick the Wise. Luther grew a beard and passed himself off as a simple knight — Junker George. He spent the next year in hiding — waiting, planning, and wondering what would come next.

This was Luther's room. Restless and lonely in the castle, he fell into depression. Throughout his life, he had struggled with what he saw as his personal war with Satan. Luther would say, "Whenever the devil harasses you, seek out the company of friends, drink more, joke, and make merry." Alone at Wartburg, he fought his depression by studying and writing. And it was here that he employed his favorite weapon — the printed word.

Believing that everyone should be able to read the word of God, Luther began the daunting — and dangerous — task of translating the New Testament from the original ancient Greek into German. He used simplified language, as he said, like a mother talking to her children. Just as the King James Version of the Bible did for English, Luther's translation helped to establish a standard German language that's used to this day.

Luther's translation brought the Bible to the masses. The printing press made it more readily available and affordable to the public. And German literacy rates skyrocketed. As Germans read the Bible for the first time, they found — as Luther had — no mention of indulgences, purgatory, or even a pope. This further fanned the fires of reform. Luther was becoming the hero and figurehead of a growing revolution.