Martin Luther on How to Pick a Fight
I’ve never really met anyone that enjoys criticism, especially when it is of the unspiritual and unkind type. I realized early on in ministry that to preach the gospel faithfully you have to have thick skin, unwavering convictions to biblical truth, and a kind and humble heart. I’ll never forget the first phone call I received from an angry parent. I felt defensive, attacked, and discouraged. Luckily it all worked out and I learned a great deal about working with people. Now, imagine you’re Martin Luther. It’s not an angry parent that is calling but the head of the Church, and he’s essentially calling you and your teaching heretical. This does not just mean the possible end of your ministry, but perhaps your life as well. In Luther’s day you did not cross the church. Fortunately for the Church, Luther had the conviction to honor God above men and posted his 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg. Thus on June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued his papal bull demanding that Luther retract a major portion of his teaching, writing, and section of his 95 Theses. (If you’ve never read it, it’s a fascinating read.) He cited 41 errors in Luther’s teaching, which included such things as that purgatory was not in the Bible, that indulgences were not necessary to obtain grace, and that the baptism of infants did not cleanse them from sin. Pope Leo went on to write
“Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic with the full severity of each and all of the above penalties and censures. Yet, with the advice of our brothers, imitating the mercy of almighty God who does not wish the death of a sinner but rather that he be converted and live, and forgetting all the injuries inflicted on us and the Apostolic See, we have decided to use all the compassion we are capable of. It is our hope, so far as in us lies, that he will experience a change of heart by taking the road of mildness we have proposed, return, and turn away from his errors. We will receive him kindly as the prodigal son returning to the embrace of the Church.
Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us. If they really will obey, and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity, and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.”
So what did Martin Luther do? He had a book burning party in which he burned the Papal Bull in front of his students at Wittenberg. He is reported as saying “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!” So on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther issuing another bull, the Decet Romanum Pontificem. Needless to say, the Reformation was fully underway.